Revel in the enigmatic, but fascinating, aura of the former French Indochinese state of Laos
As the golden sunset rests upon the Mekong River flowing in majestic silence along the banks to the Laos capital, Vientiane, the lights of the riverside beer bars and shops come to life. “Bear Lao” flows generously as local and foreign travelers enjoy the evening, as restaurants ply a busy trade.
In recent years, Vientiane has been groomed. The paved and curbed streets are infrastructure improvements reflecting the city’s host status to regional meetings of the 10 – nation Association of South East Asian nations (ASEAN).
Here We Come
Efforts to liberalise the economy are bearing results. The once sleepy Vientiane is a busy commercial centre as the Communist government embraces market reforms to stir growth and lure foreign visitors. Landlocked Laos is bordered by China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and presently receives some 700,000 visitors a year.
Evidence of improving infrastructure is marked at the arrival at the newly built Japanese-funded international airport as a new gateway. The Australian supported ‘Friendship Bridge’ across the Mekong from Thailand built in 1994, is also a symbol of Laos’ reach to the outside world.
The Itinerary Says
For both the corporate and leisure traveler Vientiane marks an ideal start. The Pratouxai Arch Monument built in 1958 is a fervent reminder of the French colonial influence that travelers will experience again in the architecture of many hotels and guesthouses in Laos.
In Vientiane itself, the colonial style is best marked by the renovated boutique Settha Palace hotel. There is also the Villa Manoly guesthouse, a renovated home near the Mekong River, another of the relaxed colonial style.
The corporate traveler may prefer the New Apollo Hotel located next to the office for the Committee for Investment and Foreign Economic Co-operation. The Novotel Hotel-Vientiane is also on the business and diplomats’ list of accommodations. The Lao Plaza, together with the bungalow style Parasol Blanc, offers quality lodging and so does the posh Parkview Executive Suites.
But a range of smaller hotels and guesthouse await the visitor with much leisure time on his hands. The charming and comfortable Lani guesthouses fit all budgets while the Santisouk Guest House is considered of excellent value.
From Vientiane’s easy and relaxed ways, travelers may venture to Vang Vieng, on the road to the UN-recognized historical city of Luang Prabang. At Vang Vieng, travelers come to experience mountains and caves at the nearby Song River. To the South of Laos the province of Champasak, and capital Pakse, with the stone memorials of the Khmer’s Angkor era of the ninth to 13th centuries, await the traveler.
Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom, is a city soaked in heritage and culture as reflected by its many monuments and monasteries. For the visitor, accommodation includes the Villa Santi Hotel or the Grand Luang Prabang Hotel and Resort located near the Mekong River. The Le Parasol Blanc hotel – a colonial mansion, is on the outskirts of the city amid beautiful gardens. Closer to town are the Villa Souvanaphoum and Muang Luang hotels.
No Transportation Blues
Laos has faced recent publicity over holdups and attacks on roads between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, leaving the only real option to travel by air. A boost for the Laos tourism industry came with the re-launch of the national carrier Lao Airlines (formerly Lao Aviation) main workload includes the routes of Bangkok, Hanoi, Chiang Mai, Kunming as well as Luang Prabang.
The Laotian Trails
Most tours to Laos have focused on package holidays. But an easing in travel restrictions and newly registered travel companies now open new opportunities – soft adventure tours. The country’s rivers, including the 4,000-km long Mekong River, provide a means to travel beyond the country’s borders. The popular tours include those by river from northern Thailand to Luang Prabang, as well as southern routes down to Cambodia.
Soft adventure travels have come to the fore in recent years, white-water rafting, rock climbing, trekking and ‘village stays’ are very popular at the moment. Backpackers are the main travelers to take up the soft-adventure option.
Laos still remains unique an uncharted destination steeped in a history that dates back centuries to the recent episodes of the Indochina wars. The excitement about Laos lies in the awaiting discovery of its beauty and magic often surrendered elsewhere in this fast paced world.
By Ron Corben