Not so long ago, Laos was a no-go for backpackers. Years of war and a communist regime not keen on tourism meant its borders were firmly shut to travellers. Then, in the mid 90s, the government bigwigs had a change of heart, reversing their stance on tourism, even declaring 1998 the year to ‘visit Laos’.
And thank God they did. Since then, Laos has emerged as something of a cult destination for backpackers. Despite the onslaught of tourists, it’s still far less commercial than its Southeast Asian neighbour Thailand, and has managed to retain its laid back vibe. It’s got some amazing cuisine – think Southeast Asia meets French colonial – stunning countryside, a capital city that feels like a cosmopolitan village, ridiculously friendly people, and arguably the best beer in Indochina (hello, Beerlao).
Luang Prabang - just one of our five top reasons to visit beautiful Laos
Laos is the Southeast Asia you always imagined – it feels a million miles away from the hustle, bustle and knock-off Ray Bans of the Koh San Road. Don’t make the mistake of tagging it onto the end of your Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam adventure; it deserves your time and dedication. So set your inner body clock to Laos time, and get ready to fall in love with the Land of a Million Elephants.
Five reasons why Laos is pretty damn awesome
1. The world’s least capital capital city
Arriving in Vientiane, it’s hard to believe you’re in a capital city. It’s ridiculously peaceful, there’s a sense of calm in the air, and there’s not actually a whole lot to do when it comes to museums and sightseeing. But that’s all part of its charm. A few days in Vientiane are a perfect introduction to life in Laos. Spend the days chilling out on the riverbanks, exploring the pretty streets by bike, admiring the crumbling French colonial buildings, and whatever you do, don’t miss sunset by the river.
2. Get tubing (or escape it all)
Vang Vieng is a funny old place. I was there in 2011, at the height of the tubing scene. Backpackers flocked in en masse to this pretty riverside town to grab a tyre, float down the river, and get nicely intoxicated along the way.
Vang Vieng’s party reputation turned the town into what I can only describe as the Magaluf of Laos – think drunk 18 year olds, endless cafes serving stodgy food, each showing re-runs of Family Guy and Friends. Slightly surreal.
Word has it that the river bar scene, once the main appeal for tubers, has shut down, though something tells me the Family Guy re-runs are probably still there. I realise I’m not painting an incredibly appealing picture, but bear with me; I reckon Vang Vieng is worth a visit. Come for the tubing, but stay for the stunning riverside scenery, beautiful mountaintop views, and cool limestone crags. Hire a bike and escape the town centre – it may just be the most rewarding experience you have on your trip.
Vang Vieng has an absolutely stunning side to it
3. Two words: Luang Prabang
It’s quaint, it’s beautiful, it’s romantic and, with its French colonial architecture and abundance of pavement cafes, it almost feels a bit European. What’s a town like Luang Prabang doing smack in the middle of Southeast Asia? If you’ve been travelling for a while, a few days here will feel like a holiday in itself. And if it’s your first stop in Laos? It’s one hell of an introduction.
Gorge yourself on pastries at the JoMa bakery for breakfast, shop til you drop at the markets by day, get your fill of gorgeous French food by night, explore historic temples, and round it all off with a massage at Lao Red Cross Sauna and Massage, where all the proceeds go to the charity. If you’re feeling really selfless, pop into Big Brother Mouse, where you can buy books to donate to a children’s reading project.
4. 4000 Islands
Southern Laos is often left of backpackers’ itineraries, but this is a case where you should definitely not follow the crowd. Head South, and discover Si Phan Don. The name literally means 4000 islands, referring to the thousands of islands and sand bars scattered across a 50km stretch of the Mekong.
Chill time on Don Khon, one of the 4000 islands
While it may be ambitious to get around that many, it’s definitely worth a trip South to take in some of the larger islands, and get a fascinating glance at island village life. Head to Don Khong for some serious chill-out time, Don Khon for the waterfalls, dolphins and swish accommodation, and Don Khet when you’re ready to ease yourself back into the real world and meet travellers again.
5. A caffeine fix
Laotians know their caffeine, and they lay claim to what might just be the best coffee in Southeast Asia. It comes rich and strong, mixed with sweet condensed or evaporated milk. There’s pretty much no better way to spend an afternoon in laid-back Laos than by chilling out with a cup of the local stuff. The most common brand is Lao Mountain Coffee, which you’ll find in shops, too, if you want to take a bag home.