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LAOS


Novice monks, Luang Prabang That Luang, the national shrine in Vientiane, Laos Hmong children, Plain of Jars


This land-locked, mountainous territory is one of the least developed countries anywhere - and its people, comprising 68 ethnic groups, amongst the most welcoming


Meandering down the Mekong. There's almost an armada of boutique cruise ships plying the lower reaches of the mighty Mekong, journeying through the lowlands of Cambodia and the Tonle Sap lake, or winding through the labyrinthine Delta south of Ho Chi Minh City, the Saigon of old. Head upstream to sleepy, landlocked Laos and it's a different story altogether. For much of its length, the world's tenth-longest river defines the western boundary of this often-overlooked country many travellers consider one of Asia's hidden gems. Long-distance navigation in the upper reaches of the Mekong is fatally obstructed by rapids and sandbars, a hard reality confronted by nineteenth-century French explorers and empire-builders. Fortunately, operators like Mekong River Cruises (a Lao-German joint venture) have in recent years commissioned purpose-built cabin cruisers to negotiate stretches of these waters.


Never let a beetle piss in your eye. Dong Natad, the Sacred Forest revered by the people of the somnolent city of Savannakhet in central Laos, is not exactly the heart of darkness, but there are wondrous things to see - or to avoid - with the help of forest-wise guides, employed through a newly-established 'eco-trek' program. We are escorted into the forest by the petite Ms Sinakhone Sengphalichanh - "call me Nicky" - from the provincial tourism bureau, and Mr Soda Chanla, a member of one of the local forest-dwelling minority peoples. Before long, the seemingly monotonous forest stretching either side of a puddled track resolves into a medley of individual specks of life. To prove the point, Soda grabs a passing scorpion and eats it - live - with gusto. But, he warns, large black-and-yellow beetles produce a urine which can cause temporary blindness.


Luang Prabang: capital of a vanished kingdom, returns to life Slumbering beside the Mekong amidst the mountains of northern Laos, Luang Prabang must be the only Asian city in which one hardly need look before crossing the street. With its 32 Buddhist temples the former royal capital of Laos is the best-preserved historic city in South-East Asia, according to UNESCO. Every block or so, another brightly tiled, many-tiered roof sweeps low to the ground. Whitewashed French colonial villas, even the former townhouse of a princess, convert readily to chic yet eminently affordable boutique accommodations. Until a few short years ago, Luang Prabang was linked to an unsuspecting world only by rutted tracks – and by the Mekong. But as the flow of tourists swells to a torrent, change is gathering pace in one of Asia's most delightful backwaters.


Land of a Million Elephants – or should that be irrelevants? This land-locked, mountainous territory the size of Great Britain, a patchwork of 68 ethnic groups, is one of the world’s least developed countries – and its people amongst the most welcoming you’ll find anywhere. Haggle for shimmering silks or stock up on beetles and buffalo blood....

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