Laos – The Hidden Gem of South East Asia
Sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand, Laos is probably the least known country in South East Asia. It is one of the last communist dictatorships in the world (same as their neighbor and great influencer, Vietnam) and probably the least developed country in the region; but at the same time, one of the most beautiful and culturally rich.
Vientiane is the capital and largest city, and also the main gateway to the country for foreigners. Tourism is becoming more and more important in Laos, as figures for arrivals have experienced double digit increases in the past couple of years. Vientiane is not the most spectacular city in the world – I’ll give you that. Traffic is horrible and urban services are quite bad. But, at the same time, the city has numerous Buddhist temples spread all around, as well as gardens and open air markets. Pha That Luang is the gold-covered Buddhist stupa that guards the center of the city, being impossible to miss due to its glitter. Originally from the third century, it was rebuilt several times after being destroyed by invading enemies (some of them, European, actually). Nowadays, it is Laos’ national symbol, being present even on the state emblem.
Further up north, the former capital, Luang Prabang impresses through its historical and architectural heritage. Before the Communists came to power, it was the seat of the royal family and the main political and economic center of the country. The old town center is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracting millions of tourists every year – the Royal Palace is the most prominent building in the area. Outside the city, the Kuang Si waterfalls feel like a nice breeze in this “heavy” and closed up state.
The Plain of Jars, just an hour’s drive from Luang Prabang, is, as its name says, a large open field riddled with prehistoric stone jars. The place is, in fact, a cemetery, each jar being associated with a different type of burial practice. The Plain was largely destroyed by US bombings during the war in Vietnam, but some of the pots have been saved and opened for visitors in a place called “Site 1”.
The last stop on your trip to Laos ought to be down South, at the ancient temple of Vat Phou. This Khmer edifice (mostly rocks and walls) is located at the base of the so-called Temple Mountain, a good place for watching romantic sunsets as a perfect ending for your Laotian experience.