Laos, officially known as the Lao People's
Democratic Republic, has an area of around 236,000 sq km, (92,000 sq miles)
and is located in Southeast Asia. Laos is a landlocked, mountainous country
with a population of around 6.5 million. After many years of war and
isolation, Laos has become stable and now welcomes foreign visitors. The
capital of Laos is Vientiane, which has a population of around 300,000. The
Laos economy has been based on its exports of rice, tobacco and coffee, but
in recent years the country has been discovered as a tourist destination.
The country’s oldest town is the historic royal city of Luang Prabang,
around 500km up river from the capital, and with about 20,0000 inhabitants.
Here you will experience a scene of centuries-old monasteries and monks in
saffron-coloured robes. The people of Laos are open, friendly and courteous,
and visitors receive a warm welcome. The country enjoys a tropical climate
and thus most of the year is hot and humid. Laos is well worth exploring
with the best time to visit being from November to March. April and May
should be avoided as that is the very dry hot season.
What to see in Vientiane: the most prominent sight in the capital is the
Patuxai (the arch), a monument with four “gates”
reminiscent of European triumphal arches such as the Arc de Triomphe in
Paris, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, or Marble Arch in London. However
this version in Laos was only built in the 1960s using American money. You
can go inside and from the top you get excellent views of the city.
Most sights in Laos are to do with Buddhism and are either “stupas”
(spiritual monuments, often containing holy relics) built as symbols of
enlightenment, usually in the form of a hemisphere, or temples. The most
important national monument in Laos is Pha That Luang in
Vientiane, a stupa which, according to tradition, is said to contain a piece
of the Buddha’s breastbone. Pha That Luang is a well known symbol of the Lao
nation. The oldest temple in Vientiane is Wat Si Saket,
built in the 1820s on the corner of Th Lan Xang and Th Setthathirat; you can
go inside for a fee. You probably won’t be able to miss the stupa called
That Dam, as it is situated on a roundabout near the city
centre. Once covered in gold, That Dam is believed to be the home of a
seven-headed dragon that protects the citizens of the capital.
What to see in the rest of Laos: The UNESCO World Heritage listed town of
Luang Prabang in the north of Laos is picturesque and full
of beautiful, photogenic golden temples. You can visit the Pac Ou Caves and
photograph the Kuang Sii waterfalls.
In the south of Laos there are 4,000 islands and Asia’s biggest waterfall,
Until recently Buddhist monks outnumbered tourists in Laos, and the country
is still relatively difficult for travellers, most of which are either
backpackers or on organised tours. The majority of roads are still unpaved
and travel is mostly by minibus, converted truck or elderly bus. Breakdowns
and delays are common, but the journey through quiet and remote villages may
be more interesting than official tourist sights, and the laid-back ambience
can be appealing. One word of warning: the government of Laos is
authoritarian and increasingly oppressive, so you might want to check the
political situation before planning a trip.