An exotic destination in Southeast Asia, Laos is a country of historic temples, tropical jungles, rich cuisine, and beautiful scenery. Unlike some of its better-known neighbours like Thailand, Vietnam, and China, it is somewhat quiet in terms of tourism. Its cities are small and quaint and even most major landmarks in Laos do not attract the numbers of visitors you will find in other parts of the region. However, for those in the know, this hidden Asian gem of a country is famous for a number of exciting reasons.
All you need to embark on an adventure to this unspoiled paradise is the Laos eVisa or the Laos visa on arrival, depending on your nationality and which option is most convenient (usually the eVisa).
What Is Unique About Laos?
Laos is the only country in Southeast Asia without a coastline but makes up for this with its mighty rivers. The Mekong, Khan, and Nam Song Rivers all flow through major towns and cities in the country and provide visitors to Laos with unique boat trips and activities like tubing.
Laos has an array of unusual landscapes to explore, from tropical jungle to limestone mountains with karst rock formations and caves. It is a paradise for people who enjoy outdoor activities. Whether hiking, spelunking, or cycling between paddy fields, the best way to connect with Laos is by getting outside.
The country also has a unique architectural heritage, with a mixture of Southeast Asian and French colonial influences.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Laos is that it is relatively undiscovered by international tourists. Compared to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is off the beaten track, making it surprisingly compact and tranquil — even major cities like Vientiane have a small-town feel.
What Food Is Laos Known for?
Laotian cuisine shares similarities with Thai and Indian food, rich in spices and flavor. However, it is distinct from the others with a triumvirate of dishes that are characteristic of Lao culture.
Larb is a spicy dish with marinated meat or fish with green vegetables, herbs, and spices. There are many variations on the dish, including some that are prepared raw, similar to ceviche.
Tam mak hoong, also known as som tam and “green papaya salad” is a dish made with shredded unripe papaya and other fruit and vegetables, such as hog plums, eggplant, lime, and chili pepper. Other ingredients can include garlic, fish sauce, shrimp paste, and brined freshwater crab. It is often served with rice and grilled chicken, or with noodles.
Sticky rice is the third and most important cornerstone of Lao cuisine. While rice-farming practices changed in other parts of Asia centuries ago, Laos stuck to the traditional method of farming glutinous rice, which has become an integral part of the nation’s culture. Lao people eat more sticky rice than any other group in the world and refer to themselves as luk khao niaow – children of the sticky rice.
Laos has become known as an ideal destination if you enjoy outdoor activities. The Bolaven Plateau in the south of the country has trekking and biking trails through gorgeous scenery and small ethnic villages and also boasts some of Southeast Asia’s most dramatic waterfalls.
Speaking of waterfalls, the Si Phan Don Islands (literally “Four Thousand Islands”) are well worth a visit. This archipelago in the Mekong River is located by the Cambodian border and features hiking trails, old bridges, rapids, and waterfalls. You can explore this unique place on land or by boat.
If you want to get into the water, Vang Vieng is another great destination for unusual activity — tubing. This town sits on the lazy Nam Song River, where visitors can rent a tube. A transport takes you upstream to the starting point, from which you can drift back down to the tubing centre, in a novel and relaxing ride.
Nong Khiaw is another great spot for hiking and biking, with limestone peaks and karst formations. The Pha Tok Caves are also nearby in case you want an underground adventure.
Famous Cities in Laos
Laotian cities are known for being surprisingly small and laid-back — even Vientiane, Laos’ capital, feels like a much smaller town.
Vientiane was formerly a French colonial trading post and its days as part of the French Empire have left their mark. The beautiful old buildings of the city’s French Quarter speak to this heritage and there is even a Laotian take on the Arc de Triomphe named the Patuxai.
The capital is also home to one of the country’s most important national symbols: Pha That Luang (the Great Stupa). In Laos, religion is important, with Buddhism and Hinduism being prominent. This Buddhist temple complex, crowned by a 45-meter, gold leaf-covered stupa appears on the country’s official seal and is a must-see for all visitors to Laos.
Perhaps the most impressive city in Laos is Luang Prabang. Located in the north of the country, this city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and truly captures the history and culture of Laos in one place. With former royal palaces, French colonial buildings, and over 30 temples, Luang Prabang is surrounded by natural beauty, from the forested hills to the Kuang Si Waterfalls.
If you are planning to visit Laos, here are some key facts to know about the country:
- The official language of Laos is Lao, with French being a recognized language, spoken by around a third of the country. Other spoken languages include Hmong and Khmu.
- The current population of Laos is around 7.1 million people.
- The Laos flag is said to represent the full moon over the Mekong river as well as symbolizing the unity of the Lao people.
- The currency of Laos is the Kip (₭; LAK)