It may be one of Southeast Asia’s smallest countries, but there are big things happening in Laos’ tourism industry. Laos is the only landlocked country in the region, so competing with Thailand or Indonesia for tourists who consider sun, sea and sand the essential ingredients of a good holiday simply isn’t on the country’s agenda.
Laos exceeds plenty of people’s expectations as a holiday destination, partly because it is an exception to several rules. The country is among Southeast Asia’s least developed, but at the same time, it has a range of luxury hotels and high end eco-lodges that rival some of its wealthier neighbours. Laos has a visibly strong sense of culture, yet its architecture is a subtle blend of Lao and French, with influences from elsewhere in Southeast Asia too.
Laos shares a border with China’s Yunnan Province, and as the country becomes more popular with Chinese tourists, many are opting to make the journey by private vehicle from Kunming, even though the number of flights between Chinese and Lao cities is on the rise.
Laos’ primary appeal for most tourists is its unspoilt natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. Two of the most popular destinations in the country are UNESCO World Heritage sites: the fifth century Khmer temple complex of Vat Phou in the south of Laos, and the town of Luang Prabang in the country’s north. Flowing down the entire length of elongated Laos is the Mekong River – one of Asia’s great and legendary rivers – which is, quite rightfully, a tourist attraction in its own right.
Many tourists centre a visit to Laos around the Mekong River, and following its course south through the country into Cambodia or north up to Laos’ border with Thailand are both popular ways of getting a sense of mainland Southeast Asia as a whole. For tourists who split their time between Thailand and Laos during one holiday, a cruise along the Mekong River can make for a very relaxing – and practical – way of seeing parts of both countries. It is also an excellent way to witness and learn about life along the river – while travelling in style.
Northern Laos and Luang Say’s Mekong River Cruise Experience
Luang Say is one of two companies that offers luxurious cruises along the Mekong River, in both northern and southern Laos. Tourists whose holiday begins in Thailand will start their journey with Luang Say in either the city of Chiang Rai or the border town of Chiang Khong in Thailand, and after crossing the border, one of Luang Say’s 34 metre Mekong River barges will be waiting for its passengers in Laos. The boats are designed especially for these high end cruises, and are appointed with everything to ensure guests are comfortable and safe. They have plenty of open air seating, a bar, toilet facilities and, on some, a seating area on the roof. Each reclining seat has a view of the lush riverbanks on either side.
Luang Say’s tour guides are professional and knowledgeable, and can provide real insight into the local life that visitors see in passing villages all along the river’s banks. After a few hours, the boats stop at one of the villages on the edge of the river, where one or other of Laos’ ethnic minorities live. There, tourists have the opportunity to learn about local customs such as traditional house-building techniques, to buy handicrafts and beautifully hand embroidered textiles, or to wander at leisure simply observing village life.
Back on board the boat, the ever attentive crew provides visitors with chilled hand towels and a cold refreshing drink before serving a buffet lunch of Lao cuisine. Most passengers while away the afternoon gazing at the scenery from a reclining seat, taking photographs or relaxing on the roof in the sunshine. Just as the sun is setting, the boat approaches Pakeng, the half way point of the cruise, where Luang Say Lodge is home for the night.
Even after a day of sublime river views on a luxurious Mekong cruise, most tourists agree that Pakbeng Lodge manages to at least match up to the afternoon’s cruise experience itself. The lodge is the perfect balance of luxurious and rustic, and each secluded teak and rosewood bungalow is perched above the river, with mountains as the dramatic backdrop. The bungalows are spacious and elegant, with four poster beds and every necessary amenity to ensure guests’ optimum comfort. Dinner is served on the terrace and entertainment is in the form of a show in which Hmong women, wearing their striking traditional costumes, perform a dance for mesmerised guests.
Day two of the cruise is mostly spent soaking up the river atmosphere, with two stops en route to Luang Prabang, Laos’ exquisite UNESCO World Heritage city. Visitors can continue to learn about local whiskey making in the village of Ban Baw before perusing row upon row of hand-woven silk garments, made on looms in the village and sold to visiting tourists, or sent to nearby towns. About an hour before reaching Luang Prabang, the Pak Ou caves come into view in the distance, opposite the mouth of the Nam Ou River. At first they appear as a few darkened spaces in vast slabs of rock that form the river’s edge. Upon making their way up a series of step cut into the rock, tourists are able to see the caves’ main feature: hundreds and hundreds of tiny Buddha statues, in gold, in bronze, in stone, and in silver. They glint as people’s flashlights hover over a thousand icons, both eerie and beautiful at the same time.
As the boat approaches Luang Prabang, any of the usual reluctance that might accompany the ending of an enjoyable cruise is quickly dispelled, as it docks at Laos’ most spectacular city, encircled by rivers on both sides: Luang Prabang, the jewel in Laos’ crown.
Luang Prabang is, perhaps, Southeast Asia’s most charming and peaceful city, and it certainly feels far more like a town than a city to most Chinese visitors. Examples of the country’s cultural heritage are on display at virtually every street corner, and magnificent gilded temples and chedis abound within the historical town centre. Saffron-robed monks make their way to and from schools or monasteries and, depending on your walking route, you’ll rarely be far from one of the two rivers that wrap themselves around the Old Town, the Nam Khan and the Mekong itself. Just outside Luang Prabang, tourists will find a variety of outdoor activities to satisfy their desire to get out into nature, which is the motivating factor behind a large proportion of Chinese tourists’ choice of holiday destination. Whether it is elephant riding, kayaking, trekking, mountain biking, or simply following the river’s meandering curves unhurriedly on foot, Luang Prabang offers visitors several way to explore and immerse themselves in its natural beauty.
Champasak, the site of another of Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage Sites, may be over 600 kilometres south of Luang Prabang, but domestic flights to Pakse, southern Laos’ transport hub, mean that exploring a large swathe of this long country is not only possible in one trip, but is relatively hassle free. From Pakse’s airport, private transport can be arranged to drive visitors to Champasak’s provincial capital, where the ancient Khmer ruins are located and a range of elegant boutique hotels await guests. Many a visitor to Laos has been sufficiently captivated by the Mekong to want to explore more than one section of this legendary river. Pakse is another starting point for luxury cruises, with a choice of three day and two night cruises run by Luang Say, and cruises from Pakse further south through Laos to the famed Four Thousand Islands region.
Whether they choose to take it easy on a series of river cruises, or to engage in more energetic outdoor activities, a holiday in Laos offers visitors a unique balance of luxury and authentic local experiences. Together, they seem to be a winning combination – many a first time visitor to Laos doesn’t leave before making a promise to return.