Laos is nestled between vastly larger neighbours. The country was inaugurated as an entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lane Xang ("Million Elephants"). The kingdom was initially a Khmer vassal state. In 1694, after a succession dispute, the kingdom split into three and was eventually devoured piece by piece by the Siamese, the last fragments agreeing to Siamese protection in 1885.
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy. Initial close ties to Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and admission into ASEAN in 1997.
Despite being just one hour by air from cosmopolitan Bangkok, life in Laos has continued in much the same way it has for hundreds of years, although things are now slowly beginning to change. In the mid-90s the government reversed its stance on tourism, and then declared 1998 "Visit Laos Year". Ongoing efforts are putting Laos on the map as a unique and experiential destination, with tourist numbers rising every year.
Vientiane is a laid– back, yet charmingly cosmopolitan village to spend a few days exploring, while Luang Prabang offers stunning hikes through the Laotian jungles and countryside. Vang Vieng has emerged as a popular holiday spot over the past few years for college-aged travelers. These energetic young adventurers brave the river by tube and enjoy a two hours float through a stunning valley, peppered on either side by bars and restaurants looking to lure tourists into stopping for a cold beer, or a ride down a waterslide.
Those visitors who are drawn by the laid– back lifestyle and the opportunity to knock back a few cold Beer Laos while watching the sunsets on the Mekong will simply explain the attraction by revealing that the true meaning of "Lao PDR" is Lao – Please Don't Rush.
Things To Do
- Ascend Mount Phousi for a panoramic view of Luang Prabang and the surrounding rivers and hills.
- Swim in the lower pools of the Kuang Si Waterfalls, situated 30km from Luang Prabang, and bathe in the two hot springs some 52km north of Phonsavan: Bo Noi and Bo Yai.
- For a special experience stay in a tree house in Bokeo Nature Reserve, near Houayxai, and travel through the forest canopy on zip wires looking for Black Gibbons.
- Explore the hillsides and trek independently or as part of a locally organised tour. A number of guest houses offer hiking trips starting from Muang Xing, a small town on the river plains in the mountainous Luang Namtha province in the far northwest.
- Float along the Nam Song River in a rubber tube in Vang Vieng. The scenery is stunning and enterprising locals will tow the thirsty in to riverside bars for Beer Lao. Many of the bars have zip lines and water slides.
- Head to the Boloven Plateau in Champassak province for elephant riding and trekking. Pakse, home to many ethnic minority groups, is the region's capital and the ideal base from which to explore the plateau.
- Trek through the jungle on the back of an elephant to Tad Sae waterfall near Luang Prabang.
- Visit Laos' cultural and religious centre, Luang Prabang. This ancient royal city has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995. Located between the Mekong and Khan River, it boasts 33 large temple complexes and around 1,000 resident monks.