Laos is a beautiful, calm country almost untouched by Western brands - there is no Starbucks and no McDonalds. A few hotels are part of an international chain, such as the excellent Hotel de la Paix in Luang Prabang (now Sofitel) and the exquisite Aman property, also in Luang Prabang.
Natural beauty abounds, from the mighty Mekong river, to beautiful waterfalls (such as Kuang Si), stunning flowers and interesting wildlife. Laos is also culturally rich, with a variety of temples (both active and ruined) and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the golden That Lang and the intriguing Plain of Jars). Meals are based around the staple sticky rice, accompanied by spicy salads or marinated meat.
For first-time visitors short of time, we would recommend a 1-2 night stop in Vientiane, the capital, before spending 4-5 nights in Luang Prabang. This is one of the most relaxing towns we have visited, although still with plenty to see. The people are friendly and it is safe and easy to simply borrow a bike and cycle wherever the mood takes you. Greet locals with a smiling Sabaidee and enjoy being far away from hectic modern life.
Laos has a tropical climate and is hot year round. Two clear seasons dominate the year - dry and wet. From October to April, the dry season is generally high season, so hotels and tours will be more expensive, especially over the Western school holiday periods. January and February are generally thought of as the best times to visit the country, when day temperatures are warm and the scenery is lush after the rains, although you may need a sweater at night. This is the ideal time to visit the country with clear skies, very little rain and a light breeze. From March until the start of the wet season, smoke can be a problem in the North of the country, due to slash-and-burn agriculture. From April, temperatures begin to rise (sometimes above 40 C) and short but heavy afternoon rain showers become more frequent. Through the wet season, Laos tends to be humid and wet, although some spectacular cloud formations can be seen and the landscapes are verdant green and teeming with life.
Most visitors to Laos will require a visa, which can be obtained on arrival at land or airports. Tourist visas are valid for 30 days and can be extended in Vientiane for a charge of $2/day. In addition to the visa fee, a passport-sized photo is required, although this can be taken by the immigration official (or this requirement waived) for a small fee if you forget to take one. Visas cost around $35, depending on nationality.
Within Laos, the local currency is the kip with just over 8000 making $1. For purchases above $100, either Thai baht or US dollars are the preferred currency and amounts will generally be quoted in dollars. However, smaller transactions are generally done in kip, so be sure to take plenty with you. Laos is an affordable place to holiday with good hotels available for $100-200/night (note that there are few 5* options) and excellent dinners costing under $15 per person (naturally, cheaper options are available).