Overview

The Mekong
The Mekong © Chmouel Boudjnah

Laos has been known since ancient times as Lan Xang, or Land of the Million Elephants, and offers visitors a glimpse of old Indochina. It is less developed than its neighbours China, Thailand and Vietnam, and traditionally the most reserved, but offers natural beauty and shy hospitality combined with a mix of original Buddhist culture and French influences. It also shares its borders with Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia.

A mountainous, landlocked country, situated at the heart of South East Asia, Laos's lifeline is the Mekong River, which flows the length of the country, providing water for agricultural lands and a major means of transportation. Vientiane, the unassuming capital, is situated on its banks, and the city provides a comfortable introduction to the charms of the country. However, most tourists to Laos will find its most enticing destination is the city of Luang Prabang, the former royal kingdom, with a legacy of splendid golden temples and whitewashed houses. While it might be true that sights and attractions in Laos are few, they are nonetheless extremely special.

A troubled history of French colonisation, internal conflicts and assertive communism chased much of Laos's population away in the 1970s, and isolated the country from the outside world. Today though, the doors stand open, and services for travellers are gradually being instituted so that visitors can enjoy an unrivalled look at the old-fashioned way of life predominating in a country still largely unscathed by the harsh effects of mass tourism. Tourists willing to brave the lack of infrastructure will discover charming towns and rural villages, smiling, endearing people, splendid scenery, and a slow, relaxed pace of life.