Before I visited Laos this year, the only people I knew who'd been there were backpackers - friends who had been there on gap years in their early twenties. I'd always regretted not going when I was younger so, this summer, I decided to tick it off.
Why go to Laos?
A land-locked country in Southeast Asia, Laos gets less attention than its neighbours: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Myanmar.
Perhaps it's the lack of a dazzling coastline, or world-famous wonders like The Great Wall, Angkor Wat and Halong Bay. And there are no booming megacities like Bangkok and Shanghai to pull in the party crowds.
Instead, Laos like to keep things laid back, low key and more in keeping with local culture. What's more, while this unassuming country may not shout about its secrets, its ancient temples, UNESCO sites and natural treasures are all there, just waiting to be discovered.
It's this element of mystery that I found so intriguing.
Where to go and what to see in Laos?
With its World Heritage centre, this former capital is Laos' most popular tourist hub. Luang Prabang's airport makes access easy, and there's a great choice of accommodation, from the old-world luxury of the Belmond Hotel and Luang Say Residence, to the brand new Azerai Hotel.
Smaller than other Asian cities, Luang Prabang is easy to explore on foot. Highlights include its French-colonial villas, Royal Palace Museum, and Buddhist wats (temples) like Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Wisunarat.
Each morning, robed monks mill through the streets during their daily alms ritual and, from street markets to classy restaurants like Manda de Lao, there's an exciting array of dining options.
Luang Prabang makes a great base for experiencing more of northern Laos. Take a taxi or tuk-tuk from the city centre and, in less than an hour, you could be bathing beneath the Kuang Si Waterfalls, meeting locals in rural artisan villages, or walking with elephants at MandaLao elephant sanctuary.
In fact, many of Laos' most talked-about attractions are easy to reach from Luang Prabang. If you're on a short trip, or if you want a fixed base rather than a multi-centre trip, it's probably your best bet.
Cruising the Mekong
Flowing from north to south, the Mekong River travels the full length of Laos. Cruising along it is a great way to experience the country's lush riverside scenery.
From Luang Prabang, you could travel upstream for a day trip to the sacred Pak Ou Caves. With more time you could cruise downstream to the capital city of Vientiane. There's a range of vessel types, from basic day boats to luxury cruisers with cocktail bars and air-conditioned cabins.
While Laos' capital may not have the UNESCO appeal of Luang Prabang, visitors are drawn by its local life, historic quarter and French influences. This colonial legacy is particularly noticeable in the city's food scene: alongside Laos and Asian foods, you can buy croissants, baguettes and moules frites.
More reasons to visit include bustling Thong Khan Kham Market and the famous Patuxai monument, as well as temples and stupas like Wat Si Saket, That Dam and Pha That Luang.
Vientiane's airport makes it easy to reach by plane and, outside the city, tranquil Nam Ngum Lake and "Xieng Khuan" Buddha Park are popular daytrip destinations.
Located between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, Vang Vieng is a tiny town that made a name for itself a couple of decades ago.
Backpackers that pilgrimaged here in the 2000s will remember drifting drunkenly along the Nam Song River in inflated inner tubes, stopping at hedonistic "rave bars" en route.
However, the party scene got out of control and the Government closed many bars in 2012. Since then, Vang Vieng has grown up a bit - it still gets going after dark, but daytimes are more relaxed and the rave bars have been reduced to just a few.
This travellers' hub is still a good place to try tubing, as well as a host of other activities like trekking, mountain biking and caving.
Remote and harder to reach, fewer visitors venture northeast. One of the main reasons to visit is the Plain of Jars - these ancient funerary pots are strewn across the valleys and foothills of the Xieng Khouang Plateau.
Closer to the Vietnamese border, the Vieng Xai Caves are another highlight and, in the extreme north, the remote mountains of Phongsali Province are known for their authentic hill tribes.
The far south
Southern Laos' biggest pull is Si Phan Don, or "Four Thousand Islands". Down in Champasak Province, near the Cambodian border, the Mekong River widens to create an archipelago of river islands. A destination in its own right, you can stay on islands like Don Khong, Don Det and Don Khon, and spend your days swimming, strolling and swinging in hammocks.
Also in the south, the city of Pakse is a major hub, and the historic town of Savannakhet is known for its crumbling Indochinese villas. For waterfall hikes, jungle trekking and lush coffee plantations, head to the Bolaven Plateau. For some of the best Khmer ruins outside Cambodia, book a trip to Wat Phu.
Most visitors stick to the hotspots of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. If you're feeling more intrepid, the northeast or far south might appeal. But with so much to experience around northern Laos, you could return several times and still not see it all.
This was my first time in Laos, so I stuck to Luang Prabang and the surrounding area. Taking a nine-day holiday, I experienced Luang Prabang, a Mekong River cruise, Kuang Si Waterfalls, MandaLao elephant sanctuary and several other sites. Laos' central location in Southeast Asia makes it easy to combine with other destinations so, using a multi-stop flight with Singapore Airways, I added a few days in Singapore before flying home.