Unspoiled, Unvisited Laos
The continued violence in Laos has discouraged visits by outsiders and thus preserved local traditions. But now the country has eased travel restrictions, and, except for relatively inaccessible eastern regions, todays Laos is safe.
The recently opened Friendship Bridge that connects Thailand to Laos is perhaps the epitome of the countrys new attitude towards the outside. Today, travelers can trek the country with a single visa, available immediately at the bridge.
I arrived at the bridge in July, and my 2-week journey north to China began in Ventiane, a crumpled vestige of French colonialism that is the Lao capital and headquarters for efforts to develop a sustainable tourism industry. An American-born Thai resident has been recruited to help formulate the nations first environmental regulations. Thai ecotour companies have long eyed the Lao wilderness for environmentally friendly excursions. Other nongovernmental organizations, like the Ventiane-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, are working to save the environment and ethnic traditions from tourist trampling.
Conditions Can Be Difficult
Wandering on your own can still be difficult in Laos because of the scarcity of roads and unpredictable accommodations. But even the well-worn tourist tracks are worth the trip. Most travelers I met had a 15-day tourist visa. This is enough for a trip through the north from Ventiane to the northern border regions or the southern strip from Ventiane to Pakse, but probably not both. A northbound journey to Luang Prabang is one of the most common paths for travelers who enter at the Friendship Bridge (see sidebar), and many travelers split up the 11-hour bus ride by spending a few days in Vang Vieng, 160 kilometers north of Ventiane. The caverns and pools of the villages nearby limestone cliffs provide a respite from the heat and humidity.
Exploring the Villages
After five days among Ventianes Mekong markets, I decided to explore regional villages. A 2-hour bus ride got me to Somsamai; from there a narrow, motorized canoe took me to bamboo-hut villages.
Following a night in a Luang Prabang guesthouse, I left for the station early to catch a northbound truck. While I waited for one to fill with passengers, I sampled market snacks like grilled bat and sweet corn, conversed with some of the few Lao adults familiar with English, and looked for pills to prevent malariaone of the few threats in this nation of peaceful people. The brothels and loud music of Chinese-dominated Udomxai, the last major town before China, gave the region a raucous feel unlike much of Laos.
Laos visas are easy to obtain. The Laos embassy in Bangkok offers better deals than the U.S. embassy or border entries. I got a 30-day visa for the same price as a Friendship Bridge 15-day visa (about $30), and it was ready in less than an hour.
Though all of the guesthouses I stayed in cost less than $2.50, the best deals were in Vang Vieng. There I paid 10,000 kip (about $1.25) for a single room with double bed, a clean bathroom, and free drinking water. Bus fares are equally cheap. The 11-hour trip to Luang Prabang cost $2.
For More Info
To learn more about the efforts of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, contact the group by phone (021-313133) or visit their air-conditioned offices near the Mekong on Vientianes Fa Ngum Road. (The country code for Laos is 856; drop the 0 before the city code if youre calling from outside the country.)
Groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society (021- 216401) are working to save the nations tigers, elephants, and other endangered animals.
The countrys few ecotourism sites, like Lao Pako (021-312234), are other options for responsible travelers.
The Visit Laos web site www.visit-laos.com has a wealth of information about the country. The dryer, relatively cool period from November to March is the best time for travel.
ERIC LARSON writes from Fargo, ND.