Set between Thailand and Vietnam, landlocked Laos is often overshadowed by its better-known neighbours. And after years of war and isolation, the country has certainly seen less development than the rest of Southeast Asia.
But from its spectacular scenery and hill tribes to its delicious cuisine and former French cities, Laos is one of this region’s most beguiling destinations. So to put this country firmly on your travel radar, here’s 10 things to make you see Laos in a different light.
1. The French influence
As a land of ornate temples and Buddhist monks, the surviving French influence in Laos surprises many travellers. The country was a French colony from the late 19th century until the 1950s. And, despite gaining independence, much of the cuisine and culture still feels its influence.
Nowhere is this better seen than in the capital of Vientiane. When it comes to cuisine, you’ll find croissants for breakfast, baguettes for lunch and many delightful French restaurants for dinner. Set along Lane Xang Avenue – the ‘Champs élysées’ of Vientiane – are many examples of colonial French architecture featuring red-tiled roofs and shutters. And to top it off, the avenue ends with Patuxai, Southeast Asia’s version of the Arc de Triomphe.
‘For us, Laos was full of unexpected delights. The French influence is everywhere to be seen. From the food served in the restaurants to the baguettes being sold on every street corner. There’s more to Laos than you’d ever realise.’
– Sarah and Rob, Not Another Travel Blog
2. Its diverse and friendly locals
Thanks to its geographic location, Laos has one of the most diverse populations in the region with 47 recognised ethnic groups. In the mountains of the north, you’ll find hardy Hmong communities still living off the land. Whereas in the south, remote Alak communities still maintain their traditional culture and customs, with women sporting traditional dress and some of the last remaining facial tattoos.
The people of Laos are also famed for being laidback and friendly, even by Asian standards. So whether it’s trekking into the hill villages or chatting to the city dwellers, there are plenty of opportunities to get to know the locals.
3. The delicious cuisine
Aside from its French offerings, Laos still offers the tasty Southeast Asian cuisine you’d expect. Whilst many dishes are influenced by its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours, one of the most traditional dishes is known as laap or larb. As the national dish of Laos, laap consists of minced meat served with a combination of herbs, greens, and spices.
Other tasty dishes include pho, a type of noodle soup, and a green papaya salad known as Dtam Mak Hoong. You can enjoy authentic Lao meals in many restaurants or join a cooking class to learn how to make them yourself.
Lao cuisine is traditionally eaten with sticky rice and by hand. However due to the fresh foods available in each area, the food varies from region to region. In the countryside, you’d typically find people eating family-style, sharing several dishes whilst sitting together on the floor.
‘There are so many aspects about Laos that I find fascinating, and the food is definitely one of them. Many people are still not familiar with Loatian cuisine internationally, but if you like the northern Thai or Vietnamese kitchens then Laos food will surely be right up your alley. On my last trip to Laos I had some phenomenal spicy pumpkin soup with coconut in the north and amazing Pho Lao (a different twist on the Vietnamese Pho), common in the south. I would encourage anyone visiting Laos to steer away from the tourists restaurants sometimes and try the delicious local fare.’
– Marek Bron, Indie Traveller
4. It’s an ecotourism hotspot
After Laos opened up to tourism in the 1990s, conservation and environmental protection very quickly took hold. A network of 20 national protected areas are currently in place to protect the country’s wilderness and are considered one of the best protected area systems in the world.
Its vast forests are home to a rich array of wildlife, with a variety of new species being discovered in recent years. More than 800 types of bird and over 100 large mammals have been recorded in Laos, including tigers, clouded leopards, gibbons, hornbills and more.
Areas to visit include beautiful Phu Hin Bun National Protected Area and the Bokeo Nature Reserve, which was created to protect the black-cheeked gibbon. Thought to be extinct, this endangered primate was re-discovered in 1997. Visiting these areas not only offers an off the beaten track experience, but helps encourage the protection of these ecosystems.
5. There are dolphins
Irrawaddy dolphins can be found swimming in three rivers of South and Southeast Asia – one of which is the Mekong. Running through Laos and into Cambodia, a 189-kilometre stretch of this river is considered the habitat of these dolphins.
With their bluish-grey colour, bulging foreheads and short beaks, these distinctive dolphins are the subject of much folklore and stories. However, with a population of 92 individuals, they’re highly endangered and threatened by fishing methods, dam projects and boat traffic.
But things are looking up. For the first time in 20 years, Irrawaddy numbers have increased thanks to governmental efforts, conservation organisations and local tourism. Dolphin watching is an important business for many local communities and it’s hoped this will help boost this creature’s population.
6. It’s the world’s most heavily bombed country
Between 1964 and 1973, the USA carried out 580,000 bombing missions in Laos as part of the Secret War to support the Royal Lao Government. During this 9-year period, over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos – the equivalent to one planeload every 8 minutes – making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history.
Sadly, up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode. This has resulted in over 20,000 further deaths and injuries since the bombing ceased. You can learn about this tragic period of Laos’ history, how it affects life in the country and the work being done to support survivors in the COPE Centre in Vientiane.
‘Learning that Laos is the most bombed country in the world was certainly eye-opening. The COPE Centre in Vientiane has been providing bomb survivors with prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation services for 22 years. The cluster bomb sculpture, personal accounts and reconstruction of a prosthetic limb workshop allow you to grasp the reality of the situation whilst emphasising the positive work that the centre achieves. I left humbled by stories of survivors and glad that I was now aware of this period in history.’
– Beth, Are We There Yet?
7. There are undiscovered mysteries
Found in the countryside of Xieng Khouang in northern Laos, is the Plain of Jars. A landscape shrouded in much mystery and myth, here you’ll find hundreds of giant stone jars scattered randomly across the hillside creating a bizarre ancient scene.
Some of these peculiar jars reach enormous dimensions, measuring up to one-metre wide and three-metres tall. Archaeologists estimate that they were used for elaborate burial rituals and date to the Southeast Asian iron age between 500 BC to AD 200. But the truth is, no-one really knows the secret behind this megalithic mystery.
8. There’s cheap beer
If there’s one thing you can be sure to find everywhere in Laos, it’s the national beer. Found in market stalls, restaurants, corner shops and more, Beerlao is as cheap as it is widespread.
Whilst other options include Heineken and Beer Savan, Beerlao dominates the country’s beer market. And in the balmy heat of Laos, this light lager certainly is the drink of choice. After a day of sightseeing, there’s nothing better than sipping a cold Beerlao as you watch the sunset over the mighty Mekong River.
9. The scenery is spectacular
The landscape of Laos is as diverse as its population, with everchanging shades of green ranging from dark jungle to emerald rice fields and lush tea leaves. Whether it be the forest-covered mountains of the north, the karst landscapes of the central provinces or the lowlands along the Mekong, this country is filled with natural beauty.
Highlights include the picturesque riverside of Vang Vieng, a small town surrounded by towering karst cliffs and paddy fields, and the breathtaking Kuang Si Waterfall. Here the waters descend over three tiers and down a 50-metre drop to form azure pools, which are popular swimming spots for both tourists and locals alike.
‘Everywhere you turn you find yourself surrounded by karst mountains, scenic rivers, gorgeous waterfalls and impressive caves. It’s so easy to take trips out of the cities and find yourself in a landscape of jagged limestone cliffs and jungle. One of our best experiences was swimming in the turquoise pools of Kuang Si Waterfall near Luang Prabang.’
– Megan and Mike, Mapping Megan
10. It has thousands of islands
Despite being a landlocked country, Laos is home to a surprisingly high number of islands. Deep in the south, the mighty Mekong reaches a width of 14 kilometres and here you’ll find Si Phan Don.
During the dry season, it’s thought that if you counted each and every islet and sandbar they would total around 4,000. Hence the area’s more commonly known name of ‘Four Thousand Islands’. However during the wetter months the area is said to feel more like a river than land.
Three main islands remain visitable all year – Don Khong, Don Det and Don Khone. Each one contains colonial villas left by the French, alongside opportunities for walking, cycling, boat trips and more.
Feeling inspired to visit Laos? Take a look at our group tours and see this beautiful country as part of a combined trip to Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia.