Wedged between Vietnam and Thailand, Laos often slips under traveller radars in favour of its much better known neighbours. Which is good news for those who do venture into this landlocked country – it’s not overrun with tourists!
Buddhism is a natural part of life Since the 13th century Buddhism has been Laos’s primary religion, underpinning its culture, retaining a strong influence on daily life. Temples, or Wats, some with guesthouse, monastery or school attached, are community hubs for cultural festivities, festival and rituals. Alms giving is an ancient tradition known as Tak Bat. Just before dawn each morning this sacred ritual sees barefoot saffron-robed Buddhist monks making merit. The faithful make offerings of boiled rice and sweets which provides monks their only meal of the day.
Vientiane snapshot The Laotian capital is a glorious confluence of ancient Buddhist temples topped with golden spires, decaying French villas and art deco-era Russian architecture intertwined with splays of brightly coloured bougainvillea vines. Many 16th century temples were destroyed when Laos was invaded by then Siam (now Thailand) – Wat Si Saket, with its 1,000 odd Buddhas, is Vientiane’s oldest. Slake your thirst with a Beer Lao (brewed from rice), or buy a condensed milk-sweetened coffee from a vendor cart. Pick up handmade trinkets from market stalls at Chao Anouvong Park on the banks of the Mekong River or join a public tai-chi class and channel your own chi.
4,000 islands on the Mekong River The 4,300km long Mekong River is Laos’ life-sustaining main artery. In southern Laos the river bulges to a voluminous 14km wide lake creating a riverine archipelago called Si Phan Don. The name translates to four thousand islands, though depending on the rise and fall of the river, it’s rare that all 4,000 are actually visible. Keep an eye out for freshwater dolphins along with the remains of Laos’ first railway, constructed to bypass Khone Phapheng Waterfall, which is more like a series of rapids than a true waterfall.
Ethical elephant sanctuary. Once known as the Land of a Million Elephants before they were virtually wiped out by the logging industry, its thought there are less than 1,000 elephants in Laos. Elephant Village Sanctuary & Resort is a privately owned elephant camp focused on protection and rehabilitation. Mahouts use gentle words rather than barbaric hooks to cajole elephants housed at the sanctuary. Visitors learn about Mahout training, can bareback ride an elephant (cruel howdahs, or elephant seats, have been phased out) and scrub the elephants while they cool down in the Nam Khan River.
The ‘secret war’ that still impacts daily life The Vietnam War has been well documented but what is less commonly known is the ‘secret war’ that raged in Laos concurrently. Intent on closing the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, the USA secretly bombed Laos, dropping more bombs than was dropped on Germany and Japan combined during WW2. The fallout is that Laos people continue to be maimed and killed by unexploded ordnances (UXO’s), which look like toy pineapples, and contaminate the countryside. The UXO Laos Centre in Luang Prabang and the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) in Vientiane should be on every Laos visitors must do list.