Honeymoons off the beaten track: Laos

The world is your oyster when it comes to honeymoons – though if you’re looking for something a bit different or more unique, it can sometimes feel hard to get past the more obvious, traditional destinations. This is the first of what will be a new series of posts about alternative honeymoon destinations – places that are perhaps for those feeling a little more adventurous, or for people who’ve already been to (or don’t want to go to) the more popular honeymoon destinations.

Earlier in the year, I spent a month in Laos researching the new edition of the Rough Guide to Laos. You’d be forgiven for not having heard a great deal about the country – positioned as it is between China, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, it often gets overlooked in favour of its more developed, better publicised neighbours. But this is an utterly beguiling place – long cut off from the rest of the world, it’s retained an old-fashioned charm and slow pace of life, and it’s the people – incredibly friendly even by Southeast Asia standards – that really make it special.

The country’s most celebrated city (not that it’s really a city by our standards) is Luang Prabang, with its beautiful old town crammed full of Buddhist temples and crumbling colonial buildings. Though it’s increasingly touristy, it’s not hard to escape the backpacker crowds – the quieter streets are the most charming, full of old wooden buildings where local families still live – and one of the best ways to explore is to hire a bike and enjoy the relatively traffic-free roads. With rivers on two sides, there’s plenty of beautiful places from which to enjoy the city’s fabulous setting, usually over a cup of rich Lao coffee or a cold Beer Lao.

There’s quite an abundance of luxury hotels in Luang Prabang, many of which have been beautifully developed in keeping with the location – think lots of dark woods, beautiful local fabrics and old colonial buildings. My absolute favourite (and possibly my all-time favourite hotel in the world), and arguably the most romantic hotel in the city, is La Residence Phou Vao, situated on a hill just a short distance from the centre, with its dreamy rooms and spa set among lush gardens, and the divine restaurant where you can dine as lanterns bob in the pool in front of you. Blissful.

As the country is still developing its tourist industry, you won’t find the level of hassle here that you do in many other countries in the region (which is a relief), but you’ll also struggle to find upmarket hotels outside of the main tourist centres. With that in mind, you might want to limit your time in the country to places where you can have a little luxury. Start in either Vientiane (the capital) or Luang Prabang before taking a boat up the river to tranquil Nong Khiaw where you can stay at the gorgeous Nong Kiau Riverside in one of their spacious wooden bungalows; the river views from the balcony are so good that you might struggle to leave.

If you’re after a bit of adventure, from here you could head further up the river to Phongsali (a two day boat ride – with an overnight stop), which makes a great base for hiking and hill-tribe treks, east to Sam Neua to visit the caves in scenic Vieng Xai where the Pathet Lao hid during the Second Indochina War, or west to Luang Namtha, a popular place for jungle treks and river activities. If this all sounds a bit too much like hard work, head back towards Luang Prabang to stay at Lao Spirit Resort, another place with a fantastic riverside setting – though the selling point is being (almost) next door to an elephant camp, where you can learn to be a mahout – even just watching the animals being washed in the river in the early morning is a truly magical experience.

You could also head further south towards the old colonial town of Savannakhet and the beautiful 4000 Islands, though unless you’ve got a fair amount of time and are happy using (slightly rickety) local transport, then you’d be best off sticking to one area. Laos certainly has enough to offer as a destination in its own right, but it also works really well combined with a visit to Thailand –  you could fly in (the descent into Luang Prabang by air is truly amazing) or take a slow boat down the Mekong from the Thai border; Luang Say offer a luxury cruise if you don’t fancy being crammed on a boat with backpackers for hours – and perhaps combine it with a visit to Bangkok and one of the Thai islands. Vietnam and Cambodia are also worth considering in conjunction with Laos.

When to go: Weather-wise, the best time to visit is between November and Februray, when the rains have finished and the weather is good but not too hot. That said, evenings can get chillier the further north you go. I visited in March, which is still dry season, but villagers start slash-and-burn during this month so the air gets very smoky (as you can see from my pictures). Some roads become impassible in rainy season, but it can still be a great time to visit – the countryside is at its most green and lush, and there’s fewer tourists around so prices drop.

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