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Has The Lotus Opened?
Land of the lotus-eaters, known officially and much more mundanely as "the Lao People's Democratic Republic", Laos is a land-locked socialist republic that has in recent times been characterised by secrecy.

History

Originally (14th-18th centuries) called the Land of a Million Elephants (Lan Xang), it became a French colony, gaining independence in 1949. During the Vietnam war, it was a battlefield, though few people knew that the war had lurched across the border. The CIA established an air force that operated over the country and Laos became, per person, the most heavily bombed nation in history. Having won in 1975, the communists did their best to keep Laos to itself. Western visitors weren't encouraged. Over the past ten years, however, the country has slowly opened up and tourists are beginning to go there to enjoy its many charms. Anyone who has been there loves it, especially the people, who are ethnically extremely diverse, only around 70 per cent belonging to the Lao, the largest ethnic group.

Beauty

The landscape is heavily forested and mountainous, which makes communications and economic development difficult, though these features add to Laos' beauty and attractiveness. Along its western boundary with Thailand, almost the full length of Laos, runs the mighty Mekong, Southeast Asia's greatest river, the world's thirteenth longest and the tenth largest by volume. The Mekong rises on the Tibetan Plateau and covers just over 4,000 km before entering the South China Sea. In its upper reaches it flows through a series of deep gorges, but by the time it reaches northern Laos it has settled down among rolling hills.

Adventure

For an adventure unlike any other, travellers can undertake a two-day voyage down the Mekong from the border post of Huai Say, at the border with Thailand, to Luang Prabang, a distance of some 300 km. From the boat you can see villages on stilts, where the villagers have planted the banks of the river with small peanut plants, hillsides cleared for the cultivation of sticky rice, and people fishing from dugout canoes with a net suspended between two bamboo poles.

Tourism

Luang Prabang is a centre of Buddhism and has a stupa visible some distance away along the river. Monks in orange robes walk through the town each morning begging for alms. Once a collection of hamlets, each centred on a Buddhist temple, Luang Prabang is a place of calm, although mopeds outnumber bicycles, and has a stately feel to it. Old colonial mansions and villas of brick and stucco have not lost their appeal even though they may have been converted into guesthouses and hotels. Buddhism still prevails, as witness the brightly coloured friezes on the wats and the roofs of the temples glinting in the sun.

There are as yet no direct flights from the UK or Ireland to Laos, but instead to Vientiane (Vietnam) or Bangkok (Thailand). Avoid the rainy season from May to September, as this can make getting around rather difficult.
About the Author
© 2006 Harish Kohli. Harish Kohli is an avid traveller who likes to share good adventure travel ideas with others. He is also CEO of AwimAway.com where he can help tailor-make an experiential or adventure holiday for you.
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