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About Laos

Laos is much less visited than its neighbours, Yunnan, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia although many people touring SE Asia include it in their itinerary. The country has sparsely populated hills and valleys in the north and a more populous tongue to the South stretching down between Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. We only visited the north. Long haul flights do not fly to Laos but you can reach it from most countries in SE Asia. We took a Laos Airlines flight from Singapore to Vientiane and there are several flights a day from Bangkok, Hanoi and Phnom Penh. There are also a few flights directly to Luang Prabang. You can also enter by land from Thailand, Vietnam or China.

November to March is meant to be the best time to visit. April and May get very hot and you can get a lot of rain between June and October. In February we had a week of unseasonably cold weather - down to 5C - and had to buy extra layers. Be prepared for rain as well, even in the dry season. It does get cold at night but normally warms up by around 10. In the February peak season we saw far fewer tourists than in Myanmar. What tourists there are seem split between young backpackers and older visitors like ourselves who are prepared to put up with varying accomodation. "You are flash-packers", a younger backpacker tells us.

The Green Park hotel in Vientiane had attractive rooms although a little tired and sadly a large building site next door. In Phonsovan we stayed in the Vansana - huge bungalows with heavy furniture and fire places and homely Lao food. The Keo Chinda in Sam Neua was 'faulty towers' with leaky bathrooms and unreliable hot water. It looked freshly built and the build quality was terrible. Our guide usually uses the Chitavan near the market. The Nong Kiau Riverside (above) was beautifully situated although the bungalows were basic, electrics dodgy and very cold! The Mandala Ou, where we stopped for lunch, looked a good alternative. Muang La resort was top class as mentioned. Phou Lu Bungalows in Nam Tha and Muong Sing were simple but spacious and clean. The Three Nagas in Luang Prabang is a very smart and comfortable boutique hotel right in the middle of the old town.

The Chinese have helped a lot to upgrade the mountain roads although some are still very slow going. We travel by minibus and on a couple of days spend 8-10 hours on the road. You can travel by public bus or coach if you have the time to wait. Not many people speak English so communication can be tricky. Some restaurants have translated menus or photos and food is cheap. We rarely spend more than USD 5 for lunch or USD 10 for dinner. Bottled water is easy to get and the local beer, Beer Lao, is good in either its pale or dark form. Local whisky - lao-lao - distilled from rice or sweet corn makes a fiery nightcap. Local food is very good although we avoided the more exotic delicacies - frogs, beetles and catterpillars. We saw rats being sold (and eaten) although not on the menu!

Shops in the towns and villages are pretty basic. We buy extra clothes to keep warm and there is plenty of food and basic provisions. However you need to take essentials like medicines, camera batteries and memory cards with you as you are unlikely to find them widely available. It is quite easy to change money and everywhere from the airport to banks, money-changers and hotels offer about the same rate - 8000 kip to the US dollar when we visited. Credit cards are not accepted away from the bigger hotels and we didn't try the ATMs although some (BCBL) work with international cards. We found some lovely handicrafts - weaving and embroidery. Be prepared to barter - we got discounts of up to 30%. Also be ready to tip guides, drivers and boatmen. Ask your guide what is the right amount. We tended to tip between USD 5-10 per day. Despite the big investment in hydro-electricity the power supply can be erratic so make sure to pack a torch.

If you are planning any trekking or overnight homestays then come prepared. Sleeping bag liners, camping towels, bug spray etc will all come in useful. When we camped in the Nam Et National Park the bedding was very clean although washing facilities were basic. Better to be prepared for the worse.

We visited Laos on an organised private tour. The trip was really made by our excellent guide, Dao, who knew the country extremely well and soon picked up what we were interested in. As a result he modified our itinarary and even some of our overnight stays. This reinforced our view that however much you research the trip and use "expert" tour organisers, you are likely to find that the situation on the ground may have changed since your tour operator last visited and are at the mercy of their local operator. This time we were much luckier than recent trips to Yunnan and Myanmar. To be fair to our operator, Go Differently they did what we asked and got us off the beaten track. Dao added the fine tuning to make it a great trip.

Eating in Laos

With the exception of the very spicy dips (jaew) and some of the laaps, we generally found the food to be delicately flavoured with lots of fresh herbs. There was also a big variety of fresh local vegetables when we visited.

Sticky rice - the national dish - glutinous rice steamed in woven funnels and served in little round woven pots. You are supposed to make a ball in your hand, scoop a piece of meat or veg with a couple of fingers and then dip in your sauce.

Laap - this is finely chopped meat or fish cooked with a pungent sauce and served with green herbs on a bed of lettuce or other edible leaves. May be served raw (cured in the sauce) but usually cooked in restaurants. We particularly liked the duck laap in Nam Tha and the fish laap in Luang.

Fer/Pho - a noodle soup similar to that found in Vietnam. The rice noodles are served with a clear stock, some sort of meat (chicken/pork/buffalo) and herbs. You can then add more of your own herbs and seasoning - mint, lime, roasted rice etc is served on the side. Everyone has this for breakfast as well as other times of the day.

Jaew - this is a spicy side dish that can be a sauce or pate depending on the ingredients. We try tomato, aubergine (delicious), chilli and rattan. Usually served with steamed vegatables for dipping.

Kai Pen - rather delicious crispy snacks made from river weed dried into thin sheets, sprinkled with sesame seeds and fried. They look like the Japanese seaweed Nori snacks. Particularly good in Dyen Sabai in Luang.

Chicken stew (Or) - a speciality of Luang Prabang where they use a type of fragrant wood to add flavour. We have a good one in Tamarind.

Chicken steamed in banana leaf - banana leaves are used a lot in cooking. We have several of these and also a very good chicken wrapped in lemongrass. In both cases the wrapping keeps in the delicate flavours.

Lao-lao - the traditional Lao spirit usually distilled from fermented rice or sweet corn although other vegetables and fruit are also used. The good ones taste a bit light grappa. Also used to make local cocktails!

Reading list

As we tend to read a lot on ebooks these days we could not get some of the recommended books which are out of print. There are some published short stories by Lao writers but I have not managed to track them down.

A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis: Norman Lewis, a British Journalist, travelled through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1949-50. It was the end of French colonial rule, China had become communist and the Vietminh were attacking the towns and villages. A fascinating account of Indochina and its people and customs, many of which were changed forever by 15 years of war.

The Ravens The True Story of A Secret War in Laos, Vietnam by Christopher Robbins: the Ravens were young spotter plane pilots who operated in the secret war that the US funded and which was led by the CIA from 1965-74. Much of the book is military history but it is also an excellent account of the background to the war and the suffering that it caused the Lao people.

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill: this light-hearted novel introduces Dr Siri, Cotterill's 70+ year old chief coroner of Laos appointed reluctantly by the new government after years of fighting in the forest. A well written series of books with lots of humour and affection for the Lao and their lives as they struggle to get used to a communist peace.

Ant Egg Soup by Natacha du Pont de Bie: An entertaining and affectionate book about the country, people and food written in 2004. Natacha du Pont de Bie travelled adventurously and includes some rather challenging recipes.

Dr America by James Fisher: a book I have not read and only available 2nd hand. An account of the controversial Tom Dooley who set up a hospital in Muang Sing in 1958. Was he a saint, an opium smuggler, a tool of the CIA or a bit of all three?