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Laos has launched “Visit Laos Year 2018” to bring tourists to discover Southeast Asia’s landlocked hidden jewel. With cultural festivals, untouched natural beauty and a lack of the western commercialism rampant in other parts of the region, there’s no better time to book your ticket. Set your travel goals for Laos once you’ve seen these 18 reasons to visit in 2018.
Luang Namtha Province is the most ethnically diverse region in Southeast Asia, with over 20 minority groups living in the mountains. Each has their own customs, religious beliefs, textiles, music and architectural styles. Trekking in Luang Namtha to visit villages and speak with the locals (who often speak Lao in addition to their own languages) can be organized with a guide. Homestays can also be arranged, to dive deeper into the traditions of this region.
Laos has impressive waterfalls, like the aquamarine multi-tiered Kuang Si falls in Luang Prabang, and the raging Khone Phapheng Falls near 4000 Islands, on the Cambodia border. Swim in the basins, hike through the jungles and bask in the beauty of these natural wonders.
Boun That Luang is celebrated in Vientiane at the end of November. That Luang, or the Great Stupa, is a huge golden temple and a national symbol of Laos. It is said to house relics in the form of hair and a piece of bone from the Buddha. The religious portion of the festival involves monks and lay Buddhists from around the country making a pilgrimage to the stupa. Fireworks, trade shows, parades and parties are also part of the celebration.
Lao food is a delicious, if sometimes challenging, culinary realm. Eat your fill of glutinous sticky rice served in bamboo baskets with spicy jeow, grilled fish, fried morning glory or bamboo soup. Try eating insects or animal organs if you have an adventurous palate, or play it safe and stick to delightful tropical fruits, fried rice and noodle soups.
In Oudomxay Province in the north of Laos, the Khmu New Year Festival takes place from December 30 to January 1. The people celebrate with colorful traditional dress, dancing, singing and traditional ethnic games. The Khmu give thanks to their ancestors at this time and pray for peace in the upcoming year. Book a trek or homestay to learn more about the Khmu and see life in the province.
Handicrafts in Laos are meticulously crafted and unique to the regions in which they are created. Silk weaving in Laos is traditionally women’s work and is done on large looms constructed under Lao homes, which are built on stilts. Smithing of silver and other precious metals is also widely practised in Laos by certain monks and hill tribes, such as the Hmong people.
Ten ethnic groups in Xekong Province will host the City Pilar Festival January 1–3 in Mayhuameuang Village. Laos has roughly 150 recognized ethnicities, and the City Pilar Festival is a time to celebrate the uniqueness of each group. Performances include traditional song and dance, and a banana leaf stupa parade. An Alms Giving ceremony and market fair is part of the festival, too.
Laos is a majority Buddhist nation, and you can’t get very far without running into an intricately painted temple or wat. Some of the most ornate temples are in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital. Historic temples like That Luang and Wat Si Saket can be found in Vientiane. If you travel to Champasak Province in southern Laos, Vat Phou (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is worth a visit. The ancient Khmer temple ruins attracts thousands in the middle of the third lunar month for traditional dancing, sporting events and music.
In Borikhamxay Province, the Phonsan Stupa Festival takes place at the end of January. The festival celebrates this 1000-year-old stupa, which was named a provincial cultural heritage site in 2016. People come to gather and pray as well as see the Buddha’s footprint, where they make merit by putting gold leaf or money onto the print.
The Nam Song in Vang Vieng is famous as a tubing hot spot. Rent a tractor tire inner tube and head upstream. Lazily float down the river and take in the beautiful karst mountains and lush green foliage. Join the party at any of a number of riverside bars for volleyball, beers, dancing and mingling with other tubers. When you’re ready to continue, jump back on your tube and away you go.
Laos has some of the most magnificent caves in Asia. Some are major tourist attractions, with restaurants and bamboo bungalows outside and laser lights and concrete walkways inside. Others are pitch black and filled with water. Visitors sit in a tube or ride in a boat through caves illuminated with headlamps. Some caves are pilgrimage locations and are filled with Buddhist statues and offerings.
The Kapok Flower Festival, also known as Dok Ngiew, is held in Bokeo Province in February or March when the Kapok trees bloom. Over 10,000 people attend the festival annually, which takes place at Don Sao island in Ton Peung district. It includes market fairs, dancing, a beauty pageant, sporting events and parties. The festivities all take place near the colorful blossoms, which bloom on 40 hectares in Bokeo.
Bring your super soaker! Pi Mai, or Lao New Year, will take place April 14–16, 2018. The country celebrates with huge water fights in the streets. Also called Sonkran, this festival revolves around water, the symbol of renewal in Buddhist iconography, and temples and homes are cleaned. Parades, beauty pageants and big parties round out the fun.
While damming of rivers, poaching and mining threaten the Lao wilderness, there are still huge areas of untouched land where elephants, tigers, birds and other native species live in the wild. The Mekong River is home to the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, and the northern mountains in Bokeo are home to gibbons. Laos is also home to many species of orchids, champa, and magnolias.
The Sikhot Stupa Festival is held in Khammuane Province on the full moon of the third lunar month. The stupa was renovated by Lao Buddhists in 1945 after Laos declared itself independent from France. The stupa and surrounding town is decorated with ribbons and lights. A night market sells food and souvenirs and the faithful gather at the stupa.
Boun Ok Phansa is a festival on the last day of Buddhist lent that happens every autumn, in the middle of the 11th lunar month. Laos celebrates with boat racing festivals in several provinces. Teams train and compete in long boat races in Vientiane, Savanakhet, Salavan Province and Luang Prabang. Candle-lit processions take place around temples and floats decorated with flowers and incenses are set afloat in the rivers to thank the water spirits.
That Inhang is a sacred stupa said to house one of Buddha’s bones, located in Savannakhet Province. Every November a festival is held here to commemorate a sermon Buddha delivered here, followed by a rest he took under a tree at this location. The festival includes traditional dancing, a fair with rides and food and stalls to buy textiles and souvenirs.
The Hmong people make up the third largest ethnic group in Laos. Every year, big celebrations of the Hmong New Year take place in Xieng Khuang, Vientiane and Xaysomboun provinces. Courting rituals take place between young men and women at this time, in the form of a ball tossing game and the singing of courting songs.