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LP's new 3-author guide to the quiet country
on 23 March 2012
Laos is maybe the quietest country in SE Asia. The fact that it's landlocked has so far kept away the beach party crowd, and the government has tried to promote high-end `eco-tourism' as the country opens up to more international visitors.
This 7th edition of the LP is the first one not written by Joe Cummings, who so far as I know wrote all the LP's previous Laos guidebooks right back to the early 1990s, when Laos had virtually no hard-surfaced roads and no electricity outside Vientiane after 9pm (I first went there in 1994 as a young wide-eyed innocent). This latest LP has three different authors: Austin Bush, Mark Elliott and Nick Ray who lives in Cambodia and writes the LP's Cambodia guidebooks.
So, is it any good? Overall it's up-to-date and the writing style is a bit racier than the rather dry prose we've come to expect from Cummings. A lot of space is given over to Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng which comprise the key destinations for the 2- to 4-week tour of Laos and should not be missed, but all parts of the country are covered including some real backwaters in the North not visited by many.
No-one is going to visit Laos without Luang Prabang as a major destination on the itinerary and rightly so, as its stunning location nestled at the confluence of two rivers, the lush green jungle on the hills and its dozens of ornate Buddhist Wats give it a special charm. The local people continue to be delightful and charming without being `pushy' in any way and largely mind their own business. On our recent visit we were shocked however at how the morning alms-giving to the monks by the local people has now been ruthlessly exploited by tour promoters, who cynically charge money for your alms-giving photo-opportunity. This debases this ancient sacrament between the people and the monks by trivialising and commercialising it, and was the only real downer of the visit. A pity because Luang Prabang's World Heritage Site status has been a generally good thing and brought positive benefits i.e. no high-rise building over 4 floors is allowed, and a restriction on how much of the peninsula may be devoted to tourism which keeps the local community intact. None of the guide books really prepare the visitor for this, and LP is no exception.
As usual with the LP, the book is good on visas and planning. Unless you have an ASEAN passport, you're going to be charged for a visa when you enter Laos. If you arrive by air, especially to Luang Prabang, then you'll be made to queue for up to an hour (maybe more on busy days) to go through the labyrinthine and unnecessarily bureaucratic visa-issuing process (because at the end of the day, the government just wants your money so why be so inefficient about it?). If you enter overland, especially at the border crossing with Thailand, it's much quicker and easier. You'll need US$40 in cash and passport photos so go prepared.
The Lao currency, the Kip, has no coins, just banknotes - great thick wads of them as the denomination is so low. Make sure you get rid of it all when you leave, as outside Laos no-one will want it.
Laos is a real adventure and though it's much busier now with tourists than it used to be 10 or 15 years ago, it's still quiet and largely original, nowhere near as westernised as Thailand nor as populous and frantic as Vietnam, and much cleaner than Cambodia. It's a little jewel. Take a trip on the Mekong, visit Pakse, rent or buy a motorbike (but forget insurance - there's no such thing) and enjoy the freedom of touring at your own pace. Take your LP guide for back-up, and read it as you go.