This land-locked mountainous country is gaining a reputation as an ecotourist destination. Its many rivers criss-crossing the country and unspoilt national parks are ideal for activities such as trekking, kayaking and caving. The capital, Vientiane, and the other major towns have been spared major modern developments with traditional and colonial architecture still dominant.
Laos is one of the few Communist countries left in the world. Until 1988, tourists were not allowed access to Laos, but now it is perfectly feasible to travel all over the country, preferably with a recognised tour company, although plenty of backpackers do it independently. The number of tourists is expected to continue increasing over the next few years as more and more people discover the delights of this laid-back country of mountains and rivers.
Unspoilt and undeveloped
For now, Laos remains relatively isolated and undeveloped. Its capital, Vientiane, is more like a big village than a crowded Asian hub and life throughout the country is slow paced. Most people come to Laos and make a brief tour of Vientiane and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang with perhaps a brief detour to the mysterious Plain of Jars. But those who make the effort to explore further afield will be well rewarded with luscious landscapes, friendly people and unique glimpses of a country hardly changed for over a century.
History of Laos
Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in the 15th century by Fa Ngum, himself descended from a long line of Lao kings, tracking back to Khoun Boulom. Lan-Xang prospered until the 18th century, when the kingdom was divided into three principalities, which eventually came under Siamese suzerainty. In the 19th century, Luang Prabang was incorporated into the 'Protectorate' of French Indochina, and shortly thereafter, the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane were also added to the protectorate. Under the French, Vientiane once again became the capital of a unified Lao state. Following a brief Japanese occupation during World War II, the country declared its independence in 1945, but the French under Charles de Gaul reasserted their control and only in 1950 was Laos granted semiautonomy as an "associated state" within the French Union. Moreover, the French remained in de facto control until 1954, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy. Under a special exemption to the Geneva Convention, a French military training mission continued to support the Royal Laos Army. In 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the U.S. containment policy. Laos was dragged into the Vietnam War and the eastern parts of the country were invaded and occupied by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which used Laotian territory as a staging ground and supply route for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. The result of these actions were a series of coups d'état and, ultimately, the Laotian Civil War between the Royal Laotian government and the communist Pathet Lao.
In the Civil War the NVA, with its heavy artillery and tanks, was the real power behind the Pathet Lao insurgency. In 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack against the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing and leaving the conflict to irregular forces raised by the United States and Thailand. The attack resulted in many people losing their lives. Massive aerial bombardment was carried out by the United States (The Guardian reported, on Wednesday 3rd December, 2008, that Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb-load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos in this period than was dropped during the whole of the Second World War. Of the 260m "bombies" that rained down, particularly on Xieng Khouang province, 80m failed to explode, leaving a deadly legacy.
Pha That Luang in Vientiane, the national symbol of LaosIn 1975, the communist Pathet Lao, backed by the Soviet Union and the North Vietnamese Army, overthrew the royalist government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on 2 December 1975. He later died in captivity.
After taking control of the country, Pathet Lao's government renamed the country as the "Lao People's Democratic Republic" and signed agreements giving Vietnam the right to station armed forces and to appoint advisers to assist in overseeing the country. Laos was ordered in the late 1970s by Vietnam to end relations with the People's Republic of China which cut the country off from trade with any country but Vietnam. Control by Vietnam and socialisation were slowly replaced by a relaxation of economic restrictions in the 1980s and admission into ASEAN in 1997
There are hospitals in the major cities. However only Vientiane has proper equipment. In spite of this, foreigners travelling in Laos usually cross over to Thailand to get treatment.
It is advisable bring along a curative treatment against malaria which is present in certain regions. If you are going on a trek, it can be useful to get an anti-rabies shot before leaving. Indeed, on the one hand the numerous dogs there often have contact with wild animals and, on the other, you can find regular treatment only in Vientiane (and in limited quantities).
* The time difference between France and Laos is generally 5 hours.
* Electric power is at 220 volts. Plugs are flat or round with two prongs (possibility of finding adapters in the morning market at Vientiane).
* Some rules on Laotian manners:
- The head is a sacred part of the body. You should never touch someone else’s head, not even children’s.
- It is rude to point something out with your foot. That is why Laotians sit with their feet behind them, especially in temples.
- Monks are shown great respect. Women are not allowed to touch them, or to hand them something directly (you can put it in front of them).
- Laotians are very sensitive as to how you dress. It is customary to wear decent and clean clothes. Entry to temples in particular is subject to certain rules. For example, entry to temples can be denied to women that are not wearing a long skirt.
- If you are going on a trek, it is customary to introduce yourself to the village head to explain the reason for your visit. On this occasion the custom requires that you make a small gift (cigarettes, for example).
Place to Visit
In 1563 King Setthathirat made the riverside city of Vientiane the capital of Laos. In those days it was a small, fortified city on the banks of the Mekong with a palace and two wats, That Luang and Wat Phra Kaeo. The city became prosperous from the surrounding fertile plains and taxes levied on trade going upriver. Today, Vientiane is a spacious and charming city. It is South-East Asia's smallest capital and has only about 500,000 citizens - which makes it the most tranquil and laid-back capital of Asia. It lacks the usual hustle and bustle and amazes the traveler with its serene temples and gracious colonial villas.
Countless temples and pagodas with important Thai and Khmer shrines and relics are a mirror of the countries chequered past. There are numerous good restaurants and excellent shopping opportunities for Lao handicrafts at the Morning Market and a variety of specialist shops.
The ancient capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, is a city of golden temple spires, faded French colonial architecture and diverse hill tribes. Situated on the Mekong river, the city is nestled in a stunning river valley surrounded by dramatic mountains. Luang Prabang was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 because of its well-preserved remnants of the ancient Lane Xang Kingdom, many of which date from the 13th to the 15th centuries. However, it is the peaceful charm and relaxed atmosphere of the town, with its thriving hill tribe population, which never fails to enchant. Luang Prabang's surroundings have much to offer as well; excursions include the Pak Ou Caves, reached via a pleasant boat trip up the Mekong River. These ancient caves contain thousands of Buddha images. Other interesting excursions include visits to Ban Phanom, a nearby weaving village, and the Kuang Si waterfalls.
One of the last mysteries of Asia lies here, in the form of over 300 giant stone jars, apparently carved out of solid rock and scattered around a nearby plateau, aptly named the "Plain of Jars." The jars vary in size from 1 to 3.25 meters high and weigh up to six tons each. There are several different theories as to the purpose of the jars, which are estimated to be 2,500 to 3,000 years old. Local legend relates that King Khoon Chuong and his troops from South China had a huge party after their victory over the wicked Chao Angka and had the jars made to brew enormous quantities of Lao rice whisky (lau-lao). A trip to this area is still worthwhile and is enhanced by visits to the local ethnic minority villages of the Hmong. A trip to the Tham Piew caves and the hot springs nearby are worth an extra day.
Pakse and the South
Pakse is synonymous with Wat Phou just as Siem Reap is with Angkor in Cambodia. The founder of the first Khmer Empire, Jayavarman II, who built Angkor, also built Wat Phou. It is much smaller than Angkor, but about 30 years older and at times was the Khmer capital. After Angkor, Wat Phou is one of the cultural highlights of Laos and South-East Asia. Pakse is a busy commercial town built by the French early this century as an administrative center for the South. The many colonial buildings lend an air of old world charm.
Excursions from Pakse include the Bolaven plateau, with its many ethnic minorities and coffee plantations. In addition, four thousand islands on the Cambodian border area can also be reached from Pakse. The Mekong River at this point is about 8.5 miles wide and encompasses about 4,000 islands during the dry season and about half of that during the rainy season. This unique landscape forms one of the most impressive sights of this region. One of the highlights is South-East Asia's largest waterfall, Khon Phapheng.