The rumors are familiar to any veteran of the Southeast Asia travel circuit: It's like Thailand 20 years ago! No, really!
And yet in the case of northern Laos, they turn out to be true: gilded Buddhist temples that are places of worship rather than tour-bus stops; thriving hill-tribe villages; primordial monsoon forests that are being protected while there's still plenty to protect; regions where 85 percent of the people engage in subsistence farming among the crags, waterfalls, and winding rivers of a dreamland little touched by modernization or mass tourism. Vietnam is more heavily traveled; Cambodia is still too dicey and inaccessible.
Stunning architectureand the advent of flights from Bongkokmakes the World Heritage city of Louangphabang the ideal first stop; from April 13 to 15, the city hosts magnificent celebrations in honor of the Lao New Year.
All prices in U.S. dollars
Mostly Buddhist and animist, Laos has remained stable since September 11. Because U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War left unexploded ordnance, it is safest to hike on trails or with a guide. Acquire a visa ($35, plus a $15 service charge) through the embassy in Washington, D.C. (+1 202 332 6416; www.laoembassy.com), or upon arrival ($30).
Where to Go
Louangphabang, the former capital, lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan Rivers and contains the greatest concentration of remarkable structures in Southeast Asia, including the former homes of nobility, French colonial mansions, and 32 Buddhist temples.
Arrange day trips up the Mekong ($15 per person) to the Pak Ou caves, then sail north up the Nam Ou River to the village of Nong Khiaw and visit caverns, waterfalls, and native Hmong villages.
Continue on to Louangnamtha, the site of a UNESCO ecotourism project and the new 550,000-acre (222,577-hectare) Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area, which harbors leopards, elephants, and giant squirrels. The Nam Ha Eco-Guide Service (+856 86 211131; firstname.lastname@example.org) can book overnight trips to hill-tribe villages for $27 and up.
How to Go
Fly to Bangkok (about $700 from Los Angeles and $850 from New York) and transfer to Bangkok Airways ($250; +866 226 4565; www.bangkokair.com) to reach Louangphabang.
Travel to Nong Khiaw by boat ($5, six hours; ask about river levels during the spring dry season) or on one of the trucks known as songthaews ($1.50, four hours). Songthaews leaving Nong Khiaw for the all-day trip to Louangnamtha ($3) connect through Muang Xai. You can return to Louangphabang on Lao Aviation (+856 21 212051; www.lao-aviation.com) for $38.
Lodging and Dining
Lodging in Laos starts at just $2 for a double. Louangphabang's options include the charming Pa Phai Guest House ($8; +856 71 212752) and the regal Hotel Souvannaphoum ($60; +856 71 212200). Near Louangnamtha, the Boat Landing Guest House ($12; +856 86 312398; www.theboatlanding.laopdr.com) can help arrange local travel.
Mealstypically rice, fish, or chicken, and lots of chili pastecost $2 or less in many restaurants. To go upscale, try Louangphabang's Villa Santi Hotel (+856 71 212267; www.villasantihotel.com), where a traditional meal costs about $10.
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