Photo: Nong Kiaow bridge views.

Laos

Relax

Landlocked Laos is one of Asia's most enchanting destinations. Stunning natural beauty -- think mist-shrouded mountain peaks flanked by jungle-clad valleys teeming with wildlife -- combine with a fascinating Buddhist culture to make Laos a superb destination for backpackers and independent travellers, while luxury tourists are now also well-catered for.

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Down to onward travel

Communist Laos flung open its doors to tourism in the early 1990s. The last two decades have witnessed an explosion in development as businesses -- some Lao, some foreign -- mushroom to cater to the swelling crowds.

Laos is changing fast, but pockets remain well off-the-beaten-track, ready to be explored by adventurous travellers willing to forego the usual tourist luxuries. Those who want to experience a real taste of rural Southeast Asian life will be delighted.

Laos attracts many travellers who consider Northern Thailand to now be over-developed or "touristed out" and are looking for places less inundated with foreigners. Ironically, most of these tourists still stick to a now well-trodden path through the Land of a Million Elephants -- though even these destinations retain an allure little diminished by the crowds.

Incredibly romantic Luang Prabang should be considered a must see, with its glittering temples, saffron-robed monks and sleepy riverine lifestyle. The pace has moved up a notch since the tourists arrived, as slick cafes jostle for space with chic boutiques showcasing the best Laotian wares: intricate weavings, elaborate silver trinkets and speciality foods.

The bustling capital Vientiane tempts many, as does the thriving tourist centre of Vang Vieng. We'd actually suggest you skip the latter -- a heaving backpacker hub -- but the limestone crags and riverside scenery remain gorgeous despite the mass of travellers.

For the independent traveller, those are just the standard spots to tick off the list, with plenty more to be discovered.

The far northern provinces of Phongsali, Luang Nam Tha and Udomxai offer exciting possibilities for independent trekking. The industry is fledgling and infrastructure is still developing, so trips tend to be challenging but infinitely rewarding. In the mysterious northeastern Plain of Jars and north to Hua Phan, you're in the midst of what was Pathet Lao heartland -- an area that the United States tried to bomb back to the stone age and which, four decades later, is still trying to get back on its feet.

The far south of Laos is also slowly emerging as a trekking centre, although many shoot straight down to 4,000 Islands, including Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon for a taste of lazy island life and a spot of dolphin watching. There is a lot to see and experience in between for the more intrepid. Tha Khaek and Savannakhet offer nascent trekking and caving, while Attapeu, Pakse, Champasak and Salavan are all worthy spots to while away a few days exploring.

Destinations aside, Lao food also entices. Spicy meat salads, sticky rice, noodles, curries and fish tempt right alongside culinary remnants of French colonial occupation. Crunchy baguettes stuffed with pate and salads are standard market fare, while upper-end French restaurants offer delights at astounding prices. And of course, ice-cold Beerlao -- considered Asia's best by some -- is stocked right across the nation.

What not to miss

A temple tour, sunset or perhaps a trek from the northern capital of Luang Prabang. A boat ride down the Nam Ou river. A slow riverbank afternoon in Vientiane. Tubing in Vang Vieng. Slow lazy days in the 4,000 islands. World Heritage Wat Phu in Champassak. The spectacular Konglo cave near Tha Khaek.

When to go

The most popular time to go is between November and February. There is little rain but the rivers are high and the weather isn't too hot. The Lao rainy season runs from May to October. April is very hot and can be very smoky due to farmers burning back. On the upside April brings Lao New Year -- the party to end all parties.


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