Mr. Koffie at Won Coffee in Paksong takes visitors on a half-day or full-day tour of local coffee plantations and shows the process from germination through roasting. The tour is peppered with anecdotes, history lessons and of course several cups of delicious joe grown right on the Bolevan Plateau. Coffee shops such as Sinouk in Pakse and Vientiane, 124 Thaluang in Pakse and Souksavan in Savannakhet serve local brews with a charming ambiance.
The people of Laos are warm and hospitable. Southeast Asia’s most sparsely populated country has fewer than seven million residents. Lowland Lao or Lao Loum makes up about two-thirds of the population. They are mostly Buddhist and part of the ethnic Thai tribe who can trace their ancestry back to China and typically cultivate wet rice. Upland Lao, or Lao Theung, make up a quarter of the population and includes groups like the Katu. The Lao Sung or Highland Lao account for around 10% and include groups such as the Hmong.
Lao people often intermix animist traditions with Buddhism. Visiting Laos means witnessing traditions such as the baci ceremony where white cotton strings are tied to the wrist to unite all 32 parts of the soul. Spirit houses can be seen in private residents, at temples and in front of businesses to appease land spirits.
Laos has a Buddhist temple for every taste. Ancient former Hindu temple cum Buddhist temple? Check! Former Royal Temple covered in glitz and mosaics? Check! Temples in caves, at waterfalls, up mountains, in the middle of down town? Check, check, check, check. Buddhist temples in Laos are in use as places of worship, study and reflection. Many people give offerings to the monks daily and new temples are constantly under construction.
Besides the distinctive Lao temple architecture of wats and stupas, visitors will notice several other distinct styles. Rural homes are typically made of wood and sit on stilts which keeps the air circulating and the living space cool in the hot season, while keeping the home from flooding in the rainy season. French-style colonial architecture can be seen in shophouses, government buildings and tree-lined boulevards in Laos’ bigger cities.
If you’re a fan of Bahn Mi, you’ll be pleased to know that the French left their mark in carbohydrates on Laos as well. Khao jee is Lao for bread and it’s common to see vendors selling sandwiches filled with egg, pate, tomatoes, veggies, mayo and ketchup by the roadside. French cafe culture has also become a mainstay in Laos, especially in Luang Prabang where you’ll find pain au chocolat at shops like Le Banneton Cafe, offering Parisian-quality baked goods at Southeast Asian prices.
“Lao country music” or “Issan folk music” is the standard in Laos. People perform choreographed line dances at weddings and in bars to a standard set of music featuring the khuy flute, khene reed instrument, xylophone and drums. Laos is also known for its intricate and finely woven textiles, silver smithing, and basketry. Try your hand at weaving at Ock Pop Tok’s workshop or check out Backstreet Academy’s bamboo weaving workshop or a host of other handicraft classes.
There is a pastoral beauty in Laos you’ll find while crossing rickety bamboo bridges, watching water buffalo graze in the rice paddies and seeing the fishermen head out at dusk as the sun sets over the river. There are mountain trails to hike, incredibly beautiful scenery and animals such as the sun and moon bears, Asian elephants, gibbons and dolphins that call Laos home.
If you’re traveling to Laos during mid-April don’t forget to pack a water gun. Pi Mai, or Lao New Year, is a three-day celebration ushering out the old, and purifying to bring in the new. Prepare to be hosed, pelted with water balloons and offered copious amounts of whiskey and Beer Lao. If city-wide water fights aren’t your thing, check out Bout That Luang in November, or the Rocket Festival in May.
Take a Lao cooking class and understand the finer points of an excellent papaya salad, the amount of work that goes into the perfect basket of sticky rice and how to wrap fish in banana leaves to steam over a charcoal stove. If you’re more keen on eating food than making it, the myriad of street food choices at the night markets in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet will be a feast for your eyes as well as your stomach. Hot pots, grills meats, fresh fruits and noodles galore are on offer in Laos.
Want to zip-line between tree houses in the rainforest? Kayak in the Mekong River? How about go rock climbing in the limestone karst mountains? Laos has all that and more including tubing, trekking, and cycling. There are tons of caves to explore, dirt bike tracks to ride and waterfalls to swim in. It’s an outdoor lover’s paradise.