Laos was once known as ‘Lan Xang’ - ‘land of a million elephants’. Today, the name of the country can vary depending on where you are from. Within Asia, the country is normally called Lao, without an ’s’ at the end. In the West, the spelling Laos is common, but both names can be used interchangeably when talking about the country. However, when it comes to talking about the people or language, it is correct to say Lao and not Laos. For instance, the Lao people and Lao language, not the Laos people and the Laos language. The formal name of the country is Lao People’s Democratic Republic or Lao PDR, but it is perfectly acceptable to simply say Laos or Lao.
Laos is one of the least developed nation in Southeast Asia but what the country lacks in modern metropolises it makes up for in beauty, charm and a fascinating history. Nowhere is this more evident than in the northern region of Laos where visitors can experience enchanting mountainscapes, colorful ethnic diversity and quaint towns steeped in history.
Northern Laos is made up of mountainous terrain that in some places reach more than 2,000 meters above sea level. Several of the region's largest rivers run through northern Laos and the area is popular for trekking and hiking – visitors can get a feel for rural Laos life as it has been for centuries, and explore the biodiverse forest habitats which support a wide range of wildlife and indigenous plants. The region also has the highest concentration of ethnic minorities of Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer, Yao-Mien and Tai-Lao origins who live in villages scattered across the region.
Visitors to northern Laos should also make it a priority to visit the region's two main cities, the capital Vientiane on the banks of the Mekong River just across the border to Thailand, and Luang Prabang, which holds UNESCO World Heritage status due to its traditional arts, prominent history and well-kept religious and colonial landmarks. The combination of its location at the foot of a mountain range and its religious and historical importance makes Luang Prabang one of the absolute highlights in northern Laos.
Laos was part of French Indochina for 50 years until 1954 when it became an independent constitutional monarchy. Efforts to form a neutral government broke down in 1960 and a war between Royal Lao Forces (backed by the United States) and the Pathet Lao (backed by North Vietnam) became a key part in the bigger conflict in Vietnam. With North Vietnamese supply trails running through Laos, the United States made the decision to bomb the trails. Between 1964 and 1973 more bombs fell on Laos than they did on Europe during World War II. The Plain of Jars in north-eastern Laos was given the unenviable title of the most heavily-bombed place on earth. An estimated 30% of those bombs failed to detonate and unexploded ordnance continues to claim victims in Laos to this day. In 1975, two years after the 1973 ceasefire, the Pathet Lao took over the government and ended the monarchy. A communist government continues to rule Laos to the present day.
Traveling northern Laos is the perfect opportunity to visit some of Southeast Asia's most charming cities such as laid back Luang Prabang as well as explore lesser known natural wonders.
Every morning at dawn, monks leave the temples of Luang Prabang to commence their morning alms round. With monks in saffron robes walking in procession against a background of glittering temples, it’s an impressive site to witness and very photogenic. Unfortunately, there have been incidents of poor behavior from tourists disrupting the alms round because they were too eager to get close-up photos of the monks and the local people. Tourists are welcome to participate in the event and take photos, but please dress appropriately and act respectfully.
Popular attractions in northern Laos include the Viengxay Caves in Houaphanh, which is an extensive network of caves in limestone mountains. The caves were used as shelter for the Pathet Lao organization during the Second Indochina War and they housed everything from hospitals, schools, shops and other entertainment venues. Visitors should also not miss out on the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang province, an area of megalithic stone structures which are believed to be prehistoric burial sites.
Northern Laos has one of Southeast Asia's largest concentrations of ethnic minorities and visitors to this region will have an excellent opportunity to explore some of these proud cultures that are very much as alive as they have been for centuries. Although some of their natural habitat has been developed, the hill tribes have managed to maintain many aspects of traditional life, especially in their arts and skilled craftsmanship, which is visible in the many handmade products including baskets and embroidery.
The northern regions of Laos is also home to dense jungle making it a popular destination for trekking. These forested lands are also home to a expansive river network including the mighty Mekong River, Nam Ou, Nam Seuang, Nam Tha and Nam Fa, which lend themselves perfectly for scenic journeys into the jungle where it's possible to see various forms of wildlife, such as gibbons and the rare Asian tiger.
Visitors looking for urban comforts should head to Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Here history, culture and religion make up some of Southeast Asia's most eclectic cities where French colonial heritage, diverse ethnic minorities and religious landmarks all vie for the attention of travelers. Explore old religious temples, indulge in French cuisine or purchase ethnic handcrafts while enjoying a laid back atmosphere that is hard to find elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
No trip to the northern parts of Laos is complete without a visit to Luang Prabang. Some parts of the UNESCO World Heritage old town is like an open air museum where visitors can learn about French colonialism and as well as traditional Laotian culture.The town is small enough to explore on a bicycle, which remains an ideal way to soak up the city's charming atmosphere. Mount Phu Si in the middle of town – more a hill than a mountain – provides a perfect vantage point to catch the setting sun casting dancing colors on Mekong and Nam Khan rivers; upon descending the hill, stroll over to the nearby Night Market on Sisavangvong Road to pick up some souvenirs.
Situated about four hours north of Vientiane, Vang Vieng has received a somewhat negative reputation due to the hedonistic pursuits offered to backpackers. In recent years, however, the town has cleaned up its act, and in addition to the infamous tubing activities, rock climbing, kayaking, and caves offer active visitors many different ways to explore the destination's true attractions – its dramatic limestone karst landscape.
In Xieng Khouang province visitors can experience glimpses into prehistoric Southeast Asia. The Plain of Jars is believed to date back to 2,000 B.C. where the megalithic stone jars were part of ancient burial practices. There are around 90 separate jar sites around the province, each containing anywhere between one and several hundred jars. It is possible to get to Plain of Jars via bus or minibus from both Luang Prabang (8 hours) and Vientiane (10-12 hours).
For travelers looking for some outdoor activities, kayaking on the Mekong River around Luang Prabang or Vientiane is a perfect option. There are several itineraries including one day trips or longer excursions into the river network in northern Laos. No advance training is needed for most trips and the kayak tour provides a perfect opportunity to explore beautiful untouched nature while staying active.
There are numerous local markets all over Laos, but the biggest and best markets can be found in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. If you are particularly interested in handicrafts and locally produced textiles, there are a number of tours in Laos which will include visits to the local communities that make these goods. Buying direct from the local artisans at source will be cheaper than buying from stores or markets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, although wherever you do your shopping in Laos you’ll find it represents excellent value for money.
Visitors to Laos will find plenty of regional variations in the cuisine. Rice features prominently with many traditional Lao dishes accompanied by either steamed rice or sticky rice. Some dishes have similarities with Thai food or Vietnamese food, but there are also influences from French cuisine and Chinese cooking. Whilst Laos may lack the depth and quality of restaurants found in neighboring Thailand, there is plenty of delicious and cheap local food available wherever you travel. And in Luang Prabang and Vientiane there is a burgeoning and diverse culinary scene with many first-time visitors to Laos surprised by the quality on offer.
Visitors from ASEAN countries and Russia, Korea, Japan and Switzerland can enter Laos without a visa. Everyone else has to apply for a visa issued by a Laos embassy or consulate or obtain a visa on arrival which is available at major entry points including airports and at the border to Thailand at the Friendship Bridge near Vientiane. The price depends on nationality of the visitor.
There are four international airports in Laos; Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, Pakse and Vientiane. Laos Airlines fly to all four from Bangkok and the airline also has connections to Luang Prabang and Vientiane from Chiang Mai. Thai Airways also connects Bangkok to Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Getting the bus is a cheaper option than flying but also takes longer. Northern Laos has land border crossings with China, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, although foreigners are not allowed cross the land border between Laos and Myanmar. If you come from Thailand you're likely coming from Nong Khai, and if you're coming from China you're likely crossing from at Luang Namtha. From Vietnam there are the options of Sop Hun, the Keo Nua Pass or at Nam Can.
Trains connect Bangkok to Vientiane via the Friendship Bridge and arrives at a new international rail terminal at Thanaleng outside of Vientiane. Trains have second and third class seats or first and second class sleeper trains. Taking the train to Nong Khai on the Thai side and then a bus, shuttle or private taxi to Vientiane is also an option. Tickets from Bangkok Nong Khai is around US$37 for a first class sleeper train and an additional US$1 between Nong Khai and Thanaleng.
The main roads connecting larges cities are largely paved but the majority of the road network throughout the region remain unpaved and visitors should allow plenty of traveling time. There are bus and minibus services (from US$9 for the ordinary bus to US$21 for a VIP bus) between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, which can either be made by day or as an overnight journey of around 10 – 11 hours.
The trip between Luang Prabang and Vientiane can also be made by riverboat (US$20 one way) and takes around 11 hours, departing in the morning. The best way to book tickets is to ask at hotels, guesthouses and travel agencies in either of the two cities.
For those wanting a little more comfort there is also the option of private taxi hires. This is a more expensive option and varies depending on the trip and the driver but is a worthwhile consideration if comfort is paramount and especially if there are traveling companions to split the fare.