Once a magnet for backpackers from all over the world, southern Laos is now a high-end travel destination with new upscale jungle lodges and boutique hotels quickly staking their claim along the banks of the mighty Mekong River. There is a natural rawness here, where travelers are few and scenery is spectacular.

Southern Laos is often overlooked in favor of its more popular neighbors, but its Khmer ruins rival those in Cambodia, its relaxed, beachy atmosphere echoes that of Thailand, and its history is just as devastating as Vietnam. What it does not have, however, is the foot traffic, providing authentic interactions with friendly locals and trekking along un-trodden paths past lush forests, stunning waterfalls, and spectacular mountain ranges.

The best ways to travel are by boat and bicycle, passing idyllic villages on stilts, rice paddy farmers, and fishermen flinging their nets. Traveling downstream on a river cruise, find solace in the hammock-strewn bungalows of the charmingly laid-back Champassak, uncover waterfalls and coffee plantations on the Bolaven Plateau, and visit the fabled Four Thousand Islands, where rare Irrawaddy dolphins seek solace and dreamy islands await exploration.