Laos is a gem of a country and we loved almost every second we spent travelling north to south down the Mekong. Here are a few tips for things we would recommend and things to avoid while travelling through Laos.
We caught a slowboat from Houei Xai (on the opposite side of the Mekong from Chiang Khong in Thailand) to Luang Prabang. The journey took two days with a stopover in Pakbeng. It was one of our highlights of Laos. Sure, you could catch the fast-boat and be in Luang Prabang before sunset. But remember: not only is this journey extremely noisy and horrendously dangerous, but travelling at speed is also completely out-of-keeping with the laid-back slowboat spirit of the country.
You may have to sit on an uncomfortable upright wooden bench for two days if you catch the slow-boat, but you’ll get to enjoy the scenery, talk to other travellers and generally slow-down and enter “Laos mode”.
Despite what we were told, there was plenty of reasonable accommodation in Pakbeng even though we passed through at one of the busiest times of year (30 December 2009). When arriving in this dusty little town, don’t be surprised to see a kid boarding the boat and running off towards the town with your bag before you can stop them. Don’t worry, they’re not thieves, but rather overeagerly trying to act as your porter.
Some say that Luang Prabang is touristy, and they’re probably right. But we absolutely loved this wonderful little town nevertheless. It’s a boutique, refined touristy, not the crummy, bland and exploitative touristy you see all over South East Asia. Although it’s very expensive by Laos’ standards, it’s well worth a spending a few days enjoying the fabulous food, beautiful French architecture and wonderful cultural traditions here.
Tat Kuang Si: Definitely worth a visit – but only if you climb the steep and slippery stairs on the left hand side to swim in the amazing natural infinity pool above the waterfall! Hire one of the many jumbo tuk-tuks that offers trips to the waterfall from town.
Pak Ou Caves: We found this disappointing and wouldn’t recommend visiting. It feels like a bit of a tourist trip with lots of vendors hassling you and little to see – there are far more impressive caves around (e.g. those in Chiang Dao)
We had fun here, but don’t expect any Laos culture. This town is all about drunk or otherwise inebriated gap-year students, noisy (but empty) bars, American sitcom television and banana pancakes.
It definitely isn’t everybody’s cup of tea but we enjoyed “Tubing in the Vang Vieng”. The town is set in an incredibly beautiful area so perhaps if you explored the surrounding countryside you’d find some hidden gems. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to do this.
If you do decide to go here, be careful of where you stay as many places will be right next to bars playing loud music which pumps late into the night – whether or not the bar has any patrons. We stayed at Otherside Bungalows which were great – clean and comfortable bungalows with private bathrooms with hot shower. We paid LAK80,000 (USD10) for our bungalow, but it was peak season just after New Years, so it may be cheaper at other times. To find them, follow the bamboo bridge across the river from the tube rental spot.
There isn’t a lot to do here, but it is a good place to catch up emails and buy essentials. We highly recommend Hotel Khomvongsa – it was an quite an upgrade on our other Laos accommodation, but for USD30 you can get a spacious and stylish double room with a great breakfast and free Wifi in the room.
If you see one sight in Vientiane, we’d recommend visiting COPE to see the moving exhibition on unexploded ordnances (UXOs). For a day trip outside of Vientiane, head to the bizarre Buddha Park (aka Xieng Khuan) which is about 25km away.
Another highlight of our time in Laos. Read our blog post about it here.
If you’re comfortable on a motorbike, then we highly recommend travelling from Vientiane to Thakhek via Na Him on one. Jules Classic Company is the best and most organised motorcycle rental company we’ve used in South East Asia. Their bikes are in excellent condition and have been adapted for touring (lowered pillion footpegs, good luggage racks, etc). They’ll also do one-way rentals and will forward your luggage on to your destination for you.
In Na Him, we recommend staying at Sainamhai Resort where you can hire a clean, new bungalow for LAK100,000. It’s new and not in the guidebooks yet and a little bit difficult to find, so ask about once you arrive in Na Him.
Of course, don’t miss one of Laos’s natural wonders – the amazing Tham Kong Lo cave.
Finally, when travelling from Lak Xao to Thakhek, keep in mind that the very bad condition dirt road – Laos’ “Highway” 1E south from Lak Xao – improves after about 40km. We were worried it would be in a bad state for the full 120KM to Thakhek.
Savannakhet is a sprawling town spread over a large area, making it difficult to explore on foot. There wasn’t much to do and the accommodation options were mediocre. We did enjoy a interesting day out in the forest with a local guide, which was organised by the local tourism office.
Not to much to do in the town itself, but it is a good place to stock up on essentials for the 4000 Islands or northern Cambodia. We’d recommend hiring a motor bike and heading up to the Bolaven Plateau. The bike that we hired from Lankham Hotel was almost new and in good condition, but did not have any luggage rack or any other touring modifications.
We also spoke to a few people who really enjoyed the longer version of our trip called the Southern Loop, which is apparently detailed in the Laos Lonely Planet.
When arriving in Pakse, try to get a bus that arrives during the day as the bus station is far out of town and the tuktuk drivers take full advantage of the fact that they are the only transfer option available
to you. Read more about it here.
If you stay at the Pakse Hotel (which we would recommend), be sure to ask for a room with a window, as some of the rooms only look out onto the corridor.
Although more expensive than many places on the island, we highly recommend Don Det Bungalows which is on the sunrise side of the island. It’s new and clean with ensuite bathrooms, hot water & 24 hour electricity. It’s very well run and the staff are friendly too. Apparently wifi & credit card payments are on the way.
Don’t read too much into the guidebook designations of Don Det being the “party island” and Don Khone being the “grown-up island”. In truth, there’s not much difference between them and we found Don Khon to be more crowded and more expensive.
We saw almost no whitewater or rapids on the whitewater rafting journey we undertook from Don Det, but the trip was very worthwhile as we got to see the very rare, but fairly easy to spot Irrawaddy Dolphins of the Mekong. We also had a delicious and rather illegal lunch on the other side of the river in Cambodia.
We really enjoyed hiring bicycles and cycling around Don Khon seeing some of the villages and visiting the beaches on the way.