Get lost in the magic of Laos
With ornate temples, limestone crags, welcoming locals and the mighty Mekong River, Laos is the epitome of romantic gap year travel.
If you are keen on getting off the beaten track and visiting destinations far from the tourist trail, you would be well-advised to visit this landlocked South East Asian country, sandwiched between its better-known neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam.
Laos is a tropical country with a short dry season that lasts from November to April, but many travellers prefer to go during the humid rainy season when there are fewer tourists and prices are cheaper. The landscape is at its most luscious then and it's the best time for cruising on the Mekong.
A visa is essential for travelling to Laos and it's important to organize your visa well in advance of your planned departure to avoid complications. Visas aren't expensive, but terms and conditions change frequently so you are recommended to contact the Laos Embassy in London for the latest information. Yellow fever vaccination is also a requirement.
Laos is a wonderful country and the people have a reputation for being warm and friendly. There is no shortage of interesting places to visit, such as the town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with historic palaces and temples, French colonial buildings and beautiful scenery.
If you are in the capital, Vientiane, visiting the sacred temple of That Luang is a must, as it is the national symbol of Laos appearing on stamps and official documents. It's a stunning building partly covered with gold leaf and especially worth visiting in November during the lively festivities of Boun That Luang. The Bolven Plateau in south-eastern Laos attracts many backpackers who are drawn to its remote unexplored feel, quaint villages and some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. The enigmatic Plain of Jars, just outside the city of Phonsavan is also well worth a visit. Fields are randomly dotted about with large stone jars. Nobody knows why the mysterious sandstone and granite jars are there.
Laos offers a timeless and other-worldly feel though there are many activities on offer to suit all tastes.
• You could explore the amazing wildlife of Bokeo, by booking the 'Gibbon Experience' a chance to venture into the wilderness and see many rare animals, such as tigers, bears and the gibbons that were once believed to be extinct. Best of all, the experience involves zip-lining and spending much of the time high up in the tree canopy. Understandably, the 'Gibbon Experience' is high on many people's bucket lists so it's a good idea to book in advance.
• Champasak is the most recent area of Laos to become popular with tourists and is a good place to go for elephant treks and hiking in the scenic forested countryside. If you're an adrenaline junkie, Vang Vieng, which is surrounded by limestone cliffs, offers excellent opportunities for rock climbing and mountaineering, not to mention exploring the awe-inspiring caves in the area.
• Hiring a bicycle in Laos is incredibly cheap and a great way to see the country, although it's definitely best to do this in the dry season.
• One thing Laos is famous for is tubing - a feature of a decadent party scene that started in 2006 and involved partygoers floating down a 4km section of the Nam Song river in inflatable tires, stopping off at bars along the river for a quick drink along the way. Tubing quickly evolved to include dangerous stunts such as revellers flinging themselves into the river off platforms, flying foxes and dangerous slides to a backdrop of loud music from the many bars that sprang up in response to the sudden demand. Today, most of the riverside bars have closed and there has been a definite cultural shift towards increased sobriety. It is still possible to have fun tubing, but you will be required to wear a proper life jacket, and you are more likely to share the river with sedate kayakers than a bunch of wild partygoers.
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