Length: Six days
After centuries of being "forgotten" by much of the outside world, Laos is finally emerging from the mists and attracting curious travelers. Many who've ventured to the country have declared it the most beautiful and unspoiled country in Southeast Asia, and this year, the New York Times has declared it the number one "next hot spot" to visit.
The country's tourism infrastructure is in its infancy and most Laotians do not speak English, so for most travelers it's a good idea to book a tour. The locally based company Exotissimo was one of the first outfitters to run trips in Laos, and offers tours that combine adventure activities and cultural exploration. Its six-day trip based in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage city, offers an up-close look at traditional Buddhist communities and easy access to stunning countryside.
"Visiting Laos might be considered as a retreat, a return to the past, where you are surrounded by natural and rural life," says Laurent Granier, general manager of Exotissimo Laos. "Buddhism and animist beliefs are truly part of the daily life here. Vats (pagodas and temples) abound, with novices and monks in bright orange sarongs wandering around and followers offering food and alms with the rising sun. Laos is primarily a country of mountains and rivers, and people live at the pace of the seasons and with the water levels."
On the trip, your guide will show you the important temples and museums of the city and take you to markets where you can sample spicy Lao curries and barbecued meat kebabs. On excursions outside Luang Prabang, you'll journey down the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou caves (where thousands of golden Buddha statues have been collected over the centuries), trek to hill-tribe villages, bike through rice paddies, and ride an elephant through the jungle to a waterfall.
"All the encounters with people are the highlights of the trip," says Granier. "[You] can test your skills in pottery, weaving, and other crafts at the many stops we make along the trekking paths. The locals are welcoming and will be pleased if you join them for a while."
This trip can be arranged at any time with a minimum of two people. Prices cover accommodations, guides, some meals, sightseeing and activities, and ground transportation. Round-trip December fares from Los Angeles to Luang Prabang start at $1,606, including taxes, from CheapTickets.