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Laos


Laos is quite possibly the most tranquil of Asiaís countries, offering luscious landscapes, friendly people and unique glimpses of a country hardly changed for over a century. It remains, for now, relatively isolated and undeveloped due largely to it being a Communist country since 1975. Since opening its doors to tourists in 1988, Laos has captivated travellers with her quiet beauty and timeless appeal. Decades of war and revolution have seen Laos through 650 years of Lao monarchy, French governance and Communist rule; providing visitors with a plethora of traditional and historical treasures to discover and appreciate.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and is more like a big village than a crowded Asian hub. It has a provincial feel to it and is a pleasant place to explore on foot ñ with plenty of noodle stalls and bakeries to revive weary travellers. Traditional and colonial architecture and bougainvillea-lined boulevards attest its French colonial past. A visit to the nationís most important religious monument, Pha That Luang, offers an insight into the Buddhist religion as many of the monks who live there are happy to share their stories (and practise their English!). Vientiane's most important festival, Bun That Luang, is held here in November on the night of the full moon.

The historic mountain town of Luang Prabang is ancient, majestic and tranquil; and full of political history and cultural draws including saffron-robed monks, giant Buddhist statues, golden temples, night markets and art galleries. Surrounded by the simple beauty of local agriculture, bodhi trees and towering mountains, sleepy Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong River. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the townís more than 700 historical buildings (a fascinating mix of French provincial architecture, old-style wooden houses, and gleaming temple roofs) and traditional way of life are safeguarded by strict guidelines that include a ban on buses and trucks, and an 11.30pm curfew. Visitors who rise in time can witness the dawn procession of Luang Prabangís 600 Buddhist monks who walk the city to receive their only meal of the day.

Just north of Luang Prabang are two limestone cliff caves, Tham Ting and Tham Phun, also called the Pak Ou Caves. Accessible only by boat, this is a highlight for any Laos visitor. Over the centuries, locals and pilgrims have filled the cave walls with thousands of gilded and wooden images of Buddha in the belief the offering will help them into heaven. The caves once provided a unique place for monks and hermits to worship and were visited annually by the King of Laos. Not far from Pak Ou is Ban Thin Hong, a recently excavated cave with tools, pottery and skeletons dating back 8000 years. Also within the rugged mountain landscape of Laosí north is an area known as the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of enormous stone jars, some weighing up to 6 tonnes, are scattered over the landscape. While their origins, use and significance have been long forgotten, legend suggests they were used to ferment rice wine in the sixth century to celebrate battle victories.

Laosí southern region is home to the little-visited, stunning Bolaven Plateau and Si Phan Don (4,000 islands) archipelago where life continues on as it has for centuries. A cruise along the Mekong River from Pakse, taking in the sights of Wat Phu, traditional villages and temples, is an idyllic way to see the country. Exploration by small boat of the archipelago reveals the spectacular Khone Phapheng (the largest waterfall in South-East Asia) and sightings of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.

Travellers to Laos remark on how gentle and sincere the Laotians are and on their relaxed approach to life (to hurry is simply not the Lao way). ëLao timeí has its own pace, regulating everything from bicycle traffic to river boat launches, so visitors will do well to adopt a similar pace!

November to February is the best time to visit Laos, though December to February (and also August) are peak times. The weather is kinder as it less hot and rainy, and these months coincide with the country's festivals. If you are considering river travel then look to travel in November when river levels are still quite high, yet flooding has subsided. The Northern provinces can be visited from March until early June as temperatures are relatively mild.

Click here for our suggestions on events and places to go at various times of year

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