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Less than a decade ago, Laos (pop. 5.25 million) was largely unknown to Western travellers. Other than a brief period during the 1960s, when the former French colony became a player in the Vietnam War , it has been largely ignored by the West - a situation that only intensified after the 1975 revolution and the years of xenophobic communist rule that ensued. However, since the Lao People's Democratic Republic reluctantly reopened its doors in the 1990s, a steady flow of visitors has trickled into this poverty-stricken, old-fashioned country, and a few traveller-oriented services have begun to emerge. For many, a journey through Laos consists of a whistlestop tour through the two main towns of Vientiane and Louang Phabang, with perhaps a brief detour to the mysterious Plain of Jars or ancient Wat Phou. However, those willing to explore further and brave difficult roads and basic, candlelit accommodation will be rewarded with sights of a rugged natural landscape and ethnically diverse people not much changed from those that greeted French explorers more than a century ago.

Laos's life-line is the Mekong River , which runs the length of the landlocked country and in places serves as a boundary with Thailand. Set on a broad curve of the Mekong, Vientiane is perhaps Southeast Asia's most modest capital city, and provides a smooth introduction to Laos, offering a string of cosmopolitan cafAŠs to compensate for a relative lack of sights. From here, most tourists dash north, usually by plane, to Louang Phabang , though it's worth taking more time and doing the journey by bus, stopping off en route at the town of Vang Viang , set in a spectacular landscape of rice paddies and karsts. Once the heart and soul of the ancient kingdom of Lane Xang , tiny, cultured Louang Phabang is Laos's most enticing destination, with a spellbinding panoply of gilded temples and weathered shop-houses. The wild highlands of the far north aren't the easiest to get around, but the prospect of trekking to nearby hilltribe villages has put easy-going Muang Sing on the map. From here, you can travel to the Burmese border at Xiang Kok , and then down the Mekong River to Houayxai , an entry point popular with travellers arriving from Thailand in search of a slow boat for the picturesque journey south to Louang Phabang. Lost in the misty mountains of the far northeast, the provincial capital of Xam Nua gives access to Viang Xai , where the Pathet Lao directed their resistance from deep within a vast cave complex. Following Route 6 south brings you to the ramshackle town of Phonsavan , set beside the Plain of Jars , a moonscape of bomb craters dotted with very ancient funerary urns. In the south, the vast majority of travellers zip down Route 13, stopping off in the three major southern towns: uninteresting Thakhek , the genial and cultural Savannakhet - also a handy border crossing with Thailand, and offering buses to Vietnam too - and the important transport hub of Pakxe . Further south, near the former royal seat of Champasak , lie the ruins of Wat Phou , the greatest of the Khmer temples outside Cambodia. South again, the countless river islands of Si Phan Don lie scattered across the Mekong, boasting scores of traditional fishing communities and the chance to spot the rare Irawaddy dolphin.

November to January are the pleasantest months to travel in lowland Laos, when daytime temperatures are agreeably warm and evenings slightly chilly; at higher elevations temperatures can drop to freezing point. In February, temperatures begin to climb, reaching a peak in April, when the lowlands are baking hot and humid. Generally, the rains begin in May and last until September, rendering many of Laos's roads impassable.

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