Today, Laos is a peaceful place, but between 1964 and 1973, nearly 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on the country, making it the most heavily bombed nation in history relative to the size of its population. Laos is still a one-party socialist republic, espousing Marxism–Leninism, and governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Nonetheless, its economy is growing, and Laos now has the fourth-highest GDP per capita in Southeast Asia.
For travelers, this landlocked, chiefly rural country retains a relaxed pace of life. Although it may be the last secret of Southeast Asia, Laos is unlikely to remain unchanged for long. Southern Laos, specifically the lush and beautiful country along the banks of the Mekong River, is emerging as this nation’s newest destination. Attractions include the charming town of Champasak and the Vat Phou ruins, which are as old as those of Angkor Wat. The capital, Vientiane, remains a step back in time, and treetops still define its skyline. The principal sites merit a stay of two or three days. These include numerous wonderful wats (Buddhist temples). The former capital of Laos, Luang Prabang has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and is populated with ornate wats and elegant 19th-century French townhouses.
Vat Phou Cruises offers an excellent three-day river trip that takes in all of the region’s most interesting sights, including the UNESCO World Heritage site, Vat Phou Temple complex, the Oum Muong ruins at Huei Thamo and the Khone Phapheng Waterfall just 8 miles from the Cambodian border. The Vat Phou boat, originally a ferry that carried teak wood between Vientiane and the south of Laos, encompasses 12 tastefully appointed cabins, a bar, two open-air decks and an atmospheric dining room.
Laos has an ancient tradition of hand-loomed silk weaving, and a charming place to learn more about it is Lao Textiles, a workshop, gallery and studio privately owned and run by Carol Cassidy in a French Colonial mansion in downtown Vientiane. The beautifully displayed silk wall hangings, scarves and shawls are hand-woven by Cassidy and her team of 40, predominantly female, local weavers. Fabrics made by her company feature in the décors of renowned interior designers such as Peter Marino, who styles many of the Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Armani boutiques.
Laotian cuisine is often deliciously tangy and a little smoky. There are a number of delightful restaurants, but L’Eléphant and Tamarind are two of our favorites. Run by two French expats, L’Eléphant Restaurant in Luang Prabang has friendly service and excellent food and is just as good for an iced coffee and a slice of mango-pineapple tart after an afternoon of sightseeing as it is for lunch or dinner. The menu features both French and Lao dishes, and among the standouts are the roasted duck and the superb Lao salads — don’t miss the kranab pa, fish stuffed with ground pork and local herbs and grilled in a banana leaf. Tamarind is a simple but spotless little restaurant that serves the best Lao food in Luang Prabang. For those who develop a taste for Lao food, the café offers cooking classes.
To phone hotels in Laos, dial 011 (international access) + 856 (Laos code) + local numbers in listings.
11 hours ahead of New York (EST). (Time listed is for DST in the West. Difference is one hour more November to mid-March.)
The rainy season extends from May-October. The rest of the year is generally dry and sunny. Temperatures are high year-round.
Lao kip (LAK). Fluctuating rate valued at LAK8,861 = US$1.00 as of November 2019. Note: Our suggested hotels quote rates in US$.
Vientiane, Tel. (856) 21-487-000.