Landlocked and usually keeping a low profile, Laos is an easily overlooked country that rewards travellers who give it a chance.
The 236,000 square-km country joined neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia by opening to foreign travellers in the early 1990s. Since then it has caught on with backpackers who often find themselves charmed by the laid-back lifestyle.
Laos is a slow-moving country and, though it does not look very big on a map, the curvy and often poorly maintained roads can make it a chore to get around. Bus is the primary public transport method, with minimal (and often expensive) domestic flights available. The country is also popular for motorcycling, but do assess the risks before you hit the road.
Most nationalities receive a 30-day visa on arrival, making it easy to cross into Laos overland on a whim. The location between Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand (as well as China) often places Laos somewhere in the middle of classic travel itineraries around mainland Southeast Asia.
Of the two primary regions within the country, the north is the first choice for most travellers. Here, across the Mekong from Thailand, lies the Lao capital of Vientiane. A ride up the highway takes you to the riverside backpacker base at Vang Vieng. Further north along the Mekong lies the former royal capital, Luang Prabang, one of Southeast Asia’s premier historical destinations.
A good bet for those who prefer offbeat adventures, southern Laos includes the haunting Wat Phu near Pakse; the dramatic karst topography of Tha Khaek; and the 4,000 Islands that dot the Mekong near Cambodia. One common stop here is Don Dhet, an old-school backpacker hub set in the middle of the Mekong.
Mountains stud the north and it gets chilly as you reach further into remote locales, such as far-flung Phongsali. The south is hotter and flatter in most places, producing much of the country’s rice supply.
Weather in Laos goes from cool and dry from November through February, to hot and dry in March and April. May through October bring heavy rain that can make travel challenging, especially during the latter half of that stretch.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.