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Laos

Laos' isolation from foreign influence offers travelers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional Southeast Asian life. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, Laos is the highlight of Southeast Asia.

OVERVIEW
Snaking rivers, lush jungle, hectic markets and the UNESCO-listed Plain of Jars.

Laos' isolation from foreign influence offers travelers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional Southeast Asian life. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, Laos is the highlight of Southeast Asia.

Enigmatic and relatively undeveloped, Laos bears the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in history. However, it is gradually emerging from its tumultuous recent history thanks to a combination of foreign aid, a growing ecotourism industry, and its charming, philosophical people.

CLIMATE
Laos is landlocked and lies between Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Cambodia.  The Mekong River forms the country's western border and the Annamite mountains form its eastern border with Vietnam. The total land area is approximately 237,000 sq km - an area similar to that of the United Kingdom. The main features of the country are its mountains and the Mekong River valley.

Laos has a monsoon climate of a dry and a wet season.  The dry season lasts from November to May with the cooler period in December and January.  At its coldest, the temperatures can fall to as low as 15 deg C. The cold periods tend to be at night and early morning with colder temperatures at higher altitudes.  During the hot period of the dry season, between March and May, temperatures can reach the high 30s. The rainy season is a lot cooler, and rainfall varies according to altitude.  Generally speaking, the monsoon season produces severe rain that lasts for short periods of time. The wet months vary according to location, in Vientiane, they are from May to September, in Luang Prabang, August is far wetter than any other month.

WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit is between November and February, when it rains least and isn't too hot. This is also the main season for both national and regional bun (festivals). If you're heading up into the mountains, May and July can also be pleasant. Roads can be washed out during rainy season (July to October), but there are plenty of river travel opportunities. Peak tourist months are December to February and during August, although there are relatively few visitors at any time.

WHAT TO DO
While Laos has a reputation for being sleepy and laid-back, it isn’t for a lack of things to do. Laos is a land full of enchantment and charm, it boasts something for nearly every type of traveler; from the person who just wants to drift along the charming Mekong River and enjoy life as it passes slowly, to the adventurer ready to explore remote areas in the countryside. When one is ready to take a break from the temple circuit, there is always a café of sorts to relax and unwind in.

At night, travelers of all variety will find something to purchase in the enchanting night markets. Perhaps nature lovers will be happiest in Laos, as the scenery is breathtaking throughout the country. If it’s perplexing and unusual you seek, look no further than the Plain of Jars in Phonsanan where hundreds of enormous jars sit in empty fields.

 

VIENTIANE - the capital city
Life in Vientiane, modest capital of Laos, flows along as languidly as does the Mekong River on the banks of which the city is situated. Resembling more a sprawling series of villages than an inter-connected urban metropolis, Vientiane is a sleepy place dotted with a mix of Laotian temples and French colonial buildings, most of them crumbling into decay. Paddy fields still dot the outlying suburbs and even intrude into the city center in places. Downtown is characterized by narrow lanes that run off the main streets, where bakeries sell croissants alongside vendors touting noodle soup and sticky rice.

Most of the city's places of interest are concentrated in a small area in the commercial district, easy to explore on foot, between the bamboo and thatched beer gardens on the riverbank and Talaat Sao, the morning market. There are some fine Wats (temples) to visit, like Wat Si Saket, one of the city's oldest, surrounded by a lush tranquil garden. Other grand buildings are the unfinished Patuxai monument, resembling the Arc de Triomphe, and the new Chinese-financed cultural center. The Lao Revolutionary Museum is worth a visit simply because it is a now rare example of a communist propaganda collection, while the Kaysone Phomvihane Museum is dedicated to Laos' post-war leader.

Vientiane is a place that demands you slow down and match its languid pace. Walking or riding a bicycle is a great way to explore the central part of town. For those who want to experience the countryside, you can be out of the concrete and into the rice fields within minutes. With less than 300,000 residents in the capital, museums, cultural attractions and entertainment venues are in the minority, with the emphasis here on daily survival and cold beers at sunset overlooking the Mekong.

Like most French colonial towns of Indochina, Vientiane has broad, leafy boulevards lined with magnificent colonial mansions in various stages of decay, a handful of Buddhist temples and a relaxed tropical feel.

LUANG PRABANG
Encircled by mountains and charmingly situated at the meeting of the Mekong and Khan rivers, the 'Jewel of the Mekong' conveys an atmosphere of remote serenity and informal splendor.

The heart of a thriving kingdom for more than a thousand years, it is today a sleepy mixture of ancient temples, cobbled lanes, interesting back streets, French-Indochinese architecture and ochre-colored colonial buildings. Trees line the streets above the banks of the river where children swim and play, while farmers carefully tend to their tiny, irregular riverside plots of agricultural land. In the mists of dawn, throngs of barefoot orange-robed monks silently make their way from the monasteries to the streets, where locals wait to gain spiritual merit by filling their wooden alms bowls with rice, before disappearing once again into their places of refuge and meditation. Unhurried people drift past stalls of spicy papaya salad, noodles, omelets and fruit drinks. This is the real Lao, a town with a distinctly village-like feel, but endowed with a historical legacy so rich that it has been designated a World Heritage site.

The main attractions are its historic temple complexes, with about half of the original Wats, or temples, built before the French arrived, still standing. The most magnificent is Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple). Nearby is the Royal Palace with its golden-spired stupa, now a museum, and Wat Wisunalat, the oldest continually operating temple in the town. Across the river is Mount Phu Si with several temples on its slopes and a monastery on top, a popular spot for its dazzling views of the gilded spires in the town below at sunset.

A popular excursion is a scenic boat trip past waterfront villages to the nearby Pak Ou caves, filled with Buddha images. Also worth visiting is the picturesque Khuang Si Falls, a beautiful multi-tiered waterfall tumbling over limestone formations with clear turquoise pools below.

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