Wherever you have traveled from, arriving in Laos involves slowing down. For many years, Laos remained a forgotten land and wasn't considered by many to be a viable travel option. Part of this ignorance is a result of the shroud of Laos's Communist government, which became politically and economically isolated after taking power in 1975. An air of mystery then drifted over the country.
In recent years, more light has shined on Laos, and the world is slowly discovering what the country and its people have to offer. Following in the footsteps of its more prosperous neighbors, Laos is making a concerted effort to build its fledgling tourism industry. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its designation by the United Nations as a "least-developed country" ensures an influx of money from both foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alike. In the last 10 years, the level of development and interaction with the outside world has been extremely rapid. These days, it is fast becoming the crossroads of the region as infrastructure is developed connecting China, Vietnam, and Thailand. There are now two bridge crossings over the Mekong, and the Golden Triangle is becoming a pivotal junction for all the countries it encompasses. The days of Cold War isolation are now a very distant memory, as tourists flood into Laos to enjoy the cultural riches of Luang Prabang, the laid-back charm of Vientiane, and the enigmatic mysteries of the Plain of Jars. Only just over a decade ago, crossing from Thailand to Laos was like crossing a bridge in time. Thailand was looking forward to the 21st century, draped in neon, fast food, and six-lane highways. Lao people, still recovering from war and living in the aftermath of 20 years of Vietnamese and Soviet sponsored isolation, sat in their intermittently lit, crumbling, colonial French built towns staring across the Mekong at a different age. The gap is narrowing fast.
Yet the essential appeal of Laos remains intact. It remains very much a land of misty mountains, beautiful French colonial -- built towns, and glittering Buddhist temples. Vientiane, a perennial candidate for the "sleepiest capital in the world" crown, may be shocking to some. But a few days spent wandering the streets and watching the sun set over the Mekong makes a good introduction to "Lao time." A few hours north of Vientiane, Vang Vieng has become a hideaway for the backpacker-hippie crowds who gather in the shadow of the spectacular limestone outcrops that line the Nam Song River. Farther north lies Luang Prabang, ancient capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its almost three dozen temples, French colonial architecture, and rich history, Luang Prabang is a magical town and not to be missed. In the far north, the Nam Ha Biodiversity Conservation Area, in Luang Namtha, offers off-the-beaten-path adventures. The pre-Angkorian temple Wat Phou sits in the southern province of Champasak. Finally, remnants of an even older civilization are in evidence at the mysterious Plain of Jars, in the heart of Xieng Khouang province.
Sixty percent of Lao people are practicing Buddhists, and that fact colors every facet of life. Temples and stupas dominate the architecture of even the smallest village, and you're sure to spot groups of monks in colorful robes on their early morning pintabat, or alms rounds, especially in Luang Prabang. Buddhist acceptance and compassion play an important part in Lao culture; arguments are the exception, and the sangha, or monastic community, fosters a strict moral code. Even the shortest visit to Laos offers unique insight into Buddhist culture.
Laos is a place to tread lightly, but foreign travelers are made quite welcome and encouraged to do their part to preserve and participate in cultural practices. The beauty of Laos exists not only along the Mekong at sunset, but also in smiles at the market or impromptu Lao lessons on the street corner, things that are easily missed if you're in a hurry. It's an enchanting land that demands you slow your pace to match its own, and even the shortest visit might add tranquillity to your travels.