Last year, I visited Laos for the first time. Basing myself in the UNESCO city of Luang Prabang, I toured the city's temples, palaces, markets and French-colonial architecture; I took a cruise along the Mekong River and explored the famous Pak Ou Caves; and I spent a day walking with elephants and learning about their conservation at Mandalao Sanctuary.
Laos is the sort of country that stays with you long after you return home, and I've been hankering to go back ever since.
Although I've still got several big attractions to tick off – places like Vientiane, Vang Vieng and The Plain of Jars – I'm keen to seek out some of the country's lesser-known secrets, learn more about its history, and delve deeper into local life. Here's my plan for a return trip:
My plan for a return trip to Laos
With its dense forests and karst mountains, this central province is packed with wildlife that includes elephants, gibbons and the colourful Douc Langur monkey, as well as species like the Giant Muntjac and rare Saola that were unknown to scientists until the 1990s. Today, it's also home to the largest hydropower project in Laos, so I'm eager to visit now and learn what impact the dam will have on Khammouane's future.
Around 40% of Khammouane is conserved by three interconnected National Protected Areas (NPA). One of these – the Nakai Nam Theun NPA – is said to be one of the world's most biologically important zones, while the harder-to-reach Hin Namno NPA is known for its dramatic limestone escarpments. I'd love to experience these NPAs on an eco-tourism trekking trip.
Caves are another big attraction in Khammouane. One that I'm particularly excited to experience is Kong Lor cave in Nakai Nam Teun NPA. Set within Hinboun Mountain, you can take a longtail boat trip through the cave's 7.5km natural tunnel and glide beneath its 100-metre-high limestone ceiling.
Ho Chi Minh Trail
In Laos' far east, the former Ho Chi Minh Trail played a poignant role in the country's history. During the Vietnam War (1964 -1973), a supply route was carved through the jungle on the Laos/Vietnam border, creating a 9,940-mile network of footpaths, dirt roads and waterways that carried people and materials from North to South Vietnam. US bombs were dropped here every seven minutes, and Laos became caught in the most intense bombing campaign in history. More than two million tons of bombs landed in Laos – that's one ton for every Laotian woman, man and child.
Today, most people associate the Ho Chi Minh Trail with Vietnam, where the trail's main route has become a National Highway and a major tourist attraction. In contrast, Laos' section of the trail is remote, undeveloped and well off the tourist track.
Experiencing part of this trail would give a stirring insight to the country's past, and reveal how legacies of the war still affect life in Laos today: unexploded bombs and landmines riddle the area, and charities like the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) carry out vital work clearing unexploded ordinance.
As a tourist, it's possible to visit sites like the destroyed town of Xepon, and the "bomb boat village" of Ban Thabuk where war scrap is used to build boats and furniture. But to explore the trail safely and understand its history, I'd need to hire a good local guide.
The southern part of the Ho Chi Min Trail skirts past the Bolaven Plateau – a fertile region of mountains, waterfalls, ethnic minority groups and world-class coffee. The main gateway to this region is Pakse – a small city with French-colonial architecture and 18 Buddhist temples. It sounds like a good place to start exploring, and is a popular base to arrange a guide.
Waterfalls are one of the plateau's biggest draws. Top of my list is Tad Katamtok, one of the largest and most isolated falls in Laos, located 27 miles from Pakse. Another large but less remote waterfall is Tad Lo, which is 56 miles from Pakse and consists of three cascades: Tad Lo, Tad Hang and Tad Suong.
For me, great coffee can really elevate a travel experience, which is another reason why I'm keen to visit the Bolaven Plateau: this is the heart of the country's coffee industry, with much of Laos' Arabica and Robusta harvested here. Much of it is exported, while the locals drink it Laotian-style, with sweet condensed milk.
Scattered between these waterfalls and plantations are tiny rural stilt villages with bamboo and tin-roof houses. Many are inhabited by the Laven people. In fact, the name "Bolaven" means "home of the Laven" and was given to the region by the original Laven people, who were part of the mighty Khmer empire. Experiencing their authentic villages would be a real highlight.
Four Thousand Islands
The famous Four Thousand Islands or "Si Phan Don" are nestled in southern Laos near the Cambodian border. A scattering of islets in the widest part of the Mekong Delta, they're known for their serenity, simplicity and stunning scenery. While some tourists make a beeline here on their first trip to Laos, I didn't make it this far south – it's a long schlep from Luang Prabang but, just one hour south of Pakse, the islands would be easier to reach on my return itinerary.
Don Det and Don Khong islands are the two main traveller hubs. I'd plan to visit both, checking-in to riverside bungalows or stilted huts and spending my days swimming, strolling and watching the sunset while sipping Beerlao. If I'm feeling more adventurous, I could tour the islands by bike, or join a kayak trip to see endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins. To me, this sounds like a perfect way to end my return trip.
Why go back to Laos?
Returning to any country for the second, third or fifth time can give you a whole new perspective. Having learnt how to haggle, hail a taxi and order your favourite foods on your first trip, you can hit the ground running and get deeper under the country's skin.
There's something about Laos that sticks with you long after you've left, beckoning you to come back. Different to its bigger, brasher and busier Asian neighbours, perhaps it's the country's prevailing sense of calm and intriguing rural simplicity that lures, or it's tasty cuisine, little-known history and unspoilt culture. Whatever it is, I can't wait to go back for more!