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Laos (Lonely Planet Country Guides) Paperback – 1 Aug 2007
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Nobody covers the world like Lonely Planet.' --New York Post, May 2004
A comprehensive guide that contains an additional 40 pages of listings options and regional content. It features tips for sustainable tourism and responsible travel compiled with assistance from Ecotourism Laos.
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Overall still good. LP books are not as good as they used to be in my opinion but worth carrying.
But whether you use this guide book or not, Laos is a great place to visit.
The general history at the beginning I found very difficult to follow. It's probably very well researched (the author apparently has a degree in South East Asian Studies), but there's just too much information in too short a space, if you're not already familiar it's difficult to follow.
The Vang Vieng info is poor. My particular gripe is no mention of the bats. An impressive sight 10 to 15mins after sunset... what seems like millions and millions of bats fly from one of the caves, keeping in a narrow line right across the valley. More and more and more just keep appearing for several minutes, keeping in formation. I only knew because others told me to look out for them, and then most people I pointed them out to seemed to be as impressed as I was.... But no mention what-so-ever that I could find in this book.
I found the Vang Vieng caves very varied, ranging from uninspiring bland dark tunnels in one (for which the combination of bridge fees to get there, entry fees once there, and compulsory! guide fees were really just not worth it), to impressive rock formations and spectacular beams of sunlight illuminating a well placed Buddha in a large peaceful cavern inside another. But you wouldn't know which is which from this guide book (although it does at least let you know they are there and roughly where, even if it doesn't go into much detail)
But you couldn't find any of them using the maps without assistance ... and I wasn't the only person with this guide book in hand getting lost in the process of trying.
As for the maps in general, they were too focussed on town centers... and still didn't manage to accuratly position places even then. Most useful things like bus stations which are generally located out-of-town, are simply indicated by an arrow pointing off the map with a distance statement like "2km-->".
Using the book to find accomodation was really hit and miss. The descriptions were about as useful as your daily horoscope. The authors seem to have picked one or two distinguishing features of each guesthouse, but failed to give the overall impression. Yes there may be a communal balcony (although when you get there you realise no-one uses it) but no mention of the poor state of the rooms,etc. I really could not 'latch on' to the descriptions; I really had no idea what to expect when I arrived at each one. I really get the impression the authors just cobbled together numerous peoples experiences without any thought for ensuring consistency between them.
Places listed in this guide have either upped their prices (some were double the price), or others have kept the price, but never bothered with maintenance, and boy does it show, but they know they've got the LP hoards who'll stay. Like muggins here, till I learned better.
Once I started staying in non-LP recommended places the value for money drastically improved... the prices were more what you might expect based on the prices listed for those in the book, and the standards surprisingly high for that money (although I suppose this isn't LP's fault; they've become a victim of their own success on this one)
In Luang Prabang, no specific mention of the monks very early in the morning. They leave the many local Wats, and walk barefoot up the mainstreet in the cool morning mist to.. well I don't know what they do is called... the guide book doesn't mention them. Most other travellers I spoke to were unaware of them as well... I only knew of them because another traveller asked if I'd seen them yet!
No mention either of the grasses that the locals were drying all along the side of route 13. This had all the other travellers I spoke to curious as well. The locals would lay them all out neatly for what seemed like miles, and you'd see them beating them, presumably to remove seeds. A local restaurant owner said they're used for the brooms you see being used to sweep the floors everywhere, and this was just the right season for them. I found this more interesting and intriguing for being part of the present day Lao culture, than the temples, but you'd never know of it from this LP guide book.
Definitely agree that the info is particularly lacking for the non VV, Luang Prabang, or Vientiane parts of the country. I had 4 weeks in total and originally had the idea of travelling all round, but in the end just stuck to the main areas because I had no idea where I'd be going or why. The book just gave no feel for what other places would be like at all. The suggested itineries at the front are non-descript and uninspiring.
The majority of pictures were uninspiring. They may look good in a modern art gallery, but they just don't collectively give a good feel for what the country is like. Too many arty close ups.
I don't believe for one second the sky behind Wat Xieng Thong (between pages 136 and 137) has ever been that shade of purple! And the reflection of the sky (page 8) in the river at Vang Vieng is a completely different colour to the actual sky above the hills in it's background.... rather an excessive use of a graduated tabacco filter. It may look 'arty' but not what I'd expect from a guide book. Most of the rest were just too closely cropped to give a good general impression. Not bad in themselves (in fact some quite good in isolation), but collectively they just left me wondering before I set off just what the country/scenery was really like in general.
Proof reading not so great either. A reference to "See Map Page XXX" on the around Champasak map on p226 being just one example.
This may all seem very critical... but for past holidays I've always taken LP along with other guide books and found the others have remained in the bottom of my backback, with LP firmly clutched in my hand. So this time I thought I'd save weight and just take LP.
That was the biggest mistake of my holiday!!! This time, ditching the LP would have been the smart decision and something I very nearly did several times whilst away!... particulary when I found another travellers LP SouthEast Asia book even had more info in it than this Laos specific book!
I'd read radicalcafeteria's (what I now realise to be fairly accurate) review before I bought, but still went ahead and bought anyway, because, well it's Lonely Planet isn't it? And I guess most reading this will likely do the same... so my one final tip would be... use the accomodation lists to get an idea of price, then specifically find guesthouses/hotels NOT listed... they're much quieter and much better value. And unless temples are your thing, make sure you pack an alternative guidebook as well.
(This review applies to the edition published Jan 2005, and used 12 months later in Jan 2006)
1- City Maps are appalling. 500m can be 50m and vice versa. You could quite easily walk around for hours trying to find a hotel represented as round the corner.
2- Away from Luang Prabang, VV and Vientiane the guide's information is appalling. The author(s) have clearly never used public transport, otherwise they would know that an advertised 6 hour journeys actually take a minimum 9 hours. Country and regional maps are often appalling too.
3- pricing is wildly out. Although I appreciate that the local currency is inflationary and that appearance in the LP can encourage some hotel proprietors to raise prices, the prices quoted are often very inaccurate. The 2002 Rough Guide we had with us was actually more accurate.
4- The author assumes you would only want to see Temples, so the "things to do" sections are dominated by temples and are dismissive of anything else.
5- Crucially, no mention is made that accomodation in Vientiane runs short in high season and booking is essential. Laos is almost unique on the SE Asian backpacking trail in this respect.
1-eating is Laos is hit and miss. The restaurants and noodle shops mentioned will encourage more hits.
2- As always, history and backstory behind places and people is clearly explained, so you always have some understanding of what you're seeing.
As i mention above we took two guides on holiday and over time we found ourselves relying less and less on the LonelyPlanet. Without it we found ourselves less frustrated and more able to enjoy this beautiful and dramatic country.
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