Laos is often overlooked in favor of its more popular, bustling neighbors of Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east, but there are so many reasons to go this little landlocked gem — and there’s no better time than 2016.
1. Obama’s visiting.
Decades after the U.S. heavily bombed the country, Barack Obama will be attending one of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ economic summits in Laos, scheduled for this spring and fall in the capital city of Vientiane. ASEAN, a major event drawing leaders from nine other area countries, is prompting Laos to be ready with upgraded infrastructure — a welcome development for travelers, too.
2. See it before it’s completely overrun by tourists.
Compared to much of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, Laos is largely under the typical tourist’s radar. While there’s no question the rowdy backpacker crowds have found Vang Vieng, the northwestern city known for its tubing drunkfest along the Nam Song River, their party path spares much of the rest of the Laos, which still feels authentically mellow. Even the nation’s biggest cities, capital Vientiane and Luang Prabang, are pleasantly quiet, full of a sleepy sort of charm.
3. Get good bang for your buck.
With boutique hotels starting at just $35 per night for standard doubles and restaurants that serve full-service meals sans tips, Laos boasts budget-friendly options around every corner. The country’s small tourist footprint means your cash will go far — and as the Laotian economy struggles to cope with corruption and a lack of foreign investment, lots of locals who rely on tourism will be grateful for your business. (Good to know: Children who beg in the streets often turn over the money they get to exploiting adults; if you want to help, it’s better to support local businesses or organizations that work directly with the community.)
4. Enjoy a slower pace of life.
If you’re seeking a simpler, slower year ahead, Laos is where to find it. Local “Laotian time” means that no one’s in a hurry to get anywhere or do anything. This may frustrate the punctual set, but try to let go and find the joy of giving up control — linger over meals, miss the bus, wander around, and stay that extra day (or 10). This is the way Laos is meant to be experienced.
5. Taste the rising restaurant scene.
Laos may not be world-renowned for its food, the way Thailand is for pad thai or Vietnam is for pho and banh mi sandwiches, but we think that Laotian food is actually some of the best of Southeast Asia. And the country’s chefs and eateries are on a mission to prove it, with cuisine ranging from classic Laotian — think: a sweet-and-bitter balance of sticky rice, fresh fruits, minced meat laap, and fermented fish padaek — to French, Japanese, Indian, Italian, and beyond. For the best selection, head to Luang Prabang or Vientiane.