Things to see
The key attraction of Laos is its undoubted status as the least westernised, the most relaxed and thereby the most authentic of all Indochinese nations. How much longer this will last is open to much speculation, but while it does this is a truly special and unique country to visit.
The term wilderness is much misused, but it can truly be applied to much of Laos. The mighty Mekong river and its tributaries together create perhaps the single most important geographic feature of the country. Its meandering path in the North has created some of the most stunning limestone karsts anywhere on earth. The backpacker-central town of Vang Vieng is a commonly used base for exploring the karsts. Further north, the terrain becomes more hilly, and the jungle less explored. Luang Namtha is the far-northern town which makes the best base for those visitors who really want to see the truly remote Lao wilderness, and directly experience the lifestyles of the various hill tribes in this region.
In direct contrast to Northern Laos, the Mekong delta lowlands in the South are perfectly flat. Si Phan Don (four thousand islands) is a great base for experiencing what is surely the most chilled and relaxed region anywhere in Asia. Experiencing local village life, taking it all in and doing absolutely nothing should be the aim here. There are though some wonderful river-based sights, including the largest falls anywhere in Southeast Asia. If you are lucky you might get a close-up view of a Mekong pink dolphin.
In this most Buddhist of nations, it is no surprise that temples are a key attraction. In the capital city of Vientiane, the three-layered gilded stupa of Pha That Luang is the national symbol and most important religious monument in the country, dating from the 16th century. There are numerous other beautiful temples which on their own make a stay in the capital city vital for any visitor to Laos.
The whole of the ancient capital of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Befitting that status, this is a truly unique city. Beautifully preserved gilded temples with their attendant orange-robed monks mold almost seamlessly with traditional wooden Lao houses and grand properties from the French colonial era. Spotlessly clean streets with a thriving café culture on the banks of the Mekong and the Nam Khan, complete the picture of a city which is almost too pleasant to be true.
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape dating from the Iron Age. Thousands of stone jars are scattered over a large area of the low foothills near Phonsavan. The main archaeological theory is that the jars formed part of Iron Age burial rituals in the area, but this is by no means proven, and a great deal of mystery remains. The area suffered tragic damage from American bombing during the Secret War of the 1960s, and much UXO remains uncleared. When that process is complete it is very likely this will be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Wat Phu is a ruined Hindu Khmer temple complex in Champasak province. It dates from the 12th century and visitors who have been to Angkor Wat will notice the similarities.
The town of Vieng Xai provides a striking insight in the recent history of not only Laos, but the whole of Indochina. In 1964, the US began intensive bombing of the Lao communist movement – Pathet Lao – bases in Xieng Khouang. Under much bombardment, the Pathet Lao moved east to Vieng Xai and established their headquarters in the limestone karst cave networks around the town. A whole 'Hidden City' was established which supported around 20,000 people. During nine years of almost constant American bombing, the Pathet Lao sheltered in these caves, and lived in a largely subterranean environment. Schools, hospitals and markets as well as government ministries, a radio station, a theatre and military barracks were all hidden in the caves. After the 1973 ceasefire, Vieng Xai briefly became the capital of Laos, before that function was moved to Vientiane in 1975. There are formal daily tours of the caves, as well as other evidence of that era in the town.