Most first-timers to Laos follow a very well trodden route: Enter from Thailand in the north, take a two-day boat trip to Luang Prabang, then head to Vang Vieng for tubing, and then on to Vientiane (the capital) and either return to Thailand, or fly to Vietnam. Luckily it's easy to get off the beaten track. In the north, head to Luang Nam Tha or Muang Sing for trekking and village walks; Phonsavan for the Plain of Jars; Nong Kiaow for some laidback scenery. Or, in the south, check out the massive Kong Lo cave near Tha Khaek; try an island homestay near Champassak; or for the really intrepid try out the volcano lake out past Attapeu.
It's all too easy to cruise through Laos without meeting barely a single Lao person - don't let it be this way. Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world and all assistance is welcome. Try your hand at volunteering while you're there - there are loads of opportunities in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane for this. Vientiane even has a monkchat - you can find them at Wat Ong Theu.
Well, not you yourself, but don't be shy when a complete stranger buttonholes you into a Lao wedding. You will expect to dance, eat, drink and drink some more. It is a great experience and one of those uniquely Lao memories. Tip: The dancing is easy, but even easier after a few shots of lao lao.
Getting a full grasp of the Lao language is quite a challenge, but the rudiments are, well, rudimentary. Counting, hello and thank you are all easy to learn and can be picked up in a few hours. World Nomads has a handy Laos Language app to help you along the way. Numbers will especially help in bargaining. And don't forget "Bor Pen Nyang" it means "never mind" or "you're welcome".
Beer is cheap in Laos. Lao Lao (locally made ricewine) is even cheaper - and really carries a kick. Laos is a hot country and drinking a lot, in a short period of time will go to your head quicker than you may be used to. Laos is overall a very safe country, but if you start to really lose control, others may take advantage. Note that in Vang Vieng, where there is a, let's say, liberal policy on drugs, anything marked as "happy" refers to what is in the food - not the attitude of the waiters - so don't buy a "happy shake" for the kids.
Laos is a small country but the infrastructure is very poor. Don't be surprised when your 200km bus trip takes 10+ hours. In wet season, landslides and breakdowns can further hamper getting around. The best antidote to this is to try and see fewer places in more time. To do the country top to tail requires at least three weeks, yet people routinely do it in one. Slow down, and, if your time is limited, save the South for the next trip!
"I travelled up north from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha and then another 3 hours up the mountains via truck to Muang Sing. With each mile travelled, I felt like I was really, truly getting off the beaten path... although was still glad for a few guest houses with open doors and places to eat when we arrived.
I went to the local/community run trekking office in Muang Sing the following day and found a guide to take us even further up the mountain for a homestay trek over 2 days. This was one of the best things I've ever done in my life - such an eye opener about a life without electricity, cars, roads or running water. Nonetheless, I also discovered a lot about the commonality of humans, family life and laughter.
I've done homestays in Sapa, Vietnam and loved the interaction with families and the slow time it takes to wander through the countryside... but doing this in northern Laos took it to a whole new level. Highly recommended."
- Christy McCarthy, WorldNomads.com
"We hopped on a bus in the early hours of the morning, leaving Vang Vieng behind us and headed for a small town called Phonsovan. We were in search of a place known as the 'plain of jars' - an area of rural fields and plains that feature enormous stone jars, carved out of boulders some two thousand years ago.
The bus trip was an adventure in itself, as we drove on for about eight hours through steep winding roads through the innner north of Laos. As the bus ambled past carts being towed by donkeys we realised we were well and truly off the beaten path.
At Phonsovan, we were greeted by owners of the the guest house, which featured a large collection of land mines and bombs in the front reception. This was a reminder that we were in the most heavily bombed country in the world. (Laos was bombed non-stop from 1963 to 1974 in a secret operation against the Vietcong supply chain during the Vietnam war.) We were told on our visit to the plains to only walk between the guided markers otherwise risk ourselves to UXOs (unexploded ordinance).
The jars, as they are known, were simply amazing. Looking out over the dusty fields of Laos across hundreds of large, human sized, carved out boulders, you're left wondering "what were they used for?". Nobody seems to know, although there are many theories, including food and water storage, fermentation of drink, and even human burial.
As we looked across the field of jars as the hazy red glow of sunlight gave way to dusk, I realised this was one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth I had ever been."
– Ian Cumming, Travellr.com