Submitted by Alison Winward May 2004
One of the least-visited countries in south-east Asia, if not the least visited. The bulk of tourists concentrate on the capital city, Vientiane, and the historic city of Luang Phabang in the north west, although I didn't make it there, or anywhere north of Ventiane, or at least I haven't so far…
Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), to give it its official title, has been run since the 1970s by a Communist government, which came to power in the sweeping changes that affected the region in the wake of the Vietnam/American War. The legendary Ho Chi Minh trail, the route used by the Communists in northern Vietnam to supply their comrades in Southern Vietnam, ran through a good part of eastern Laos. Some areas around Savannakhet and Attapeu have the distinction of being supposedly the most heavily bombed places on the planet. The American military tried all sorts to disrupt activity on the Trail: they bombed it with conventional weapons, they dropped cans of beer - so the soldiers would be too drunk to march or fight effectively - and they scattered washing powder over it, to make it too slippery to travel along! Much of the fighting in Laos was secret. The American authorities and the then-government never acknowledged the presence of the American military personnel supporting the Government forces, while the Communists never admitted that they were getting help from Vietnam. Although the fighting and its results weren't quite as catastrophic as they were for neighbouring Cambodia, people in Laos, especially those in the north-east, near the border with Vietnam, have experienced their fair share of violence and displacement.
The government keeps a tight grip on the country, although the people are so gentle and laid-back that, as a tourist, you probably won't realise this. There are supposed to be some areas the government doesn't want people to see (possibly so no one knows about any persecution of the minorities who live there). During 2003 there were a couple of attacks on buses running between Luang Phabang and Vientiane, which I think was something to do with tribespeople wanting autonomy, but what the hell, you can get car-jacked in Manchester…
It's easier than you might think to get around Laos. There are touristy bus services to and from Luang Phabang, but, in the south, there is a public transport system of sorts - provided by buses, lorries and converted trucks, only to be expected in a country where so few people have their own transport.
There's no train service (that didn't stop, so I've heard, top people in the administration being sent to the former Eastern Bloc in the 1980s to learn how to run a railway!). There are plane services, but I think they're mostly between Vientiane and Luang Phabang; Lao Aviation used to be regarded with suspicion because of its reluctance to disclose statistics on accidents, near-misses and the like, but this might have changed.
It's possible to travel, I think, by boat from Thailand to Luang Phabang, and even to Vientiane, either in 'fast boats' in which you can dice with death, or in slow boats which entail spending the night in villages along the way. I met a couple of people who had taken the 'slow boats'. I'm not sure where they travelled between, but both had ended up spending a night in grass 'guesthouses' defending their stuff from invasions of rats, so, musophobes, BE WARNED!
Laos is supposed to produce two of the best alcoholic drinks in south-east Asia: lao-lao rice wine and Beer Lao, which my beer monster ex-boyfriend reckoned was the best local beer he'd encountered.
Is absolutely tiny for a capital city; it's banged up but it's very peaceful and pretty. It's a bit more expensive than Thailand, especially if you want to eat out on Western food. (I reckon it's could be down to there being a comparatively large ex-pat population, of well-paid people working on Asian Development Bank projects and the like, or for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other Western bodies, who have rock-all to spend their money on apart from food).
If you come to Vientiane from Thailand, you can walk over the Friendship Bridge from Nong Khai, then take a taxi or a bus to the city centre, which is several miles from the bridge. I once took a tourist bus from Vientiane to Khao San Road in Bangkok. I think it cost 600 baht and it was really good - left on time, arrived on time, was comfortable etc, not at all like the tourist buses that operate elsewhere in Thailand (see the Penang trip horror story in my Thailand section).
My ex-boyfriend and I paid US$15 for a large room with TV, fridge, bedside cabinet and bedside light, and hot water bathroom in the Orchid Guesthouse, on the riverfront. Later, we stayed in the Lao International Guesthouse, on Thanon Francois Nginn. We paid US$6 for a room with bathroom, but it was pretty grotty, although the staff were very nice.
Vientiane is so small it's easy to see practically everything on foot. Of the sights, Wat Phra That Luang, the most religious building in Laos, is spectacular, and it's worth paying a dollar or so to go up the Patuxai (Victory Gate). Wat Si Saket is really pretty, while the former royal temple of Ha Phra Kaew has a nice garden. We rented bikes and cycled to Xieng Khuan or Buddha Park, a collection of bizarre statues created in the 1950s by some yogi/priest/shaman. It's about 17 miles from the centre of Vientiane, on a flat road; I enjoyed the ride, but I think it was a bit too far for my ex.
There isn't (or wasn't in late 2002) a right lot to see here, apart from the provincial museum, which concentrated on Kaysone Phomvihane - a local lad who became Lao PDR's first president - and the dinosaur museum (fossils have been found in the region). Oh, and the rusting tank and herd of goats in the grounds of the city hospital's training school. I can't remember where we stayed, it might have been the Sayamungkhun guest house, but I know we paid 34,000 kip for a clean, basic room with bathroom. We went to some hotel which, according to our edition of Lonely Planet, had: "probably the nicest hotel swimming pool in the whole of Laos", but it was a mystery to us why anyone should think this grotty, green hole was anywhere approaching nice. AND the price of a swim had gone up, from $1 in Lonely Planet to $3!
We went to Savannakhet to do a 'jungle trek' mentioned in Lonely Planet. When we arrived, we were told that these treks didn't exist; someone had organised a trek about three years earlier, but only as a one-off experiment; Lonely Planet had got the wrong end of the stick and included the treks as a permanent fixture on the tourist calendar. However, we were told, our visit coincided with an attempt to re-launch the treks as part of a United Nations initiative to encourage locals to live off the forest through tourism, rather than logging. We could join the first trek, which was to be a 'test'; if it went OK, the treks could become regular occurrences. This was around November 2002 and I don't know what happened after our trek. If you're interested in doing one and find yourself in Savannakhet, you might be able to get information from the Savanbanhao Hotel or the Lao-Paris restaurant near the pier.
We paid US$50 each for out five-day trek beyond the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We had one night in a village, three days and two nights climbing 'Elephant Mountain', then spent the final night in another village. The accommodation was, shall I say, rather open, so it was a bit scary from a Ratwatch perspective, although I didn't encounter any. The walk wasn't particularly scenic - we were surrounded by huge trees! - but the views from the top of the mountain were nice, and it was interesting to learn a little about how the locals live off the forest by collecting berries and roots and the like. We didn't see much in the way of wildlife, apart from bugs; someone claimed to find a tiger scat (turd), but it was really dried up, so it was difficult to be sure what it was. Although the trek wasn't the most memorable experience of my life, it was an interesting enough five days, good value, well organised and, of course, as far as we knew, we were doing our bit to help the locals and preserve the forest.
We travelled from Vientiane to Savannakhet on a public bus; it cost us 25,000 kip each and we arrived two hours later than timetabled. On the return to Vientiane, we paid 40,000 kip each to travel on the swanky new private bus. Which broke down. Twice. So we ended up on a public bus after all.
There's internet access in Savannakhet, but it was quite slow while we were there.
Ancient capital, full of history and, apparently, tourists. But that's all I can say because I haven't actually been there (yet).
A party town, by all accounts, kind of a wilder version of Khao San Road, but in Laos. It's a good place to go climbing, caving and 'tubing' ('sailing' in an inflated tractor innertube, for those not in the know). Again, I can't say much about the place because I didn't go there, but my party-animal ex loved it.
A bit grim, this place, but if you want to 'do' southern Laos, you'll probably end up staying here. The river's nice, but I'm not sure the Historical Heritage Museum is worth the trek out of town. I stayed first in the Lankham Hotel, but I left when I found something had gnawed a packet of biscuits in my bag. The teethmarks were small enough to have been made by a mouse, but I couldn't be sure… There was a nice Indian restaurant across the way, though. Later, I stayed at a brand new guesthouse near the central market - I think it was called the Laa Chalern - and paid 45,000 kip for a very small room with bathroom and television. There was internet access in Pakse, but it was comparatively expensive, and slow.
I did a day trip from Pakse to Tat Fan waterfall, which was pretty spectacular, although I couldn't work out how to get close to the bottom without killing or injuring myself, and, as I was on my own, I decided not to risk any further adventuring. I wish, though, I'd stayed at least one night in the attractive guesthouse at the falls.
It's hard to believe it, but these half-dozen or so dusty, sleepy streets on the banks of the Mekong were once a capital city (when Laos was divided into three kingdoms). The biggest attraction here is Wat Phu, a ruined Khmer temple that's around 1,000 years old and is about five miles from Champasak. The temple isn't exactly overwhelming, but it's in a beautiful setting, and it's a really peaceful, pleasant place to be. I rented a bike and cycled there from Champasak. I got to Champasak by taking a bus/truck from Pakse.
I went here in search of some rare Siam crocodiles, as mentioned in Lonely Planet, and because an NGO person I met in Savannakhet told me he'd been there. After I'd been, I emailed him to ask why he went to Salavan. "Because I had to for work; there's no way I'd have gone there otherwise," he replied. Nuff said…
Oh, and no one seemed prepared to help me find the crocodiles either!
Salavan is near the fertile Bolaven Plateau and the ethnic minorities which live there, but a better place to stay (it couldn't be worse!) is probably Tad Lo, a waterfall off the road between Pakse and Salavan.
I got stuck here while trying to escape from Salavan and wish I hadn't.
There's not a right lot to do here; the highlight for me was staying in the nicest place in town for US$4 a night. I decided to give the backpacker places a miss and head a little out of the town centre to the Yingchokchay Hotel, which is big and was almost deserted while I was there. There were some rooms for US$10 or $15 (I can't remember which) on the upper floors, which had all the mod-cons such as TV, air con, hot water bathroom, fridge and so on, and I think they're where NGO staff stay when they're in town. But my $4 room on the ground floor was great as it was, it was massive, with two of the most comfortable beds I encountered in the whole of south-east Asia, and a decent, if cold water, bathroom. I checked out "Attapeu Travel and Tours" because I wanted to rent a bike to cycle to a minority village nearby, but the helpful man said that although he'd try to find someone to loan me a bike, he wasn't sure he'd be able to do it. He also showed me a nicely-produced "Guide to Attapeu" featuring pictures of gorgeous waterfalls, lakes and the like. The man agreed they were beautiful but, he said, most of them were inaccessible! Maybe he didn't know what he was taking about, maybe, 18 months later, these places are accessible, I'm not sure. I also tried the local government tourist office, but the people there couldn't help me either. Some people go to see some kind of American missile launcher or something, a relic from he war.
Si Phan Don/'Four Thousand Islands':
Despite what it says (or once said) in Lonely Planet, Don Khong ISN'T the best place to be here. I was there in early December, when there was a dragon boat racing festival and it was OK, but there were so many people on the island that it was really difficult to get a place to stay, and there isn't really much else notable here. I rented a bike and cycled around the island, which was nice, but not exactly unmissable.
I took a boat from Don Khong to Don Det/Don Khon and wished I'd gone straight there instead of messing about on Don Khong. Don Det had changed immensely since the edition of LP I was using was written (only about two years earlier). For some reason, this tiny, tiny island of mud in the middle of the murky Mekong has become the backpacker hangout of choice. People would arrive intending to stay just one night or so, but end up staying for days, if not weeks, even though there's rock all to do there apart from chill. Don Det is connected to the adjoining island of Don Khon by a bridge built by the French during colonial times. The Mekong isn't really navigable at this point, so boats would drop cargo at one end of one island and it would be carried by light railway, over the bridge, to the other island, where it would be loaded onto another boat to continue its journey up or down stream. Don Khon is bigger than Don Det, but there's still not much there in the way of sights apart from the remains of the railway and Tat Somphaphit falls, which are pleasant enough, if not Niagara. Some of the guesthouses and cafés on Don Det can arrange for a boat to take you to Khon Pha Phaeng waterfall, a little further down the river, although, to be honest, it's not really any better than Somphaphit. Mind you, both waterfalls might be a whole lot more impressive after heavy rains…
There's no point me recommending one guesthouse over another, as many of them are pretty much the same, charging around 10,000 kip per night for a basic bungalow. Rasta Café was good for a laugh, but there were other places to eat, drink and meet. There were a couple of guesthouses on Don Khon and they seemed to be a little bit more upmarket than the bamboo bungalows on Don Det, in particular, the hotel belonging to the posh Auberge chain, where you could pay US$25 for a comfortable room with hot water bathroom. Be warned, though, that there isn't a regular electricity supply on either island (or at least there wasn't while I was there), although some places had generators.
It's now possible to enter northern Cambodia from Laos somewhere around Si Phan Don; I'm not sure if you have to start from Pakse or you can do it from Don Det/Don Khon.