With its dense, dark jungle, glistening rice fields, and the abundance of tea that covers the mountains in a green blanket, Laos is a country where the landscape changes color like a chameleon. One of the most ethnically diverse countries in southern Asia, the geographic location of Laos as the crossroads of Asia is reflected in its many indigenous ethnic peoples.
Unlike many of the countries of Southeast Asia that have developed a tourist industry, Laos has managed to retain many of its ancient traditions, which have disappeared in other parts of the region in a frenzy of development and tourism. The timeless quality of its rural life and the somnolence of the capital city leave intrepid travelers in a country untainted by mass tourism, and discovering a way of life that appears to be moving in slow motion.
Over the last 20 years travelers have raved about Laos, from its underground caves and rivers to its high jungle-encrusted karsts. It is a haven for nature enthusiasts, culture lovers, and foodies, where the country pulls you in to explore the richness of Lao spiritual life. And if exploring ancient temples sounds just a little too strenuous, you can always relax with a stress-calming yoga session or a delightful spa.
When to Go
As with most tropical countries in Asia, Laos has something for everyone throughout the whole year. While some seasons are better than others, and it follows the typical high season / low season pattern for tourism, there is no single time of year when tourists are not seen. Climate wise, the country has a typical tropical monsoon climate, with the rainy season from June to the end of October, and the cool, dry season from November through March. The hottest time of year is in April and May, the hot dry season, when temperatures soar. Generally, monsoons occur at the same time across the country, although that time may vary significantly from one year to the next. In tourism, Laos has four distinct seasons – high season, low season, and two shoulder seasons.
The Dry Season
The high season, which many deem to be the best time to visit, runs from November to March, when temperatures are most pleasant across most of the country. There is very little rain, and the skies are mostly clear while the ground is dry enough to wander through the jungles and temple sites across the nation. However, it can get a little cold in the mountainous regions of the Annamite Range in the northeast and the Luang Prabang Range in the northwest. It is also the best time for river travel on the Mekong River, as high water levels make passage easier. However, Christmas and New Year are very popular times for Lao tourism, and are the peak period of the high season, where you need to book months in advance.
During April and May, the weather gets distinctly hotter, with temperatures reaching as high as 40 degrees during the day. Nights are also hotter, and there is little chance to cool down during this hottest part of the year. Trails and roads turn to dust, and the jungle is at its worst, with very little moisture in the air. For tourists, it is not the ideal time to visit the lowland areas of Laos, but in the mountains, the temperature is a little cooler. It is an ideal time for trekking and exploring the beautiful mountain regions in the north of the country, and discovering the beauty of the Lao Soung (highland people) cultures of the Hmong, the Yao, the Dao, and the Shan peoples. There are also some small Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples that have lived in the far northern areas for centuries.
The Wet Season
The rainy or monsoon season in Laos comes in June, as the weather cools only a little, and the tropical monsoon rains start to fall. With the monsoon being a national occurrence, the whole country gets the same weather during the monsoon, and the climate becomes hot and humid. However, the landscape shifts from dry, brown, and dusty to lush and green as the rains bring out the new foliage in the jungles and forests.
Lasting until the end of October, the rainy season is a popular time for European tourists to visit due to the “summer holiday” season in Europe. Majority head for the cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang in the central and northern regions, while students tend to hit the southern areas for backpacking trips. While it is the monsoon season, showers are short and sharp, and do not affect travel much. Even the rivers, which were low and impassible during the hot dry season, become more useful, and the river journeys along the Mekong River resume.
Due to the rains, there are some areas of Laos that become hard to get to, as the network of unpaved roads become muddy tracks where vehicles can easily get bogged down. Some northeastern areas of the country – mainly around Phongsali and Hua Phan – are not as wet as the rest of the country during monsoon. The weather there can be very temperamental, with very hot days followed by cold wet days that leave you thinking you are no longer in Asia.
Late in the wet season, around September and October, is the wettest part of the monsoon, and even the far northern regions see a lot of rain, although it still only comes mostly in the afternoons. The heavier rains also give rise to some of Asia’s most spectacular could formations, which are unique to this region of Asia due to having no nearby coastal areas. Generally speaking, the higher you are, the more rain you get, and the towns along the Mekong River south of Vientiane get the least rain.
Major Festivals and Religious Ceremonies
The Lao people like a good celebration, and with a calendar that marks the seasons of the year in agriculture, religion, and culture, there are plenty of festivals and celebrations throughout the year to keep everyone happy. Along with their normal festival days and celebrations, the country has thirteen National Holidays to celebrate different events.
Boun Pha Vet
Centered around the Buddhist Temples, this festival celebrates the birth of Prince Vessanthara, the Buddha’s penultimate existance. The “birth story” is recited in the temples of the villages and towns during the festival, and it is the best time for Lao men to take on the robes of the monk. The festival is staggered from one village to the next, so that neighboring villages can visit each other’s festivals.
Boun Ma Kha Bu Saar (Full Moon)
The celebration commemorates the honored speech that was given to 1250 enlightened monks who traveled to see Buddha without any summons from different areas. It was the time when the first monastic regulations and traditions were laid down, and when Buddha predicted his own death. The festival celebrates the event with chanting, prayers, and offerings of food and items at the small temples around the nation.
Boun Khoun Khao
A simple festival that can be found all over Laos during March is the Harvest Festival, when the farmers celebrate the end of theplanting season, and prepare for the dry season before the rains. The celebrations can be found at thousands of villages throughout the month, and happen all over the country, which has an 80 percent farming economy.
Boun Pi Mai
Pi Mai means “new year” and it is the time when the Lao celebrate the start of their Lunar calendar year. Literally, the entry country grinds to a half for the festivities, which usually last around three days. Houses are cleaned, people wear new clothes and Buddha images are washed with holy water. The Lao new year is one of the best times to visit Laos if you are interested in their cultural traditions.
Boun Visakha Bu Saar
Similar to other festivals and celebrations in Buddhist countries, this festival celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. The festival starts on the first day of the sixth lunar month, and visitors can watch the chanting and sermonizing in the evenings, that are followed by beautiful and colorful candlelit processions.
Boun Bang Fai
One of the most boisterous of all the Lao festivals is the “Rocket festival”, which takes place in various villages throughout the country at different points between May and September. The festival dates back to the Lao pre-Buddhist era, and features thousands of homemade rockets and fireworks that are shot into the clouds to ask for good rain to make the ground fertile and the crops abundant. The rockets are fired amidst a huge furor of raucous chanting and merry making that lasts the whole night.
Boun Haw Khao Salaack
During the celebrations of Haw Khao Salack, prayers and offerings are made to the dead at the temples around the country. The offerings are made to dead relatives and ancestors to obtain merit, and the festival normally takes place during the tenth full moon of the lunar calendar. The festivities also include longboat races, traditional Lao music and dances, and trade fairs for local agricultural products and handicrafts.
This festival begins immediately after the last day of Vassa, the three-month long retreat for Theravada Buddhists, and lasts until the next full moon. During the month-long period, devotees of the Buddhist faith help the monks to carry out their religious practices by making offerings of all of the nine requisites and other useful items.