From a quiet backwater to today's incarnation, Laos is one of the most beguiling destinations in all of Asia.
Laos' Top Five
1. Luang Prabang
Languid and lovely Luang Prabang is one of the most alluring places in Southeast Asia. Nowhere else can lay claim to the city's old-world romance of 33 gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas and exquisite Gallic cuisine. It's a unique place where time seems to stand still amid the breakneck pace of the surrounding region. This UNESCO-protected gem has rightfully gained mythical status as a travellers' Shangri La, and since its airport opened a decade ago the town has seen a flood of investment, with once-leprous French villas being revived as fabulous - though affordable - boutique hotels.
2. Si Phan Don
Si Phan Don is where Laos becomes the land of the lotus eaters, an archipelago of islands where the pendulum of time swings more slowly and life is more laid-back - yes, even by Laos standards. The name literally means 'Four Thousand Islands', and they are so tranquil that you can imagine them just drifting downriver into Cambodia with barely anyone blinking an eyelid. Many a traveller has washed ashore here, succumbed to its charms and stayed longer than expected.
3. The Gibbon Experience
Adrenalin meets conservation in this ecofriendly adventure in the 106,000 hectares of the Bokeo Nature Reserve wilderness. The Gibbon Experience is essentially a series of navigable 'ziplines' criss-crossing the canopy of some of Laos' most pristine forest, home to tigers, clouded leopards, black bears and the black-crested gibbon. Seven years ago poaching was threatening the existence of the black-crested gibbon, but thanks to Animo, a conservation-based tour group, the hunters of Bokeo were convinced to become the forest's guardians. The benchmark for sustainable monkey business, this three-day experience is one of Laos' most unforgettable adventures.
4. Vang Vieng
Like a rural scene from an Oriental silk painting, Vang Vieng crouches low over the Nam Song (Song River) with a backdrop of serene cliffs and a tapestry of vivid green paddy fields. Thanks to the iron fist of the Lao government finally making its presence felt in 2012 (when the river rave bars were finally closed down), the increasingly toxic party scene has been banished and the community is recalibrating itself as an outdoor paradise home with some achingly lovely boutique hotels and a raft of adrenalin-inducing and nature-based activities.
5. River Trips
Until the 1990s, riverboats were an essential form of inter-city passenger transport in Laos. Today villagers in roadless hamlets still travel by river, while several longer distance water routes remain possible thanks in significant part to tourist interest. River trips also offer a wonderful way to discover the bucolic scenery as well as a practical alternative to tortuous bus rides. In each case the journey is an attraction in itself.
This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet Laos (8th Edition) by Nick Ray, et al. © Lonely Planet 2014. Published this month, RRP: $39.99.