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Travel: Laos

It's a short journey from Chiang Rai in Thailand to the north-eastern corner of Laos - and to a border crossing that evokes the days before soulless airports and mega brand domination.

Despite the recent opening of the so-called Friendship Bridge spanning the Mekong River, which replaced the old shambolic crossing which I loved, the small town of Houeyxai is still a good place to drop down a gear, grab a Beer Lao, sit on the banks of the Mekong and watch life unfold.

Landlocked, serene, almost shy, Laos goes about its business largely disinterested in the aspirations of its more swaggering neighbours. If Thailand is the reigning heavyweight boxer of South East Asian tourism, Vietnam the challenger and Cambodia the young prospect, Laos looks on from ringside and goes about its business in an understated way, certain to rekindle the curiosity of the most cynical traveller.

Those who head for the Far East often overlook this land of forests, waterfalls, mountains, Khmer ruins and deeply ingrained Buddhist traditions in favour of its more established regional counterparts.

Before joining our boat for the two-day journey east to Luang Prabang we spend a couple of days at the Gibbon Experience, an eco tourism project set deep in forest terrain where we reach our tree house accommodation via a network of zip line cables, tuck into traditional home cooked meals and explore the Bokeo Nature Reserve in search of the illusive black gibbon.

But it is cruising the Mekong - the 12th longest river in the world and one that also takes in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia - where Laos is at her most alluring.

As our boat sets sail the landscape transforms from industrious to barren and back again. Fishermen cast nets, a lone figure tinkers with an outboard motor, villagers bathe and, on the banks, locals go about their daily rituals in much the same way as they have for generations.

It's a long day but there's no shortage of sights to observe with all the curiosity of someone with not much else to do but take in the views and enjoy the company of fellow travellers. Before a buffet lunch on board we make a stop. Laos boasts more ethnic minorities than any of its neighbours. The village we visit is typical of those dotted along the Mekong - wooden houses on stilts, discs of palm sugar sit on bamboo sheets drying in the mid-day sun, and school children head home eager to meet these strange pale-skinned visitors bearing gifts of pens and note pads.

As the sun sets, our base for the night appears on the horizon. Docking at Luang Say has a feel of entering a frontier town. There is a hive of activity to observe on the water and surrounding land as eager porters arrive to collect our luggage and escort us to a lodge at the top of a steep bank.

Our accommodation is in one of 20 bungalows tastefully crafted in traditional Laotian style that comes complete with hot showers and comfortable beds. After dinner - and with the help of a glass or two of Ban Baw whiskey - it's a peaceful night's sleep.

The next morning after a look around the colourful Pakbeng market, it's back on board for the final leg of our journey to Luang Prabang. There was a time it was almost obligatory to dub this small city "sleepy". That was in the days when backpackers explored temples, and headed to the top of Mount Phou Si to gaze at the views and soak up the chilled atmosphere. There isn't a much more to do these days but Luang Prabang remains a charming spot in which to while away a couple of days.

Apart from a brief occupation by the Japanese near the end of the Second World War, Laos was in the hands of the French from 1893 until independence in 1954 and that influence can still be felt today.

As you sip on a fine cup of coffee and tuck into a fresh croissant, children in crisp white shirts and neatly pressed shorts pass by en route to school, while Buddhist monks serenely parade down the main street.

It would be wrong to suggest this is a place untouched by tourism. When it comes to dining there is considerably more choice than when I first visited in 2001 - and Luang Prabang has a growing selection of hotels.

But as you take that breakfast in one of its cafes you feel life's speedometer decrease and your general sense that all will be fine with the world heightened. That's Laos. Not so much sleepy as wonderfully relaxing.

TRAVEL NOTES

Selective Asia (01273 670001; www.selectiveasia.com) offers an 11-day Essential Laos trip costing from £1256 per person based on two people sharing and arranged on a tailor-made basis (private arrangements throughout). Flights are not included and cost from around £725 (including taxes). The company also offers a 12-day Laos in Style itinerary from £1927 per person plus flights.

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