The land of a million elephants

The beauty of Laos is best discovered when you take the time to soak up the atmosphere, whether it be enjoying the sunset over the Mekong or interacting with monks at the local temples.

Laos, a peaceful land-locked nation, is one of Southeast Asia’s hidden gems. The stunning natural beauty of forested mountains and valleys teeming with wildlife combined with a fascinating Buddhist culture make Laos a superb destination for those seeking an adventurous and authentic cultural experience. 

Most of Laos today remains relatively isolated and undeveloped. Its capital, Vientiane, is more like a big village than a crowded Asian hub and life throughout the country is slow-paced. The UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang continues to be the leading attraction for its glittering ancient temples, saffron-robed monks, authentic textile villages and sleepy riverside atmosphere. The far mountainous northern region and the southern provinces offer excellent opportunities for outdoor activities such as trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing.

Laos contains so many hidden secrets

The sparsely populated mountains of Laos are a treasure trove of hidden secrets. Laos has had a turbulent recent history which is largely unreported, there are still large areas of the mysterious country that are not open to outsiders. This means there are lots of options to really get off the beaten path. Indotrek head to some of the most 'out there' places giving you the best insight into this charming land.

In rural areas the lives of the local populations have changed little in hundreds of years. The locals still make their living off farming rice and other subsistence activities. Wide-eyed, friendly-faced stares from the locals are part of the travel experience in Laos, the least visited country in the region.

People

The population of Laos is approximately 7 million with 85% living in rural areas. Laos is one of Southeast Asia's most ethnically diverse countries with 47 ethnic groups, most of whom have kept their own customs, dialects and traditional dress. The government has classified the population into three broad groups: the Lao Lum (lowlanders), comprise mainly of ethnic Lao and Tay-Tai speaking people, make up 70% of the population and predominantly live along the Mekong River; the Lao Theung (uplanders), composed of Mon-Khmer people, form 20% of the population; and the Lao Song (highlanders), comprise of a variety of hill tribe groups including the Hmong, Yao, Haw, Akha, and constitute 10% of the population, living in the mountainous areas.

Religion

Buddhism is an inherent component of daily life in Laos and an important influence on Lao society and culture. Today more than 67% of the Lao population (predominantly lowland Lao and some other Tai-speaking groups) follow Theravada Buddhism. Predating Buddhism, the worship of animist spirits (phi) in Laos is still commonly representing some of the region's most ancient religious practice. Animist shrines may be found in many parts the country.

Landscape

Laos is bordered by five countries: China to the north; Vietnam to the east; Cambodia to the south; Thailand and Myanmar to the west. The Mekong River, which forms a large part of the border with Thailand, has always been at the heart of Lao civilization and culture. Apart from the Mekong River plains, more than 70% of the country is comprised of highlands, mountains, and plateaus.

Climate

Laos has two seasons. The green season runs from May through October and the dry season from November to April. For the most part, Laos is hot, although there is a good deal of fluctuation between summer and winter temperatures. The capital, Vientiane, ranges from the upper-20°C (mid-70°F) in January to mid-30°C (mid-90°F) in April and May. In the mountainous region in Luang Prabang, however, temperatures can plummet to near freezing at night in December and January. During the rainy season, the highest precipitation is in southern Laos.

Please note: It can sometimes be smoky during February and March (in Northern Laos) when local people burn the rice fields and forests to prepare for the annual crops. This may affect visibility and result in minor respiratory irritation.

History

In the 14th century a Lao warlord, Fa Ngum, founded the Kingdom of Lane Xang which literally means ‘Land of a Million Elephants’ and established the capital at what is now Luang Prabang. In the 18th century Lane Xang entered a period of decline caused by dynastic struggle and conflicts with Burma, Siam (now Thailand), Vietnam, and the Khmer kingdom. By the 19th century the Siamese established power over much of what is now Laos and was divided into three principalities: Luang Prabang Vientiane and Champassak. Late in the century the French succeeded the Siamese and integrated all of Laos into the French empire under direct rule except for Luang Prabang which was ruled as a protectorate. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present Laotian boundary with Thailand.

Laos achieved independence from French rule in 1954. Peace was short-lived, however, as the Americans began bombing eastern Laos in 1964 in a bid to target a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through Laotian territory. Fighting between the Communist Pathet Laos and royalist government in Vientiane ensued, ending with a ceasefire in 1973. In December 1975 the Pathet Laos took control in Vientiane, founding the current Laos People’s Democratic Republic.

Lifestyle

Eating

Laotian cuisine has many similarities to Thai with lots of aromatic herbs and spices such as lemon grass, chilies, ginger and tamarind used to flavor dishes. The staple food of Laos is sticky rice usually served with fermented fish and fish sauce. Chicken and pork dishes are also popular but beef is expensive in comparison. A French influence with an Asian-fusion touch is also apparent in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

Shopping

Laos is still developing, and so its people can be very persistent when trying to make money, especially around tourists whom they perceive as very wealthy. People will probably overcharge you, but rather than becoming irritated, join the game and bargain with a smile! It is also recommendable to check prices of the same items in the neighborhood before reaching a deal, especially for more expensive items.

If you are being followed by street vendors and do not wish to make a purchase, often the best course of action is to say “no” firmly and politely (Lao word is: “Bo”), and continue on your way. Do not hesitate or linger, as this will encourage the seller to try and engage you further.

If you choose to ship items home, we highly recommend that you buy shipping insurance and check the policy details. As shops are not responsible for damages incurred en route, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Shopping

Vietnam is still developing, and so local sellers can sometimes be very persistent when trying to make money, especially around tourists whom they perceive as very wealthy. Vendors will probably overcharge you, but rather than becoming irritated, join the game and bargain with a smile! It is also recommended to check prices of the same items in the neighborhood before reaching a deal, especially for more expensive items.

If you being followed by street vendors and do not wish to make a purchase, often the best course of action is to say “no” firmly and politely, and continue on your way. Do not hesitate or linger, as this will encourage the seller to try and engage you further.

If you choose to ship items home, we highly recommend that you buy shipping insurance and check the policy details. As shops are not responsible for damages incurred en route, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Etiquette

The Laotian people consider it disrespectful to touch someone on their head. It's also impolite to gesture with your feet or prop them up on furniture; to do so implies that you look down on the people sitting around you.

Keeping an arm’s length of personal space is the norm. Touching during conversations is limited; this is especially the case for the opposite sex.

Revealing clothing is unacceptable. Shorts are generally fine, as long as they aren’t too short.

When visiting pagodas and temples, shorts and tank-tops are unacceptable. Your knees and shoulders must be covered. Footwear and socks must be removed in pagodas. Shoes are usually removed upon entering private homes too. Please do not wear orange when visiting a temple, as this is the colour of the monks.

Public displays of affection between men and women may embarrass your host. On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal for a pair of men or a pair of women to link arms or hold hands.

Beckoning someone with the palm upwards is considered rude. The correct way to call someone over is to extend your hand with the palm downward and flap your fingers towards your wrist. To ask for the bill in a restaurant or shop, extend one hand in front of you with the palm raised and pretend to write on your palm with the other hand.