You may have never even heard of Laos – sometimes known as Lao – but it is one of the countries in South East Asia, lying between Thailand and Vietnam, and there are plenty of reasons to love Laos. If you want a taste of authentic South East Asia, Laos is a fabulous destination just waiting to be explored. Read on for the main reasons to love Laos.
One of the main reasons to visit Laos is to view its beautiful temples. Buddhism has been the primary religion in Laos for thousands of years and a series of magnificent Wats (the Lao word for temple) have been constructed as a testament to this. For many, this is one of the main reasons to love Laos and those who visit the Laos capital of Vientiane will not want to miss the opportunity to discover Pha That Luang (Great Stupa). Marked by golden prangs reaching towards the sky, Pha That Luang contains many terraced steps that will take you through each stage of Buddhist enlightenment. Whereas Pha That Luang was reconstructed in the 1930s, the Khmer-era Wat Phu dates back to the 11th - 13th centuries and like many ancient stone temples, can become intertwined with the landscape. Reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, this serene temple is still used by practicing Buddhists, but also welcomes visitors with open arms.
Not all of the great attractions of Laos are located above ground. Some are subterranean. The Pak Ou Caves, located just north of Luang Prabang, are perhaps the most famous in the country and one of the top sights of Laos. Carved by time out of limestone, the caves are adorned with hundreds of Buddha sculptures in various poses and sizes. Much of the cave is visible from the mighty Mekong River and can be accessed through a series of carved limestone steps. In stark contrast to the Buddhist-themed Pak Ou Caves, the Vieng Xai Caves were primarily used in the Vietnam War to house the Communist military. Up to 23,000 people crammed into this incredible underground network that is now open to visitors.
The mighty Mekong River once acted as Laos’ major highway and remains one of the best sights of Laos. The river is the largest in all of Southeast Asia and Laos lays claim to a majority share. To see why so many have fallen in love with the country, take a riverboat tour from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang near the border with northern Thailand. The region is dotted with idyllic villages, farming regions and bustling market towns that help tell the story of Laos. One of the favorite attractions in Laos is Si Phan Don (pictured above), a series of 4000 tiny islands and a set of fast rapids. The Nam Song River is a smaller waterway that cuts through the countryside and is also popular with visitors. The riverside town of Vang Vieng is frequently noted as an ideal place to explore rural Laos and tube down the river.
Laos’ capital Vientiane is the first stop for most people when visiting the country and is home to a wide range of hotels and many of the most popular attractions of Laos. Along with aforementioned Pha That Luang, you can learn more about the country at the Lao National History Museum or explore beautiful Buddhist and Hindu sculptures at Buddha Park. Other major tourist areas around the country include the ancient capital of Luang Prabang and the riverside town of Vang Vieng.
Head a little off the beaten track in Laos and you’ll soon encounter plenty of unique attractions. This is part of what makes the country such an appealing travel destination. Nature lovers have many reasons to travel in Laos, as it is full of amazing natural landscapes. You can easily canoe along hidden water pathways or spend days hiking or mountain biking through the highlands, encountering a few locals along the way. For a more relaxing adventure, try visiting the mysterious Plain of Jars. Like its name suggests, the sight consists of a scattering of ancient jars, ranging from 1 to 3 metres tall, with seemingly no explanation. Archaeologists have not been able to determine how or why these jars were placed here. Nearby, travellers can visit a whisky village, where a unique brand of Lao whisky called ‘lao’ is distilled.
Why travel to Laos? The food, of course! Like other Southeast Asian cuisines, the food in Laos is fresh, creative and full of contrast. Khao niaw (‘sticky rice’) is eaten in lieu of steamed rice for nearly every meal. Freshwater fish and chicken are commonly used as entree staples and are marinated and spiced heavily to create distinctively savoury dishes. Larb (marinated fish or chicken) and papaya salad are two popular dishes enjoyed by both locals and visitors. Fresh green vegetables are often eaten raw as a side and there are also plenty of exotic fresh fruits to try throughout the year.
Travellers may come to Laos for the promise of grand temples and striking scenery, but they return over and over again for the people. The people of Laos have endured a volatile history that included French colonization and the Vietnam War just in the last century. Now enjoying a period of relative prosperity, Laotians warmly welcome visitors and are happy to share their culture and traditions with you.
I hope the reasons to love Laos make you interested in this beautiful, humble and unassuming country. Can you see yourself ever paying a visit?