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Laos - An Introduction
Considered by many seasoned travellers to be the untapped gem of Southeast Asia, the diverse landlocked country of Laos is full of surprises. From the mountainous northern highlands to the 4,000 Islands of the Mekong, this nation of just six million has an incredibly diverse geography to match its colourful culture.

Buddhism is the dominant theme of this communist nation, followed closely by the animistic traditions of the hill tribes. These ethnic minorities are a big part of what makes Laos so unique. It takes a long time to travel from the north of the country to the south, where the lengthy Mekong River flows into Cambodia. However, thanks to the steady growth of national airline Laos Airways, many urban centres in Laos can be easily reached by plane.

Top Things to See: There are so many amazing things to see in Laos, including beautiful temples, natural highlights, ethnic villages and rustic towns. It can however take days of bus travel to get from Luang Prabang to Pakse, so visitors with limited time may want to concentrate on one area of Laos. Of course, you can always opt to take a plane from the north to the south if you want to see both parts.

Ban Phanom Weaving Village: Even though it has become a bit commercialised, Ban Phanom is still one of the best villages in the north to see how Laos weaving is done. A visit here makes for a fun and easy excursion from Luang Prabang, and you can pick up great deals on silk and cotton textiles.

Lao National Museum: If you want a better understanding of the colourful history of Laos, make a visit to the country's main museum, housed in a lovely old French colonial mansion in the capital. Photos, relics and items used by both the royalty and the communist party are on display.

Luang Prabang: This UNESCO World Heritage site was once the capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, and remains one of the most romantic and charming places in the world. Temples, monks and French colonial architecture greet you at every turn. With dozens of nice boutiques, guesthouses and the best shopping and dining in Laos, this town is a destination in its own right. It also makes an ideal base for further explorations of northern Laos.

Luang Prabang Night Market: The most charismatic market in Laos is open every night along the main street of Luang Prabang, which is closed to traffic in the evenings. Hundreds of vendors emerge from their villages to sell handicrafts, artwork and souvenirs.

Morning Market: If you are in Vientiane, get up early and head to the Talaat Sao, or Morning Market, where the capital's residents do their shopping every day. Besides the fascinating, bustling scene, visitors can buy everything from pirated DVDs to antique items.

Pak Ou Caves: If you visit Luang Prabang, take the short boat ride along the Mekong to check out these natural caves carved out of the sheer limestone cliffs along the river. Over the centuries, Buddhists have come here and deposited small images of the Buddha, resulting in an amazing display of icons. Visiting this unique site is a popular excursion.

Phra That Luang: The most important stupa in Laos is a national icon rising 44 metres high in the capital. Several structures have been built on the same auspicious site since the first Khmer temple here in the 12th century. This is a great place to witness it any Buddhist event in the capital.

Traditional Lao Dancing: Traditional Lao dancing resembles traditional dancing in Thailand and Cambodia, and is one of the most graceful displays of human movement you're likely to see. A great place to experience a special performance is in Luang Prabang at the Royal Theatre, which re-enacts the Ramayana several nights each week.

Vang Vieng: One of the most picturesque little towns in Laos lies midway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, making it an ideal stopover. Limestone karsts form a backdrop, as do the surrounding rice fields and a lovely river that flows through the valley. Tubing, caving and other fun outdoor activities are big draws of this town, which has emerged as a major stop on the tourist trail.

Waterfalls: Laos has lots of water, and some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Southeast Asia. In the north, don't miss a day at Kuang Si Waterfall, just outside of Luang Prabang. Aqua blue water and swimming holes make this a great excursion. The southern Bolaven plateau has even more waterfalls, as rivers roll off the plateau on all sides, resulting in the country's highest falls among the dozens of beauties.
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