Laos’s understated crown jewel is the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, whose fusion of Lao and European architecture UNESCO called a “key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.” Vientiane is the region’s most relaxed capital, while the Bolaven Plateau beckons with dramatic waterfalls and superb coffee plantations. For travelers willing to forgo five-star hotels to focus on remote rural encounters, the northern hill-tribe peoples in Luang Namtha and Muang Sing (Black Tai, Hmong, Lanten, Akha and many more) and the unspoiled “4,000 Islands” stretch of the lower Mekong, home to the rare Irrawaddy dolphins, are itinerary highlights. Champasak province, meanwhile, offers the impressive Khmer ruins of Wat Phu, architectural forebear of Angkor.
Perhaps due to its status as the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia (it is encircled by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Myanmar), Laos often gets less notice than its more famous neighbors. We view this low profile in another light: this beautiful Buddhist land is one of the continent’s best-kept secrets, although it is increasingly on the radar of savvy luxury and adventure travelers alike. Together with Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos made up the triumvirate colonies of French Indochina, and significant pockets of Old World charm remain.