Despite growth in visitor numbers in recent years, Laos is still among the most underrated destinations in Asia. Heavyweight attractions such as the temples at Angkor in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar are thin on the ground and the country lacks the sophisticated tourist infrastructure of Thailand and Bali. As a result the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’ remains relatively under-subscribed compared with most of its neighbours in the region.
Yet, with pristine nature and a uniquely relaxed atmosphere, Laos is a perfect counterpoint to more crowded destinations elsewhere.
“You feel like a pioneer, you know,” says Olivier Colomes, CEO of EXO Travel about Laos. “I personally like places that are not busy at all. In Laos, you can drive one hour, and you’re in the middle of nature, it looks like Vietnam or Thailand 20 years ago, and that’s what’s nice.”
Although landlocked, the country compensates with a tapestry of landscapes that encompasses mighty rivers, mist-shrouded peaks and waterfall-dotted uplands. Its rich cultural heritage, meanwhile, takes in everything from golden-spired Buddhist palaces to a mosaic of ethnic tribes.
No longer a backwater wedged in between traveller-heavy Thailand and Vietnam, demand for Laos is on the rise. Smart boutique hotels are as ubiquitous these days as the songthaews used to transport people around. On the Mekong River, meanwhile, luxurious cruise vessels share the water with ramshackle local fishing boats. Even the formerly sleepy capital city, Vientiane, has roused itself from slumber to bolster its appeal with a host of fine-dining venues and a fairly vibrant party scene.
There are now many ways to see the best of the country. Options abound for once in a lifetime eco-adventures in the verdant countryside. For those who prefer to follow a more established tourist trail, the route between Luang Prabang and Vientiane presents nightly opportunities to wash down travel tales with classy cocktails or cold bottles of Beer Lao. Other quests, meanwhile, extend from drifting down the Mekong to exploring less charted gems such as the Bolaven Plateau.
Given its broad-reaching appeal, it is hardly surprising that the charms of Laos are proving irresistible to travellers looking for something a little different. Olivier chose the country for a Christmas family vacation last year and was bowled over by the experience.
“We were planning our Christmas break and the major question was where we could go when it is busy everywhere and all the rates are crazy,” he says. “We had been thinking about Southern Laos for a long time so we decided to just take the plunge.”
Previously overshadowed by more famous destinations further north such as Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vang Vieng, the south of Laos is coming into its own as a magnet for tourists.
From the limestone karsts and dense forests of the Phou Hin Boun NPA (National Protected Area) to the coffee plantations and roaring waterfalls of the lush Bolaven Plateau, it is prime territory for guests who relish deviating from the beaten path.
The landscapes brim with potential for derring-do with prime activities including motorcycle odysseys into the wilderness or kayaking or rafting amidst pristine nature. During his break, Olivier opted to treat his family to a zip lining adventure in the forests near the gateway town of Pakse spending the night high in the jungle canopy in a treehouse. “It was one of the best zip lining experiences I have ever done and I have done a lot,”.
There’s also plenty of scope to ease things down to the more familiar laid-back pace of life in Laos. A good spot to indulge in such a recharge is Si Phan Don. Better known as the 4000 Islands, this riverine archipelago hard by the border with Cambodia offers palm fringed islands set against a lazy and winding section of the Mekong River.
Si Phan Don is not the only Mekong River attraction worth diverting to in the southernmost Champasak province of Laos. The beautiful island of Don Daeng, directly opposite Champasak town, is ideal for exploration by means of pedal power and is close to Wat Phou, a UNESCO-listed pre-Angkorian temple that is arguably the most impressive religious relic in Laos.
The two Mekong highlights can be combined as part of a luxury three-day package, which is how Olivier chose to approach them. “All in all it was very affordable package and a real luxury experience,” he adds. “There are so few people in such a large space.”
Like the rest of the country, southern Laos is at its very best in the winter months when temperatures are pleasant and the colours of the countryside are still at a post-monsoon level of vibrancy. And while it may not, on the face of it, be the most obvious destination for Christmas, those – like Olivier – who have experienced the country at this time of year have no hesitation in naming Laos as a festive favourite.