Prior to the 1990s, tourism in Laos was quite literally unheard of. However, in the last 20 years, the landlocked Southeast Asian nation has become a hot spot for tourist from all over the globe, eager to take in the sights and culture in a country that has welcomed increasing numbers of visitors, but has done so without losing a sense of itself.
Besides the governmental ban on tourism being lifted several years ago, other factors have made the country far more accessible of late, including improved infrastructure as well as the addition of new roads and airports. The country’s many appeals are obvious. Laos abounds in natural beauty and there is an impressive amount of cultural and religious history on offer to visitors, especially in the ancient capital of Luang Prabang. Bizarrely perhaps one of the most appealing features is the lack of excessively commercial tourism. Visitors to Southeast Asia often find themselves disappointed by many of the countries in the region as seemingly, everything they are able to do or see on their holiday has been crafted solely for the tourism industry. Fake “ethnic” villages, overpriced and low quality food and continuos hassle to buy souvenirs and mementos can distract from the pleasure of a visit. In Laos, however, one will never have to deliberately seek out something “real”. Instead, the country simply comes to you.
The history of Laos is a tumultuous one, especially in the last century. The forces of the Cold War saw most of Southeast Asia wracked by conflict throughout the 1960s and early 70s, and Laos was not spared the influence of military action. It is the most heavily bombed nation per capita on earth, due mostly to United States-led efforts as part of its Vietnam War campaign. This history also resulted in Laos becoming one of the few remaining communist states in the world, and also means it is one of the few nations where the true cost of war can still be seen still today in bombed out sites and fields filled with the shells of artillery. However, rising from the ashes of that dark history, the Lao people today hold no grudge or ill will. Foreigners are universally welcomed, including the French and Americans that influenced the country's past in positive and negative ways.
The more positive side of Laos’ colonial past is now one of it's greatest assets when it comes to tourism. The architecture and ambience is still very much in evidence in cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, where a proliferation of French-style colonial architecture makes for a picturesque backdrop to any stay. Some of the old French buildings have been renovated to their former glory and currently operate as boutique hotels, allowing guests to escape to the past and experience a bygone era.
As the market for tourism in Laos continues to grow and develop, no doubt this sleepy nation will begin to more closely resemble her neighbours. However, for the meantime, Laos presents a rare opportunity to experience a nation as a tourist properly ought to, in its “natural form” so to speak. Lao people are a delight in and of themselves, and their warm and friendly nature will no doubt make your trip vastly more enjoyable. Travelling in Laos is an unbeatable experience, and one that is sure to make memories that last a lifetime.