So what’s so special about Laos – it’s the people, the culture and the experiences that go beyond all expectations. Laos is still unspoilt – a less touristed and relatively undiscovered country packed with beautiful scenery, relaxed and friendly people, great food and stunning sights. It has a long and fascinating history of royalty, occupation and struggle for independence, awe inspiring ‘vats’ (temples) and a unique mix of French colonial and traditional architecture.
While some may have concerns that Laos is still developing and is relatively new to the travel scene when compared with some of its more developed neighbors like Thailand and Vietnam, in the major centers there is a range of accommodation and facilities to suit all tastes. Although it may yet have reached true ‘International’ standards, Laos has something more to offer… a hospitality and warmth that more than make amends.
Travelling in Laos
As a destination, Laos is recently gaining in popularity and owing to its location is perfectly placed to be combined with a visit to Thailand, Cambodia and/or Vietnam, or can be visited as a stand-alone destination.
Getting to Laos
Both Thai Airways and Lao Airlines have direct daily flights between Bangkok and Vientiane. Bangkok Airways and Lao Airlines both operate direct flights daily between Bangkok and Luang Prabang. Currently there are also international air services between Vientiane and Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Saigon and Kunming, and between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, Siem Reap and Hanoi. Direct flights between Kuala Lumpur and Vientiane on Air Asia have also recently commenced operation. It is also possible to fly direct from Pakse in Southern Laos to Siem Reap, and Bangkok Airways offers limited direct flights between Bangkok and Pakse. Alternatively Pakse and Southern Laos can be accessed via Ubon Ratchatani in Thailand, a short road journey away across the Chong Mek land border check-point.
Vientiane is situated just across the Mekong River from Nong Khai in Thailand. For rail travel enthusiasts, there are regular and relatively comfortable train services between Nong Khai and Bangkok and the journey may be taken during the day in order to appreciate the scenery, or as an overnight trip. There are plans for this rail link from Nong Khai to be extended across the Mekong River to Vientiane in the near future.
From Northern Thailand an increasingly popular way to travel into Laos is via a leisurely two day river journey down the Mekong, from Chiang Khong (nearby Chiang Rai) to Luang Prabang. Please refer to the Laos River Cruising section of our website or contact Vietsky Travel for more details.
Overland by other means
For experienced and truly adventurous travellers looking to get ‘off the beaten track’ it is possible to access Laos from Vietnam via an overland journey, crossing at one of the land border check-points. These are located in remote mountainous areas and travel is very slow and can be rough – infrastructure in these areas is still very basic, however the rewards for journeying the ‘road less travelled’ will outweigh the lack of comfort. Please contact Vietsky Travel Laos for the most up-to-date information about the land border crossings and these overland journeys, or to tailor an itinerary to suit your clients’ requirements.
Destinations in Laos
Luang Prabang is the ‘jewel’ of Laos and should not be missed – it is undeniably the most popular destination for visitors to the country. While most tourists will want to include the capital Vientiane and the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang in their Laos itinerary, it is also possible to incorporate the mysterious Plain of Jars area, or a visit to the less discovered Southern Laos where natural beauty abounds. Remote mountainous Northern Laos is the home to many of Laos’ distinct ethnic minority groups and although travel in this region can be rough and standards are still basic, the rewards to the adventurous traveler will outweigh any lack of comfort.
When in Luang Prabang and Vientiane a range of accommodation options are available from ‘Deluxe’ to ‘Budget Category’. In other provinces accommodation is normally in ‘Standard’ or ‘Budget category’ small local hotels; however the uniqueness of these destinations and the local hospitality is always undeniable.
To fully appreciate the charms of this very unique destination and to experience the true essence of Laos, Vietsky Travel recommends an overland tour package. We offer a range of itineraries encompassing the main areas of interest to the visitor, and can tailor unique programs for individuals and groups upon request. Laos is also perfectly placed to be combined with a visit to Thailand, Cambodia and/or Vietnam, or indeed can be visited as a stand-alone destination.
Corporate Travel: Meetings and Incentives
Laos is probably not a destination that immediately springs to mind when planning a meeting or incentive and its MICE potential remains largely undiscovered, usually being overlooked in favour of its more developed and sophisticated neighbours like Thailand, China and Cambodia. Nevertheless this tranquil, mysterious and mountainous country with its welcoming people and traditional culture offers a special opportunity for Meeting and Incentive planners who are seeking a truly unique location, and our experienced destination management team will design and deliver an event that will exceed all expectations.
In Vientiane there are international standard hotels, venues and facilities to cater for events of all sizes, including the purpose built convention centre. Luang Prabang is the ‘jewel’ of Laos and it is a fact that it is not as readily suited or equipped to handle large groups – there are limited facilities suitable for meeting and incentive groups, and the Deluxe Category accommodation is small in size and boutique in style. Luang Prabang however is the perfect destination for an intimate meeting or incentive with a difference, or as a pre or post tour destination for main programs in Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia.
Vientiane Half Day Tour – City Highlights
This half-day city tour visits the highlights of the capital including Wat Sisaket, Haw Phra Kaew, Phra That Luang stupa and Putousay – one of the most photographed images of Vientiane. If time permits also take a visit to the Talaat Sao – Vientiane’s morning market, which is open all day!
Vientiane Half Day Tour – Buddha Park
Transfer by private vehicle to the south of Vientiane to visit the Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, approximately 25 kilometres from Vientiane city. Built in 1958 this park on the banks of the Mekong River is the site of a large collection of many kinds of Buddhist and Hindu Sculptures. En route take a look at the impressive Friendship Bridge which links Laos and Thailand across the Mekong, and the National Cultural Park.
Vientiane Day Tour – City Highlights & Buddha Park
Visit Wat Sisaket, the oldest original temple in Vientiane, Haw Phra Kaew, Putousay, and Phra That Luang stupa – said to contain relics of Lord Buddha. Next take a visit to the Talaat Sao – Vientiane’s Morning Market. After lunch at a local restaurant, head out of the city to visit one of Laos’ slightly stranger attractions – Xieng Khuan Buddha Park. Also visit a Laotian textile gallery set in a traditional Lao home where you can see the silk weaving process and view the unique textiles produced.
Vientiane Day Tour – Nam Ngum Lake
This full-day tour visits Nam Ngum Lake, located approximately 90 kilometres north of Vientiane. The lake is a scenic vast artificial lake with many small islands that was formed when the Ngum River was dammed for hydroelectricity. Take a trip around the lake by boat enjoying the panoramic views, and it is possible to enjoy a swim in the clear waters before lunch at a local restaurant. After lunch begin the return journey to Vientiane, arriving mid-late afternoon.
Luang Prabang City Highlights
On this half day tour visit some of the highlights of old city, now under UNESCO protection as a World Heritage Site. Visit Wat Xieng Thong – often said to be Luang Prabang’s most beautiful, Vat Visoun, That Makmo stupa and Wat Mai. Phou Sii hill stands right in the center of this small city – the energetic may climb its 350 steps to enjoy panoramic views for many miles in each direction.
Travel the short distance out of Luang Prabang to Ban Phanom, a weaving village that become famous as the ‘weavers of royalty’, producing items for the Royal Palace of the last King of Laos. Continue to Had Hien village – a blacksmith village that produces knives which are used by local farmers and villagers in the surrounding region. The manufacturing is a family affair and is still done by hand in the traditional manner. Also visit a village known for traditional Sa paper-making, which is hand-made from the pulp of mulberry trees, and Luang Prabang’s silversmith village.
Ethnology & Laos Textile Workshop
This afternoon visit the fascinating Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC), to learn a little about Laos’ ethnic minority groups. Then transfer to a Weaving Center in a nearby village, and spend the afternoon in a stunning Mekong riverside garden where you will learn how to prepare natural dyes and dye your own silk scarves. The interactive workshop looks at silkworms, natural dyes and weaving techniques. The program is full of fascinating information; a unique and entertaining opportunity to learn about silk weaving and textiles in Laos. Afterwards stroll around the garden, enjoy a local style cocktail, and relax as you watch the sun dip behind the mountains on the Mekong.
Kuang Sii Waterfalls
Visit the Kuang Sii Waterfalls, located approximately 30 kilometres from Luang Prabang. The journey by road takes approximately 1 hour passing through very scenic Laotian countryside, and it is possible to stop to visit one of the small ethnic minority villages along the way. At Kuang Sii there is time to explore and, if water levels permit, to enjoy a refreshing dip in the falls.
Mekong River Trip to Pak Ou Caves
Enjoy a relaxing local style riverboat trip with your guide on the mighty Mekong River, to visit the sacred Pak Ou Buddha Caves. En route it is possible to stop at Ban Xanghai village where local people produce Lao rice wine. Pak Ou caves have been home to many thousands of Buddha images that have been placed here by local people since 16th century, when King Setthathirat found the caves and declared them a holy spot, and even today many people still pay respect to this tradition. Return to Luang Prabang by boat.
Luang Prabang City Sightseeing
Visit Luang Prabang’s priceless monuments, now under UNESCO protection as a World Heritage Site. Visit Wat Xieng Thong – often said to be Luang Prabang’s most beautiful and Vat Visoun, the site of an impressive stupa, That Makmo. After lunch visit Luang Prabang’s National Museum, formerly the Royal Palace (not open on Tuesdays), and Wat Mai. There is also time to take a stroll through the H’mong Market – where locals and ethnic minorities from the surrounding villages sell an overwhelming array of handicrafts. Late afternoon climb the 350 steps to the summit of Phou Sii hill to enjoy the panoramic views.
Luang Prabang City Highlights Walking Tour
Enjoy a full day walking tour of Luang Prabang’s old city and visit many of its priceless monuments. Visit Wat Xieng Thong and then follow the banks of the Mekong to Vat Visoun. Walk to the nearby Vat Aham, which is one of the city’s major tutelary shrines. After lunch at a local restaurant visit Luang Prabang’s National Museum, formerly the Royal Palace (not open on Tuesdays) and nearby Wat Mai. Phou Sii hill stands right in the center of this small city – climb its 350 steps to enjoy panoramic views for many miles in each direction, and then take a stroll along the banks of the Nam Khan River.
Kuang Sii Falls with Morning Alms
Start the day very early with one of the most memorable sights of Luang Prabang. At dawn hundreds of saffron robed monks move silently through the streets to collect alms (offerings of food). After breakfast at your hotel, journey out of town to visit the Kuang Sii Waterfalls. The distance is about 30km and takes approximately 1 hour passing through very scenic Laotian countryside. It is possible to stop at some of the small ethnic minority villages along the way. On arrival at Kuang Sii there is plenty of time to explore, enjoy a picnic lunch or local style lunch and, if water levels permit, to take a refreshing dip in the falls.
Kuang Sii Waterfalls by Bicycle
After breakfast begin the bicycle ride out of town to Kuang Sii Waterfalls. The cycle ride should take approximately 2-3 hours passing through very scenic Laotian countryside, with rice paddies and many ethnic minority villages along the way. The ride is mostly undulating with some flat stretches and some steeper hilly sections. There will be a vehicle in support, so it’s also possible to take a rest and ride in the van if the going gets too tough! On arrival at Kuang Sii there is time to enjoy a picnic lunch and, if water levels permit, to take a refreshing dip in the falls. After lunch return to Luang Prabang town – the energetic can cycle back or there is the option of journeying back in your private air-conditioned vehicle.
Tad Xae Waterfalls by Elephant
Transfer by road to the Elephant Camp, located in the countryside near the Nam Khan River approximately 15 kilometres from Luang Prabang town. Enjoy a 1 to 1.5 hour ride through forests, rice paddies and perhaps along the Nam Khan River. The elephant ride finishes at Tad Xae waterfalls, where there will be time to relax or take a dip (if water levels permit), and enjoy a picnic lunch nearby the waterfalls. A short trip by local style boat will bring you back to the Elephant Camp. Note: If it is not possible to do the elephant ride route to Tad Xae waterfall or the return boat journey due to weather conditions, water levels or other local conditions a ride of similar duration to a local village will be arranged instead.
River Trip to Pak Ou Buddha Caves
Enjoy a relaxing local style riverboat trip with your guide on the mighty Mekong to visit the sacred Pak Ou Buddha Caves. Enroute it is possible to stopover at Ban Xanghai village where local people produce Lao rice wine. Pak Ou caves have been home to many thousands of Buddha images that have been placed here by local people since 16th century, when King Setthathirat found the caves and declared them a holy spot. After exploring the caves and lunch at a local restaurant return to your boat and begin the journey back to Luang Prabang town.
Nam Khan River & Villages
Today journey along the Nam Khan River by boat to the small villages nestled on the banks. Travelling is predominantly by small local style canoe type boat or ‘longboat’ powered by a small engine and paddle which allows you to get to those out of the way places and visit local communities. Visit Tad Xae waterfall then continue to Ban Xieng Lom and Bann Noon, a village specializing in the local delicacy ‘river weed’ which is dried, lightly fried with sesame seeds and eaten as a snack – very popular in Luang Prabang! A picnic lunch stop is made and depending on water levels there may be the opportunity for a refreshing swim if desired.
Laos Tour Packages
World Heritage Luang Prabang
This 3 day/ 2 night visit to Luang Prabang includes the highlights of this atmospheric UNESCO World Heritage town, which for most visitors will hold a special place in their hearts, and allows enough time to fully explore and appreciate this unique destination. There is the chance to participate in the morning alms ritual, one of the most memorable experiences of any visit to Luang Prabang, and to journey outside the town to visit some of the handicraft villages that surround Luang Prabang. A local style river boat journey up the Mekong to visit the sacred Pak Ou caves is also included.
Luang Prabang – Plain of Jars – Vientiane/Luang Prabang
Depart Luang Prabang with your local guide to travel overland to one of the great mysteries of this region – The Plain of Jars. This adventurous journey by road is approximately 200 km and should take approximately 6 hours, passing through remote areas of spectacular mountainous scenery. Along the way there are many ethnic minority villages, and there may be the opportunity to stop and visit some villages.
There is a full day to explore the mystery that is the Plain of Jars and time to explore the surrounding region, including Laotian and ethnic minority villages, local markets and hot springs. The following day fly to Vientiane (subject to flight schedule), or alternatively return to Luang Prabang by road journey, arriving late in the afternoon.
Note: It is also possible to fly from Vientiane up to the Plain of Jars – subject to flight schedules and availability. Please contact Vietsky Travel Laos for further details.
Vientiane – Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang
Depart Vientiane by road and visit scenic Nam Ngum Lake – an incredibly scenic vast artificial lake with many small islands that was formed when the Ngum River was dammed for hydroelectricity. Take a boat trip around the lake, and it is possible to enjoy a swim in the clear waters. After lunch continue the journey to the small town of Vang Vieng, located on the Nam Song River. Spend two nights in Vang Vieng, where there are many options including visiting nearby caves, cycling or walking in the countryside or enjoying boat trips, kayaking or tubing on the river. On day 3 continue the overland journey to Luang Prabang, arriving late in the afternoon.
Note: This tour can also be operated in reverse – contact Vietsky Travel Laos for further details.
Images of Laos – Vientiane & Luang Prabang
This tour first visits the highlights of Laos’ sleepy capital city, Vientiane, including the Phra That Luang stupa, Putousay, and Wat Sisaket. After an overnight stay in the capital a short flight takes you to Luang Prabang to begin exploring this unique World Heritage town nestled between the banks of the Mekong and Khan Rivers. Visit the main sights of this town including the National Museum, Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai, the colorful local markets and Phou Sii hill for panoramic views in all directions. Participate in the early morning alms collection ritual, an experience never to be forgotten, and see some traditional Laotian handicrafts. A relaxing journey by local riverboat on the Mekong to Pak Ou caves is also included.
Note: This tour can also be operated in reverse – contact Vietsky Travel Laos for further details.
Northern Laos Experience – Luang Namtha & Muang Sing (Ex Luang Prabang)
Depart Luang Prabang by road and journey north to Luang Namtha via Oudomxay passing through areas of un-spoilt scenery along the way. During the stay in Luang Namtha, enjoy a local style boat trip along the Nam Tha River to the Nam Ha National Protected Area and also the chance to visit villages of ethnic minorities groups including Ban Mai (Black Tai), Ban Sope Dute (Lanten) and Ban Sopsim (Khmu). After 2 nights in Luang Namtha continue to Muang Sing, which is located near the Chinese border. Explore the town with its crumbling French garrison and visit the colourful main market, which is usually frequented by a large number of villagers from the many different ethnic minority groups in the province. Take a day trek in the surrounding areas and visit some villages including Thai Dam, H’mong and Akha. Return to Luang Namtha for one night and then journey back to Luang Prabang by road.
Southern Laos Experience – Don Daeng, Don Khong & Pakse (Ex Pakse)
Depart Pakse by local style river boat for the short journey south to Champassak, where we visit a UNESCO World Heritage site – the pre-Angkorian temple ruins of Vat Phou Champassak. After an overnight stay in a comfortable lodge on Don Daeng, a Mekong island on the opposite river bank from Vat Phou temple, continue the leisurely journey south by boat to the very scenic area of Southern Laos known as the Si Phan Done area (“4,000 Islands”). Spend two nights on Don Khong Island, with excursions to visit Done Det, Done Khone, and the Li Phi and spectacular Khone Phapeng Waterfalls. Return to Pakse town by road with a stop for an elephant ride at Kiet Ngong village. After an overnight stay in Pakse, transfer to Pakse Airport for your departure flight. Alternatively clients may cross the nearby Chong Mek border into Thailand and travel the short distance by road to Ubon Ratchatani.
Introducing Laos – Luang Prabang & Vientiane
With three nights in Luang Prabang and two nights in Vientiane this is the ideal tour for those wishing to visit all the main sites and have enough time to fully appreciate both of these unique destinations. In Luang Prabang explore the old town, now under UNESCO World Heritage protection, visit some traditional handicraft villages, and participate in Luang Prabang’s famous early morning alms ritual. There is also time to make a day trip to the scenic Kuang Sii waterfalls exploring the scenic Laotian countryside along the way, and a riverboat trip along the mighty Mekong to Pak Ou caves. In Vientiane enjoy a comprehensive full day city tour which also includes a visit to the Buddha Park, peacefully located outside the capital on the banks of the Mekong.
Note: This tour can also be operated in reverse – contact Vietsky Travel Laos for further details.
Discover Laos North To South – Luang Prabang – Vientiane – Pakse – Don Khong
This tour is designed for those for those who wish to not only fully explore all the treasures of Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane, but also take time to visit the relatively undiscovered and incredibly scenic area of southern Laos. This is an unspoilt area of natural beauty with sleepy provincial towns along the Mekong, waterfalls, ethnic minority villages and its own UNESCO World Heritage site – Wat Phu Champassak. There is time to explore this pre-Angkorian temple, believed to be Khmer in origin, and also make a journey up to the Bolaven Plateau. Visit a village renowned for its elephant handlers and take an elephant ride if you desire, and try to spot the famous and incredibly endangered Mekong Dolphins. Two nights are spent in Luang Prabang, two nights in Vientiane, two nights in Pakse town and one night on the island of Don Khong in the scenic ‘Si Phan Don’ (4,000 islands) area of the Mekong in southern Laos. Travel between Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Pakse is via domestic flight. The tour finishes in Pakse on day 8, where it is possible to depart by flying direct to either Vientiane or Siem Reap, or to cross the nearby border into Thailand and travel the short distance by road to Ubon Ratchatani.
River Cruising in Laos
The mighty Mekong River is the longest river in Southeast Asia and is often referred to as the lifeblood of this region, with tens of millions of people said to depend on the river for their livelihood. In Laos the Mekong is known as the Nam Khong and runs the length of this land locked country. With less developed infrastructure and over 70% of the land area of Laos being mountainous and forested, the majority of Laos’ population is settled along the fertile river valleys, and local river transport has traditionally been an important means of travel for local people and supplies. As Laos opens its doors to foreign tourists and its reputation as one of Asia’s last unspoilt wilderness areas grows, river transport is becoming an increasingly desired way of travel for the discerning visitor wishing to truly experience this remarkable land.
For the more adventurous traveler, river travel is possible along many of Laos lesser waterways, including the Nam Khan and the Nam Ou in Northern Laos, in basic local style river boats. For those wishing to enjoy river cruising in more comfort and style there are now two comfortable options on the Mekong River which are fast gaining a reputation as ‘must-do’ experiences when visiting Southeast Asia.
Northern Laos – The Luang Say Cruise
Laos is perfectly situated to be combined with a visit to Northern Thailand, and the 2 day/1 night Luang Say Cruise down the mythical Mekong River is a relaxing, comfortable and increasingly popular way to link these two destinations. This is a journey through a remote, forested, mountainous region where small ethnic minority villages dot the riverbanks, and slow boat travel is the ideal way to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and timelessness of this land. This unforgettable journey commences near the Golden Triangle at the Laos border town of Huay Xai, situated across the Mekong from the Thai town of Chiang Khong, and finishes on arrival in Luang Prabang. The Luang Say is a comfortable purpose built river barge, and stops are made along the way to visit riverside hill-tribe villages and the sacred Tham Ting Caves at Pak Ou. Lunches are served on board, and dinner and overnight is at the Luang Say Lodge, built of wood in traditional Lao style on the banks of the Mekong at the small riverside town of Pak Beng.
Southern Laos – The Vat Phou Cruise
Commencing in Pakse this 3 day/2 night cruise aboard the Vat Phou is a leisurely way to discover the treasures of Southern Laos. Memorable days are spent cruising the Mekong and exploring small riverside villages, ancient temple ruins and the Mekong Islands, with nights spent on board the boat. Highlights of this memorable voyage include the UNESCO World Heritage site of Wat Phou Champassak – a pre-Angkorian Khmer temple ruin, Southeast Asia’s largest waterfalls at Pha Pheng, and cruising through the famous Si Phan Don, or 4,000 islands area of the Mekong near the Cambodian border. The Vat Phou is a 34 meter steel hulled craft which has been converted into a floating boutique hotel with 12 double berth cabins with hot water showers and western amenities.
Approximately 10,000 years ago, a Neolithic race known as the Hoa Binh spread through most of Southeast Asia including Laos, and over time developed agricultural skills including rice cultivation to supplement their hunting, fishing and gathering. They are said to be the ancestors of the present day Khmu people, a Lao Theung (‘upland Lao’) ethnic group who are known as the indigenous people of Laos. The first known kingdom in what is today Southern Laos had is capital nearby Champassak and dated from around the 5th Century – it was known as the Chenla by the Chinese. Other kingdoms were later founded by Mon peoples in South and Central Laos, including kingdoms near the location of present day Tha Khaek and Vientiane.
Between the 7th and 10th Centuries, the Tai people began migrating south from their ancestral homeland in Southern China, into the northern areas of Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and Laos. Settling along the fertile river valleys they practiced wet rice cultivation and were organized into a type of principality system with each ruled by a local leader as a sort of ‘city state’. Gradually their settlements were established further south along the river valleys in Laos. Muang Sua was the name given to what is presently Luang Prabang, following its conquest in the late 7th Century by Tai people.
By the 13th Century many of these small ‘kingdoms’ or principalities in Laos had been conquered or came under the control of the powerful Khmer Empire of Jayavarman VII, and in Central and Northern Laos were being brought under the control of the emerging Sukhothai Kingdom.
Lan Xang Kingdom
Fa Ngum, a Laotian Prince who had been exiled into Cambodia from a young age and had married a daughter of the Khmer King, set out from Khmer territory in the mid-14th Century with a large army to re-gain control of the parts of Laos which had fallen to the Sukhothai. In 1354 he was crowned King of Lan Xang Hom Khao (Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol) Kingdom in Vientiane and the first unified Lao Kingdom was formed. The Kingdom extended from the border of China to Southern Laos near Don Khong (nearby the present Cambodian border), and during that period was one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. The Kingdom of Lan Xang remained largely unified and powerful over the following centuries, fighting off invasions from Vietnam, Siam and Burma until the early 18th Century, when Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak separated into three separate kingdoms as a result of internal divisions and power struggles.
Divided Kingdoms, Foreign Control and Independence
The division of the previous Lan Xang Kingdom into three smaller separate kingdoms left them vulnerable to the more powerful neighbouring kingdoms, and by the late 18th Century all three of the Lao Kingdoms had surrendered to Siam. An attempted rebellion against Siamese rule by the Vientiane Kingdom in the early 19th Century led to the city being sacked, with only Wat Sisaket was spared from destruction, and to harsher Siamese controls over all three of the Lao Kingdoms.
The French had now started to emerge in the region, declaring Cambodia a protectorate in the mid 19th Century, and were making expeditions into the Lao Kingdoms. In 1893 the French were able to force the Siamese to sign a treaty conceding all territories east of the Mekong River to French control, and Laos became a French colony. During World War II the French position in Indochina was weakened, and in 1945 Laos came under brief control of the Japanese and independence was declared. With the end of the war following shortly afterwards the Japanese surrendered and a Lao Government was formed. The French returned to Indochina shortly after, sending the new Lao Government into exile, however in October 1953 France granted Laos full independence.
The following two decades saw Laos caught up in the ensuing power struggles and conflicts in Indochina, and within Laos the struggles for control between Lao Communists (‘Pathet Lao’) and Lao Royalists led to the increasing involvement of both the US and North Vietnamese in Lao affairs. Laos became a ‘sideshow’ for the more well known battles that were being fought in Vietnam during the Second Indochina War (or ‘American War’).
The fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon to the Communists in 1975 signalled the end of the war in Indochina. The Pathet Lao liberated the country from Royal control and American influence – the Lao King abdicated power signaling the end of the monarchy in Laos and in December 1975 the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) was established.
Art and Culture from Laos
The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice, and the Lao listen to the rice grow…
The above saying, attributed to the French during colonial times, probably best sums most visitors’ impressions of Lao people and of their differences with their neighbours. Lao people are renowned for their laid-back nature and generally live a much slower paced way of life than those in surrounding countries. In Laos the very relaxed attitude and ‘baw pen nyang’ (no problems – it’ll be ok) approach is enchanting but may also take a little time for some foreigners to adapt to.
In Laos there is said to be between 45 to 140 (or even more – depending on the source) distinct ethnic groups, each with their own language, culture and customs. The Lao Government broadly categorizes the different ethnic groups into 3 main categories according to linguistic, ethnic and geographic criteria. Lao Loum (or lowland Lao) is the largest of these groups with approximately 65–70% of the population, followed by Lao Theung (upland Lao) with about 20% of the population and the remaining being designated as Lao Soung (highland Lao) including the H’mong people, who are perhaps the most well known of all the ethnic groups in Laos. Therefore the dominant culture in Laos is that of the Lao Loum who are Theravada Buddhists and speak the official Lao language as their mother tongue.
Theravada Buddhism has a prevailing influence on most aspects of the dominant Lao culture, including the art, architecture, performing arts and literature. Lao classical music, dance and drama owes its origins to the ceremonial performances for the former Laotian Royal Courts and is often based on the Ramayana, however Lao folk music (lam) and folk dance has traditionally been more popular amongst the general population. The national instrument is a type of pipe made of bamboo known as the khaen which is believed to have pre-historic origins and is still commonly used in folk music and even in Laotian pop music today.
Weaving is widely practiced throughout Laos, mostly by women, and there are distinct weaving techniques in the different geographic areas and amongst the different ethnic groups. There are more than 12 identified weaving styles in Laos and common designs include geometric patterns, temple motifs, and sometimes animals. In some ethnic groups the woven designs can depict a story or legend, for example stories of ancestors’ spirits, or stories of Nagas and their influences on life around them, with motifs inspired by nature and daily life. Woven items are often used as scarves, traditional skirts (sihn), blankets, and for household decoration and in some ethnic groups the females would traditionally weave items to form their dowry. Other traditional handicrafts include basket weaving, silver and gold smithing, and Saa paper handicrafts.
Family and Religion are of utmost importance to Lao people, with social activities traditionally centering on the extended family and the temple. It is said that for most Laotians a difficult occupation or a stressful life are not desired nor sought after. The majority of Lao citizens live in villages or rural areas, and between 70–80% of the population still rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods – predominantly rice cultivation. As a result rice is the staple food and also has religious and cultural significance amongst the different ethnic groups, including some traditions and rituals related to its cultivation and its consumption.
The Lao people are friendly and receptive to foreigners and will usually welcome you very warmly. There is a healthy curiosity towards foreigners and visitors may find themselves frequently engaged in conversation unexpectedly or at the centre of attention!
Religion and Beliefs in Laos
Within Laos approximately 60-70% of the population are said to be Theravada Buddhists, with the remaining population largely following Animism in the form of spirit (phii) worship. Less than 2% of the population are Christians and there are small communities of Moslems mostly in Vientiane.
Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Laos during the 13th or 14th Century, and is believed to be the oldest form of Buddhism that originally developed in India. It is based on the four noble truths that Lord Buddha had realised in order to become enlightened, and this school of Buddhism emphasizes the cooling of human passions (‘cool heart’) and strong emotions, with followers strongly believing in karma.
Traditionally in Laos every Buddhist male is expected to join a temple (Wat) to become a monk for a period in his life, and the entire family earns ‘merit’ for this act. In Laos Buddhism followers also gain merit by making donations and worshipping at the Wats, and by the daily feeding of the monks. The ‘tak bat’ in Luang Prabang – where a multitude of monks walk the streets in a silent line collecting alms from the local people very early each morning, is one of the most enduring memories for visitors to Laos.
Spirit (phii) worship is also widely followed by large numbers of Laotians, especially amongst the ethnic minority groups, and in fact most Lao Buddhists also incorporate elements of spirit worship into their practice of religion and their daily lives. Phii are believed to inhabit natural objects, and their worship pre-dates Buddhism in Laos. Ornately decorated ‘spirit houses’ are often placed outside Lao homes, where residents make offerings to keep the spirits content. A very common belief in Laos is of the 32 spirits (khwan) which are guardians over different parts of a person’s body and mind. The ‘Baci’ ceremony is a reflection of this and is a distinctly Laotian ritual which plays a very important role even today for most Lao people to welcome or farewell, bring good luck and ward of bad spirits for any major event in the life of local people.
Flavours of Laos
The cuisine of Laos is largely an unknown to most foreigners, nevertheless travellers who do visit Laos are usually very pleasantly surprised with the meals during their visit, and will depart with a new found appreciation for Laotian cuisine.
Food in Laos may not have the complexities or the variety of ingredients as the more well known cuisines of its neighbours – Thailand, Vietnam and China, and it is characterized by its use of simple fresh ingredients which are blended into hearty rustic dishes. Laos’ cuisine is distinct from that of other countries, however it has been influenced by its neighbours to varying extents, and it said to most closely resemble the cuisine of Thailand.
One of the main distinguishing features of the local cuisine is the ubiquitous sticky rice or khao niaw, which is eaten with almost every meal, in contrast to steamed rice which is prevalent in neighbouring countries. Because Laos is a landlocked country, freshwater fish from the rivers is normally used in local dishes, as opposed to ‘seafood’. Herbs such as galangal, dill and mint are also widely used in many Laotian dishes but are not as commonly used in other regional cuisines. Lemongrass, coriander, basil, fresh chilli, tamarind, ginger and kaffir lime leaves are also often used to flavour dishes, along with the roots of certain plants. Other distinguising features are that typically in Laos savory dishes are never sweet, and that meals will usually include a large quantity of fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs which are served undressed on the side.
A spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish known as larb (or laap) is often said to be the national dish in Laos, and spicy green papaya salad (tam maak hung) is also very popular and is commonly served. Freshwater fish, chicken, pork, beef, water buffalo and duck are the main meats used and vegetables are in abundant supply. Lao meals normally consist of soup, a grilled dish, a sauce, a selection of greens, and a mixed dish (like larb). Most Lao dishes are shared in the middle of a table, and are traditionally eaten with the fingers (especially sticky rice) or with spoon and fork – chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes. The French colonizers not only left behind examples of their architecture but French cuisine is abundant at restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and the French bread stick can often be seen in the shopping basket of locals heading home from the market. Exotic fruit is a common dessert and an excellent breakfast accompaniment.
The local Beer Lao is a good brew – quite light and refreshing on a hot day. Lao coffee from the Bolavens Plateau in Southern Laos is highly regarded internationally and a freshly ground local coffee is delicious and a ‘must do’ when visiting Laos.
The majority of Lao people are devout Buddhists and when visiting temples you should be careful to respect the beliefs of the people in the land you are visiting. Correct behavior when visiting temples requires that you dress neatly, (no shorts or singlet/vest tops or revealing clothing for men or women). Shoes must be removed before entering religious buildings, and females are not allowed to touch monks. The Buddha image is considered sacred so please avoid posing in front of them for photographs and definitely do not touch, climb or sit upon them.
If you happen to visit a Lao home (it’s not unusual to be invited), please be aware that shoes are not worn inside and should be removed at the door. If you are invited in, even for a brief visit you will probably be offered a drink of water or tea or lao lao (local rice-wine whiskey). It is very impolite to refuse so at least a sip or taste of what is offered is required to avoid offense.
Light, comfortable clothing, and good walking shoes are beneficial. Lao people dress modestly and revealing clothing is disrespectful and can cause offence. Temples and some tourist sites do not permit shorts above the knee or singlet/vest tops and request that you dress neatly. Shoes are normally removed when entering temples, some shops and local homes, so when around town sandals or thongs (flip-flops) that can be easily removed are recommended. Between November and February it can get quite cool in the mountains and the north, especially in the evenings, so some warm clothes are required.
Holidays and Festivals
Bun Pha Wet (January)
Falling on different dates each year – people exchange invitations with friends and families in different villages to join in their celebrations – this festival is a commemoration of the Jataka, the life story of Lord Buddha as Prince Vestsantara. The story is recited in temples throughout the country and this is considered a particularly auspicious time for ordination as a monk.
Magha Puja (February)
Held on the night of the full moon, this festival commemorates the original teachings of Lord Buddha given to over a thousand monks who came spontaneously to hear him speak. The festival is marked by grand parades of candle-bearing worshippers circling their local temples, merit making, and much religious music and chanting.
Vietnamese Tet & Chinese New Year (February)
Celebrated in Vientiane, Pakse and Savannakhet by the larger Vietnamese and Chinese communities who close their businesses for several days during this period, this festival combines visits to temples and merit making with noisy parties, and hundreds of strings of firecrackers.
Boun Khoun Khao (March)
A harvest festival celebrated at local temples
Boun Pimai (April)
Lasting several days in mid-April, this is the celebration of the Laos New Year and is a combination of merriment and meditation. Similar to festivals at this time of year in other Southeast Asian countries – particularly Thailand – Boun Pimai is celebrated with parades, dancing, singing and enthusiastic water throwing. The religious aspects of the festival are most apparent in Luang Prabang, where Buddha statues are worshiped with water pouring ceremonies. Temple compounds are further decorated with small sand Stupas, offered as merit towards good fortune and health.
Labour Day (1st May)
Visakha Puja (May)
Chanting, religious instruction, and candlelit processions highlight this temple festival in celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.
Boun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival) (May)
With its origins in pre-Buddhist rain-invoking ceremonies, this festival now coincides with the Laos Visakha Puja celebrations. Parades, songs, dances and partying all lead to an explosive climax as huge, ornate, homemade bamboo rockets are blessed and fired into the skies to invite the rains. Rocket-makers earn both merit and honour if their creations fly high. This dramatic festival is also celebrated in Northeast Thailand.
Children’s Day (1st June)
Khao Phansaa (July)
Marking the beginning of the three-month Buddhist Lent, which commences at the full moon in July and continues until the full moon in October, this is considered a particularly auspicious time for Lao men to enter the monkhood and is marked by numerous ordination ceremonies.
Haw Khao Padap Din (August)
Devoted to remembering and paying respect to the dead, it is marked by the macabre ceremony of exhuming previously buried bodies, cleaning the remains, and then cremating them on the night of the full moon. Relatives then present gifts to the monks who have chanted on behalf of those who have passed away.
Awk Phansaa (Awk Watsa) (October)
Marking the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent on the day of the full moon. Monks are at last permitted to leave the temple and are presented with gifts. One particularly beautiful aspect is Lai Hua Fai. On the eve of Awk Phansaa people gather at the nearest body of water to release dozens of small banana-leaf boats decorated with candles, incense and small flowers, in a celebration similar to Thailand’s Loy Krathong Festival.
Bun Nam (water festival) (October)
In riverside towns such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet, the highly competitive Bun Nam boat races (reua suang) are held during the same time as Awk Phansaa. Smaller communities sometimes hold these races on National Day on 2nd December
Boun That Luang (November)
Though celebrated at many temples around the country, this festival is traditionally centered at That Luang in Vientiane. Fairs, beauty contests, music and fireworks take place throughout the week of the full moon, and end with a candlelight procession (wien thien) around the temple of That Luang.
Lao National Day (2nd December – public holiday)
Streets strewn with national flags and banners, processions, parades, and speeches are the highlights of this celebration for the victory of the proletariat in 1975.