Most visitors begin their journey in Vientiane. Depending on how much time you have available, you might want to save your capital explorations until after you've seen other parts of the country.
The former royal kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak offer the most to be seen, be it Buddhist temples or French colonial structures. The Mysterious Wat Phu, where human sacrifices may once have taken place, is an intriguing Angkor-period Khmer site in Champasak Province.
The best culture sites are located on or near the Mekong River. Champasak and Si Phan Don in particular hold fast to older Lao customs. Vientiane and Savannakhet straddle the traditional and the modem, though Savan shows far less foreign influence than Vientiane.
Hmong-Mien and Thai tribal cultures can be explored in the far northern provinces of Luang Nam Tha, Bokeo, Udomxai, Phongsail and Hua Phan.
Laos boasts one of the least disturbed ecosystems in Asia, but access to creatures in the wild is correspondingly limited. Probably the two most rewarding areas for wilderness travel are the Nakai-Nam Theun NBCA on the Lao-Vietnamese border and the Khammuan Limestone NBCA east of Tha Khaek, both in Khammuan Province.
The area around Si Phan Don is of major interest for its riparian habitats and waterfalls. Its southern most reach is also a fragile home to the rare Irrawaddy dolphin.
Culture About 60% of Lao, mainly the lowland Lao and a some Thai tribes, are Theravada Buddhists. Every Lao Buddhist male is expected to become a monk for a short period of his life, usually between school and starting a career or getting married. The main non-Buddhist 'religion' is phii worship, a spirit cult which is officially banned. Hmong/Mien tribes practise animism and ancestral worship, and some follow a Christian version of the cargo cult, believing Jesus Christ will arrive in a jeep, dressed in combat fatigues. A small number of Lao - mostly the French-educated elite - are Christians.
The official language of Laos is Lao, as spoken and written in Vientiane. As an official language, it has successfully become the lingua franca between all Lao and non-Lao ethnic groups in Laos. There are five main dialects in the country, each of which can be divided into further subdialects. All Lao dialects are closely related to the languages spoken in Thailand, northern Myanmar and pockets of China's Yunnan Province.
Traditional culture in Laos has been heavily influenced by various strains of Khmer, Vietnamese and Thai cultures. The lowland Lao share the same ancestry as many Thai tribes, so the similarities between Lao and Thai culture are especially strong. This can be seen in Lao sculpture, classical music, dance-dramas and cuisine. Lao folk music is more indigenous, based around the khaen (a double row of bamboo reeds fitted into a hardwood sound box). Folk music is often accompanied by dancing or bawdy theatre. The focus of most traditional art has been primarily religious and includes wats (temples), stupas and several distinctively Lao representations of Buddha. The Lao remain skilful carvers and weavers, but traditional silversmithing and goldsmithing are declining arts.
Rice is the foundation for all Lao meals, and almost all dishes are cooked with fresh ingredients such as vegetables, freshwater fish, poultry, duck, pork, beef or water buffalo. Lime juice, lemon grass and fresh coriander give the food its characteristic tang, and various fermented fish concoctions are used to salt the food. Hot chillies, garlic, mint, ground peanuts, tamarind juice, ginger and coconut milk are other seasonings. Dishes are often served with an accompanying plate of lettuce, mint, coriander, mung-bean sprouts, lime wedges or basil - diners then create their own lettuce-wrapped titbits.
The currency is the kip. Although only kip is legally negotiable in everyday transactions, in reality three currencies are used for commerce: Kip, Thai baht and US dollars.
Notes come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 kip. notes smaler than 50 kip are almost never seen, however, and kip coins (aat) are being withdrawn from circulation.
Boarder crossings are open between 0600 and 1800. Use of the Friendship Bridge spanning the Mekong at Nong Khai is hampered by controls on foreign-registered vehicles. If you hold a valid visa, it's possible to cross to or from Vietnam via Lao Bao or Kuen Neua.
It is now possible to travel to every province in Laos by some form of public road transport. Regular buses travel between Luang Prabang and Savannakhet. Other routes in the South, typically use flat-bed trucks mounted with carriages and seats. The alternative mode of getting around is river transport. The main thoroughfares are the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nam Khan, Nam Tha, Nam Ngum and Se Don.
There are a few taxis in the larger towns, plenty of three-wheeled motorcycles and, for shorter distances, pedicabs.