• Laos
    © iStockphoto.com / Pentium2
  • Laos
    © iStockphoto.com / Casanowe
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Laos

By Dmitry Petrounin Dmitry Petrounin Section editor Profile

Welcome to laid back Laos. As one of the poorest nations of South East Asia, the Lao People's Democratic Republic is slowly opening to tourism, which is great news for those of you who are looking to travel to Laos, a less commercialised Asian destination that has managed to remain authentic, friendly and welcoming.

Travel guide

Boun Bang Fai (Rocket festival)

The Boun Bang Fair festival, also known as the Rocket Festival, is where self made rockets are fired up into the air as a request to God of rain to provide the locals with a fruitful harvest season without drought or flooding. The festival always takes place during the sixth month of the lunar calendar and involves all different sizes and varieties of rockets. There's also a competition held between villages for who has the best rocket design.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong is a Buddhist temple, translated loosely as the Temple of the Golden City, which can be found in Luang Prabang. The temple was built by the Laotian ruler King Setthathirat in 1560 and it up until 1975, when the Communist Party took over, it was a royal temple. The best time to visit is as the sun rises or sets, when the tourists are nowhere to be seen and you can happily wander and appreciate the beautiful interior. The most impressive part of the monastery is the roof designed to resemble a bird stretching out its wings.

Plain of Jars

In North Central Laos an archaeological site can be found where stone jars, thought to be thousands of years old, are scattered around. No one knows exactly where the jars originated from; there are rumours that suggest they were used to brew huge vats of rice wine as a way of celebrating the habitants' liberation from the brutal leaders of the 6th century. Although the precise date of the jars origin is uncertain, archaeologists predict that it was between 500 BC and 200AD. The sites where the jars can be found are best to visit in the afternoon as that seems to be the quietest time.

The Mekong Valley

The Mekong can be found here, a trans-boundary river that features at number seven in the list for Asia's longest river. The name of the river derives from the Thai Language's Mae Num, which literally translates as ?Mother Water.' The river is home to hundreds of different marine life and mammal species including river dolphins, crocodiles and otters. As tourists pass through certain stints of the river they have the opportunity to learn about the differing cultures of the locals living in traditional towns set slightly back from the river bed. It is most definitely a cultural and eye opening journey as you are exposed to different languages, atmospheres and lifestyles along the way.

Music scene

Laotians tend to listen to folk music mostly which often includes two singers accompanied by a khene player (a bamboo mouth organ), fiddles, flutes or bells. Different villages have their own styles, for example Luang Prabang is most well known for ?khaplam wai' which often has been described as slow and serene. On the 6th and 7th August a Gospel Music Festival is held in Laos and celebrates the glory of God in the capital city Vientiane.

Our Editorial team's advice

Two weeks is the ideal amount of time to spend in Laos but a week or ten days is also sufficient. If you're doing a shorter stay, its recommend to keep 2 or 3 days free for sightseeing. The attractions that are a top priority are the Venetian towns, Luang Prabang and the plain of Jars. The plain of Jars is a large stretch of deserted land where thousands of stone jars are scattered around. Their origins are unknown but scientists believe that they have been for around two thousand years.

For a true cultural experience head into the rural mountains in order to meet locals from the North West. Laos is home to nearly 80 different ethnic groups coming from 4 different ethno-linguistic families: Lao-Thai, Lao- Theung, Mon-Khmer and Hmong-Mien.

In terms of scenery, the south is particularly stunning especially Mekong valley and 4,000 islands region. In July and August Laos is affected by monsoon season which can sometimes hinder flights with Air Mekong. It's best to leave during the dry season which is from November to March.

We recommend that you abide by the following laws (also from the FCO): The Lao Government prohibits sexual relationships between foreigners and Lao nationals, except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao Family Law. Permission for marriage or engagement to a Lao national must be submitted in a formal application to the Lao authorities. Penalties for engaging in prohibited sexual contact or failing to register a relationship range from US$500 to US$5,000 and may also involve imprisonment. It is not unheard of for Lao authorities to demand entry into hotel rooms or guesthouses where they suspect this regulation is being broken.

Photographing or visiting military sites is prohibited and can result in arrest or detention.

pros

  • +Not affected by mass tourism yet.
  • +A people rich in diversity.
  • +Wild landscapes.

cons

  • -No direct flights.
  • -Poor infrastructure (which undeniably makes up part of its charm).

Traditions

Appropriate dressing is required in the temples around Laos: preferably trousers for both men and women. Good manners require you to stay calm and not to scream. Avoid touching children on the head or pointing at people or things with your foot. Remove your shoes in the temples. Women do not touch or shake hands with monks. If you are standing close to a monk, try to appear taller than him, even if this means stooping. These people are very well respected around the country given that their religious life is very closely linked to the monastery.

Nearly 70% of people from Laos follow the Buddhist faith and in particular Theravada Buddhism. This branch of Buddhism comes from India and has been taught by Siddharta Gautama. Laotians believe in reincarnation. As for Christianity and Islamism, these religions aren't so well represented. In Vientiane there's a church and a mosque where people practicing these religions usually meet.

Food

The staple food along the Mekong is the channel catfish. Grilled, braised or marinated, it is served with fresh vegetables and sticky rice. Laotians also love ginger- or coconut-seasoned game, chicken, or pork. Have a taste of the local speciality, the lao mok, a fish, chicken or mushroom pie wrapped in banana leaves and braised. If you're keen to try local dishes be wary that not all Loatian restaurants serve local specialities, your best bet is eating with a local Loatian family. There's also a large selection of different flavoured soups to sample.

If you want to time travel there's an enjoyable vestige of former Indochina in the form of restaurants that offer French bread, croissants, and black coffee for breakfast.

If you want a more varied selection of cuisine head to the Latin Quarter. Breakfast starts around 11:30 and dinner is served around 17:30. Finding restaurants that serve food after 21:00 is rare unless you stop by a very touristy area where timetables are more flexible.

Souvenirs

Laotians are a very skilled people - you will thus find myriad handmade artifacts such as large woven baskets, high quality silk and cotton fabrics, wooden or horn sculpted objects, earthenware jugs and jars, wooden spoons and straw hats. Shopping hours: 9:00am-5:00pm, (or 9:00pm for private shops), from Monday to Saturday.