Unlike other Southeast Asian countries that have embarked on high-energy growth plans, Laos has remained low-key and developed at its own pace in relative isolation. Thus, each year, travel restrictions have decreased and travel-related services increased slowly but surely. Luang Prabang, a pretty, temple-filled city, now has several world-class resorts and luxury properties, as well as a modern airport. The capital, Vientiane, has started to boom because of investment from China and Thailand and has started to build in anticipation of increased tourism.
Most of the country, however, has not yet been seen by visitors since few leave the beaten path. Slowly, though, travellers are starting to discover the stunning scenery (mountain and jungle) in the provinces and the cultural and historical sites.
One of Asia’s most relaxed and quiet capital cities, Vientiane is nestled in fertile plains on the banks of the Mekong River. Many buildings reflect the country’s past links with Europe, such as the old French colonial houses and the capital’s Victory Monument, which bears a striking similarity to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. An important national monument is the 16th-century That Luang (Royal Stupa) that symbolises Buddhist and Lao union. Other interesting sights include the Lao Revolutionary Museum; Wat Ho Prakeo, a former royal temple; Wat Sisaket, one of the capital’s oldest temples; Wat Xieng Khouang (Buddha Park), situated 24 km (15 miles) south of the city and displaying fascinating Buddhist and Hindu structures.
Xiang Khouang province in the northeast of the country is characterised by lush green mountains and Karst limestone. The capital, Phonsavan, enjoys a favourable climate being at an altitude of 1200 m (3937 ft). The unusual Plain of Jars is accessible from the city and offers the mysterious sight of hundreds of stone jars, some weighing up to 6 tons, scattered over the landscape. The jars are over 2,000 years old and legend says that they were used to ferment rice wine in the sixth century in order to celebrate a victory in battle. Some 52 km (32 miles) north of Phonsavan, visitors can enjoy bathing in two hot springs: Bo Noi and Bo Yai.
This ancient royal city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. Located between the Mekong and Khan River, it is the cultural and religious centre of the country, boasting 32 large temple complexes. Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most impressive temples, decorated with coloured glass and gold. Testament to the fact that it had been the royal capital until 1975, the royal palace there contains fine artwork and gifts made for former kings. Nearby, in the town centre, visitors can ascend Mount Phousi for a panoramic view of the city and surrounding rivers. Also worth seeing is the Palace Museum (the former royal palace), easily recognisable by its golden-spired stupa, which houses an impressive collection of artifacts from old rulers of the Kingdom of Lane Xang.
Close by is Ban Phanom Village, famous for its weavings, which offers the opportunity to visit a traditional community and to purchase bargain-priced silk and embroideries. Around 25 km (16 miles) along the Mekong river lie the fascinating Pak Ou Caves, that can be easily reached by speedboat from Luang Prabang. The two caves, Tham Ting and Tham Phun, are full of Buddha images that have been left there over hundreds of years by worshippers. Further downriver is the small village of Ban Xang Hai, famous for its production of rice whisky. Also worth seeing are the Kuang Si Waterfalls, situated 30 km (19 miles) from Luang Prabang. Visitors can swim in the lower pools.
Situated in the far northwest of Laos, Luang Namtha province is a mountainous region, with areas of tropical rainforest and over 39 ethnic minority groups. An ecotourism project for the region has been proposed by UNESCO. Muang Xing is a small town on the river plains which used to be an outpost for an ancient southern Chinese empire. A number of guest houses can offer hiking trips starting from here.
Khammouane province is accessible from Vientiane by bus. The region is currently being explored for its potential as a place for ecotourism, and its amazing limestone formations, caves, rivers and jungle make it a unique environment. Its capital, Tha Kek, is a good place to reach other sights, such as the Tham Xieng Lap Caves and the That Skihotabang, a stunning stupa built by King Nanthasen in around the 10th century.
Within easy reach by bus from Khammouane is Savannakhet province. Positioned between Thailand and Vietnam, the province acts as a useful trading junction between the two. Most of the town’s architecture is French colonial, including a large Catholic church, although there are several buddhist temple buildings worth seeing, such as Wat Sainyaphum. It is possible to walk the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a former clandestine route used by the North Vietnamese Army to transport military gear to South Vietnam. The trail was bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam war and parts of this devastation can still be viewed. However, the trail must be seen with a guide as large parts of the route still contain unexploded bombs.
Pakse, capital of Champassak province, is easily reached by air from Vientiane. Pakse is home to many ethnic minority groups, much of the Bolaven Plateau and the famous, although relatively unvisited, Wat Phu temple. Wat Phu was constructed around the fifth century on a mountain top near fresh spring water by the Khmer Hindus, who went on to settle their empire at its former capital, Ankor Wat. There are breathtaking views across the Mekong valley from the temple. The complex can be reached by chartered boat along the Mekong river. Other excursions worth making are to the Bolaven Plateau, where visitors can enjoy elephant riding and trekking, and to Sii Pan Dan (Four Thousand Islands), where islands are formed during the rainy season on the Mekong river. There is the opportunity to see spectacular waterfalls and the endangered irriwaddy dolphins.