Travel: Welcome to Laos, and remember not to wander too far from the paths

This beautiful, tragic country has the distinction of being the most bombed place on earth. It's also difficult to get into, but it's worth the effort, says Gareth Lloyd

THIS beautiful, sparsely populated country is finally enjoying a period of peace and relative prosperity after nearly 300 years of war and isolation. The number of foreign visitors, however, is kept down by a tangle of bureaucratic red tape, the appalling condition of the country's infrastructure, and Laos's terrible distinction of being the most bombed place on earth.

But those who take the time and trouble to visit the most mysterious of the former French Indochina colonies are well rewarded. Laos can boast exotic Eurasian cities, the mysterious Plain of Jars and one of Asia's last Shangri Las, along with superstitious tattooed tribes and some very rare beasties.

Vientiane

After a short hop from Bangkok (one of the easiest places from which to access the country and obtain a visa), most visitors begin their journey in the Laos capital, Vientiane.

It is one of three classical Indochinese cities (along with Saigon and Phnom Penh) which effortlessly manages to live up to the exotic Eurasian image its name conjures up. The tree-lined boulevards and ancient temples impart a feeling of timelessness, and even with a population of around half a million, it rarely feels crowded and intimidating.

The main sight is the glorious gold-covered Pha That Luang temple, whose four-sided spire symbolises the growth of the sacred lotus. The current form of the temple dates from the 16th century, and despite a botched restoration effort by the French earlier this century, today Pha That Luang is the national symbol of Laos and one of its most holy sites.

The Plain of Jars

Perhaps the most intriguing of Laos's sights is the mysterious Plain of Jars. Literally hundreds of 2,000-year-old stone jars have been scattered across a large area around the city of Phonsavan.

Despite clues in the form of ceramics and bronzes, archaeologists remain uncertain as to their origin and purpose. Many of the smaller jars have been taken away by collectors, although with most weighing 800kg and the biggest weighing 6 tonnes, they are not likely to all disappear in the near future.

At first the Plain of Jars may seem an idyllically beautiful place, with undulating hills drawing the eye towards the distant mountains, but wandering off the beaten track could prove fatal. The area was littered with thousands and thousands of bombs between 1964 and 1973 when it was the venue for the now infamous secret war, when the Americans surreptitiously bombed supply routes to Vietnam that passed through the country.

Luang Prabang

The former royal kingdom of Luang Prabang offers the richest pickings in terms of classical architecture. In 1995 the city joined the likes of the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat on Unesco's World Heritage List, and is regarded by many as one of Asia's last Shangri Las.

Apart from the city's 32 spectacular temples and the elegant French colonial buildings on Thanon Phothisalat, the main attraction is the Royal Palace Museum. The palace was constructed in 1904 during the early French colonial era as a residence for King Sisavang and his family. Following the kings death in 1959, his son Vatthana was prevented from ascending the throne and exiled to a cave in northern Laos (where he died).

The building features a blend of traditional Lao motifs and French beaux arts styles laid out in a double cruciform shape. The highlights inside the palace include an 83cm-tall solid gold Buddha (twice stolen by Thailand) and the royal bedrooms which have, rather eerily, been keep as they were the day the king departed.

Tribal Villages & Wildlife

The Bolaven Plateau is a centre for several Mon-Khmer ethnic groups including the Alak and the Katu, who have many interesting customs and practices. The plateau is also one of the few places in the world you stand a chance of encountering some of the world's rarest animals.

Both the Alak and the Katu are distinctive for the facial tattoos of the women and for arranging their palm and thatch houses in a communal circle. They are also renowned for their annual spring water buffalo sacrifice, where, after a prescribed period of dancing, the men begin spearing one in four of their buffalo to death. The meat is divided amongst the village, with each household placing a piece on top of a pole in front of their house as a spirit offering.

One of the most exciting zoological discoveries of recent years was the detection of the hitherto unknown spindlehorn bovid. But don't bank on running into one - these shy herbivores are rarely seen even by local people. There is a far better chance of admiring one of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins, which can sometimes be seen off the southern tip of Don Khon island between December and May.

Getting around

The quickest and easiest way of getting around Laos is by plane on one of the regular and inexpensive inter-city flights. Bus routes cover most of the country but many are washed out during the rainy season which runs from July-October, and then river ferries come into their own. Taxis, three-wheelers (saam-laws), motorbikes and bicycles are often the best options for shorter journeys.

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