G Adventures offers homestays with Laotian villagers so that clients can learn about the local culture. // © 2016 Bartosz Hadyniak
Feature image (above): The lifeblood of Laos comes from its two major rivers, including the Mekong. // © 2016 Brian Raisbeck
The littlest Laotian monks did most of the smiling. Swirled in saffron, with alms bowls slung over their shoulders, the younger fellows couldn’t seem to help themselves. They laughed regularly, only stifling the joyful outbursts when met with stern looks from older colleagues.
Rain tapped a gentle rhythm over the meandering, single-file line of brilliant orange umbrellas headed my way, and a steaming container of rice — placed next to a basketful of sweet packaged treats — sat before me as I kneeled on a sidewalk in Luang Prabang, the one-time capital of Laos.
“Just use your hands for the rice,” said Suree Pongnopparat, my guide. “And try to give treats to the boys.”
Before long, I was hurrying to drop a warm handful of rice into each alms bowl that passed by while also doing my best to make sure none of the younger Buddhists went without a sugary snack. I ran out of sweets pretty quickly, though, and soon after, I had handed out the last of my rice.
Dozens more monks walked by me after all my food was gone, each of them shielding closely cropped hairdos from the rain with an umbrella, but I don’t think any of them went hungry. Even on that drizzly morning in June, typically part of the low season for Laos tourism, Luang Prabang’s historic main drag was busy with visitors, all hoping to put something to eat into as many alms bowls as possible.
“The procession is also popular with locals,” said Karen Hogue, owner of Wonderful World Journeys in Seattle. “Monks only eat what they’re given, so local people will always get up at 4:30 a.m. and make an offering.”
Hogue has traveled to Luang Prabang several times and sent a number of clients to the destination over the years. For her, the morning alms procession “is the most fun thing to do” in town, but she concedes the experience isn’t for everyone, largely due to the early start time.
“It depends on the client,” she said. “But I’ll often arrange for a guide to meet them at 4:30 in the morning and explain to them what’s happening. That way they really understand the culture, the religion and the spiritual nature of the offerings and what it all means.”
Only slightly larger than Utah and home to just under 7 million residents, Laos is a destination often overlooked by travelers considering a visit to Southeast Asia. Officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the nation just isn’t a place most Americans know much about.
“Laos is one of those countries with a lot of highlights but, unfortunately, it’s not a place where people think of going,” said Yves Marceau, vice president of buying for G Adventures. “Laos as its own destination doesn’t sell. It’s really hard to get people to go to Laos from the U.S. We can get people to go to Thailand. We can get people to go to Vietnam. We can now even get people to go to Cambodia, but to get them to go to only Laos is close to impossible.”
On the other hand, combining time in Laos with a visit to some of its neighbors is a vacation option that’s increasingly popular, according to Marceau.
“Our trips that include Laos have seen a 20 percent increase this last year,” he said.
Mark Grundy, managing director of Avanti Destinations’ recently debuted Asia division, says the wholesaler has also seen strong demand for products containing Laos components.
“Our phone lines only opened 10 days ago for Asia,” Grundy said in early December. “But we’re getting a good stream of calls, and because now is the season to travel to Southeast Asia, we’re already receiving bookings for Laos.”
Hogue told me, however, that she doesn’t send first-time travelers to Asia to Laos, explaining that it’s not for those looking to just “sit on the beach and read.”
“Laos is a better fit for someone interested in a cultural adventure,” she said. “And for foodies.”
For Paul Tomasch, director of ICS Travel Group, a supplier working closely with Avanti, Laos makes the best sense for travelers hoping to explore beyond the familiar Southeast Asian destinations.
“There is a group of people who have more interest in the classic, authentic charm of Asia, and they want to visit countries that their neighbors haven’t been to,” he said. “People who want a more in-depth look at the culture and history of Asia are the ones who will go to Laos.”
Can’t-Miss Former Capital
Talk with tourism industry people who know Laos well, and they will all tell you Luang Prabang is a must-see. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town’s historic district is bordered by both the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is loaded with colonial French architecture, exotic temples and fabulous food.
“Luang Prabang is certainly the jewel in the crown,” said Christopher Hill, founder of Hands Up Holidays, an FIT voluntourism provider. “It’s just a stunning, laid-back and very spiritual little town.”
For ICS Travel Group’s Tomasch, Luang Prabang offers travelers a chance to step back in time.
“It’s still that charming Asia from 30 or 40 years ago,” he said. “You can walk through town and explore the temples, visit the pagodas, the markets and the monks and see the local lifestyle. It’s a great place to really see authentic, old Asia.”
Many visitors opt to stay in the center of town, choosing from a number of boutique hotels housed in the destination’s gorgeous colonial buildings. One of travel agent Hogue’s favorite Luang Prabang properties is Maison Souvannaphoum, situated very close to the city’s historic heart.
“The property is just a five-minute walk to the night market and has a great pool and spa,” she said. “The rooms are bright and open, and the architecture is French colonial but undeniably Laotian. The maison used to belong to a member of the royal family.”
High-end travelers may also be interested in La Residence Phou Vao, which is located outside of the town’s center but just a short shuttle ride or taxi trip into the historic district.
“It’s an Orient Express property and a great option for older travelers or honeymooners looking for luxury,” Hogue said. “The views are exceptional, and the service is excellent.”
Opportunities to soak in Luang Prabang’s spiritual culture are certainly plentiful. Along with the popular morning alms procession, which traces much of the central Sakkaline and Sisavangvong roads, visitors will want to check out the town’s temples and monasteries, including the standout Wat Xieng Thong, with its distinctive low-sweeping roofs and intricately gilded exterior.
“One of the things people should absolutely do is participate in an evening monk ceremony at one of the temples,” Marceau said. “You do have to be prepared to sit close to an hour with your legs crossed on the floor in the background, but you can hear the monks chanting and see the whole celebration.”
G Adventures often takes its Luang Prabang clients to the evening ceremony at Wat Visoun, one of the city’s oldest monasteries, founded in the 1500s. On his last visit, Marceau encountered several younger monks giggling through some of the ceremony.
“I was there with a group of older people, and the young monks were giggling because there were all these white-haired, older people sitting in the back,” Marceau said. “At the end of the ceremony, they all came out and talked with the group, trying to practice their English, and it was just a really friendly, engaging experience.”
I spent the first full day of my June visit to Laos onboard a traditional long boat, cruising upstream on the Mekong River from a small village near the northern Thai border toward Luang Prabang. With its swirling eddies and twisting currents, in water so brown it reminded me of chocolate milk, the river provided a wonderful setting for a laid-back journey through the striking natural beauty of Laos, while also offering a glimpse into the developing nation’s village life.
“The Mekong runs through the whole country from north to south, and it’s the lifeline,” said Tomasch, who explained that there are a number of different products travelers can enjoy on the river. “It’s an area where you see people washing their clothes along the banks and farming and drying rice. When you cruise the Mekong, you see what Laos is all about.”
Hogue often combines trips to Thailand and Laos for clients by connecting stays in Chang Rai and Luang Prabang with multiday boat journeys along the Mekong. She also encourages clients to visit the southern Laos city of Pakse and the Si Phan Don region farther downstream, where the Mekong widens around a collection of some 4,000 islands.
“It’s a beautiful area and very remote,” she said, adding that travelers may have a chance to spot pink dolphins on southern sections of the Mekong. “There are places to stay that meet Western standards, so the infrastructure is there. It’s just that nobody has heard of it. It’s an amazing place with a lot of village life. You go to see the sights, but the everyday life you see along the way is fascinating.”
Travelers looking for more exposure to everyday Laotian life may want to consider a G Adventures’ itinerary featuring homestays in small villages outside the city of Van Vieng in the north. Many outdoor activities are available, including river rafting and hiking. According to Marceau, G’s homestay overnights in the region help Laotian villagers by bringing tourism revenue directly to them — allowing people to remain in their home communities rather than chasing visitor dollars in the cities.
“It also offers our clients wonderful proximity to the people and proximity to the local culture,” he said. “And they’re helping support a family in northern Laos, and that feel-good effect means a lot to people.”
Travelers who want to give back further may want to learn more about Hands Up Holidays’ Laos products. Clients on the fully customizable itineraries can volunteer for several days during a visit to villages in the country’s northern region, where they can build classrooms, help provide medical care or teach English.
“It’s not purely 100 percent volunteering, but an aspect of the visit can be,” said Hill of Hands Up Holidays. “And this part of our trips offers clients an opportunity to get real insight into people’s lives.”
Those interested in the more contemporary, urban life of Laos should schedule time in the capital city of Vientiane, a destination Hogue enjoys tremendously.
“It’s a little bit more fast-paced, but there’s hardly a building that is more than four stories tall,” she said. “People are a bit more educated, and more of them speak English. It certainly feels like a city, but at the same time, it’s a city with water buffalo wandering down the street.”
Tourism pros regularly encourage travelers to explore beyond Luang Prabang, praising the rich cultural authenticity across the country.
“Laos pretty much has something for everybody,” Hill said.