Laos has been a latecomer to Western to South East Asia but is fast growing now as a destination, with a developing fascination with the slow pace of life, spectacular natural attractions and fascinating history, which it shares with many of its neighbours. The only land-locked country in South East Asia, Laos has a population of just 6.2 million and borders on Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Laos broadly imitates the shape of Vietnam, with whom it shares its entire eastern border, as a long narrow country. Vientiane is the official capital and Luang Prabang the ceremonial capital and the two are the hubs for direct flights from all other parts of South East Asia.
Similar to Vietnam, in many ways, Laos is now seeing development of luxury hotels and resorts on a limited scale accompanied by a rise in western tourism, generally as part of a tour of countries in the region. Typically, tourists may be visiting Thailand, Cambodia and Laos or Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
The rich history of Laos includes it being the site of the find in 2009 of the oldest human fossil yet found in South East Asia – at least 46,000 years old. The Kingdom of Lan Xang (kingdom of a million elephants) was founded in the 14th century by Lao prince Fa Ngum centred on the capital of Luang Prabang. The capital moved to Vientiane in 1520 and the country split into 3 principalities – Luang Phrabang, Vientiane and Champasak – of which the former came under Burmese control and the latter under Thai control. The principalities were united again as one country only in 1893 under French control. Laos eventually gained its independence in 1953. French influences in the country remain very strong. Laos is a part of ASEAN, the South East Asia political and economic community.
Vientiane is the capital and the largest city in Laos, as well as the country’s economic centre. That said, with a population of just 754,000 (2009) it is tiny in size compared to some South East Asia metropolises such as Bangkok, Manila, Hong Kong and Singapore. It is a place of stunning Buddhist temples and one time glorious French mansions and monuments. Centred on the Mekong riverside, it is also rich in markets and cuisine, with strong Asian and French influences, its easy going life is a huge relief from the teeming streets of other capitals in the region.
Ancient royal capital, Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site and focus point of developing tourism to Laos. Set 700 meters above sea level at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan (Khan river), the city is surrounded by mountains. Keeping much of its old world but other world life, Luang Prabang is a place of rich green vegetation, colourful flowers, ancient Buddhist temples, hundreds of monks in their saffron robes collecting alms each morning, busy markets and decaying French colonial architecture, some now restored into glorious hotels. Set in the centre of Laos, Luang Prabang sits alongside important highways linking Thailand with China. However, its UNESCO World Heritage Site status keeps the city itself clear of buses and trucks and most traffic consists of bicycles and motorcycles and the city remains cocooned in its 19th century French colonial state with some notable but unobtrusive concessions to the 21st century.
Images of Luang Prabang, Laos:
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