Claire Boobbyer, The Guardian, November 23, 2015
Landlocked, communist, studded with limestone spires and gilded temples, riddled with caves and home to rare wildlife, Laos has a unique charm for adventurous travelers. They relish its sleepy atmosphere, charming people and the sharp contrast with Thailand or Vietnam.
If you don’t have the backpacker’s luxury of boundless time and can only spend a couple of weeks in Laos, it’s an idea to focus on one region or cherry-pick sites connected by flights using Lao Airlines. With long distances and less-than-great roads (this is one of the least-developed countries in south-east Asia), river and air transport make sense. Check out also the hop-on, hop-off Stray Travel passes (one week from $389).
Laos is popular with bicyclists, kayakers and bikers, too. For company, read Christopher Kremmer’s travelogue-cum-mystery-and-history book Bamboo Palace: Discover the Lost Dynasty of Laos, and relish the wry humour in the novels about the adventures of Dr Siri, the national coroner of Laos, and his morgue assistant Dtui by London-born Colin Cotterell.
The main international gateway to Laos is Luang Prabang, and as no one visits Laos for the first time without soaking up the essence of this city, our two-week itinerary starts here.
Wat Papai temple, Luang Prabang Photograph: Otto Stadler/Getty Images
Languid Luang Prabang is Laos’ poster city, built on a finger of land that pokes into the Mekong river in the northern mountains. From here, the royal family ruled the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, founded in 1353. Its exquisite Buddhist temples, Royal palaces and French colonial buildings are now blended with restaurants and roadside cafes, all swagged in bougainvillea. For accommodation, see our top 10 places to stay in Luang Prabang.
After exploring the historic sights of the Unesco-protected city over a few days (the Royal Palace, Wat Mai, Wat Xieng Thong), get a feel for the living culture with a more practical tour. Learn the craft of bamboo weaving (from US$26) and batik (from US$60) at social enterprise Ock Pop Tok overlooking the Mekong north of town or explore the arts and crafts scene with a three-night tour with Backyard Travels (from US$389, backyardtravel.com). The annual Luang Prabang Film Festival (5-9 December) is worth planning a trip around, as is the autumn Lai Heua Fai fireboat festival.
The north-west: rare wildlife, trekking and homestays
This is no longer the Land of a Million Elephants; fewer than 400 remain in the wild. Immerse yourself in pachyderm preservation at the Elephant Conservation Center (two-day trip including transport from Luang Prabang, accommodation, activities and meals from $175pp, ) in Sayaboury, four hours south-west of Luang Prabang. The riding of elephants is not promoted. This remote spot can also be visited on a tour with InsideAsia.
Swap elephants for primates by taking a slow boat down the Mekong to Houay Xai, on the Thai border, for the incomparable Gibbon Experience (from $200pp). Zipline to a treehouse above the Bokeo forest canopy, where you spend the night, and wake to the extraordinary chorus of black-cheeked crested gibbons at dawn. If pushed for time, try a glamping trip to Kamu Lodge ($135 a night, including transport, lunch and dinner), three hours by boat from Luang Prabang. The lodge employs the Kamu people from the next door village, and finances micro-loans and medical facilities.
From Houay Xai, take a bus on the upgraded road north-east to Luang Nam Tha, getting off at Vieng Phou Ka to browse indigo-dyed wares, bamboo paper and masks at the ethnic Lanten village of Nam Chang. Luang Nam Tha is the trekking capital of Laos but treks out of Vieng Phou Ka with the village’s ecoguide unit (+856 81 212400) are less busy.
If ending your trip here, fly from Luang Nam Tha to the capital Vientiane (there are no direct flights to Luang Prabang) or continue overland to untouristy Oudomxay for trekking and homestay opportunities. There are caves and ethnic Thai Lue and Kamu villages to visit, pottery classes at Ban Yor village (overnight trip about €130), and hot springs at Muang La. Splash out on a stay at the Lao chic Muang La Resort (doubles $300 half-board, muangla.com) with its own hot springs spa.
North and north-east: war history, relaxation, wildlife
The Ou river by Nong Khiaw. Photograph: Alamy
For lofty limestone scenery, make your way north by boat or bus from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, perched above the Nam Ou river, for trekking and kayaking. Then head to Muang Ngoi for walks amid iridescent rice paddies and karstic peaks. Be sure to enjoy a cold Beerlao at sunset on the Muang Ngoi river bend.
For off-the-radar trekking amid tea plantations, push on north by boat or road to Phongsaly, on the way to the Chinese border. Joining a tour such as the one run by Exo Travel) is an easy way to do this.
Nong Khiaw is the appealing gateway to Laos’ remote north-east. Nam Et-Phou Louey national park, 3½ hours’ drive away is home to an award-winning wildlife project. The Nam Nern Night Safari (overnight trip $215pp all-inclusive) takes visitors in search of rare tigers and other wildlife at a jungle camp.
In early 2016, two further treks will open: a challenging Cloud Forest Climb that will summit Phou Louey (Mount Forever, 2,257m) where most of the park’s tigers, bears, leopards and singing rare white-cheeked gibbons live. And the family-friendly Nest Trek will circuit a salt lick at Poung Nyied, with accommodation in new canvas and bamboo lantern camp pods, suspended above the forest. A newly built observation post overlooks the lick.
Phou Louey national park
From here, travel to Vieng Xai (6-7 hours) to see the cave city that housed Laos’ politburo between 1964 and 1973, during the US bombardment that saw two million tonnes of munitions dropped on the country. It is now a fascinating museum (entry about $7). This is a distant district: joining a tour such as the Laos Cave and Tiger Adventure from Stray Travel (from $690 for six days including accommodation and some meals) can make things easier.
A 7-8-hour drive south lies Phonsavanh, and its enigmatic Plain of Jars, a scattering of monumental vessels whose purpose still puzzles historians and visitors.
History buffs should not miss Long Tieng. Once called The Most Secret Place on Earth, it was a CIA base, where US fighter pilots in civvy clothing along with CIA-backed Hmong villagers led by General Vang Pao, tried to bomb the communists into oblivion. It only opened up to visitors this year. (Contact Khiri Travel for up-to-date advice on visiting, and read Christopher Robbins’ gripping book The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War.)
Again, those with deeper pockets can ease their travels in this remote corner with Audley Travel , whose two-week Northern Hills of Vietnam and Laos trip costs from £3,305pp, including flights.
Vang Vieng, Vientiane and the south
Nola’s Guesthouse Photograph: PR
Luang Prabang, and the attractions of southern Laos can’t be all done in two week. Those less than enamoured with caves and limestone peaks could skip Vang Vieng, Thakhèk and Savannakhet and fly from Vientiane or Luang Prabang to Pakse, or skip the Bolaven Plateau and Xe Pian in the south.
Vang Vieng is a windy five-hour drive south of Luang Prabang. The journey can be broken in the Kasi district, 50km north of Vang Vieng, at Nola Guest House (doubles from about $10). It’s a laid-back riverside spot with forest and mountain views.
Vang Vieng gained notoriety a few years ago for drunken tubing on the Nam Song river, and the deaths of several backpackers. This has been reined in and the town, in a sublimely gorgeous limestone region, now showcases more natural delights. Spearheading the change is Green Discovery, with its two-day Vang Vieng Challenge ($140pp) including zip-lining, abseiling and a via ferrata.
Hungry Tuktuk streetfood tour, Vientiane
The leisurely pace of Vientiane (3½ hours south of Vang Vieng), with its web of temples and French-Lao buildings, is a good place to refuel before heading south to the limestone playground of Thakhèk. New venture Backstreet Academy has a streetfood tour ($70pp) that munches through everything from yoghurt to fried insects. Check out our top 10 places to stay in Vientiane.
Thakhèk, about six hours south of Vientiane, has long been known for its majestic limestone setting. Climbers gravitate to Green Climbers Home (tents from $3.50, bungalow from $20), and motorbikers ride an exciting karstic route, known as the Loop. Head deeper into the Xe Ban Fai valley for caving along one of the world’s largest river passages, to walk one of the world’s largest rimstone basins, and the chance to eyeball the world’s largest spider, the foot-wide giant huntsman. Hornbills and tigers are said to live in the surrounding Hin Nam No protected area. Green Discovery has a three-day kayak and trek trip into the subterranean spill ($440pp).
For a back roads experience of this region, check out Selective Asia’s 15-day tour from Vientiane (from £1,740pp).
The faded French settlement of Savannakhet (2½ hours south) attracts few visitors, but is the gateway to the intriguing Dong Phou Vieng national park, where trekkers can visit the sacred Song Sa Kae forest and stay with the Katang minority people in a homestay. (Contact the Savannakhet tourism office on +856 41 212755.)
Moving south, Pakse opens the door to the dreamy tail of Laos, and the 4,000 islands cradled in the many arms of the Mekong. Before escaping to hang in a hammock, stop off on the Bolaven plateau, with its fertile soils and waterfalls, for Lao coffee, and a treehouse adventure. In Paksong’s fairtrade Jhai Coffee House, a comfy cafe that also offers a coffee tour, profits are ploughed back into lifting the local community out of poverty. The spectacular Nam Tok Katamtok waterfall is nearby, and those looking for more than a caffeine-fuelled adventure can zipwire into the Treetop Explorer hotel (doubles from $280 a night all-inclusive) inside Dong Hua Sao park.
Jhai Coffee House
An airport recently opened at Attapeu, east of the park, but it’s underused, and this corner of Laos remains little trodden. Come for waterfalls, trekking in the Dong Ampham forest to see parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a clear volcanic lake, and homestays with ethnic minorities (for details see Wat Phou Travels, .
At Champasak, there’s a community lodge on Don Daeng island (from $10pp including meals). If you’re hankering for a pool, try La Folie Lodge (doubles from $100 B&B).
From here, it’s possible to explore the island on foot or by bike before crossing the Mekong and wandering the gorgeous Unesco ruins of Wat Phou, a petite pre-Khmer site framed by frangipani, gloriously set in the shadow of a spiritual mountain. (Its annual festival will be held on 25-27 February 2016). Richer travellers may like to get there on a three-day cruise from Pakse in a smart converted teak barge (from $580pp).
Bird and bear lovers can observe the wildlife at the outstanding Kingfisher Ecolodge (doubles from $25 B&B) in Xe Pian national park, which is also home to an unusual ancient fortress, Phu Asa.
Most travellers make a beeline for the palm-tree lined islands that pattern the southern Mekong at the Cambodian border, then search out the dramatic Khong Phapheng falls, some of the last remaining Irrawaddy dolphins, and old colonial relics. Support the local community by staying in a homestay at Ban Hang Khone ($10pp B&B), launch pad for the dolphin-spotting tours, or volunteering to help build the village school with Volun-Tour Laos.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Claire Boobbyer from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.