Laos is a land where elephants are deemed a sacred symbol of prosperity, ancient temples tell the story of its fascinating past, and the Mekong River is the lifeblood of the community. This South-East Asian country is a fascinating destination where the warm-hearted locals traditionally show respect for one another by greeting with a ‘nop’, rather than shaking hands. This is where the hands are pressed together, as if in prayer, and pulled into the chest.
Incredible diversity is evident, with over 80 different languages spoken and a population consisting of multiple ethnic minorities. Depending on where you are in Laos, the traditional dress and cuisine of that area will differ, which makes for an exciting time exploring as it is possible to try many delicious foods and flavours.
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Buddhism plays a key role in Laos, evident in the dominant presence of temples, stupas, statues and a large community of monks who wear distinct saffron-coloured robes. It is customary for the locals to give alms, whereby the monks leave their temples at dawn and silently walk through the streets to be greeted by those of faith who place a food offering in the monks’ alms bowls. As an age-old religious ritual, it is a ceremony that visitors can witness daily in Luang Prabang.
The ancient beauty of Luang Prabang has been inhabited for thousands of years and until 1975, this was the royal capital. Today, this small town’s rich architecture and cultural heritage, which earned UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995, continues to be one of the most popular areas with tourists. Former glorious palaces, numerous temples or ‘Wats’, and beautiful waterfalls that meet the Mekong River can all be found here.
Despite its popularity with visitors, the environment has retained its authenticity and unique ambiance. At the far northern tip of this incredible town, Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City) can be found. Low sweeping roofs, extravagantly gilded decoration, and the remarkable ‘Tree of Life’ glass mosaic are just some of this temple’s exquisite features. On the outskirts of Luang Prabang lies the Phousi market - a lively place where the locals shop daily. If you have a longing for exotic fruits, this is the place to try them.
Animal lovers need to ensure they stop at the Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, where it is sometimes possible to assist with a scatter feed by hiding food for the bears. This wonderful sanctuary has rescued over 20 Moon Bears (also known as Asian black bears) from poachers and given them enriching enclosures where they are safely protected and have all sorts of play equipment to enjoy. Wooden paths give visitors the perfect viewing spots from a safe distance.
Another natural wonder is that of Kuang Si Falls, the largest waterfall in Luang Prabang, with three tiers culminating in a 50-metre drop. Hiking trails tailored to varying abilities allow you to get up close to marvel at this spectacular sight.
Sticky rice (khao niaw) can be a meal in itself but is also eaten with accompanying sauces and side dishes. You will find this is the go-to staple of Laos and eaten daily. Soups and stews are also common, with noodle soup being a particular favourite that is consumed at any time of day, including breakfast.
In terms of the flavours to expect, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine has had a heavy influence. In contrast to these spicy noodle and rice-based dishes, Laos also lives with the legacy of its French rule in the 1900s. Consequently, khao jee (baguettes) filled with meat, vegetables and chili paste are found all over the country. Laap or larb is another popular meal; a salad consisting of ground meat, with a lime, garlic and herb dressing, mixed with roasted rice. Tam mak houng (papaya salad) is also worth tasting, combining shredded papaya with fish sauce, chilies and lime juice, among other ingredients, and served with noodles. Barbecued meat and grilled river fish eaten from bamboo skewers, giant fried prawns with spring rolls, and kaipen - sundried sheets of freshwater green algae and sprinkled with sesame seeds - add to the snack list.
When it comes to desserts, sticky rice once again dominates where it is typically combined with mango, coconut or banana to make a variety of treats. Banana rice pudding, baked coconut rice pudding, coconut dumplings, coconut custard cake, and a vast range of tropical fruits also make fabulous desserts.
Beerlao is beer made from jasmine rice, hops and yeast, that is both sipped by locals and exported across the world. Lao lao is the regional equivalent to whiskey, while drinking lao hai is very similar to sake. Making the most of the easily accessible fruits in Laos, coconut milk and fruit juices are readily available.
Other common soft drinks include milk, tea (usually served with sweet condensed milk and poured over ice), coffee and sugar cane juice. Avoid drinking tap water (or ice cubes made from tap water) and stick to bottled water instead.
Landscape and wildlife
As a landlocked country, Laos is surrounded by Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, China and Vietnam. With a mountainous and hilly landscape, only a small area of the flat, low land can be farmed. The tropical monsoon climate has encouraged the growth of northern tropical rainforests that include bamboo and banana plants.
In contrast, its forest-covered mountains reach a height of over 2,800 metres. Wildlife is abundant with large mammals such as bears, rhinos, elephants, tigers, deer, gibbons and monkeys being among the inhabitants. Reptiles and amphibians are just as diverse and plentiful, with everything from snakes, frogs and turtles living here. Meanwhile bird species include storks, hornbills, ibises and woodpeckers. Many of the animal species living in Laos are endangered, including the Irrawaddy Dolphins, also known as Mekong River Dolphins.