Laos, officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic (or Lao PDR – travellers wisecrack this should actually stand for ‘ Lao - Please Don't Rush’), remains one of the poorest and most intriguing nations in South East Asia.
A landlocked mountainous country, studded with temples, covered with jungles and boasting an increasingly good range of accommodation options – Laos has long been popular with the backpacker market, but the country is now attracting a wider range of travellers. It is also busy developing its standing as an eco-tourism centre due to the many hill tribe villages, river communities and unspoilt national parks. These settings all lend themselves to outdoor 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.
The laidback feel of Laos and the relative lack of westernised development makes it an attractive option for many visitors – other than Myanmar, it is probably the most ‘authentic’ of the Indochinese nations. Laos is also one of the few Communist countries left in the world. Until 1988, tourists were not allowed entry to Laos, but now it is possible to travel all over the country, either independently or in a group. For now, Laos remains relatively isolated and undeveloped. The exception to the rule is the tubing hotbed that is Vang Vieng, a hub for backpackers and depressingly, now a place with a serious drugs issue. There is a tragic, modern history to grapple with too. Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped over two million tons of ordnance over Laos, giving it the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The US State Department estimates that some 80 million unexploded American bombs remain in Laos and in 2012 $10m in financial assistance was pledged to disarm the unexploded bombs.
Despite these tribulations, Laos’ capital Vientiane, is more like a big village than a crowded Asian hub and life throughout the country is slow paced. Vientiane is also something of a gastronomic hub, as while the French may have left several decades ago, their legacy remains in the city’s top-notch cuisine. When you’ve had your fair share of laap (the national dish of minced meat mixed with herbs, spices, lime juice and chilli) and Beer Lao, this is the place to come to fill-up on fine wines, duck confit and cassoulet. Cooking classes are also increasingly popular with tourists who’d like to take a new skill home. The concept of fair trade is also growing in Laos and now it is possible to purchase a ‘guilt-free’ silk scarf or similar and return profits to the community.
Most people come to Laos and make a brief tour of Vientiane and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang (which with its monasteries, colourful markets, and traditional architecture remains one of Asia’s most beautiful cities) 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.