A backpacking trip around Laos
About opium addicts, bombs of the past and stunning landscapes
Well, there is seemingly always someone getting sick in a local bus in Laos. But it still is one of my favorite countries in southeast Asia for traveling. I spent 15 days backpacking around Laos as a solo female traveler on a low budget. It was a very relaxed backpacking trip with a deep dive into the country’s history. Laos is one of the poorest countries in southeast Asia. But at the same time, it has a lot to offer for travelers, who are open to experience adventures and are exited to see amazing landscapes.
As almost everywhere in southeast Asia, there is local transport available almost everywhere. Buses and boats connect the major backpacking spots. It’s easy and cheap to get around on surprisingly good roads. Transport is reliable. Buses are slow, but leave in time. It’s possible to find cheap accommodation and restaurants in all major backpacking spots. I experienced Laos to be a very easy and safe country to travel. I met great and friendly local people and I didn’t experience any scams and didn’t have any major problems.
In the low season, it was easy to find cheap accommodation. Dorm beds in hostels start around 6 Euros, private rooms for two people around 20 Euros in tourist destinations like Luang Prabang. And there were always other travelers around. For these reasons, I would recommend Laos as a country for backpacking, suitable also for a first backpacking trip and also a perfect country for women traveling alone.
On my backpacking trip around Laos, I got offered opium in the hill tribe villages around Muang Sing, chilled in hammocks with a river view in Nong Khiaw, traveled by boat on the Mekong, visited Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang, learned all about Laos as the most heavily bombed nation in the world in Phonsavanh and discovered the capital of Vientiane.
Best time to travel around Laos: November to January
November to January is said to be the best time to visit Laos with warm temperatures and no rainfall. I went there in July in the middle of the monsoon season. Temperatures were very hot, the air was sticky. And it was raining a few times, but I still enjoyed the backpacking trip in a green surrounding and had beautiful days with a lot of sunshine. And it was comfortable, that the guesthouses were not crowded and not too expensive at this time of the year.
- The official tourism website of Laos gives information about bus timetables and bus prices nationwide.
- Get information about visa regulations on the official tourism website.
- Find Lao missions abroad here.
- Read all about the entry points of Laos.
Horrible border crossing from Vietnam to Laos:
Extra dollars for a stupid health check
The border crossing from Vietnam to Laos was nerve wrecking. I went by bus from Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam to the border town of Tay Trang and on to Oudomxay. All passengers in the bus had to pay for their visas at the border. But the border officials also wanted a weekend fee and charged some more US-Dollars for a stupid health check. They wanted to measure our temperature at the arrival in Laos. That seem to be ridiculous. And some travelers refused to pay at first. But after useless discussions, they gave in.
During the whole eight hours long trip from Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam to Oudomxay in Laos, we sat sweating and crowded like pigs in a small non air-conditioned minibus listening to karaoke songs. In a small village, we stopped for lunch in a restaurant on a dirt road. I had to change some money in the restaurant to be able to pay for my food and to bargain for a fair price for my lunch. So just be aware, that you will need a little bit of cash on the way.
Happy arrival at Oudomxay: Sharing rooms with fellow travelers
I was more than happy to arrive in Oudomxay. There were no more connection buses going to other directions in the evening. Together with a group of other backpackers, I moved into a cheap hotel close to the bus station. To save money, we shared rooms, had proper meals and beers in good company. All of us wanted to travel on the following day. It took a while, until I found an ATM, that took international credit cards. But ATMs are available.
- Read all about buses, prices and timetables here.
Luang Namtha: tour agencies and guesthouses embedded in stunning scenery
It was bizarre to arrive in Luang Namtha. After a four hours minibus ride from the border town of Oudomxai, me and another traveler suddenly stood in a village full of restaurants, trekking tour agencies and bike rental places. Just, that we didn’t see any other tourists around.
It was easy to find cheap accommodation. And as soon s possible, we rented some bicycles to discover the beautiful surrounding of Luang Namtha.
By bicycles, we rode along rice fields, palm trees, farms all embedded in intense colors in front of a stunning mountain scenery. We had a great trip, getting smiles and waves from the local kids, doing sightseeing at a small waterfall and enjoying the sun. A lot of travelers use Luang Nhamtha as a base to discover the nearby Nam Ha National Park, go biking, canoeing, rafting and sleep in homestays. Everything can be arranged in Luang Nhamtha.
- All information about buses to Luang Namtha, prices, timetables: www.tourismlaos.org
The bus ride to Muang Sing: Children vomiting in the bus
Muang Sing is another stop on the backpacker trail through Laos, although the village is a little bit more off the beaten track. The bus to Muang Sing was full of tribal ladies in traditional clothes with too many vomiting children on their laps. Vomit was sticking at the window glasses. One of the babies shit his pants. And like this, we had to drive with far too many people in a far too small bus for two hours on bumpy roads from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing. Getting sick in the bus is one of the major problems, people seem to have there with traveling in rural Laos.
Muang Sing in the Golden Triangle: Best place for opium addicts
If you like opium, Muang Sing is the place to be. It felt a bit strange, that smiling poor and toothless old women in tribal clothes came up to me to offer me self-made bracelets and opium at the same time. Opium is still grown on fields around the village.
We were right in the Golden Triangle, the border region of Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, that forms a geographical triangle, in which the Southeast Asian hill tribes live. The Golden Triangle is used as a synonym for opium and heroin production as well as drug dealing in general.
Imported goods from China on the market
I felt a strange atmosphere in Muang Sing. There a quite a few hotels and homestays around, a busy market in the mornings with fruits, vegetables and a lot of imported goods from nearby China.
Muang Sing is around 60 kilometers away from Luang Namtha. So even less travelers make it to Muang Sing. It is also a good base for trekking tours to the hill tribe villages. Well, geographically, it is. But the transport mafia as I would call it, didn’t help during the time of my stay.
No bicycles for tourists in Muang Sing
We found cheap rooms, but it seemed to be impossible to rent a bicycle. The 15 bicycles of our homestay were all „broken“. We got the same information everywhere else. Motorbikes? Not available for us. Trekking tours? Just at ridiculous expensive rates. The only way to get to the start of some hiking tours was to take a tuk-tuk. Not at a very cheap rate. It was ridiculous. But we took it with humor.
Hiking to the hill tribe villages
We started our hike to the villages of the Akha and the Yao hill tribes ten kilometers out of town. The villages were basically consisting of very simple wooden huts with colorful clothes hanging on clothes lines. In the first village, some women took showers at the public tap in the middle of the village. There was no running water in the huts. I noticed that a few times in Laos: Locals walking with soap and toothbrush to a public tap on the street, having a shower while cars and buses were driving by.
Among addicts in the hill tribe villages: Not the right setting to try opium
In the second village, a woman was waving us. She wanted us to visit her hut. She was just wearing a bra and some trousers with a lot of holes. There was a fireplace in the hut, some mattresses on the floor covered with a large mosquito net. Eight or nine children were sitting on the floor in front of a TV. That was all.
Her husband was sitting on a little stool with a large opium pipe. He looked exhausted. He was somewhere else, didn’t speak, but offered us to drag from his pipe. It was a surreal situation. I didn’t think, that this was the right setting to try opium for the first time in my life. Meanwhile, the woman was bringing us some artwork, that she wanted to sell. I just wanted to go.
- Read more about opium and heroin business in the Golden Triangle:
- “Opium poppy cultivation in ‘Golden Triangle’ hits new high in 2014 – UN report”
- Vice: “The Opium and Heroin Business Is Booming in Southeast Asia’s ‘Golden Triangle'”
About ice men on motorbikes and unexploded ordinances in the fields
In the third village, the ice man had just arrived on a motorbike with a styrofoam container on the back. All the village kids went there to get some ice cream for 1000 kip. Kip is the local currency in Laos. Also we had one to cool down. That was great. And a little cheer up, before we got lost in some corn fields on the way to the next village. Not good to get lost in the nature in a country with a few thousand unexploded ordinances (UXO) lying around. But some farmers helped us to find the right way.
Tribal villages: Bracelets for tourists and cookies for hungry kids
In the fourth village, another lady pulled me into her house. No drugs this time. She wanted to sell me some self-made bracelets. She was old. She didn’t have teeth anymore. There was poverty in her hut. A child was crying, because of its wound at the leg, that his mother treated with some herbs.
The other kids had discovered some cookies in my bag and were greedily eating them. I finally bought more bracelets, that I was able to wear at one time. I didn’t know, what else to do. I felt completely stupid being there.
When I spoke to some other travelers at the guesthouse in Muang Sing later in the evening, they said, that the tribal village people wouldn’t need us and our money. They had been living without the tourists in former times. The would be able to manage it now. But I was not sure about it. The village people are not really living in a parallel world. Changes of the world also reach them. But their ways of taking part in a globalized society are limited, if they want or not.
Chilling in Nong Khiaw: Backpacker bamboo huts with river view
Nong Khiaw reminded me of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, just without the water around. There were a lot of limestone formations in a lush green scenery. Intense colors. But the heat in July was almost unbearable.
It took five hours to get to Nong Khiaw from Udonxai. But it was worth the exhausting bus trip. We met some more travelers on the way and all moved into bamboo huts with a great view on the river.
In many of the guest houses, there were hammocks to chill in and mosquito nets to feel safe at night. It is a good place to chill for a few days. It was basically too hot to do anything else. Rain and thunder came at night.
Traces of the Vietnam War history: Hiking to Tham Pha To cave
In Nong Khiaw, we went to the Tham Pha To cave. It’s around three kilometers to walk from the river. The local people had been protecting themselves in caves against bombings during the 2nd Indochina War (Vietnam War). And it was still interesting to see it. A little depressing and gloomy, when you think about the purpose in war times. But fun with a headlight on your head and your mind in the present.
As soon as we arrived at the cave, a local guide suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He “opened“ the cave for us. And he gave us a guided tour. First, we rolled our eyes. We knew immediately, that we would have to pay for that afterwards. We couldn’t get rid of him. But he did a good job showing us all parts of the cave even without speaking any English. I have to admit, that we wouldn’t have seen as much without his help. So we were happy to give him a tip.
A wet boat ride from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang
To get to Luang Prabang from Nong Khiaw, we took the boat on the Nam Ou river. It was basically a wooden hooker with an engine. We were ten people to share the boat. The seats in our boat were very comfortable. It was much better that sitting to 37 people in a minibus getting sick. And as soon as the rain started, there was tarp to cover up the boat.
It would have been much more comfortable without the rain. And if the boat driver had made a toilet brake at the shore without us having to force him. One traveler had been already biting his lips, because he needed to pee. When the driver finally did an emergency pee stop at a sandbank, we all didn’t care about anyone seeing us.
The ride to Luang Prabang itself took around seven hours. It is not clear, wheather traveling by boat between Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw is still possible now in 2016 as the service had been stopped after a dam had been built in the Nam Ou River a few years ago.
Luang Prabang: Buddhist temples and great night market food
A beautiful place. But I felt every minute, that Luang Prabang is especially set up for tourists. Here they were. A lot of people, that haven’t made it to more remote places in Laos. Well, the place was crowded in comparison to Nong Khiaw or Luam Nam Tha. The prices in Luang Prabang were much higher than in smaller towns.
The town center was very clean. I didn’t even see a cigarette but on the ground between the souvenir stalls, that sell colorful weaved scarfs and whatever. Travel agencies, restaurants, bars and food stalls were located in the main road of nice buildings.
All the services are to find on the street Th Sisavangvong, evening entertainment is offered in the street Th Kingkitsarat. I liked to look around and to visit the Buddhist temples, admire the architecture and eat great food among other travelers on the night market, to go shopping at the street market and to use the internet café, but I was very happy, that I had seen something more than that in Laos.
Luang Prabang: On a bicycle to the shores of the Mekong River
Luang Prabang was still a great place to rent a bicycle and to ride around, visit the shores of the Mekong river. And I could watch the monks every morning at 6 am walking in their orange dresses along the main street to take the rice, that is offered by friendly people – while hundreds of tourists including me were taking pictures.
Luang Prabang: Sharing the room with spiders
I stayed at a cheap wooden guesthouse. It was a historical building and had some charm. But it was so cheap, that I had to share my room with some spiders and their webs. It had been a guidebook recommendation, but I wasn’t too sure, if the guidebook authors had seen it lately. I needed to safe money for traveling, but it put me in a bad mood. When I think about it now, I would not stay again in a dirty place like that.
- All information and prices, timetables about getting to Luang Prabang, bus, boat, plane.
- What to do in Luang Prabang: www.tourismluangprabang.org
- Read more about the Unesco world heritage of Luang Prabang here.
No more party tubing, drunken teenage idiots and deaths in Vang Vieng
I had decided to skip Vang Vieng while backpacking Laos. It is one of the party hot spots of Southeast Asia. It might be different now, but in 2012, it was famous for naked completely drunk teenage idiots falling off the legendary tubes and ropeways and drown after having sex in front of some shocked local farmers at the shore.
Vang Vieng: Government has pulled down bars at the riverside
More than 20 young western travelers are said to have died in Vang Vieng in 2011. In restaurants, it was possible to order next to alcohol hashish, magic mushrooms and opium. But in 2013, the government had pulled down all the bars at the riverside, creating space for more upmarket entertainment to attract a different crowd of travelers. Tubing is still possible.
Traces of the party past of Vang Vieng:
Phonsavanh: Between dust and leftovers of bombs
The town is ugly. In a travel forum, someone had compared it to a western town in a David-Lynch-movie. The description was not too bad. There is a lot of dust in Phonsavanh and in between quite a few leftovers of bombs, that have been used to decorate the few restaurants and bars. It’s not possible to ignore history in Phonsavanh.
12,000 UXO-related accidents since 1973 in Laos
As the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO Lao) states, Laos has the unwanted distinction of being per capita the most heavily bombed nation in the world. “Between the years 1964 and 1973, the United States flew more than half a million bombing missions, delivering more than two million tons of explosive ordnance, in an attempt to block the flow of North Vietnamese arms and troops through Laotian territory. It is estimated that up to 30 percent of all ordnance did not explode… Around 12,000 UXO-related accidents occurred since 1973.”
UXO information Center: Many people are afraid of going to work every morning
I had to hide my tears, when I saw a documentary at the UXO information center in Phonsavanh. It was about the bombs, that are still hidden in the ground in Laos. Again and again, they hurt the poorest of the poor, that are working on the fields, that don’t have a choice to move or work anywhere else. Still today, people lose legs and hands. Most of them are very often afraid of going to work every morning.
Information about the UXO visitor information center and opening times in Phonsavanh (Xieng Khouang). There is also a UXO information center in Vientiane: www.maginternational.org
Get more information about UXO clearing: www.maginternational.org
Tour to the legendary Plain of Jars
The guesthouse in Phonsavanh, where I was staying, organized tours to the Plain of Jars, a large field with hundreds of stone urns. That is the main attraction in Phonsavanh. All the eight travelers staying there wanted to take part. So we were a very international crowd of people going there in a minibus for a reasonable price. The site had been luckily cleared from unexploded ordnances.
A visit at the Hmong people
We also visited some tribal villages of the Hmong people, where people were weaving (and selling their products to the tourists). And we saw Xieng Khouang (Phonsavanh) old city, which still consisted of a Buddha statue and an old stupa full of grass.
Vientiane: In a hotel room without a window
I just stayed one day in Laos capital Vientiane. That was enough for me to get an impression as there are not a lot of actual sights to visit in Vientiane. I stayed in a cheap hotel room without a window. I had pre booked it at the phone before and didn’t even have the idea to ask, if the room has a window. So, staying in that air-conditioned cube was a new experience.
Vientiane: A perfect day between colonial style buildings, fruit shake bars and monks
Vientiane itself has preserved some of its french-colonial-style architecture. There were trees giving shade at the walkways, where cafés and fruit shake bars were waiting for customers. A tuk-tuk driver tried to sell me Marijuana. Monks walking by in their orange dresses gave me smiles. I had rented a bicycle for the day to see Vientiane. Except from Muang Sing, it was nowhere a problem to rent a bicycle in Laos.
A bicycle trip to Pha That Luang
My little sightseeing trip contained Pha That Luang, most important national and religious monument in Laos. I also went to Wat Si Saket. After I had visited a few Asian countries with a lot of temples and stupas, Vientiane wasn’t the most amazing place on earth, but it was still nice to drive around and see something beautiful. If you haven’t seen anything like that before, it is well worth a visit.
Get sightseeing information about Vientiane: www.tourismlaos.org
Read more opinions about Pha That Luang: www.tripadvisor.co.uk
All about bus timetable and prices: www.tourismlaos.org
Border crossing to Thailand on the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge
The border crossing from Laos to Thailand was very relaxed – for a change. In Vientiane, I just took the local bus to Udon Thani from Vientiane’s Talat Sao bus station. Okay, I had to pay again a weekend fee of one Us-Dollar, but the ride over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge was comfortable. There are also buses going to Nong Khai in Thailand.
- Get more detailed information about the border crossing: www.travelfish.org