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Thailand promotes itself as amazing, Vietnam can well be described as bustling, Cambodia's Khmer temples are awe-inspiring... but the adjective that was most often applied to Laos is forgotten. This is changing fast however, with tourism being the biggest growth sector in Laos with ever rising visitor numbers under its new tourism slogan 'Simply beautiful'.

Visitors who are drawn by the laid-back lifestyle and the opportunity to watch the sunsets on the Mekong will simply explain the attraction by revealing that the true meaning of "Lao PDR" is Lao - Please Don't Rush.

Travelers on a tight budget should be aware that prices here can be several times that of neighboring Thailand. The equivalent distance of that 140 baht economy bus ride Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai will cost 60000 kip (300 baht) from Huay Xai to Luang Namtha. 500 grams of boiled rice you might get for 15 baht in the Thai market will cost 5000 kip (25 baht) in Laos. 1.5lt bottled water (13-15 baht 7-11) also 5000 kip. The list goes on. But you can drown your sorrows for slightly less in Lao.



History

Laos is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours. First created as an entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lan Xang ("Million Elephants"), the kingdom was initially a Khmer vassal state. After a succession dispute, the kingdom split in three in 1694 and was eventually devoured piece by piece by the Siamese, the last fragments agreeing to Siamese protection in 1885.

The area east of the Mekong, however, was soon wrenched back from Siam by the French, who wanted a buffer state to protect Vietnam, and set up Laos as a unified territory in 1907. Briefly occupied by Japan in 1945, a three-decade-long conflict was triggered when France wanted to retake its colony. Granted full independence in 1953, the war continued between a bewildering variety of factions, with the Communist and North Vietnam-allied Pathet Lao struggling to overthrow the French-leaning monarchy. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973) the United States dropped 1.9 million tonnes of bombs on Laos, mostly in the northeast: for comparison 2.2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped by all sides in World War II.

In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and admission into ASEAN in 1997.

Despite being just one hour by air from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos has continued in much the same way it has for hundreds of years, although things are now slowly beginning to change. In the mid-90s the government reversed its stance on tourism, and then declared 1998 "Visit Laos Year" - but despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer, monks still outnumbered tourists throughout the country. This is now rapidly changing, with tourist numbers rising every year. Indeed, Vientiane is a laid-back, yet charmingly cosmopolitan village.

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