Stepping out of the Shadows
Burma is garnering all the publicity, but nearby Laos has equal sites and spirituality, with lower costs and none of the crowds. Southeast Asia specialist Jack Tydeman compares the two.
Monks at the temple of Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang.
My first trip to Laos in 2001 was one I would never forget. After enjoying frantic Thailand, I took a slow boat into the heart of Laos, and it is fair to say that from that point on the pace was slow and serene. Tourism had yet to envelope the country in the same way it has some of its neighbours; even Vang Vieng, destined to become a party town, was an idyll surrounded by limestone crags and spectacular scenery.
Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, it is Burma that Laos is most often compared to – both are deeply spiritual and share many similarities. However, in recent years Burma has taken the limelight, and once again Laos is in the shadow of one of its larger neighbours. As I found on my latest trip in August, it still has so much to offer and remains a country well worth exploring.
Cities & Culture
Mandalay vs Luang Prabang
Mandalay is a popular destination for those travelling to Burma. Highlights include the Shwesandaw Pagoda, which has some exquisite woodcarvings, the Kuthodaw Pagoda and the views from Mandalay Hill. Rubbing shoulders with locals at the jade market or heading to a neighbourhood teahouse are also simple ideas that allow you to get under the city’s skin. Note, Mandalay is large and can only be fully explored by car.
If it’s the experience of city life and the exploration of cultural sites you are after, Luang Prabang is a must for the first time visitor to Laos. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it really has retained its charm. Whether you wake early to observe the monks collecting alms or stroll between some of the many spectacular temples in its small centre, there is an air of tranquillity that still remains thanks to its careful development.
Brimming with a vibrant arts and craft scene, Luang Prabang has excellent galleries and antiques shops; there are also superb restaurants – in general the food is great throughout the country. For beer connoisseurs (such as myself) it is also worth noting that Beerlao is among the best in Asia!
Laos fact file
Flight time from UK
14.5 hours (via Bangkok)
When to go
The best time to travel is from November through to April, when the weather is warm and dry with cool nights. Temperatures begin to rise in March, with the rains usually breaking sometime in May or June. In brief: Laos is the undiscovered jewel at the heart of Indochina. It’s a country of stunning beauty, natural charm and friendly people, with a relaxed way of life that’s impossible to resist. Read our full guide about the best time to visit Laos.
Waterways & beyond
Irrawaddy vs Mekong
Both Laos and Burma have vital waterways at their hearts. The iconic Irrawaddy in Burma is romantically cemented in the imagination and is one of the very best ways to travel the country. Indeed, Burma is spoilt for choice when it comes to options for being on the river – though they are quite upmarket, with higher prices to reflect this.
However, it is the mighty Mekong, which snakes through Laos, that I favour. One of the most relaxing ways to enter or leave Laos is aboard a Luang Say Cruise, which sails from northern Thailand to the spiritual heart of Laos via spectacular scenery, with steep cliffs, rice terraces, and fishing villages all forming a beautiful backdrop. If time is not at a premium this is my favourite way to arrive in Luang Prabang, staying at a local village by the river en route and enjoying some superb food as you travel.
There are also opportunities to stay overnight on board some great boats as well. The Wat Phou Rice Barge, based in southern Laos, explores the spectacular 4,000 Islands area, while a new bespoke cruiser, the Mekong Sun, is able to venture into the wilder regions of the Upper Mekong.
Pagan vs Wat Phou
Both Laos and Burma are well endowed when it comes to fascinating historical sites. Around 2,200 12th and 13th century temples and pagodas sit on the sprawling but spectacular plain of Pagan, which is one of the most photographed areas in Burma. It is truly iconic, and a panorama I will never forget. The beautiful temples of Laos’ UNESCO-listed Wat Phou trump Pagan by several centuries. Also predating Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex, Wat Phou was built in the ninth and tenth centuries, and is a glimpse into a culture you are rarely able to experience elsewhere. It sits close to the banks of the Mekong in the south and boasts spectacular views.
Getting off the beaten track
Chin State, Burma vs Southern Laos
Travel within Burma is still relatively restricted. While new areas are opening up all the time, it is still hard to break free of the traditional routes, though we are exploring new options continually. Heading into the hills of the northern Chin State is a great example of this – the Dai, Muun and Chin villages form a backdrop to a fascinating tour.
Within Laos there is more flexibility. The north of the country offers spectacular scenery and remote villages, connected by river and road through rugged terrain. In the centre, exploring Kong Lor Cave is a real highlight; in the south you can head out to the coffee and tea plantations of the Bolaven Plateau and spot Irrawaddy dolphin in the 4,000 Islands. This can tie in nicely with an exciting overland adventure into Cambodia or Vietnam, making Laos a superb country to combine with other places in the region.
Limited vs choice
The surge in popularity of travelling to Burma in recent years has meant that the best accommodation is hard to secure. Flexibility is often needed, with travel to the country focused on its myriad amazing experiences rather than its hotels. Travelling a little out of season can help, or organising things a year in advance – particularly if you want to stay at some of the smaller boutique hotels that are perennially popular.
You are far more spoilt for choice when it comes to hotels in Laos. Rates are reasonable, and during my last trip I explored some superb options, from small guesthouses to opulent luxury. Throughout the country there are some great places, such as the lovely La Folie Lodge on the banks of the Mekong in the 4,000 Islands, a beautiful boutique villa in Vientiane or the superb Amantaka in Luang Prabang. Whether you are travelling in Laos or Burma you will find that the people truly are some of the most friendly and hospitable, making it a pleasure and privilege to travel. With Burma burgeoning, Laos can be a superb alternative. It has all the highlights you want from a trip, just without the crowds.
Burma fact file
GMT+6 1/2 hours
Flight time from the UK
14 1/2 hours (Yangon, via Bangkok)
When to go
The ideal time to visit is during the dry season, which falls between November and May. Certain regions can be very wet during our summer months, but due to the size of the country it is possible to avoid these areas and still enjoy a worthwhile tour. The hills can be cold in our winter and the plains of Bagan and Mandalay are very hot during our summer with only short heavy showers interrupting the sunshine. Read our full guide about the best time to visit Burma (Myanmar).