Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A guide to holidaying in Laos

For those who want to experience unspoilt Asia, Laos is about as close as you can get. Life here has continued in much the same way as it has for hundreds of years; the countryside is pristine, the culture is rich and the locals are among the friendliest in the world.

1. Culture
Although the country has only a small population, Lao culture is not only distinct but also extremely diverse, with at least 48 different ethnic groups There are a number of cultural idiosyncrasies that visitors to Laos should observe. This includes greeting others with your palms together and a slight bow of the head, and removing your shoes when entering a religious building or someone’s home. It is also good practice to dress discretely, especially when visiting religious monuments in Laos.

 2. Main attractions
Many people come to Laos to experience the laid-back lifestyle, but there are plenty of incredible and relatively unknown attractions that leave visitors in awe.
The ancient capital, Luang Prabang, is a World Heritage site famous for its historic temples and beautiful setting. Meanwhile the country’s modern day capital, Vientiane, is home to the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang. The mind-boggling Plain of Jars region near Phonsaven is also a must-see for tourists, with its mysterious jar-like relics scattered across the fields. There are also plenty of options for adventure travellers including Vang Vieng and Luang Namtha.

 Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
3. Getting around
There are plenty of ways to get around Laos, whether it be for the pleasure of seeing the countryside, or about getting from A to B. More than 4600km of navigable rivers meander through Laos, with the longest and most important route being the Mekong river..

4. Cuisine 
Lao cuisine can best be described as fresh, spicy and often quite bitter. Rice is the staple, with raw vegetables and fresh herbs also frequently used. The national dish is laap, which is a kind of salad made with minced meat, mixed herbs, plenty of spice, lime juice and blistering amounts of chilli. Another favourite is tam maak hung, a spicy green papaya salad dressed with fermented crab and an intense fish sauce. There is also plenty of imported food, with French baguettes stuffed with pate, and foe noodles from China being popular snacks.
The national drink, Beerlao, distinguishable by its yellow logo and tiger-head silhouette, can be found everywhere and has reached an almost cult status among travellers. Another popular drink is Lao kaafeh (coffee), grown on the Bolaven Plateau in the country’s south. Travellers should steer clear of the tap water, though, and buy the bottled water instead.

5. When to visit
The best time to visit most of Laos is between November and February, when the rain eases and the climate is comfortable. This time also represents the peak tourist and festival season and it’s advisable to book ahead. November is the best time for those wanting to travel extensively by river, as the flooding has usually subsided but the river levels are still high.

 6. Safety 
Despite being one of the poorer nations of the world, Laos is a very safe place to travel around. Petty crime such as bag snatching is a bit of a problem in the capital Vientiane, but is not widespread. Also, clients should be made aware that it is a legal requirement to carry an identification document or passport at all times, and fines for not having one for presentation on demand can be high.