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Visiting Laos is like stepping into a landscape created for a fairy-tale where mythical pink dolphins herd fish into the nets for poor fishermen only to fade into the misty shower of a cascading bank of water that folds itself into a dark pool beneath a jungle canopy. Images of imaginary battles fought against spirit lords canvas the dungeon-like walls of a river cave snaking under moss-padded footpaths, tropical sunlight illuminating muddy floors, gliding down the mighty Mekong in a slow boat cry out to the jaded tourist heart promising a land of primitive statues and stupas.
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The culture of Laos is heavily influenced by two main social elements that have been part and parcel in building thenation’s character: Buddhism and French leadership that was ousted in the 1960s. The communist government failed to have enough impact on the population to alter or deter the traditions established by these two forces.
The national economy is approximately $13 billion in U.S. dollars per year, which is equivalent to the economy of Lubbock, Texas. The people are charming, polite and very helpful to friends and strangers alike.
When to Go on a Laos tour
In general, the best time to travel to Laos is November to January, which is during the dry season; this is the time of the year when the temperatures are moderate. In higher elevations, the best time to take a vacation in Laos is between February and early April when the chill is out of the air and the lowlands have become blisteringly hot.
What to Do
There are four locations – designated as cities but more closely resembling towns for the westerner – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Pakse that tourists may find interesting. But, let it be known that there are other villages and locales that have interesting things to do, which rival and surpass anything you’ll find in these four Laos destinations.
- Pha That Luang – the gilded temple building which holds the largest stupa (royal burial chamber) in all of Laos is both a symbol of the nation’s dedication to Buddhism and symbol of Lao’s sovereignty as a nation. From the outside it appears to merely be another temple for tourists to explore – although it stands out in its gold finery – but in truth it is the home of Buddhist monks. At the entrance, you’ll see a statue of the King that brought the Emerald Buddha to Laos in the 1500s.
- Wat Sisaket – the oldest temple in all of Laos and is the one temple that is of purely Lao design vs Thai style which influences most other temples in Indonesia.
- Wat Pha Kaeo – another temple in Vientiane, different from all the rest and one in which monks never resided. Wat Pha Kaeo was built specifically to house the famous Emerald Buddha. In the mid-1500s, the King of Lao stole the Emerald Buddha from the Siamese royalty in Xieng Mai and moved it to Vientiane. But, the venerated Emerald Buddha required a special temple of its own for the people to come and worship. Several hundred years later, the Siamese retook it. The original is now in Bangkok, Thailand with a replica that was generously given to the Lao now residing in Wat Pha Kaeo.
- Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park)–unlike any other representation of Buddha found anywhere in the world, the park is filled with images of Buddha embracing activities of heaven and hell, according to the monk that created the park. Buddha lying down, enjoying music, enjoying copulation, dancing, admiring the beauty of the female spirits and so forth.
- Lao Zoo– the only zoo in Laos, this one specializes in rescuing animals that have been captured to be sold in the illegal trafficking of wildlife; many of the animals are mistreated during their capture and are in need of specialized attention by the trained keepers at the zoo
In Luang Prabang:
- Wat Xieng Thong – One of the most important temples in Laos as a symbol of the greatness of the Lao in their golden era. The construction of this complex is of traditional Lao architecture and was used during the period for Royal Affairs of State.
- Take a cooking class learning traditional Lao seasoning and service
- Monk Watching as they perform the ritual of collecting alms for the poor each morning at sunrise – this is the only Buddhist country that still performs this ritual.
- Elephant Park Project – an ecotourism activity which focuses on protecting the elephants of Laos while providing a variety of exciting outdoor activities. The money collected from this project goes to supporting the park and to assist local communities; there is a resort for overnight stays that has an excellent rating among tourists, as well.
In Vang Vieng:
Known for one thing and one thing only – the national sport of Laos – Tubing down the river. This is one of the few places where foreigners are allowed to participate in the water sport and wear swimsuits and board pants.
- Cruise from Pakse to Vat Phou – Cruise on a converted barge for 3 days from the river town of Pakse to Vat Phou, an ancient Khmer Hindu temple ruin.
- Si Phan Don – the 4,000 islands – best stop are the islands of Don Daeng and Ban Saphi
- Pakse Chinese Temple Street Festival – is held in October each year that includes magnificent boat races that are just as dangerous as they appear.
- Waterfalls of the Boloven Plateau – over 40 waterfalls in this area that are easy and safe to get to. These are some of the most refreshing places to take a quick swim and cool off from the sticky hotness you’ll experience in most of Laos.
Outside the Main Tourist Cities:
- The Gibbon Experience – a sanctuary located in the Bokeo Forest Reserve. This area was set aside by the government to save the Black Cheeked Gibbon, thought to be extinct until rediscovered in 1997. You can stay in the canopy huts or use a zipline and cross the canopy in the air.
The best areas to shop are in Vientiane and Luang Prabang if you prefer shops that are easy to locate; but for the more adventurous, the little shops along the roadways in small villages is the perfect option that you would otherwise bypass. Apart from that weaving districts, coffee plantations and rice farms harbor some of the most exquisite products found anywhere.
If you lack time to venture out to local villages when you’re in Pakse, you can check out the shop called Dream Weavers which is set up to sell on consignment only Lao handmade products made by villagers rather than manufacturers.
With the influx of foreigners spending holidays in Laos, the standard for accommodation is certainly getting better. In popular destinations like Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane or Pakse, you can expect true luxurious 5 star property, with modern amenities and excellent services, many of which take advantage of existing colonial architecture, giving guests a distinctive experience. For example Satri House was originally built as a residence for the royal family and now an amazing 5 star hotel.
As tourism grows bigger and bigger in Laos, more international brands are pouring in making the travel scene here a lot more exciting.
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