Wherever you've come from, set your watch to the languor of Laos time. With no train lines, and buses and boats a once-a-day affair, you can set your jam-packed itinerary aside. Overused as a battleground in its time, Laos long watched as the rest of Asia raced ahead. When the 2004 Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge made the country more accessible, the gap narrowed. Today, Laos may be a pawn in China's economic boom game, but word is out about its misty mountains, beautiful French colonial towns and golden Buddhist stupas.
A serious contender for "sleepiest capital in the world," Vientiane is as fast as it gets in Laos. The capital's biggest sightseeing draw is the golden Phra That Luang temple, Laos' national symbol. Wat Si Saket is home to more than 2,000 Buddha statues of varying sizes. Travel Route 13, the major road in Laos, past dramatic mountainous scenery all the way north to World Heritage Site Luang Prabang. Here, Buddhist monks in orange robes stroll serenely past French colonial houses.
Eating and Drinking
No meal in Laos is complete without sticky rice and spicy papaya salad. Pick apart grilled Mekong River fish while the sun sets over the water in Luang Prabang. Backpackers rarely veer off Sisavangvong Road, where Western-style restaurants churn out pizzas and baguettes. In Vientiane French menus cater to homesick expat government workers. Sink the obligatory Beer Lao with the backpackers, then graduate to mao lao cocktails made from fermented rice (the name means "drunk" -- you've been warned).
Ecotourism is the buzzword in Laos. Catch a longtail boat up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang to Nong Kiaow, a good base for organized trekking, rock-climbing and caving trips including an overnight stay in a local hill tribe village. A few hours north of Vientiane, Vang Vieng has become a hideaway for the backpacker-hippie crowds. A rite of passage here is "tubing": sitting on a tire and drifting down the Nam Song River surrounded by spectacular limestone mountains.
One of Laos' oldest archaeological sites, Wat Phou, in the south, is a 10km-long complex of temples, shrines and waterworks, parts of which date from the 11th century. Rewind another 1,500 years at the mysterious Plain of Jars, a grassy landscape dotted with giant stone jars thought to date back to the Iron Age. No one really knows where the jars came from, but legend has it that long-gone giants once used the jars to store rice.