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Laos: Southeast Asia's forgotten paradise
A relaxed pace with ancient buddhist temples and French colonial boulevards
Paired with a relaxed atmosphere and exceptional sense of hospitality, Laos, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, has a lost-in-time quality. French colonial buildings line the streets of the country's capital, Vientiane (Laos was part of French Indochina, along with Cambodia and Vietnam, from 1893 to 1953), while monks ask for alms in the streets of Luang Prabang, a town recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Since 1975, Laos has been a communist state, and while the lack of development has had costs for the country's citizens, for visitors, it has helped make the country a unique destination. "It is a corner of Southeast Asia where there still aren't any global fast food chains," says Sandy Ferguson, managing director of Asia Desk, a firm that specializes in travel to Asia, and who lived in Laos as a child. "It is largely untouched, and the Lao people have a graciousness that exceeds even that of the famously-welcoming Thais."
This appealingly sleepy and charming country may soon change with the arrival of a high-speed train from China, expected to be completed in three to four years, so don't put off your visit to Laos.
Where to go
The principal destinations are Vientiane, the country's capital; Luang Prabang, a charming town near the point where the Mekong and Nam Khane rivers meet; and between the two, the Plain of Jars, where thousands of prehistoric enormous stone jars dot the landscape. (Though how and why they were carved is a mystery, archaeologists believe they were associated with ancient burial rites.) Whatever itinerary you follow, Ferguson advises easing into the Lao attitude. "Life is slow here," he says, and he means that in the best possible way.
What to do
While Vientiane is the country's largest city, it lacks the bustle—and chaos—of some other Southeast Asian metropolises like Bangkok and Saigon. Instead, you'll find wide boulevards dating from the French colonial era, and even older Buddhist temples. The golden stupa of That Luang is one of the most famous symbols of the country, while Wat Sisaket, a buddhist cloister, is noted for its some 6,800 statues of the Buddha. The enormous Patuxai, or Victory Arch, is another of the city's landmarks. Shoppers will find crafts like those at Lao Textiles, whose owner has worked to revive the country's ancient silk-weaving tradition.
Home to fewer than 60,000 people, Luang Prabang, with its temples and palaces, is one of the undiscovered jewels of Southeast Asia. Look for the processions of saffron-robed monks who traverse the town each morning asking for alms. The National Museum, in the former palaces of the Lao kings, houses religious treasures and artifacts. Mount Phousy, a hill in the center of town, is popular for afternoon strolls. Outside of the town itself, the waterfalls at Kouang Si are the most picturesque of the many in the area.
Travelers in search of crafts—especially textiles—will want to shop in the Hmong and night markets. Try getting one of the tailors to turn one of the fabrics into custom shirts, skirts, or duvet covers suggests Ferguson.
What to eat
While Americans are familiar with Thailand's curries and noodle dishes, and Vietnamese banh mi are no longer a novelty, the cuisine of Laos has yet to make the same inroads. Among the country's signature dishes are laap, a salad with meat "cooked" by marinating in lime juice, like a ceviche. The Hmong people are responsible for oh lam, a popular stew with mushrooms, gourds, beans, and other vegetables. For a meal that also supports a good cause, Ferguson suggests lunch at Makphet in Vientiane. The wait staff are former street kids, and the restaurant provides them with the training they need to find jobs.
Where to Stay
In Luang Prabang, the Azerai Luang Prabang, once a French officer's club, just opened after a two-year renovation, is Ferguson's top choice—"quiet, serene and yet only steps from the night market." The Luang Say Residence, with 24 rooms in five pavilions, is another favorite.
In Vientiane, the Settha Palace Hotel is in a beautifully restored 1932 building. The 28-room Ansara Hotel is centrally located— and Ferguson calls it "a gem in the heart of the old French town."
The choice of hotels near the Plain of Jars is limited, but the Auberge Phouphadeng, has 16 rooms located in rustic chalets.
Mekong River Cruises
If you combine your trip to Laos with a visit to northern Thailand, try a cruise on the Mekong River. "You'll be following a trade route that has been used for centuries," says Ferguson. Along the way, some cruises stop at the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, where villagers would send their sacred relics during times of conflict.
John Newton is a Chase News contributor. His work has appeared in AFAR, Condé Nast Traveler, and Travel+Leisure, among other media outlets.