Despite a limited infrastructure, Laos is a wonderful country to visit. The Laotians are some of the friendliest, gentlest people in Southeast Asia—devoutly Buddhist and traditional in many ways. Not yet inured to countless visiting foreigners, locals volunteer assistance and a genuine welcome.

And because this landlocked nation is so sparsely populated—fewer than 6 million people in an area larger than Great Britain—its countryside is dominated by often impenetrable forested mountains. Laos has a rich culture and history, and though it's been a battleground many times in the past, it's a peaceful, stable country today.

Although Laos has opened itself up to international trade and tourism, it's still a secondary destination on most itineraries. Tourism professionals in Thailand and Laos have been energetically pushing a joint cooperation programme, making it considerably easier for visitors to Thailand to plan a side trip to Laos. Much of the Thai part of this programme is based in Chiang Mai, from which Luang Prabang and Vientiane are easily reached by air in 60 to 80 minutes. Most travel agents in Chiang Mai can set you up with a tour to Laos for as little as $350 (including airfare). You can also fly to Vientiane and Luang Prabang from Bangkok, or cross the Mekong over bridges at Nong Khai and Ubon Ratchathani, in eastern Isan. Ferries link Chang Kong, in northern Thailand, with the Lao river port of Huay Xai.

Southern Laos

In some ways, Laos is really two countries: the south and north are as different as two sides of a coin. The mountainous north was for centuries virtually isolated from the more accessible south, where lowlands, the broad Mekong valley, and high plateaus were easier to traverse and settle. The south does have its mountains, however: notably the Annamite range, called Phu Luang, home of the aboriginal Mon-Khmer ethnic groups who lived here long before Lao farmers and traders arrived from northern Laos and China. The Lao were followed by French colonists, who built the cities of Pakxan, Tha Khek, Savannakhet, and Pakse. Although the French influence is still tangible, the southern Lao cling tenaciously to their old traditions, making the south a fascinating destination.

Pakse is the regional capital, and has an international airport with daily flights to Vientiane, as well as to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in neighboring Cambodia. There's also overnight bus service to Pakse from Vientiane, plus good local service in the area.