Laos is a country of smiles and spiritual atmosphere, where you find untouched nature and some of the best opportunities to go off the beaten track.
It is also a country with a quite horrific history.
Laos remains the most bombed country in the history of the world. You are probably asking yourself, “What was it involved in?”
Well, it wasn’t actually at war with anyone. During the US bombing campaigns in the US-Vietnam War, any US aircraft that had not been able to drop their bomb on Vietnam could not return to their base, because they couldn’t land safely with a bomb.
So they dropped the bombs in the jungle, in the north of Laos.
Laos was also where some of the Vietcong went to hide, so the US forces napalmed and bombed the jungle. More bombs have been dropped on Laos than anywhere ever.
After the US-Vietnam War, around 15 years ago — the first time I had the opportunity to visit Laos — there was still some instability. Parts of the country were not safe. There was guerrilla activity in the south and it wasn’t considered safe to travel south of Luan Prabang and Vientiane, because there were bandits holding up buses.
But 15 years later, in 2021, Laos is coming out from being a backwater country and revealing itself as a safe, welcoming, vibrant — and increasingly luxurious — destination.
Luan Prabang for me is one of the best Asia destinations, especially when compared to other Asian cities. These are usually big, intense, quite in your face.
But in Luang Prabang you can sit on a plastic stool at a cafe and watch monks in red robes walking past barefoot. You can hear the temple bells rather than the traffic noise. You can visit an immense collection of temples where you find ornate carvings, mosaics, goldleaf.
You can climb 380 steps to Mount Phousi where you’ll get wonderful views over the city.
If you’re on a longer Asia trip, and you need some rest and relaxation — when you want to escape the noise, but you still want the culture and the feeling of spirituality that can be offered in Southeast Asia — then Luan Prabang is where to hole up.
And they’ve got fabulous spas as well.
Luang Prabang is along the Mekong river, and pretty much everything in Laos spills out from that river.
At Luang Prabang you can take a boat and go by river all the way through the jungle — further into Laos itself, then to the Vietnam border in the east, or the Thailand border to the west. If you don’t go by the fast, scary speedboat, your journey will take a few days and you can visit villages that are completely cut-off by road.
These places are only accessible by the rivers.
As you go along, you pass villages where children are playing, women are washing the clothes, and men are fishing — and everybody’s waving at you.
The accommodation along the way is pretty rustic, but it’s a great experience to see that kind of life and villages still exist.
If you go north just for the day from Luang Prabang, you’ll come to wonderful caves — the Pak Ou Caves.
Inside, you’ll see buddhist scenes playing out — thousands and thousands of Buddhas, some of them as small as your fingernail, others bigger than you.
And as you cruise past on the river, you’ll see the local experts paddling through the shallows, wooden villages raised on stilts, villagers cheering and waving hello at you.
From Luang Prabang, consider going south to Vientiane.
It’s the country capital, but it feels more like a village — it’s a place of charms and quiet backstreets, rather than having a big city vibe. It’s a place where you find thousands of miniature Buddhist statues, beautiful collections of Laos Khmer artwork, and great coffee shops.
Actually, you will find great coffee shops all over Laos.
Another thing you will find in this area are great community projects.
If you want to see the transformation that the country has been through, what happened before and what is happening now, community projects are what you must visit.
For instance, if you go anywhere in the jungle around Laos, you’ll find that they use bombshells as ornaments or as fence posts — which is funny to see, brilliant and creative. But there’s the other side to that — there are parts of that jungle still laden with landmines after 45 years.
So, there are community projects that centre around helping landmine victims.
Further south in Laos there aren’t really any towns, only quite small places. Here you can go on an expedition-style adventure.
A couple of things I’d recommend are the Irrawaddy dolphins — which you can see around the 4,000 islands — and also the Kong Lor caves, which are some of the longest caves in the world. They are popular now, tourist destinations — but especially compared to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, they don’t have that crowdedness, they still feel somewhat undiscovered.
There’s a lot to do in Laos. There are a lot of surprises.
It’s easy to just stop in Luang Prabang and leave, but doing that is a shame. You should make Laos the centrepiece of a trip rather than just a little stop.
This is all the more true if you’ve got someone from Laos who knows about the country’s past and about what’s happening in the country now, and who can introduce you to some of the great accommodations they’re building — especially the spas and the heritage accommodations they have in the cities.
A trip to Laos is what I’d recommend to people interested in seeing something different and very authentic in Southeast Asia.
Story by Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.