There’s plenty to love about little landlocked Laos. A popular destination for travelers who love the laidback lifestyle, Laos has fascinating history, colorful culture and virtually untouched natural scenery.
Drawing on the insider knowledge of our travel specialists, we’ve made a list of facts about Laos that might surprise you. From Lao’s prehistoric sites to its contemporary culture, its cuisine to its creatures, this round-up of 40 fun and interesting facts will make you want to plan a trip there without delay.
Laos may be landlocked – or ‘landlinked’, if you prefer – but that doesn’t mean a beach holiday is completely off the cards. If you head to Si Phan Don (literally “4,000 islands”) in Southern Laos, you’ll find serene sandy shores – and adventure – aplenty.
Venture to the Xiangkhoang Plateau and you’ll see a curious sight: thousands of stone ‘jars’ strewn across the landscape. No one is quite sure what they are, but they date to the Iron Age (500 BC – AD 500) and were probably part of local burial rituals.
If you speak some Thai, then you also speak some Lao. The Thai and Lao languages are very closely related, so much so that Laos speakers can understand Thai and vice-versa. Only a little more than 50% of the Lao population can speak Lao, however – in more rural areas, people mainly speak their ethnic language.
Like Thai food like som tam (papaya salad), larb and kao niaw (sticky rice)? Then actually, you like Lao food, since these northeastern Thai (Isan) restaurants are in fact traditionally Laos dishes, given a Thai twist.
The capital, Vientiane, has an unmistakably French influence. Wide boulevards, colonial architecture, flaky baguettes, wine and coffee are just some French legacies ubiquitous in Vientiane.
Nong Fa Lake – a crater lake high in the mountains of southeastern Laos – is feared and respected by locals, who refuse to swim in it. Legend has it, a man-eating monster lives at the bottom. Nong Fa (which translates to ‘blue lake’ or ‘sky lake’) is quite remote, and can be reached by only the most intrepid explorers.
The mountains of Laos are mineral rich, and the country has been mined for its resources since the 11th century. Gold, sapphire, amethyst, aquamarine, marble, slate, rock salt and granite are just some of the treasures to be found.
Laos, like Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand, celebrates the New Year with a big splash. PiMai (new year) celebrations happen from April 13-15 and involve making merit, spending time with loved ones and water blessings that take the form of large-scale water fights.
If you’re visiting Vientiane from Thailand, there’s no need to exchange your baht to kip, the local currency, unless you want a keepsake of your travels. While kip are dispensed from ATMs, most shops will take Thai baht, or even US dollars. If you do withdraw kip, be aware that it’s virtually impossible to change it back to any other currency once you have left the country.
The 4,000 islands are where the Mekong rushes across the border into Cambodia in the largest series of falls and rapids in Southeast Asia. The Khone Phapheng falls stretch nearly 10 kilometers along the river, and make traveling upstream from Cambodia impossible (the French tried and failed). You can visit the falls on a kayak tour from Don Det or Don Khon islands.
Their rounded noses and upturned mouths give them a cartoonish adorableness – the Irrawaddy dolphin is a rare but spectacular sight. Only 60 are thought to remain in the Mekong, with pollution and illegal electrofishing their biggest threats. Conservation initiatives are currently underway to help villagers save their local dolphin population.
Tam Pa Ling (Cave of the Monkeys) in northeastern Laos was the site of some important discoveries. In 2009, the cave turned up an ancient skull before offering an even older jaw bone (the oldest to be found in Southeast Asia) the following year. The jawbone, which is at least 46,000 years old, proves early hominids didn’t just migrate from Africa along coastlines, they followed inland rivers as well.
While Laos is famous for its sleepy, laidback ambience, this quiet achiever has been steadily growing for the last decade. One of East Asia’s fastest growing economies, its annual GDP grows on average 7% each year.
Lao silk stands apart from that of neighboring countries in that is it 100% hand woven. The exact weaving process differs from family to family as do the patterns, making them truly unique. The average rate of production is around a meter a day – or a few centimeters for an elaborate weave. Handwoven silk has a more ‘natural’, unrefined texture than silk produced on an industrial loom.
Hidden deep in lush jungles and limestone hills, the must-see Vieng Xai Caves once concealed an entire city. The former secret hideout of the communist Pathet Lao, this network of more than 450 limestone caves housed more than 20 thousand people, with homes, markets, schools, barracks and even hospitals within.
If you like sticky rice, you’ll love Laos. The dish – kao niaow – is a national treasure, served with every meal in a little bamboo basket. To eat it, grab a small piece off with your right-hand fingers, roll it into a ball and dip it into the nearest available sauce. Extra fun fact: sticky rice is gluten free.
Visit Laos and you’ll notice that all women wear the traditional a long skirt that reaches down to their ankles. Worn on a day-to-day basis, the sinh is made of silk and embroidered with intricate patterns, especially around the hem. You can pick up your own sinh at the local markets.
The jungles of Laos are home to an abundance of wildlife. The biodiverse Nam Et-Phou Louey National Biodiversity Conservation Area (NBCA) is where you’ll find tigers (the only ones in Indochina) and other wild creatures, such as white-cheeked gibbons, sambar deer, leopards, leopard cats, Asian black bears, sun bears and dhole (Asiatic wild dog). A night safari through the park might turn up civets, slow lorises and deer, though tigers are usually too secretive to spot.
If you’re a motor scooter enthusiast, the Thakhek Loop takes you through Thalang and Kong Lor Cave in a stunning 440-kilometer journey. The four-day trip takes you through some truly incredible scenery: towering karst mountains, rice paddies, villagers, waterfalls, with plenty of things to marvel at along the way.
While you’re on the Thakhek Loop, you should by Kong Lor Caves. This cave system conceals a 7.5-kilometer subterranean river that you can completely traverse in a small wooden sampan, driven by a local boatman familiar with the river’s twists and turns. Kong Lor itself is a beautiful part of Laos worthy of a stopover. You don’t have to do the loop to see the caves, a can also take a leisurely road trip from Vientiane to see them.
Farms, coffee, waterfalls and jungle-clad mountains characterize this lush elevated region on the Thakhek Loop. A world-famous site for growing Arabica beans, the cooler climes of the Bolaven Plateau, as it is called, are also perfect for escaping the heat of the lowlands. It’s where you can catch a glimpse of rural village life and see traditional silk and textile weaving in practice.
Out in the verdant plains of Champasak near the Cambodian border, the ancient Vat Phou ruins mark what was once a majestic Khmer temple complex. Like Angkor Wat, the site dates back to the 11th-13th centuries, has an easterly orientation and comprises several different structures. Intriguing extra fact: A crocodile-shaped carved stone is suspected to be (and claimed by an ancient Chinese text) the site of human sacrifices.
While Laos is more than 50% populated by ethnic Lao (Lao Lum), there are more than 60 – some say more than 100 – different ethnic groups living within its borders. Lao’s people are categorised by altitude: 50 percent are lowland peoples, living around the Mekong; 20 percent live in the midlands and highlands; and 15 percent live above 1,000 meters. The remaining 15 percent are Thai.
If you’re a cinema buff, you’ll be delighted to learn that Vientiane hosts an international film festival every two years. The event features workshops, a short film competition and, of course, movie screenings.
If you’d like to see Laos in pictures, the award-winning Australian film The Rocket showcases the country’s pristine northern mountains, as well as local language and customs. The story addresses challenges faced by traditional rural communities and features the Boun Bang Fai rocket festival.
Laos’ form of boxing is called muay Lao. It is similar to Thailand’s muay Thai, Malaysia’s tomoi and gun Khmer from Cambodia – which is actually where boxing in Southeast Asia originated (not Thailand, as many believe).
The ancient, UNESCO-protected city was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos until 1975, when Pathet Lao party took over after the civil war. The city features beautifully preserved old temples and palaces, and has retained its provincial serenity. Tour the old city, wander the markets, visit the National Museum and spend time just soaking up the charming ambience of this beautiful town.
While you’re there, make sure you see Kuang Si Falls, Tat Sae Waterfalls and Pak Ou Caves. And for the best views, climb Mount Phousi in time to watch the sun set over the Mekong.
Visas for Laos are not required by passport holders from Japan, Luxembourg, Russia, South Korea and Switzerland, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei or Myanmar. Western travelers can get a visa on arrival at the border or airport, valid for 30 days.
Si Phan Don, the 4,000 islands are car free. The main ways to get around are walking and cycling. They are also ATM-free, so stop in Ban Nakasang on the way to withdraw enough cash.
The local brew is called lao-Lao (‘alcohol’ plus ‘Laos’ – emphasis on the second syllable). It is a ubiquitous rice whiskey produced locally and inexpensively. There is a ‘Whiskey Village’ in Luang Prabang where you can see myriad different permutations of the drink, though it can be found in any market or mom-and-pop store across the country.
Buddha Park is a curious attraction on the outskirts of Vientiane. Locally known as Xieng Khuan, the park, built by local mystic and sculptor Bounleua Suliat, features more than 200 stone Buddhist and Hindu statues. Designed in the style of traditional religious artworks of the region, the park’s concrete sculptures are different in that many of them tower high over visitors. After the communist Pathet Lao took over, Bounleua moved across the Mekong to the Thai side, where he built a second Buddha Park in Nong Khai.
Laos is said to be the most bombed country in the world (an estimated 260 million sub-munitions from cluster bombs were dropped over the country between 1964 and 1973), and many lie undetonated in rural areas. The COPE Museum in Vientiane draws attention to the plight of victims of unexploded ordnance, educating visitors through documentaries and exhibits. You can also leave a donation that goes towards food, rehabilitation or prosthetics.
For a bird’s-eye view of Vientiane, head to Patuxai in the center. Walk up seven floors to the open-air platforms at the top. Enjoy the views over Lang Xang Avenue and the park, and maybe even enjoy a cooling breeze.
Aside from crossing it via the Friendship Bridge or the old French narrow-gauge railway bridge in Don Det or the bamboo bridge in Luang Prabang, you can cruise down it on a luxurious sunset trip. Choose one that lets you enjoy traditional Lao dance performances as you float downstream past stunning scenery.
Laos was once known as the Land of a Million Elephants, though today their numbers have dwindled to between 400 and 600, with more elephants used in logging industry than found in the wild. Sanctuaries such as the Elephant Conservation Centre in Sainyabuli Province give you a chance to spend time with them, learning to ride, bathe and feed them in an ethical manner.
There are many religious rites in Laos, and baci or su khwan -‘calling of the soul’ – is one of the most important. Involving prayer, offerings, dance, chants,a feast, wine and the tying of a white string around the wrist it is a ceremony that can mark any significant occasion – weddings, births, entering monkhood, and even farewells.
Botanists estimate Laos has up to 900 endemic species of orchids – they’re found right across the country, from lowlands to jungles to high mountain passes. If you’re in Vientiane, Phou Khao Khouay National Park, 40 kilometers from the capital, is one place where you will find the bloom in the wild. Extra helpful fact: The most accessible sight here is Tad Leuk waterfall, most majestic during rainy season.
This laidback lawn sport is surprisingly popular in Laos. Brought to Laos by the French, it’s still a common sight in parks. In 2013, Laos won the medal tally for petanque in the Southeast Asian Games.
There’s never a bad time to visit Laos. Generally speaking, the monsoon season lasts from mid-May to October; the dry, cool season from October to March; and the hot, dry season from April to early May. Each season has its own benefits and affects each region differently, so before you set off, decide what you want from your Laos trip so you know the best time of year to go for you. See our blog for a quick rundown of the seasons.
Have we forgotten anything? If you know something about Laos you think other travelers should know, send us an email or tell us in the comments section.
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