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Mekhong River in the morning, Luang Prabang Photo by Teerapole Vongput, Circle Of Asia Laos is a strange place. It is a sleepy and curiously pleasant country with inhabitants among the friendliest people on earth. But it wasn't always so. Bordering Thailand across the Mekhong River in the west, Myanmar and China in the north, Vietnam to the east, and Cambodia to the south, it is a miracle this former French colony wasn't carved up as spoils to the ambitions of its powerful neighbours long ago. But it has survived somehow, in spite of having the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country per capita in history during U.S. carpet bombings of the Vietnam War.

Listed by the United Nations as one of the poorest countries in the world, the Lao People's Democratic Republic is helmed by a single socialist party, that for all its faults has maintained a relative peace there over the past 25 years. It only opened to tourism in 1989, and the government maintains a constant vigil against harmful foreign influences.

Subtle Attractions Though not high on many travellers' list of places to visit, those who do come are usually enchanted by its easy-going lifestyle, varied architecture, and its startling array of food, including Royal Laos, French, Italian and Indian cuisines - all done to perfection at incredibly low prices.

Vientiane, the capital, has a population of about 300,000 people, most of them seemingly unemployed, and a visitor could be forgiven for thinking that they must have arrived on a national holiday. The streets are virtually empty, and rush hour lasts about ten minutes, with none of the traffic snarls that characterise most Asian capitals. Most of the major tourist attractions can be covered in a day or two, but the real reason for being here is to relax, eat, have a drink by the river and watch the world slowly pass by.

Aside from a few local temples and the Victory Monument (a bizarre Asian Arc de Triomphe), one place well worth visiting is the Buddha Park about 20 kilometers east of the city. The park, designed and executed by a Laotian monk is filled with huge (and often horrific) concrete images taken from Theravada Buddhist lore, strongly reflecting the religion's Hindu roots.

A Living Museum Piece Luang Prabang, a short flight north, was the former royal capital, prior to the revolution in 1975, and has been beautifully preserved by the country's lack of development. Set on a peninsula at the confluence of three rivers, it is a marvel of ancient and colonial architecture, with contiguous temples up to 700 years old running down its spine and colonial mansions looming proudly in the sidestreets. It has changed little since the 1920s and was recently declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.




courtesy: batours
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