It might be experiencing a tourism boom – foreign tourist arrivals hit an all-time high of 3.8 million in 2013, exceeding official targets of 3.4 million – but Laos remains one of the sleepier backwaters of Asia, and is a great destination for seeing something different. Aside from Luang Prabang and Vientiane, try these three for size.
1. Vieng Xai: The huge cave complex in this northeastern region is where the Communist Pathet Lao ran operations against the US-backed royal government in the 1960s. Get there on a quick songthaew ride from provincial capital Sam Neua, which itself is a long (12 hours) but pretty bus ride from Luang Prabang.
2. Luang Namtha: Up in the very north, Luang Namtha is the perfect launching pad for interesting trekking into surrounding hills. Being on the traditional China to Laos backpacker route, it has plenty of tourist infrastructure, but it’s all still very mellow. Fly from Vientiane or take a 10-hour bus from Luang Prabang.
3. Si Phan Don: At the other end of Laos, on the southern border with Cambodia, is Si Phan Don whose name (“4,000 islands”) gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect: pretty Mekong scenes, kayaking, biking, hiking, relaxing. Reach it via an eight-hour bus from Pakse, or cross over from Cambodia itself.