It is surrounded by destinations that have taken advantage of the boom in river cruising for years, but Laos is only now starting to test the waters.
In general, tourism to Laos is still somewhat niche compared to its Southeast Asia neighbours. However, like Myanmar, it is expected to see a major boost in the coming years as travellers look for new and unique destinations.
According to Laos Tourism Development Department’s latest figures, the country welcomed 3.7 million tourists in 2013, a 13 per cent rise on the 3.3 million the previous year. By the end of 2015, Laos’ tourism leaders are expecting visitor numbers to reach 4.2 million and 4.6 million by 2020.
Despite the modest growth rate, the average length of stay for travellers has increased from 7.2 days in 2012 to 8.4 days in 2013. The tourist bureau estimates it will reach 12.3 days by the end of the decade.
This comes as travellers take more time to explore the country and it’s main waterway, the Mekong River. While Vietnam and Cambodia have mastered Mekong river cruises, Laos is just beginning to explore its benefits.
Currently, Avalon Waterways, APT and Pandaw are among the lines cruising the river in Laos.
THE NEXT 12 MONTHS
One of the reasons Mekong cruising hasn’t taken off sooner for Laos is its shallower waters. The closer the river cruise ships get to Laos the shallower the water becomes.To deal with the problem, cruise lines such as Pandaw have had to custom design their vessels.
In November 2015, the Laos Pandaw will be launched – a 20-passenger vessel with a low draught and an additional power engine to allow it to it sail smoothly to the Upper Mekong. The Laos Pandaw has 10 staterooms, keeping the passenger count low to minimise weight. It has an open-air lounge, a bistro-style dining room with outside seating and air-conditioning inside, and a bar that will be open around-the-clock. The river cruiser will initially offer 10-night itineraries from the French colonial city of Vientiane, just across the river from Thailand, north to Ban Paklay, Pak Lai, Tha Deua and Luang Prabang. There will be a stop at the Pak Ou caves and the itinerary will end in Chiang Khong, Thailand.
In 2016, Laos Pandaw will give travellers the chance to cruise Laos along with Thailand, Myanmar and China in one itinerary. The itinerary has eight departure commencing 29 February to 18 April 2016. It will sail from Chiang Saen in Thailand to Myanmar, Laos and then cross the border for the first time into China for a visit to the city of Jinghong.
“It has been a long-held ambition to sail the length of the navigable sections of the Upper Mekong River,” said Pandaw founder Paul Strachan. “With the construction of our new vessel and working with our partners, this journey is now possible.
“There is much to explore in this undiscovered region. Travellers need to be up for a real adventure as the daily itinerary might change, but with a flexible attitude they will have the trip of a lifetime.”
APT’s Mekong Sun and Mekong Explorer sail on the Upper Mekong offering itineraries in Laos as well as trips that include Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia on a single itinerary.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
The majority of Laos river itineraries start in either another Southeast Asian destination or in Laos’ capital Vientiane. A visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang is a must. It is known for its many Buddhist temples, royal palace and night markets, where travellers can pick up locally made products.
Another must-see is Vang Vieng, about four hours north of Vientiane. Described as a “piece of heaven on earth”, it is surrounded by scenic mountains and rivers.
TOP PLACES TO STAY
Laos is home to a number of smaller, boutique properties that offer four-and-a- half star luxury.
Satri House in Luang Prabang is a mansion-style property with spacious rooms and air-conditioning, a restaurant, bar, full- service spa, two outdoor pools and a health club. It is close to the Royal Palace Museum and the night market.
Also in Luang Prabang, near the international airport, is the intimate Hotel De La Paix with 23 guest rooms, a restaurant, bar, full-service spa, outdoor pool and four spa tubs.
Other intimate properties in Luang Prabang include The Luang Say Residence, which caters for a maximum of 48 guests, and the Kiridara Hotel, which has 24 guest rooms, a fitness centre, outdoor pool and full-service spa.