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Customer Review

TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 27 November 2011
The seventh edition of Lonely Planet's guidebook about Laos was published in December 2010. It is written by Austin Bush, Mark Elliot and Nick Ray.

For the record: my evaluation of this book is based on two visits to Laos. The first time we went to southern Laos (Pakse, Champasak, Si Phan Don and the Bolaven plateau). The second time we went to northern Laos (the capital Vientiane and the former capital Luang Prabang). My evaluation of the book is based on the chapters about these places - plus the chapters with general information and historical background.

In most cases, this guidebook is a reliable and useful tool for anyone who wants to visit this small land-locked country (whose shape on the map looks a lot like Italy), but there are some flaws (see below). Here are some of the important points which are covered in the book:

1. Citizens of Asean (and Japan) can enter without a visa, but all other nationalities must have a visa to enter the country. Most nationalities can get the visa on arrival, but it must be paid in cash and with US dollars (or Euros or Thai Bath) and you must provide a passport-sized photo of yourself. The price of the visa depends on your nationality, it ranges from 30 to 42 US dollars (page 328).

2. There are several warnings about UXO, i.e. unexploded ordnance from "the secret war" which was a part of the second Indochina war (1954-1975). On page 190 they mention the UXO information centre in Phonsavan, which is run by MAG (Mines Advisory Group), a British organisation that has been helping to clear Laos's unexploded ordnance since 1994.

3. The authors also pay attention to environmental issues, especially the problems related to hydro-electric dams. A separate sidebar on page 81 has the headline "Developing the Mekong: Relieving Poverty or Dam Crazy?"

However, the authors do not mention the current and highly controversial project, the Xayaburi dam, which has been the subject of several articles in the Bangkok Post since 2011.

4. In the section about the Indochina war there is a separate sidebar about "the secret war" and the Hmong, the tribal minority which was recruited by the CIA to fight the Pathet Lao resistance movement (page 38). The text includes a reference to the Hmong general Vang Pao (who was born in 1929 and who died in January 2011).

5. On page 129 the authors mention the former special zone Saisombun (sometimes spelled Xaisomboun) which is located ca. 50 km east of Vang Vieng. In this area the CIA built a "secret city" called Long Cheng, from where the Hmong and the CIA conducted their "secret war."

Long Cheng is not mentioned in the Rough Guide to Laos. Here is a link to the fourth edition of this guidebook, which was published in January 2011: The Rough Guide to Laos.

6. The chapter about the south includes a separate sidebar about two companies which arrange a cruise on the Mekong River in southern Laos, from Pakse to Si Phan Don, the 4,000 Islands, near the Cambodian border. The first version runs for three days, while the second runs for five days (page 268). We tried the short version which was an interesting and enjoyable experience.

As far as I can see, these cruises on the Mekong River are not mentioned in the Rough Guide to Laos.

I like this guidebook, but I have to mention a few things which bother me:

(a) On page 271 the authors present the Arawan Riverside Hotel in Pakse with these words: "The five-star claim in their brochure is a tad ambitious, but it is one of the smarter establishments in southern Laos."

The hotel brochure makes no such claim. In fact, it does not say how many stars this hotel has. We stayed for two nights in this hotel, and we had some problems, so we talked to the management about them. I asked the assistant manager how many stars the hotel has. The answer was three stars. I should add that the hotel staff (including the manager) was very helpful and found a reasonable solution to our problems.

(b) The price level for local transport in Pakse mentioned in the book is unrealistically low. On page 273 they say a jumbo from the airport to town will cost you about 20,000 K. But all taxi drivers charged 80,000 for this trip. A tuk-tuk driver first demanded the same amount, later he went down to 50,000 and eventually settled for 40,000.

(c) In the beginning of the book there is a short section with colour illustrations called "Laos Highlights." Number 1 is about riverboats. The caption to the picture says: "Travelling on riverboats (p 142) is a highlight in Laos, but when the water level is low you might have to get out and push!"

I do not want to say this is not true, but I can say that this never happened to us.

(d) On page 41 - in a section about modern Laos - the authors mention the 25th Southeast Asian Games (usually called the SEA Games) which were held in Vientiane in December 2009: "Thousands of athletes attended from eleven Asean countries to compete in 28 sports."

In 2009 Asean had only ten members, and in 2010 when the book was published, the number was the same (it still is). East Timor (also known as Timor Leste) took part in these games, because this country is eventually going to join Asean, but nobody knows when this will happen. The members cannot agree on the timing. Singapore wants to wait, while Indonesia is eager to open the door for this small nation (which was the victim of a brutal Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999).

(e) In the chapter about Vientiane, there is a long section about Pha That Luang, described as the "most important national monument in Laos" (page 95). A separate sidebar on the next page has the headline "Viewing Pha That Luang." The text describes the first, the second, and the third level of this monument. One important fact is not mentioned here: there is no access to this monument. You may walk around it, inside the monastery, but you are not allowed to enter. The monument is always closed to the public. It is only open one day each year, during the festival which is celebrated in November (and which is mentioned on page 100).

How can the authors present a monument in great detail and then fail to mention that there is no access to it, unless you happen to arrive on the one day of the year when it is open to the public?

In most cases, this guidebook is a reliable and useful tool for anyone who wants to visit Laos, but as you can see, there are some flaws, and therefore I cannot give it more than four stars.
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