Searching for the new Thailand
By Josephine Henry
Travelling in Southeast Asia conjures up images of lounging on tropical Thai beaches, gazing in awe at historic temples in Cambodia and retracing the poignant history of Vietnam; rarely does Laos spring to mind as the top destination in the region. Yet, as Vietnam and Cambodia become increasingly popular as the ‘in place’ to go, they too are starting to fall into the tourist trap that has seen Thailand lose its once unrivalled appeal.
For many, travelling to Southeast Asia is about immersing yourself in a different culture, waking up early to catch those sensational sunrises and, to excuse the cliché, heading ‘off the beaten track’. However with the increased popularity of Vietnam and Cambodia, it is becoming ever more difficult to truly go ‘off the beaten track’ and have a unique experience of Southeast Asia. That is until you head to Laos. Overlooked yet certainly not to be underestimated, Laos retains an authenticity that other Asian countries have sadly lost.
As a landlocked country Laos may not boast the best beaches but what it loses in its beach appeal, it makes up for it with its luscious greenery, cascading waterfalls, beautiful Buddhist temples and an enviable slow-paced lifestyle that entices visitors with a promise of tranquillity. A visit to Laos is an enriching awakening, presenting the discerning traveller with the exciting prospect of discovering Southeast Asia from a local perspective rather than under the guise as just another backpacker. Laos’ charming ability to both preserve its rich cultural heritage and offer astonishing natural landscapes whilst resisting the onslaught of mass tourism easily render it the “New Thailand”.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos combines intriguing historical sites with exquisite natural surroundings. Visitors to this charismatic town will have the chance to immerse themselves in the absorbing Laotian culture whilst also being able to uncover some of the most beautiful attractions in Southeast Asia.
Small in size, yet mighty in culture and spirit, a meander around this charming town and it instantly becomes evident the importance of Buddhism in everyday life. With over 33 wats (temples) across the area and monks wandering the quaint streets in their traditional wear, the spiritual energy of Luang Prabang is enthralling. Embrace the slow paced way of life, which makes a refreshing break from the chaos that is often synonymous with countries in Southeast Asia. The captivating contrast between traditional Lao architecture, colonial buildings and formal royal palaces, beautifully illustrate the rich historic legacy of Laos. Sunrise presents a wonderful opportunity to go for a trek to the summit of Mount Phousi, where along the way you can stop in your tracks to admire the several striking Buddhist shrines that adorn the area before arriving at the top where you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent view of Luang Prabang and the lush surrounding areas.
After discovering the delights of this beguiling town, venture into the wider region to experience the bewildering untouched natural beauty that flourishes throughout Laos. Arguably amongst the most spectacular attraction in this region is the Kuang Si Falls, an extraordinary three tier waterfall that captures the imagination with its mystic allure. A plunge into the enchanting waters of this impressive waterfall to cool off from the stifling heat beats swimming on an overcrowded beach in Thailand any day.
Located in Southern Laos, the Bolaven Plateau is an elevated region that is characterised by its scenic rivers and riveting waterfalls. A heaven of luscious greenery, a visit to the Bolaven Plateu is an idyllic escape from everyday life. Forget your stresses and engulf yourself in a pursuit of chasing all of the wonderful waterfalls that make this area of Laos one of the most magnificent in Southeast Asia. The Tad Fane twin fall is simply mesmerising as it majestically flows down over 100 metres of cliffs into a gorgeous gorge whilst hiring a motorbike and travelling around the loop of the plateau is an exciting and exhilarating way to explore the region and connect with the nature that surrounds you. In addition to exploring the natural beauty of the Bolaven Plateau, the region is also the perfect place to find out about the culture and customs of the ethnic minorities that continue to live there, presenting travellers with the authentic Southeast Asian cultural experience that Laos’ neighbouring countries lack.
It is impossible to visit Laos without admiring the majestic Mekong River in one form or the other. As the world’s 12th largest river and Southeast Asia’s largest, this remarkable river is the heart and soul of Laos, connecting it to the South China Sea. Watch how it invigorates towns and villages in the daytime, marvel at the dazzling reflections it creates at sunset or simply enjoy a relaxing river cruise where you can absorb the breathtaking landscape of Laos. With only the Amazon River boasting a higher biodiversity, it is also home to a diverse array of intriguing wildlife. Amongst the most stunning places to enjoy the beauty of the Mekong River is Si Phan Don. Literally translated as 4,000 islands, this archipelago inside the river is located in Southern Laos, above the border with Cambodia, and offers a welcome escape from fast paced life. Staying here travellers will gain a unique insight into traditional village life as well as having the amazing chance to spot some of the world’s rarest creatures such as the freshwater dolphin.
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