For years, in spite of the charm of Laos, there was little or no tourist activity largely because of the country’s tumultuous history. Decolonization, the Vietnam conflict and a severe communist regime since the 1970s, have prevented Laos from advancing in the direction of globalization as so many of its Southeast Asian neighbors have done. Far from the skyscraper landscape of Bangkok, the country has a seemingly endless tropical forest, rice fields, bamboo plantations, and a fauna that includes elephants, leopards and fresh water dolphins in the ancestral Mekong. The authenticity of this virgin land makes it an ideal retreat for recharging one’s batteries and taking advantage of a pure energy and omnipresent spirituality in an enchanting setting. Luang Prabang, the former royal capital from the14th century to 1975 when the monarchy was abolished, is the country’s Buddhist spiritual center. This UNESCO world heritage has more than thirty monasteries and temples and a thousand monks in saffron colored robes. It’s here that eco-luxury hotels gradually came into being to accommodate adventurous visitors and offer them an experience worthy of the Lao royal family.
In this city steeped in history, every street corner is a journey, beginning with the historic center, located in an enclave bordered by the Mekong and the Nam Khan. It’s here that we find the Royal Palace, now the National Museum, which today contains the treasures of a centuries old civilization. Not far from the palace are Laos’ two most beautiful temples, the Vat Mai and the Vat Xiang Thong, the finest examples of the splendor of Buddhist architecture. These majestic structures are surrounded by an astounding natural setting between the banks of the Mekong and Mount Phousi whose summit is the site of the golden stupa (Buddhist shrine) of That Chomsi. At the foot of its slopes, we find the Dara or day Market and the night market where inhabitants of the city and the mountains come to buy, sell and trade, to the great pleasure of tourists who also take advantage of the center by mingling with the local population.
To add a princely touch to one’s vacation in this mystic city, try the Souvannaphoum House, on the banks of the Mekong, near the historic center, the former residence of the late Prince Souvanna Phouma who was also the prime minister. This colonial residence is a blend of French and Laotian influences.
A bit further from the city center, the Residence Phou Vao, in a totally authentic colonial style, offers guests communion with nature, inviting them to relax and admire the beauty of the surrounding landscape. The hotel complex furnishes bicycles so that its visitors can explore the surroundings, after being well-advised by the concierge. He will undoubtedly highly recommend visiting the Kuang Si waterfall to the south of Luang Prabang, whose tumultuous waters cascade down from a height of sixty meters into turquoise blue pools. To complete this journey in the midst of monasteries and mountains, it’s important to understand the importance of the Mekong and spend at least one day sailing in a boat, a canoe or a cruise ship and stopping at the villages on the riverbanks. The ideal itinerary is to go upstream to the Grottes Pak Ou. It’s in this cavern that the local inhabitants religiously deposit broken statues in the midst of candles, since they don’t want to simply throw them away. During the Lunar New Year celebration (Pii Mai) in mid April, crowds of inhabitants sail up the Mekong to wash the statues. These not to be missed festivities are also the occasion to witness a procession of elephants at Luang Prabang, and thus leave the region with fabulous visual memories.
Laos, or the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos, whose capital is Vientiane. This one party communist state was not opened to tourism until 1990. Although it’s one of the world’s poorest countries, Laos now welcomes visitors and practices eco-tourism.
To discover the picturesque charm of a country free of globalization, and for its eco-tourism. For the spirituality that exists here, for the impressive Buddhist culture with its superb temples and tombs. To witness the customs and traditions of the Laotian people,as well as for their warmth and legendary hospitality.
Flights between Europe and Laos make a stop at either Bangkok or Hanoi. The country has four international airports : Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Battey and Savannakhet. The river is the best and most traditional means of transportation within the country, although buses have become very popular thanks to the road improvements made during the last decade. For the more adventurous, there are canoes, dug out of tree trunks available. If however, you don’t feel the Indiana Jones spirit, several companies organize highly comfortable cruises on the Mekong. On land, to remain independent, it’s possible to rent a car or a motorcycle. One feels safer on the roads of Laos than on those of its neighbors.
The Bun Bang Fai rocket festival in May and the Mii Mai or Lunar New Year celebration in mid-April, with its elephant procession in Luang Prabang. The caves of Pak Ou and Vieng Xai. The magnificent waterfall at Kuang Si which cascade down from a height of 60 meters. The vertiginous cliffs of Khammuan. The Bolovens plateau where coffee is grown, Vat That Luang in Vientiane, symbolic of the country, and the Khmer site of Vat Phy in Champassak.
A Buddha ! An opium pipe, coffee from Bolovens, a bottle of Lao Lao, a typically Laotian 40 percent rice alcohol, in which an insect or a reptile is steeped, a locally crafted piece of wicker work, a statue made of rare wood and silk.
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