Why visit Laos?
That's a bit of a tricky one, given that Laos doesn't have beaches, has only a handful of historical sites, and the landscapes, while lovely, don't have the 'wow factor' of other countries in East Asia.
Perhaps the best answer is that it is Laos. A very individual place that rewards slow travel and enjoying the little things; watching the rivers go by, eating good food, and seeing people get on with their lives.
These strengths of Laos, partly due to it's small size & population, and partly due to the idiosyncratic modernisation paths it's opted into (or out of), are also it's most vulnerable though. At least as far as travelling is concerned. At any given season or year a place may be overrun with hordes of Chinese, Thai, or European tourists, and the continued damming of the Mekong & its' tributaries threatens the riverside way of life that has been a defining characteristic.
Laos food is very very underrated. It is also, for such a small country, very regional. The food of Vientiane is quite different from that of Luang Prabang & the hill areas, while the south of the country has it's own specific variations, dishes & tastes.
Generally speaking, it's worth remembering that much of what people may know of North East Thai, or Isaan food, is actually Laos in origin.
Sticky rice, spicy salads and various laabs etc are mainstays. The differences come in the Laos predeliction for adding large amounts of fresh herbs & greens, and in preferring slightly bitter tastes. Particularly compared to the sweetness of Central & Southern Thai food, or the sticky marinades of Vietnamese grilled meats. Although this is apparently under threat, as it is elsewhere, with the younger generation opting for a sweeter palate, and more sugar heavy Thai dishes are regularly on menus.
Of particular note and quality are Laos' vast range of noodle soups, eaten at any time of day, and the range of jeow (or jaew) dipping pastes, excellent with sticky rice, and as drinking food.
Getting around Laos is still tricky, unless you're prepared to hire & ride motorbikes. There is the new Chinese train from Vientiane to the border, via Luang Prabang. But the bus schedules are erratic, and car hire, be it taxis or privately, hasn't really taken off. Add to that that new dams across rivers have played havoc with traditional boat routes, and planning extended journeys, or day trips outside of the Luang Prabang three greatest hits (waterfalls, elephants, and the Pak Ou Caves) can be awkward.
Best described as quirky. The various wats and monasteries have been cleaned up over the years, and there's an odd mix of civic improvement & tourist infrastructure in play. Not always successfully. For example the bank of the Mekong is now lined with a modern promenade, with aerobics classes and amusement fairs. But this blocks any view of the river from almost every eating & drinking spot in the vicinity. Long gone are the days of wooden restaurants & bars overhanging the river. A grandiose new museum building may be finally open.
It has managed to hang on to much of its' charm. Some decry it as a theme park, to which I'll say it's nothing like the mess that Hoi An has become. There are still plentiful local eateries alongside the tourist focused restaurants, and the locals still hang out along the river side. It may depend what time of year you visit what effect crowds of tourists will have - the wet season might be hot & sticky but you'll avoid the crush.
A couple of points of interest that don't get enough recognition. There's an excellent small museum, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, that has rotating thematic exhibitions. And across the river is a privately run botanic garden, the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden, which is well worth a look, and hopefully can remain a going concern.
On the other hand, the early morning Alms Parade of monks is a circus. Don't bother, unless your idea of fun is to watch embarrassing tourists behave poorly, and to meet the only pushy vendors in all of Laos.
Laos In 1991