Locals discovered dozens of old, Buddha images at two different locations in Bolikhamxay Province earlier this year.
On 19 January 2012, Mr Sai from Ban Phone village in Bolikhamxay's easternmost Lak Sao District was fishing along the Nam Yeung River, when he noticed a glistening object peeking out from a large rock on the bank. Closer inspection revealed a small Buddha statue, and upon prying off the boulder, he found a total of 39 Buddhas, which are currently being stored in a cabinet resting in a villager's home. The community is trying to raise funds to build a more suitable home for the statues, which some believe to be more than 400 years old.
Then, on 9 March this year, Mr Mai was walking along the Huap Pa Fa River in Pakxan District looking for a place to fish. He claims to have seen a crow, which landed near the mouth of a riverside cave. At that spot, he noticed a small Buddha image protruding from under a stone slab. He returned to his village, and told six of his friends, who followed him to the site. Upon moving the rocky lid, they discovered more than 30 old Buddha images, including three made of gold. They brought them to a temple so locals can make merit to this lucky find.
A rugged, three-hour drive from Luang Namtha Town to Nalae District in the province's southeast can now end with a refreshing 90-minute boat ride down the Nam Tha River to Ban Khone Kham and its newly opened village lodge.
Integrated into the hillside village of 64 Tai Lue homes sitting on tiers supported by cobblestones, the two-storey lodge, constructed by the community, rises right on the riverside. The upper floor holds three bedrooms, though the sizeable veranda, surrounded by lattice, offers a more open-air, yet still comfortable sleeping quarters. Balconies on both sides present peaceful perches to take in the surrounding nature or read a book.
Ban Khone Kham's English-speaking guide, Mr Boraphan, will walk you around the village, where almost every home on stilts sports several looms underneath. The number of looms depends on how many women live in the household, though they all churn out cotton sins (traditional skirts) sold in Luang Namtha Town. Villagers also produce lao lao rice alcohol and lao hai jar wine.
Bor Kung Nature Park and campgrounds, located adjacent to Vieng Phoukha Town, is putting on its finishing touches, and will be ready for campers after this year's rainy season.
A stone trail through the sacred forest is in place, and the freshwater spring area is ready for bathing. The campgrounds and picnic area with toilet and shower facilities are in place, and tents and sleeping bags will be available for rent.
An Akha Market is under construction in the parking area, and will offer traditional Akha handicrafts and massages, saunas, and a restaurant.
The Bor Kung Nature Park is one of the "The Tea Caravan: 10 Highlights in the Northwest Mountains", which follows Lao Route 3 connecting Houei Xai in Bokeo Province and Luang Namtha Town.
A secret tunnel at the summit of the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site in Xieng Khouang, about a 30-minute drive from Phonsavanh, is now open to the public, who have to climb more than 1,000 steps to reach the passageway that played a strategic role for revolutionary forces during the Indochina War (1964-1973).
The hardy climb passes an odd mix of bomb craters and unfinished or broken jars destined for Jar Site 1. The steps get steeper at the end, but the reward is a magnificent view of the valley around Phonsavanh and the entrance to the "Secret Tunnel".
The narrow 70-meter tunnel chiseled through rock is around 1.6-meters high, and winds past a few reinforced concrete bunkers and sleeping quarters before exiting to a panorama of the Phoukoud Valley.
A visitor information center and restaurant are nearing completion at the base of the mountain, though a row of refreshment stands already serves soft drinks, beers, and snacks.
For more information on Xieng Khouang, click here.
The Khammouane Provincial Tourism Department has begun promoting "The Loop", a flexible 400-plus-km circuits that starts and ends in Thakhaek, and allows you to set the pace when taking in the provincial highlights.
You can easily tackle The Loop on a motor scooter or larger vehicles as the road is paved except a 57 km stretch from Tha Lang to Lak Sao, which is currently under construction. Small town guesthouses restaurants dot The Loop, opening up overnight options, and petrol is plentiful.
After seeing the sites such as the Sikhottabong Stupa and the Great Wall in and around Thakhaek, The Loop begins on Route 12 East with attractions close to Thakhaek, including Buddha Cave and the Nong Tao Lake area, the Elephant Cave lookout, Xiang Lieb Cave, Tha Farang, and Nang Ene Cave.
The Loop veers north onto Route 8B away from Route 12 just past the Mahaxay junction, and starts a lazy, twisting climb between rice paddies up the Nakai Plateau, as massive limestone outcrops begin dominating the backdrop.
A powerful rush of water, channeled through a cobblestone-banked river, soon appears, the monitored flow from the Nam Theun 2 dam, which houses an expansive visitor center displaying information on the dam, its environmental impact, village relocation program, and animal rescue project.
The Loop continues along the dam's reservoir to the top of the plateau (600 m) at Nakai Town, which offers several guesthouses and restaurants that mostly cater to Lao and Vietnamese patrons. This district center also hosts a sizeable morning market and serves a as a gateway to the surrounding ethnic villages, such as Ban Songkham and its Tai Sam weavers.
After a further 20 km at Tha Lang, a bridge crosses the reservoir, where a pleasant restaurant serving Western food and offering bungalows and activities such as trekking, fishing, and boating greets travelers.
The Loop's next 57 km are currently rough, but this ends at Lak Sao on Route 8, the road to Ban Nahin and the turnoff to the province's famed Konglor Cave, and its slate of eco-activities including the boat ride through the 7.5-km natural tunnel, and a range of overnight options: eco-lodges, village lodge, and homestays.
Back on Route 8 West, The Loop continues to Vieng Kham the Route 13 turnoff, and the 105-km run back to Thakaek.
Vientiane Provincial Information, Culture and Tourism Department Deputy Director Boualy Milattanapheng said the authorities officially handed over Khounlang Cave in Kasi District to the local community on 7 April, after upgrading the access road and building facilities inside and outside the cave, the Vientiane Times reported.
The local community, with 30 local trained guides, will manage the cave.
"Khounlang Cave is really spectacular when compared to other caves in Vientiane province, even those in the much-visited Vang Vieng District," Mr Boualy said.
Even though Khounlang Cave just officially opened to tourists, more than 4,000 people visited it last year.
The cave is situated in thick forest and terraced rice paddies, in an area that also attracts visitors to two streams that meet at the edge of a cliff, creating a 30-meter waterfall.
Khounlang Cave has nine levels, but visitors can only explore three as electricity and other amenities have yet to be installed.
Visitors can also observe the lifestyle of the ethnic Khmu and Yao communities nearby. Treks are available, with walks taking one to three hours.
The cave is located about 200 km north of Vientiane and 60 km beyond Vang Vieng. Route 13 passes through the district on the way to Luang Prabang.
The Pacific Asia Travel Association's PATA Compass Magazine spotlighted Laos in its most recent issue, with a feature story, "Out of the Box", penned by Bernie Rosenbloom.
As the magazine's editor, Jim Algie, noted, "One of Southeast Asia's smallest countries, Laos is gaining ground on its bigger rivals because of some ingenious innovations in tourism products, training and new hotels."
The article highlights the country's latest tourism and hotel developments by both the private and public sectors.
Laos' Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism forecasts tourism will generate USD435 million (+7.3 per cent) this year, while arrivals are expected to reach 2.9 million for a 6 per cent jump over 2011.
If the revenue from tourism reaches the target, the industry would be the country's second largest foreign exchange earner after mining, according a recent Vientiane Times report.
According to the ministry's Tourism Development Department, about 2.7 million tourists visited Laos in 2011, generating an estimated USD406 million. Tourist arrivals in 2011 were up 8 per cent over 2010.
Thailand again led the pack with some 1.5 million arrivals, followed by Vietnam (561,000), China (150,000), United States (50,000), France (44,000), Japan (37,000), United Kingdom (35,000), Australia (31,000), Korea (27,000), and Germany (21,000).
Numbers from Vietnam (+30 per cent), Korea (+27 per cent) and Japan (+11 per cent) showed the highest y-o-y growth, while Chinese figures fell 7 per cent and German arrivals slid 6 per cent.
The Tourism Development Department also reported that in 2011, Vientiane Capital welcomed the most arrivals (1,154,501) followed by Savannakhet Province (1,124,905), Vientiane Province (469,978), Champasak (393,921, and Luang Prabang (274,506).
The most popular entry point in 2011 was the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge linking Savannakhet and Thailand's Mukdahan Province with 752,825 arrivals.
The second busiest gateway was the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane and Thailand's Nong Khai Province with 743,361 crossings.
Laos is ending gambling in the former casino enclave of Boten on the Chinese border because of worries about crime, according to a government media statement.
"There has been speculation over criminal activity in the gambling town, which forced the government to close the casino," the Vientiane Times reported, without saying when the casino in "Golden City" was shut down.
Boten emerged as a gambling center over recent years, with the casino and a number of pastel-colored hotels springing up to cater to Chinese clientele, often working on infrastructure projects in the area.
Gambling is illegal in China, except in Macau.
The Laos government decided to act when the project's developer began looking into selling the venture to another Chinese investor, the Vientiane Times said.
The new investors will not operate a casino in the area, the report said, but will instead develop the area into "a tourism destination," it said.
The decision will not affect another casino in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, which is on the border of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.
China's widespread presence in Laos, a landlocked communist country of about six million people, has raised increasing local concern despite bringing much needed foreign investment.
The Lao Association of Travel Agents (LATA) has called on the government to address the issue of unregulated travel agents and tour operators and set consistent processing fees for tourists, the Vientiane Times reported.
Speaking at the Lao National Chamber of Commerce, LATA representative Khamtanh Keungpanya said "Currently there are too many tour operators and we are unable to regulate them all."
Mr Khamtanh said there are now 272 tour operators nationwide, which represents a sharp increase from just over 130 in 2010.
"However, only 70 companies are registered as association members," he said.
At present, new tourism operators are being established on a rapid basis because the tourism authority is not strict enough regarding regulations and quality management. "These regulations were very strict in the past," he said.
The association has called on the state authorities to inspect tourism operators to ensure they are offering quality services and standards that meet regulations. "This is to provide a level playing field for those companies that abide by the regulations, including payment of taxes," he said.
One particular issue is that some visitors to Laos have to pay a USD1 or USD2 processing fee, which the Department of Tourism (formerly the Lao National Tourism Administration LNTA) charges through the tour companies, the report stated.
"However, tourists who visit Laos independently without using the services of a tour company do not pay that fee," he said.
Registration for buyers, sellers, and hosted media for the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) 2013, being held in Vientiane on 17 to 24 January, 2013, is now available on line.
The event, under the theme "ASEAN: Hand In Hand, Conquering Our Future", is expected to attract more than 1,000 travel trade executives and government officials to the brand new Lao International Trade Exhibition and Convention Centre.
The ASEAN Tourism Conference (ATC) kicks off the commercial side of the event on 22 January, along with ATF TRAVEX (Travel Exchange) trade show on 22 to 24 January.
TRAVEX is expected to welcome 800 ASEAN exhibitors, 400 international buyers, 150 international and local media as well as 100 tourism trade visitors, according to a TTR Weekly report.
Pundits suggest that delegates book accommodation very early due to the low supply of upper-tier rooms in the Lao capital, coupled with peak-season tourists reserving a sizeable percent.
Boun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival) is held from early to mid-May, depending on the locale, to pray for rain and to celebrate fertility. In the morning, villagers perform rituals at their local temples, and then in the afternoon, they gather in the fields on the outskirts of villages and towns to launch their self-made rockets.
Different communities compete for the best decorated and the highest travelling rocket. Men disguised as women perform acts using wooden phalli to anger the gods. As revenge, the gods are expected to send thunderstorms.