Now that I’m at the very bottom of Laos about to head south into Cambodia, I’m encountering numerous travellers heading the other way who want to know what I think are the ‘must-see’ parts of this country. And to be honest, when I think about it there aren’t that many. But this place has a calming influence that permeates every aspect of life, and some of my best times here have been spent in smaller out-of-the-way places simply existing at the local pace.
Laos has its problems. It’s not a democracy: it’s a single-party State that combines low-level capitalism with high-grade cronyism. Transparency International ranks it as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, more corrupt than Sierra Leone, Bolivia, Pakistan, Indonesia or Ukraine. Only failed or pariah states like Somalia, Myanmar, Iran, Afghanistan and the other ‘Stans rank lower. That crudest measure of wealth, per capita GDP, at approximately US$850 per person per year places it within the forty poorest nations in the world (Australia measures around US$48,000 a year).
But it doesn’t feel so poor when you travel around. The majority of the population live in small rural villages and produce or gather all of their own food, selling what surplus they can for some cash, and generally this fact is not represented in official economic stats. Most kids go to school, even though the schools can be as simple as some chairs set up underneath a thatched awning. I’m not saying people don’t want more – I’m sure everyone would like some better mod-cons to make their life easier, or a new tractor, or scooter, or whatever. Better services such as health care are definitely needed. But there is unmistakably a joy of living and a generosity of spirit here that many “richer” countries lost long ago. And guilt-free enjoyment of the simple art of doing nothing: taking a daytime nap or lazing in a hammock is commonplace and unremarkable, and they haven’t even bothered to formalise it into a rigid siesta time…
So for me, with all the time that I’ve had to indulge, it’s been the quiet, local, relaxing places that have appealed as much as the obvious highlights. But for those planning a trip here (and I highly recommend it), this is my personal list of ‘must-see’ places:
Luang Prabang – an exotic mix of French colonial architecture, temples, the Mekong and high quality restaurants and bars. Not remotely like the rest of Laos because it is completely devoted to tourism, but definitely a highlight
Nong Khiaw – a tiny village north of Luang Prabang, best accessed by slow boat up the Nam Ou. Slow and lazy with guesthouses spread along the eastern shore so you watch the sun set from your balcony, there are some nice short tracks into nearby hills if you want to get active. Much nicer, so I’m told, that the nearby Muang Noi Neua which used to be idyllic but is now touristed to death
Vang Vieng – you have to pass through here when travelling between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, so why not stay a night or two? Great karst scenery, many caves to explore and tubing or kayaking on the river is available too. It’s known as a party town and you can have as big a night as you want here, but it’s easy to keep it quiet if preferred
Vientiane – the sleepiest capital in the world, spending a few days here soaking up the atmosphere is great. Dining on the banks of the Mekong at sundown, have a cheap but quality massage or spa treatment, an excellent range of local and international style restaurants, bars ranging from Lao-style beer barns to backpacker joints to classy nightclubs where jeans are out and cocktails are in… this place certainly hasn’t got it all but that’s part of the charm
Kong Lo cave – a seven-kilometre journey by boat underneath a mountain, passing through low tunnels and cathedral-like caverns on the way. I don’t know if it’s the largest cave in the world you can travel through without special equipment, but it certainly feels like it. Stay near the village for an even more exotic experience – almost everyone else comes here on a day-trip
Pakse – if you have time to come down south, Pakse is the perfect base to see an increasing range of great sights. The waterfalls and coffee plantations of the Bolaven Plateau, Wat Phu near Champasak, the elephants of Ban Kiet Ngong, loads of multi-day treks in every direction, all are available from here and the town’s got a sedate feel about it too. Make sure you have at least one drink or meal at the rooftop bar of the Pakse Hotel at sundown, the view there is spectacular
Si Phan Don – only a couple of hours south of Pakse, this is still a paradise-like island despite the increasing numbers of backpackers. Every famous tourist place like Waikiki, St Tropez or Phuket was once upon a time just home to a handful of villagers and the occasional traveller, and Si Phan Don feels like those places must have done before the hordes came. I would not be surprised in thirty years time to find it dominated by soulless hotels and resorts, for the time being there are still rice paddies and pigs and chickens and most locals don’t rely entirely on tourism to survive. It’s basic but that’s part of the charm, and it won’t stay like that forever
I have not been to every corner of Laos, so there may be other gems that I can’t talk about yet. There’s apparently great trekking around Luang Nam Tha in the northwest, and The Gibbon Experience up that way gets very strong support from everyone’s been there. Then there’s the Plain of Jars near Phonsavan, the wartime caves near Sam Neua, the elephants of Hongsa, truly remote trekking east of Attapeu… all good reasons for me to return too!