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A timeless trip through Laos

For an adventurous journey past jungle-clad peaks and isolated villages head to South East Asia’s least-known country.

By Jeannine Williamson

Of all the South East Asian countries, landlocked Laos – bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar – is the one that many people have barely heard of, let alone visited.

It’s a nation where dense forests and isolated villages rub shoulders with charming small cities. It has also been shaped by the mighty Mekong River, which rises in the Tibetan Plateau and flows through six countries on its journey to the South China Sea. More of its volume surges through Laos than anywhere else and the fast-flowing Upper Mekong is very different from the sedate and better-known stretch of the waterway running through neighboring Vietnam and Cambodia.

Journeys begin in the so-called Golden Triangle where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet. Once an infamous drug trading zone, you can visit the Hall of Opium Museum, which charts the dark past in a large contemporary exhibition.

Away from big towns, most Laotians live in rural areas and around 80 per cent work in agriculture, mainly growing rice. In these regions village walks provide unforgettable snapshots of daily life. These visits are totally unscripted, and even your guide won’t know exactly what you’ll see. You might be invited to celebrate the birth of a baby or invited into an open-air classroom. One thing that is guaranteed is the warmth of the welcome extended by villagers who belong to some of the country’s 49 ethnic tribes. Expect to be offered shots of lao lao, a fiery drink made from distilled rice.

The ancient former capital of Laos, from the 13th to 16th centuries, is UNESCO-listed Luang Prabang. Here, you can climb the 300 steps to the top of Mount Phousi, which is lined with Buddha statues, and pick up locally made crafts in the thronging night market. Don’t stay up too late though, as the next morning you’ll want to get up at 5am to participate in the daily alms giving to the saffron-robed monks who walk silently through the streets at dawn to collect offerings of food.

Other tours include the extraordinary Pak Ou caves set in towering limestone cliffs and packed with thousands of Buddha statues of varying sizes; the colorful Kuang Si Butterfly Park and nearby Kuang Si waterfalls which tumble 250ft down into a series of bathing pools. If you’re an animal lover don’t miss the sanctuary next to the falls which provides a safe haven for bears rescued from bile farms.

Laos is a deeply spiritual country and in the modern-day capital of Vientiane the Wat Sisaket is a must-see sight. Built in 1818 it is the city’s oldest surviving temple and there are nearly 7,000 Buddha images made from wood, stone and bronze which sit or stand in 45 different positions to depict different symbolic meanings.

Elsewhere, you can take part in a centuries-old baci ceremony where singers and dancers tie cotton strings around your wrists to bring good luck. Many people leave them on until they get home to provide another memento of a small country that’s big on culture-rich sights and experiences.

Published 03.03.22