Laos is one of the last “off the beaten track” destinations for tourists and travelers who have become jaded with the creeping homogenization of global culture. This has much to do with the Southeast Asian nation’s historic inaccessibility, modern politics, and the legacy of warfare that continues to haunt this faraway land.
For the adventurous traveler, however, Laos has much to offer. Friendly people, stunning archeological sites, and astounding natural beauty have enticed and entranced visitors from time immemorial. This mountainous, heavily forested nation of six million has been called by some “the tropical Shangri-la” after the semi-mythical Tibetan paradise sought by many but found by few. It’s no secret that getting to landlocked Laos is no simple thing. There are no railways and the roads (especially those in rural areas) are not always reliable, especially during the rainy monsoon season that stretches from May through November. Most visitors to Laos enter from Thailand, the country’s western neighbor and chief trading partner. There are few viable alternatives for Western tourists as Laos also borders on Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and China. You may have to do some searching, both online and off, to work out a travel itinerary. Don’t forget to investigate Visa requirements and any recommended vaccinations while you’re at it.
The history of Laos is as shrouded in mystery as the land is shrouded in forestry. Countless Monsoon storms over the millennia have washed away most evidence of Laos’ ancient past, leaving only tantalizing reminders of her culture’s past glory. One that remains is the Plain of Jars located in the Laotian highlands. Literally thousands of stone jars lie scattered across the broad Xieng Khouang plain, some standing alone and others in groups. These are no mayonnaise jars; some are as big as a small car! Who built them, and for what aim? Archeologists speculate they were crafted over a period of several hundred years nearly two thousand years ago. The culture that built them remains unknown—the ancestors of the present-day Lao had not migrated to the area from their original homeland in southern China. Were they immense water jugs, intended to save water from the Monsoon rains for use in the dry season, or did they have another, more sinister purpose … the silence of the Jars provides no clues.
Visitors to the three governments authorized viewing sites have stated that gazing across the silent, windswept plain was an otherworldly experience. Unfortunately, one wrong step and you might find yourself transported to another world—literally. The U.S. Air Force extensively bombed the Laotian highlands during the Vietnam War and the plain is strewn with unexploded “bombies,” as the locals refer to them. The cute nickname belies the horrible damage done by the ordnance, which is still “live” and quite dangerous after thirty-plus years. For a culture that has been so severely buffeted by the tides of history, the Laotian people remain gentle, open, and helpful to foreigners.
Things have been looking brighter for Laos and her people of late. The government, while Communist in name, has embraced free market economics and little by little the benefits are trickling down the ladder. In a country where 80 percent of Laotians still till the land to survive, tourism is providing jobs and higher incomes for both city and country dwellers. The authorities are doing their best to balance the need to provide infrastructure for tourism while preserving the unique way of life and ethereal beauty that has moved the United Nations to name Luang Prabang and Wat Phou as World Heritage sites.
Not all that many Americans have even heard of Laos while even fewer know where it is—perhaps this was Mike Judge’s motivation for having an immigrant Laotian family move in next to Hank Hill on the animated series “King of the Hill”. If stimulating culture shock is your cup of tea, then a trip to and through Laos should really hit the spot. No, it’s not easy to get there, but this is one case where the journey and the destination are mutually rewarding!