The Rare Jewel of Southeast Asia
Use these quick links to navigate Rory's wonderful guide:
- Why Laos?
- Culture Identity and Protection
- Places to Visit
I arrived in Laos after only 4 days being in South East Asia. I am from New Zealand and had never really been interested in the hustle and bustle of South East Asia. After my arrival in Laos my perception of South East Asia would be changed forever, as would my way of thinking and seeing the broader world.
4 days in Bangkok had left me a tad overawed as to what I had got myself into (a 6 month project travelling the length and breadth of Laos); I was not the type of person who wanted to be thrown into the deep end in an ever changing fast paced metropolitan society.
As the Laos Airways ATR-72 (2nd hand from Vietnam Air I was assured?!) descended through the sparse cloud covering into Luang Prabang I was left wondering as to the whereabouts of town. As far as I could see it was large rolling hills covered in lush green rainforest and red soil. It was at this stage I regretted not researching more about Laos. A check and US$30 handed to customs later I had my first (of six) Laos visas stuck into my passport. Upon stepping out of the airport I became very confused very quickly, what I had become accustomed to in Bangkok, the constant touting of anyone slightly tourist looking, was completely absent. It then struck me, how would I get to where I was going without a tuk-tuk? I quickly spied the tuk-tuk rank 100m away from the entrance I made my way over where I discovered it was more like an impromptu siesta stop. After finding one tuk-tuk driver that was willing to take me into town I took a deep breath, threw my back pack on the tray of the tuk-tuk and had one of those ‘well here goes nothing’ moments.
After one month of getting used to the lifestyle in Laos it was time to get out and explore what this magnificent country had to offer. Of the six months I was in Laos I was travelling / exploring for four of them both on public transport and an old brown land cruiser which I named Piripi. I had a couple of guide books which I promptly threw out as information held within these tomes was often different from what was on the ground or even obsolete. The locals of Laos are by far the best guides as they will always take you that step further to some amazing off the beaten path places.
Slowly getting accustomed to Laos is the only thing you can do. And slowly (read Lazy) is the most apt way to explain how things get done in Laos. This is by far from a negative though, as it provides respite from what can often be seen as the blur and fury of activity of South East Asia. So with a lack of tourist infrastructure and this laid back nature you get one of the most charming and generous countries you will ever visit as well as one of the final bastions of true explorative travel.
Laos is a country that people know little about and they often ask why they should go. The main reason is that Laos has not been exposed to tourism and western culture (and often many other local cultures) for so long. This gives Laos a very undiscovered and natural fell to it, uncommon in large parts of South East Asia. In 1975 the country became communist and tourism was stopped and it was not until the mid 90’s that the government allowed people into the country, even then it was only Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane that people were allowed to visit. This is why 90% of travellers will only travel this route as it is all that is well know (really taking the emphasis out of a unique Lao adventure). It reminds me of a quote from Alex Garland (who wrote The Beach): “everyone tries to do something different, but you always wind up doing the same thing.” The countries south opened up in the early 2000’s and is now becoming a more popular tourist destination and as a gateway to Cambodia and Vietnam as well now drawing travellers to this region. However, it is the unknown that keeps drawing voyagers to Laos.
I decided to write this section before any other information as keeping Laos the way it is now will be the only way to sustain it as the jewel of the Mekong (people are always saying this is what Thailand was like before the tourists arrived!). Like the rest of South East Asia many people can see that a flood of tourists could potentially do more harm than good. There are a number of actions that you as travellers can do to protect these ideals. Firstly, is to learn the cultural do’s and don’ts of Laos, this as a bare minimum will help to maintain the local culture, you can find these at the Tourism Laos website.
Secondly, where you can you should support local markets and goods as this puts money back into the community and keeps the real ‘old world’ feel about Laos. Supporting local and government backed projects are also a really good way to help out the local communities (Laos is consistently rated as one of the poorer countries in the world). One of the better and karma inducing projects is the Big Brother Mouse Group. Picking up a bunch of these books and giving them out to local children is far better than handing out money as the former often encourages begging.
Much like the rest of South East Asia, Laos can be divided up into two main seasons, wet and dry.
The wet season usually lasts from May through to August. The dry season is November through to March. In between the seasons there are shoulder months which can go either way depending on weather patterns. The busiest season to travel in Laos is definitely the high season but often the better season is the wet season owing to fewer travellers. Also, the rain rejuvenates the rainforest bringing out the full flourish of the flora and fauna. The rain is always a welcome relief for the hot weather as well!
As a general rule any mountainous regions north of Luang Prabang can get quite cool during the winter (as low as 5 degrees) so be prepared for that if you are considering trekking and down the south during summer can see the temperature pushing 40 degrees centigrade with almost 100% humidity.
I decided to just write about the main points that I know here otherwise I would just be paraphrasing a majority of information from other well-known publications.
The history of Laos is long and varied. So long and varied that I don’t want to repeat most of it here so I will just talk about the main points. Laos, as a country has been the site and often centre for many of South East Asia’s conflicts for the past 600 years or so and this could be the reason for the dozens of different cultural groups which are present all through Laos and what gives it the patchwork like ethnic and social make up it has to this very day.
Laos was once known as Lan Xang, the land of a million elephants and it was the cultural centre of South East Asia. Since the mid fifteen-hundreds Laos has been fought over and the one time capital Luang Prabang used to be the capital of a larger South East Asian region. It was also home to the famed emerald Buddha which now resides (after stolen by the Siamese) in Bangkok. Throughout the last 500 years Laos has been the site of many a battle and a few wars. The latest leaving the longest and largest scars on the people and the Landscape. During the Vietnam war Laos (under the Geneva Convention) declared itself neutral, but this did not stop both sides (Vietnamese and USA) courting the Laos government with aid and all sorts of other gifts. At one stage the USA even gifted the Laos government enough concrete to build an international airport runway which the Laos people then went and used to build a large national memorial with. After the Vietnamese war ended the Pathet Laos took over the government restricted tourism to virtually nothing until the mid nineties giving Laos, today, its old school charm.
Previous, during and after my travel to Laos I have heard some really good stories from people about their visas for Laos. One of the most common stories is that people only receive 15 days for Laos on entry. This is not true. Most visas are (at the time of writing) 35 USD for 30 days. You can get these visas at your local Laotian embassy or the much easier option is to get them on entry to Laos. It doesn’t matter whether you come by bus, train, boat or plane all visas are for 30 days. Be aware the relaxed Laos customs workers don’t like working on weekends so you will be charged 1 USD extra for entering Laos.
Transport in Laos can often be worrying and bordering on death defying but does not need to be. There are three main ways of travelling between local centres, flying, boat and bussing. All of these have there positives and negatives and I will try and lay them out below
There are three international airports in Laos - Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse. For these airports most of a South East Asia’s main hubs can be reached from these airports. You can also reach many of the smaller centres internally by flight as well. It’s definitely the quickest way to get from one place to another in Laos (a very un-Lao way of getting around) but with few airlines operating in and out of Laos this means flying is expensive. The worst part about flying in Laos is the fact that you will miss out on all the amazing things in between towns which you fly over.
The river systems in Laos are often the next best way of getting around locally in Laos. For some really amazing places this is frequently the only way to get these places. During dry season some of the boat routes may not be passable due to low river levels. However, the Mekong River and its main tributaries are navigable almost all year round many people will get a 2 day long boat from Huay Xai in the North West to Luang Prabang. This journey (as with public busses) often has a 50% success rate. What I mean here is that 50% of the people that you talk to have said they thought the boat was a good idea, 50% said sitting on a small wooden slat for two days rated as one of the worst experiences they ever had. A quicker speed boat which travels the same route but only takes only takes one day is available; this is definitely a very dangerous way to travel. I have done this once which resulted in a minor boat accident that resulted in me using my backpack as a flotation device.
Public busses most common form of transport within Laos. Again, if you have a group of people standing in front of you, as with the boats about 50% of them will say they had an ok time and 50% would say they had a horrible experience and never do it again. Busses are commonly divided into three groups - express, Bus and VIP. The good thing about these busses is that they are cheap. But that’s about where the good ends.
A common occurrence is busses not leaving until they are full and timetables changing minute before busses leave. The worst I found was the fact that they were point-to-point direct busses, stopping once along the way for a combined food and toilet stop. This means missing out on some amazing stuff along the way. The busses are large and on small windy roads this does nothing for motion sickness. It should also be noted that almost all Bus stations are out of town and you will have to pay for a tuk-tuk to your guest house or other destination. The smaller minivans are definitely the better way to travel. Unfortunately for anyone over 182cm in height they aren’t that great as the mini in minivan really means that - Laotian minivans built for Laotian sized people.
There are a number of private tours you can do with fixed itinerary and guides with companies such as Intrepid, Gap, Kamuka and Exetissimo through the main destinations. A flexible, guided, hop-on hop-off style bus (Stray Asia) has also recently started operating through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia which seems like the best way to visit some out of the tourist limelight destinations and it's something that I would really recommend.
Most towns will offer up the option of motorbike/scooter hire. This is often a popular option for day trips and multi-day trips should only be experienced by experienced riders as the roads (and sometimes trails) in some parts could be described by the phrase ‘poor at best’.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage area famed for its blend of beautiful old Buddhist temples and nineteenth century French architecture. This town quickly becomes a favourite in most people’s eyes throughout the entire globe. From the daily alms ceremony at dawn every morning to the morning meat markets which follow just south east of town on the main road (Pothisalath) to the stunning waterfalls and Asiatic Black Bear at Kuang Si this town can easily waste away your days and weeks.
Phou Si Mountain is a great place to invest in locally produced goods and just to see what the ladies bring in from in villages all around Luang Prabang. This market springs up around dusk every day. Another thing to check out while in Luang Prabang is the myriad of villages accessed by boat both up and down the Mekong River. Aptly named examples such as the Paper making village and Whisky village can be reached by the boat jetty near the amazing Wat Xieng Thong (well worth two hours walking around and exploring in itself). Be careful when touting a boat ride that your captain gives you a fair price (ask around other captains and travel agencies in town) and is not drunk.
This reminds me as well about the tuk-tuk mafia. These guys are all around town and sit around the main tourist haunts. While these guys can give you a really good price for a trip out to Kuang Si waterfall park they are less than ideal for getting about town. For getting about town I would recommend using the New York City Taxi approach and just flag one down on the side of the road.
Luang Prabang is where I spent a majority of my time and every time I returned I was able to be entertained by something different. If heading out of town try and find a restaurant in Ban Khoy. Here you can try and catch your fish for dinner in the ponds at the rear of the building then try your hand at on of the fiercest Petang (the national sport, similar to Pentanque or Boules) courts in all of Laos.
Most things you may wish to do in Laos can be done in Luang Prabang or at least accessed from here any way. Another popular attraction is Phou Si Mountain. A rather large hill (the highest point) in the idle of town, this can be climbed (for around 20,000 Kip) and is well worth the view. However, everybody knows about this place and consequently goes there at sunset.
If you are going to get up for the morning Alms ceremony with the monks, get up about half an hour earlier and head up here for sunrise, all to your self. The food in Luang Prabang can be either western based (I say this with a word of caution, nothing will be quite the same as home) or local. The best local fares are to be had down a side alley of the night market. Always fresh and cooked on the spot you can eat whatever you want and like a king.
For a more restaurant style of food check the restaurants at the Phou Vao end of Manomai (particularly the amazing Lao BBQ) and for desert you have to hit up my best bud old man crepes, who sells crepes from his mobile kitchen here most nights.
Where to from here?
You can get Nong Khiaw or Phonsovan from Luang Prabang but beyond here in the northeast you will most likely struggle to find consistent and safe public transport to the amazingly isolated towns of Vieng Xai, Sam Neua, Vieng Thong and Muang Khoun. These places really are the heart of Laos and are not really geared up for tourism (except for Phonsovan) so are truly eye opening and humbling to any regular backpacker.
Most people come down the river from Huay Xai via Long boat but miss the amazing North West of Laos. Huay Xai is home to the original Gibbon Experience and although you may not necessersarily get to see them you will get to hear what David Attenborough describes as the voice of the jungle.
However, they will miss out on the amazing country that is there. Up here is the highest (reported) diversity of ethnic groups (numbers range from 30-130) which makes this place the best for any trekking to hill tribes in Laos. You may also want to access Phongsali, from Odoumxai which again is a very secluded beautiful mountainous area exploding with home stay and trekking opportunities.
Vang Vieng definitely knows what it is. It is the most Thai like of any of the towns in Laos. If you haven’t already heard about tubing there then you probably haven’t heard much about Laos. It was this tubing attraction that initially attracted tourist here in the early 2000’s (with some getting a tubing trip with out any bars?!).
Basically the main attraction in town is a 2km section of the Nam Song River. After surrendering around 100,000 kip you will be given a tube and a tuk-tuk ride to the Bar 2. Here starts a very vibrant and sometimes hazy trip down a river. During this two kilometre section of river there are a dozen bars in which you should expect to find buckets, beers, loud music, mud football, mud volleyball, slides, jumps, and a lot of partying. Just remember if you get to the red bridge you need to get out of the river as it’s quite a long float back into town.
There are many other things to do in Vang Vieng now thanks to the tourism. Rock Climbing, kayaking, rafting, trekking, hot air ballooning, motorbike hire or even just checking out one of the many caves to the west of the town.
When walking down the main street of town you will grow accustomed to the sound of canned laughter as constant reruns of Friends, The Simpsons and Family Guy echo down the road. One also needs to be acutely aware of the word ‘happy’ prefixing a meal or drink choice as this normally leads to a mind altering experience. A beautiful place to relax during the day is the north end of Don Khang but this is will quickly turn into a Thai style party area come nightfall.
If you want to avoid all this then it is very easy to do by crossing the permanent bridge just south of town towards the west where you will find a number of small, cosy and most importantly quiet, guest houses.
Where to from here?
It’s either north or south from Vang Vieng as Route 13 is the only road that services it. To the north lies Luang Prabang and just before this lies the turn off for Phonsovan and the amazing heritage rich north east area along Routes, 7, 6 and 1C. Have your cameras ready along this route though as it winds it way up through stunning kaarst landscape. South lies the capital Vientiane as well as the large man made lake of Nam Ngum Dam.
The 450 year old Lao capital that sits on the side of the Mekong isn’t exactly the most exciting prospect on the face of it, however, a little delving and there are some fairly interesting things that can be done in and around this city.
Vientiane and Luang Prabang both pay homage to the French Indochina time period, Luang Prabang has retained a lot of the buildings where Vientiane has retained a large portion of the Culture. To get in and out of Laos to Thailand from Nong Khai (from the train) requires about a 20 min tuk-tuk ride. Most overnight busses from Thailand will take you to the bus station in Vientiane.
A few things that are a must to check out and do in Vientiane are Xieng Khuan (the Buddha Park), Patuxai, That Dam, Pha That Luang, Thong Khan Kham Market and the Mekong night food markets.
Xieng Khuan is one two Buddha parks the other is on the opposite side of the Mekong river) built in the 1950’s. A crash course in the Lao Buddhist culture and Buddhism statues in general for the uninitiated.
Patuxai is the national memorial built of concrete that was intended to be an airport runway. It harks back to the French influenced times.
That Dam is one of the oldest standing stupa in the city. It provides a stark contrast to that of the busy motorcycle filled roads of the capital.
Pha That Luang on the other hand is a more modern and far larger complex. It consists of a number of large golden temples as well as one of the largest stupa you will ever lay your eyes on. As you walk in to your left you will see a large open concrete area that most likely used to be a runway at some point.
Thong Khan Kham market is a large local market with just about everything under the sun in it. Particularly interesting for its live food fare which (not for the squeamish) can often be prepared for you right on the spot.
There is no better way to finish of a day in Vientiane than going down to the Mekong waterfront in the centre of town and chowing down on some local fare on the sand then cruising up to the 3rd story bar Bor Pen Yang for a cool, refreshing Beerlao. The old sector of town just back from Bor Pen Yang is also a really cool little hideaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Where to from here?
I have travelled to some amazing places outside of Vientiane. Two of them lie to the east and I tried desperately to reach them on public transport (twice!) proved impossible so I had to make a trip back with my trusty Land Cruiser. The first spot is nestled in the Phu Khao Khuay national protected area, a little spot called Tad Leuk. It’s a really cool little waterfall campsite with a few little treks around the area. Stunningly peaceful during the dry season and powerfully forceful during the wet season makes this waterfall a real pleasure to visit.
Just down the road from Tad Leuk but also in the Phu Khao Khuay national park is the well known village Ban Na. The locals have constructed a large tree top platform with cooking and sleeping facilities cool enough by itself, but when the local elephants come to taste the salt lick it becomes incredible. It should be noted that of the two times I visited I only saw the elephants once. Its nature, nobody can control it.
The second area that I was astounded by was Kong Lor. This translates to something like 7km cave and the locals don’t lie. This huge cave structure (7 km long fondly enough) has a large cathedral like open area in the middle. For a fee of around 50,000 kip the local boat man can take you through the cave, have a feed with the local tribe on the other side then take you back through. Truly an amazing experience.
Pakse is really just a gate way to some of the most amazing sites in Laos. It is quite far removed from the tourist hub of the north. The Mekong is the life and soul of this town and it winds its way through the centre. Most people consider Pakse a transit point for Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand but there are definitely a few things you must check out while around the region.
The Wat Phou complex is Laos’ second UNESCO world heritage area and dates back 1,500 years. It is rarely visited as again it’s off the track where most travellers fail to visit but you can get there by boat from Pakse or further south at Muang. I heard that the Lao were building a bridge across the Mekong down so access may become a lot easier.
The Bolaven Plateau is also has a really good few days in it with some cool spots to check out along the way. My favourite place to reside while here is either the quaint dusty road settlement of Tad Lo or the more upmarket places hidden amongst the jungles around Tad Fan. Tad Lo is home to a constantly flowing water fall, thanks to a dam further up stream. In the middle of Tad Fan and Tad Lo are plantations of some of the strongest coffee beans on the planet. These bad boys will have you seeing straight and true for kilometres and there are a few plantations where you can join a tour that lets you pick your own beans and take them through the entire roasting process right up to the drinking the coffee itself.
For those tea people out there many of the coffee plantations also have tea trees growing on site and for those of you that don’t enjoy hot drinks a cold Beerlao is never far away. As well as the plantations there are a few interesting villages along the way, one which slightly escapes my mind but I have a feeling they worship the dead (maybe) and some other villages that produce some really nice textiles and weaves and such.
The best place close to Pakse however is Si Pha Don or in English, the four thousand islands. This area of the Mekong is up to four kilometres wide in sections and during the dry season there really are four thousand islands. There are three main islands that you can stay on (read; dry all year round), the well structured and larger of the three Don Khong, and Don Det and Don Khon which are connected by an old French bridge. The former two have much older world charm to the and better access the dolphin spotting areas as well as the Li Phi and Koh Phapeng water falls. The people here are so laid back it’s really refreshing. These islands are a perfect place to relax as well with almost every guest house having access to a hammock over looking the Mekong. The highlight of this area is the presence of the Irrawaddy river dolphins. These dolphins are super rare and you can take sight seeing trips from most of the islands. Again, it is nature so it’s not guaranteed that you will see them but if you are there between the months of November and March you have the best chance due to the lower water levels. Another awesome thing to do down here is hire a boat guide to take you and your mates fishing in the afternoon, then after getting enough for a feed he can take you to your own island, you can sit back and relax while dinner is prepared and cooked with a satisfying Beerlao and then watch the sun go down on the way home.
Where to from here?
From Pakse you can easily get into Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Remember for Thai visas you need to present your transport out of Thailand to get in, Cambodian visas are best applied for in advance however you can get them on entry into Cambodia as well. Vietnam requires you must have a tourist visa prior to entry so that must be applied for before you start travelling.
About the Author: Rory Wood
Being from New Zealand travelling comes second nature to me. I think it's something to do with being buried at the bottom of the pacific, a two hour flight from the nearest country. My travelling started there where I guided and drove tourists with Stray Travel around Aotearoa for four years, showing the real off the beaten track spots to thousands of appreciative people. I had never thought about travelling before (funny as it sounds) but a bus was my catalyst.
I have travelled all over Europe, Thailand, Australia, as well as living in New Zealand and Laos. I am really interested in landforms with the Fiordland National Park in New Zealand being my ‘happy place’. Every time I look into travelling I end up with a list a mile long but I am particularly keen on getting over to Central and South America.