LAOS (pron: 'Lao'): Listen to the rice grow.

Click on images to enlarge them.

Lonely Planet map
We arrived July 31 and travelled Laos until August 15, exactly two weeks. Google Maps does not calculate routes for Laos so here are map links to places we visited:
...........Houei Xai [map link]
...........Luang Nam Tha [map link]
...........Oudom Xai [map link]
...........Luang Prabang [map link]
...........Vang Vieng [map link]
...........Vientiane [map link]
...........Pakxan [map link]
...........Khoun Kham [map link]
...........Lak Xao [map link]
...........Tha Khaek [map link]
...........Savannakhet [map link]
...........Khone Phapheng waterfalls [map link]
...........Veun Kham border with Cambodia [map link]

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SLIDE SHOW of our Thailand, Laos & Cambodia pix, with music,
by fine artist Bill Anderson [slide show link].

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An oft-quoted French colonial saying went like this [source link]:
...........The Vietnamese plant rice;
...........Cambodians watch it grow;
...........Laotians listen to it grow.

It's indeed a very laid-back country, partly due to Lao's Theravada Buddhism [link] in which stress and strong emotion is taboo: Stress is 'bad for your brain.' That, plus Laos is one of the few remaining one-party Communist states.
As Lonely Planet says in its introduction [link]: 'After years of war and isolation, Southeast Asia’s most pristine environment, intact cultures and quite possibly the most chilled-out people on earth mean destination Laos is fast earning cult status among travellers. It is developing quickly but still has much of the tradition that has sadly disappeared elsewhere in the region. Village life is refreshingly simple and even in Vientiane it’s hard to believe this sort of languid riverfront life exists in a national capital.'
The laid-back attitude is immediately noticeable, is indeed seductive, as long as you can adjust to the pace and do not expect too much.

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Most popular entry point by land: The first town on the Laos side of the Mekong River is Houei Xai [map link.] We arrived about 6 PM, Customs was closed, but 30-day visas were issued to us quickly for $50 each; we'd have to do the vehicle formalities next day.

Warning: It takes a search, asking around in sign language to find the widely-separated Customs and Immigration offices which are on separate roads, but do not make the costly mistake of missing one, you will get caught upon exit if not sooner – others have learned that the hard way.

A leading indicator for the country as a whole? It's a dumb set-up; Border officials do not apparently even think about what their job is – to process visitors, encourage them to come spend here, while keeping out undesirables. Yet it takes some determination for the well-meaning and anyone 'bad' can get in with no processing, a smuggler's dream, ditto fugitives. All they would need is a couple cheap signs and one full-time border guard who can point while the boats unload.

However, once we found the right unmarked offices, paperwork was a snap and we received sleepy courtesy from officials. 'Sleepy' is the operative word: A sleepy town, a sleepy country, right from first entry.

We rode the whole town twice looking for digs, ultimately we found the quite acceptable Gateway Hotel, about $12 with breakfast.

Next day, after Customs processing, we took off on variable monsoon-damaged roads, into a most interesting and enjoyable, indeed eye-opening, Third World adventure.

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Economy: Third World to be sure, 'one of the world's least-developed countries' [CIA source link].

Laos' GDP per capita (PPP) is $1,900 [source link], a tie with North Korea and Haiti, just behind Tonga, ranking near the bottom at 177 out of 225 countries listed.

Absolute (non-adjusted) GDP per capita is just $841 – a big and very noticeable step down economically from Thailand just across the river.

Click to enlarge 2008 regional comparison.
From a tiny economic base, in a 7 million population completely landlocked country, growth in the two decades from 1988-2008 averaged 6% which is good, but depended largely on foreign aid. Inflation is running around 8%, so for average Laotians that cancels the in-pocket benefits of growth in recent years.

Laos has no railway, obviously no sea port and has just rudimentary roads – Japan and China are helping financially/technically with the roads; indeed 80% of capital improvement comes from foreign donations. The small tax base, compulsory military service, small exports, relatively high imports, in combination do not allow for much available public spending on much-needed infrastructure.

Subsistence agriculture, mainly rice, is 40% of GDP and 80% of employment. It has copper, tin, gold and gypsum mining, lumber, plus produces enough electricity to export a little. All petroleum is imported.

According to The World Bank, Laos' goal of graduating from the UN Development Program's list of least-developed countries by 2020, 'could be achievable.' The Government is evidently taking steps to make it more investment-friendly. My first suggestion would be: Hit the corruption with a sledge hammer, but I have not read of that happening; until corruption is brought down to a reasonable level, investors' cash will flow elsewhere.

For those who enjoy a leisurely pace in an unspoiled, very inexpensive environment, Laos is a good business or retirement opportunity. It needs almost everything we westerners take for granted, a business canvas awaiting paint. The domestic market is small – there are only 7 million Laotians and they are mostly poor, hence manufacturing and agriculture for export seem to be the logical direction.

Or come here and retire, living very well on a small pension; learn the language and culture a bit. The people are warm, friendly and as far as we could tell, enjoy foreigners.

It is an ideal tourist destination for those seeking to explore nature and unspoiled Asian culture away from the picture-snapping crowds, is not on the top-50 world destinations list [link] and is so inexpensive ... there is much nature to experience here.

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Corruption & Freedom: Laos ranks poorly on both counts: As the chart on the home page of this blog shows [link], Laos is the 3rd least-free and 3rd most-corrupt country of this trip; is among the worst in the world in both areas.

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Travels: We rode some 200 km on Hwy 3 the first afternoon, reaching Luang Nam Tha [map link]. About half the road was paved, the rest was mud, gravel, pothole weaving in heavy rain at the end of each day during monsoons. Some road sections were a walk for Thao as Wheezy wove between deep water-filled mud holes.

From the Thai border at Houei Xai [link] to Oudom Xai [link], the road was paved a few years ago, Dave Early [link] shows photos of how it was absolute off-road hell when he first drove it.

Most is quite passable today on flour wheels or two, but it's slowly and carefully in 2nd-3rd gear the whole way. It's mainly the poor visibility danger during rains, the slippery water-filled potholes and ruts that are worrisome.

But we didn't drop Black Bike. Its un-knobby highway tires and laden weight are not made for this kind of stuff, but with care, it's perfectly do-able. This was the worst section of road we'd done on the whole trip so far – which is not so bad.

That said, this stretch of road today, is in worse condition than the roads were in West Africa, Ghana to Nigeria - in 1968-70.

Very slippery mud sections; hard to even walk without slipping.

Hotel pan: Outside Luang Nam Tha we found the Boat Landing Guesthouse [link] on the GT-Rider map, a self-proclaimed eco-resort, which the web site preachily exemplifies. As Thao wrote in her blog notes:
Imagine a place where the service is welcoming and warm, where the room is comfy, good value, food is great, and you have a tough time leaving. This was not it! We hated everything about it.
It was pouring rain, we were soaked after a challenging day's ride, so we reluctantly stayed from fatigue – but oh puleeze, give us a big break with the eco-tourism over-priced, under-serviced, self-righteousness. The attitude! By regional standards it's high-end hotel pricing at $40, for which you get a basic cottage. But at 4-star prices, you get no hot water (it was broken and they didn't care); no fridge; no TV; no internet; no air conditioning in a hot sticky climate; hardly any lights in the room as several were broken. Lots of mosquitoes however, at no extra charge. The food they serve is over-priced, poor quality and it's 7 km from town.

There are many other places in the region to experience ecology, do not fall for their eco-babble, the worst of this trip; do not stay there!

Boat Landing Guesthouse
looks good only from the outside.

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Again gravel and mud in 2nd-3rd gears en route to Oudom Xai [map link] but very scenic and interesting. A highly recommended and memorable stretch.

Narrow path between deep slippery mud holes, mistakes are messy.

Lots of minority tribal villages about which we know nothing, but many are evidently ethnic Chinese, living in bamboo and woven grass roof homes. Kids run around naked with no self-consciousness, anxious to have their photos taken.

Everyone is evidently excited to see us riding through and most friendly.

Kids roadside,
between Luang Namtha and Oudom Xai

We stopped early due to the heavy rains, in Oudom Xai, a largely ethnic Chinese town. Unfortunately we do not have the hotel's name but it's very good and directly in front of the post office on the main strip – at $13 it is very comfortable, clean and the Chinese-looking owner was as hospitable as can be.

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Next day on to Luang Prabang [map link] where we ended up spending three very agreeable days. It claims to be the prettiest town in SE Asia, which is an exaggeration, but it's charming in a tourist-oriented way. It was evidently the only town spared bombing during the bad preceding decades; many riverside restaurants, hotels and shops.

The drive there heading east 80 km from Oudom Xai was the worst of the past three days. Horrid road. But then at Pak Mong [map link] one turns south on Route 13 and suddenly the road becomes excellent – what a blessed relief!

Sweaty, filthy and thirsty upon town entry, before even looking for a hotel we parked the mud-caked bike in front of a nice-looking outdoor Mekong riverside resto. Bloody awful food at tourist prices, with a nice riverside view, but they had cold beer(s), ahhhh, that took the edge off. One takes one's culinary chances everywhere here, there is a lot of badly cooked grub in Laos, some of the worst of this trip. Beer Lao on the other hand is excellent!

We found the recently-opened
Villa King Kham at $15 versus the many touristy $40-$80 alternatives. It was chosen based on safe bike parking, plus a very quiet and comfortable large riverside room, no wi-fi (contrary to their claims) nor breakfast, but it is central and no traffic noise. Stay there for low key atmosphere and big rooms at un-touristy prices, with a good internet café a block away.

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site, Thao walked it in mid-day heat while Peter blogged. It's an old pre-Communist Royal city, the most-visited place in Laos by tourists, very quiet, cute, many historic wats.

Visited charming wat Xieng Thong [photos, brief history link], among the oldest and best preserved in Laos, dating probably from the 1500's.


There is an enormous night market in town that's a fun couple hours, touristy products but with some excellent handcrafts at unbelievable prices for westerners – like lovely hand woven silk wall hangings for $5 and intricately carved bone opium pipes for $10.

It is also one of few towns outside Vientiane where we saw ATMs. Speaking of which, in Laos ATMs only give you a maximum of the Kip equivalent of $50 a time, which is fine for a few days, but it's a hassle, so stock up on Kip when you can!

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Riding south from Luang Phrabang [map link] to Vang Vieng [map link] was just 250 km = 155 miles, taking six great twisty hours of non-stop leaning into turns. At 40 kph = 25 mph average, with no stops, it's careful going the whole time. Climbing and descending mountains; weaving, turning, leaning, repeat. Avoiding pigs, ducks, buffalos– not cattle but the big-horned massive beasts. Black Bike has animal whistles that are supposed to keep living stuff out of our way, but neither they nor the horn seem to do the job.

Chickens constantly playing chicken by racing just under your wheels – why do they do that? One of them ran into Black Bike hitting us from the side, someone likely had a fresh road kill dinner. Even long ago in Africa I failed to understood that aspect of chickens' bad instincts or directional perception. Why did that chicken cross the road? No other animal I know of is so consistently wrong – but it's still unpleasant killing one.

More piglets, two ducks having oblivious sex in the road. The massive horned water bufflao cross when and where they feel like it, often in herds. They also leave abundant slippery dung to avoid.


We keep balloons handy as little gifts for kids. It seemed this village group had never seen a balloon before, Thao taught them how to blow one up. The little girl popped two instantly, we had to supply a few replacements ... great joy in evidence.

Click on photo to look at the faces.

Kids play naked on the village streets, thatched roofs, beautiful valley-scapes and massive rock formations covered in green. It's stunning.

Lush mountain landscapes the whole way.

Almost no traffic. Roads in this section are OK, bumpy but paved with few potholes, which is no excuse for speed. Blind corners and on-off slippery rain, in which we got repeatedly soaked. It all combines to keep you in the lower gears.

Click photo to see the home atop of the hill.

After a great day's ride through non-stop fine scenery, we found an excellent hotel in the charming tourist-oriented town of Vang Vieng [map link], famed among outdoors sports and nature lovers. Evidently it's also famed among drug users, we heard but didn't seek to prove, the claim that almost any high was for sale locally.

The Elephant Crossing Hotel [link] is modern, with an excellent riverside restaurant, wonderful rooms overlooking the Nam Song River and limestone karsts (huge rock peaks). Highly recommended as a four-star destination resort at $40-$50 per couple including a fine breakfast and wi-fi, worth staying a few days and exploring, river rafting, cave crawling and such. Owned by a friendly Aussie woman and her Lao husband.

Encountered a couple French backpacking guys, who were there for a couple weeks' holiday on a $10 per day budget – and were living within it! One can travel here well and very inexpensively. The town itself is not exciting, but the surrounding nature is scenic; worth considering as a fly-in or car rental holiday.

River and jagged mountains just before Vang Vieng
View from Elephant Crossing Hotel balcony

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From here the drive to Vientiane [map link] the nation's capital, is pretty boring; ditto the sleepy city itself, where we spent three nights sight-seeing and getting a few things done.

We lucked upon the Chantapanya Hotel [link], it's great! Central, compact, tasteful decor, 4-stars, internet, good staff, at $30, highly recommended.

Here's a good 2009 article from The Telegraph, one reporter's observations [link] of the town.

Vientiane has a small but good Chinatown worth seeing. A couple big markets. One big important wat. It is, as capital cities go, poor and quiet. Major quiet.

How sleepy is it? Vientiane on a Sunday.
The main 4-6-lane drag, right next to their 'Arc de Triomphe'.
Patouxai ('arch of triumph') [link] built in 1960's

Pha That Luang is the most important wat in Laos; legend dating it to the 3rd century BC when a breastbone of the Buddha was allegedly enclosed. However King Setthathirat moved his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and began it's construction eight centuries later, in 1566. Covered in gold leaf, it was plundered sequentially by Burmese, Siamese and Chinese; a Siamese (Thai) invasion of 1828 led to destruction of the whole city, including That Luang. The present structure is a French reconstruction from the 1930s, made to replace an earlier (botched) French one of 1900.

Pha That Luang was closed, we couldn't get inside.
Big covered markets are for locals, untouristy.

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Pakxan [map link] is another town east of the mighty Mekong border with Thailand. We stayed at Pakxan Hotel, a 3-4-star Vietnamese-owned place, but with a very sad Moon Bear out back in a tiny cage. Animals Asia [link] works to free these animals which are kept in inhumane conditions for quasi-pharmaceutical reasons, when there are available medicines that are evidently better and cheaper – we contacted them about this sad bear in a cage twice its size.

Inhumanely caged Moon Bear

Out front of the hotel, we briefly chatted with India's charming Ambassador to Laos, His Excellency Mr. Suresh K. Goel, Mrs. Goel and their son – the latter had studied in Canada so the Ontario license on Black Bike was an eye-catcher.

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From Pakxan headed south on Hwy 13, east on Hyw 8, towards Khoun Kham [map link], past some stunning limestone and forest rock formations.

Karsts, striking 'rock forest' during rains.

We were looking forward to seeing one of Lao's famed natural wonders, the reputably spectacular Tham Kong Lor cave [link] which is 7.5 km long and accessible only via a boat ride and guide. Underground waterfalls, stalactites, rock climbing, the whole thing ...

Alas, another drawback of riding during the monsoons: The 50 km causeway road was totally washed out about halfway there, deeply flooded. We went as far as possible but were informed the water in parts was knee-deep. No-go. Damn.

End of the road for us, en route to the famed Tham Kong Lor caves ...
monsoon water is knee deep for a good kilometer, not for a bike.
Video of riding in deep water to the end ...
video

A swimming pig escapes ...
pigs are a common road hazard here.
video

Happy kids on the road.
Flooded village on stilts.
That's a red flooded road tapering into water at right.

We obviously could not stay as planned in the village near the caves, so ended up driving through heavy rain to Khoun Kham staying at the Mi Thuna Guest House, which has no web site, but you'll find it on the main strip. It's a motel layout, a whole $8 for a basic room with hot shower. They delivered a fine meal to our room as well ...

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Next day, seeking a scarce ATM machine and evidently nice riding scenery, we went eastwards on a detour towards the Vietnam border, to the town of Lak Xao [map link]. A frankly ugly small town of 28,000 with evidently some logging industry – but we recommend you do not go there, we encountered mostly pretty rough people, actually seemingly rather, er, 'unintelligent' based on the simple things we asked about (like 'where is a bank?') and got ridiculously wrong responses. It wasn't willful misdirection, just kinda no-brainers, several times.

Contrary to rumor, after combing every road, there is no ATM in town – but we found a Lao Development Bank branch, staffed by minions who after completely misdirecting us a couple miles down the road, were finally willing to exchange Thai Baht for Lao Kip. Their Visa machine hadn't worked for a long while I managed to discern, they didn't understand the term 'ATM', so getting cash from the town's sole bank proved physically impossible ...

We ate at the busiest and biggest place in town: Well, to be accurate, we drank a Fanta, hunger aside, neither of us could eat the awful rice-thing they served. We felt ourselves surrounded by bandit-types literally, people just looked at us and Black Bike the wrong way, staff was surly, we sensed 'white man's pricing' – so didn't waste a minute before leaving a poor and questionable town. Just avoid it, most Laos towns are very different from this one.

More bad luck: En route, there were supposed to be 'bomb boats' – i.e. boats made of recycled large missile-shaped drop tanks that carried jet fuel during the 60's and 70's. We hoped to get a ride in one. So in the town of Tha Bak [map link] where the bomb boats allegedly are, we searched in earnest but none were to be found, nor had anyone heard of them when we asked around.

Never heard of them? The bomb boats are in the Lonely Planet guide book and on GT-Rider's excellent map. So we stood on the bridge and looked up and down the river, asked at roadside shops, but either our sign language is pathetic or the locals are in never-never land. That, or the bomb boats have been dragged ashore for the season and no one knows about them. In any event, we gave up looking, rode on. No cave boat rides, and no bomb boats for us today. Next.

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Digression; Minor Riding Tech Miracle: Next night became a three-night visit in Thakhek [map link] due to a sudden mechanical problem. I heard a very slight noise while braking, checked into it, removed the front brake pads and oops, this is what I discovered:

One delaminated brake pad, new in Delhi India, just 5000 km ago.

Goldwing brake pads in Laos? Forget it. I doubt a GL1800 has even been to this country before: A parts problem that could take a couple weeks and lots of money to solve if they needed to come from Singapore, get through Laos Customs ...

Luckily we were in a fine hotel with internet in the room – hence I had a VoIP phone and managed to contact extremely nice guy Mr. Yut the owner of Dynamic Cycle in Bangkok [mobile 66 081-866-9961] where I'd had a little work done – Mr. Yut very kindly sent an employee running around town to save our Laos-stranded butts. By next afternoon he had found them, put them on a bus to the Thai town just across the river, simply trusting me for the $150 or so I owed him. What a great guy! (And as travelers, making friends with suppliers in new towns, sometimes sure pays off.)

Another great guy in a very fine hotel: Gary Loh the manager of Hotel Riveria [link] owned by a Malaysian group of casino owners (it will become a casino soon) with a great riverside location in Thakhek City; it gets 4-stars, $35, nicest staff, good food (the pasta carbonara was memorable, I ordered seconds.) Gary allowed me to do bike surgery under the hotel's front door canopy, was as friendly and helpful as can be, sent someone to the bus terminal in Thailand to fetch the brake pads when they arrived, he even had an employee wash the bike, sent us orange juice while working in the heat – such helpful, kind people we'd lucked upon.

On the third day of this earth-shattering episode, I received the pads, installed them, they worked hallelujah, we rode off mightily relieved – a potential two-week headache had been reduced to a couple days.

Why did one brake pad suddenly fail then? Fraud. Period. They were either fakes or >15 year old product with a shelf life of a third of that time. The India bike shop did it to me – see 'India Bike Service' blog for details. Getting bad parts is another occupational hazard of a trip like this.

The riverside border town of Thakhek City itself has some old French colonial buildings, is charming – one could buy a lovely riverside property here and live in a m-e-l-l-o-w environment, a short ferry ride from Thailand – evidently a bridge will be built soon. Some nice places have already been built by people with money and we can see why.

Caves worth exploring are nearby, but this time we were warned that the nearby Tham Pha Pa Buddha cave was unvisitable due to high water levels.

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The new brakes were working perfectly, but within a half hour of departure I heard a strange intermittent noise from the front end; I needed another sheltered place to do more surgery.

Seeking a luxury place on the assumption they'd be more cooperative, we stopped in Savannakhet [map link] just a couple hours down the road, at the vastly overpriced and pretentious Daosavanh Resort [link] at $50, where the front desk staff are frankly again rather stoopud, quasi-sweet but simply unwilling to help. Don't stay there.

I was not allowed to park Black Bike in a lighted sheltered area even though it was an emergency and I wanted to do my work in the coolness of the night – but the manager on the phone is a rule-bound 'I could care less' type; hope we cost him lots of business here ... They forced me to park in a very dark area and could not be bothered to find an electric lamp. A night watchman with flashlight tried to help me, but that proved insufficient.

So next morning, completely soaked in sweat, I removed the front wheel, brakes, checked everything carefully, re-adjusted the fork braces: Voila! The noise was gone, it had something to do with the fork braces being badly adjusted in India, the noise had nothing to do with the brake pad, it had been a complete coincidence of timing ...

The town of Savannakhet was of some administrative importance during French times, colonial buildings remain there unrestored, but there is not much to see or do. However there is a casino in town and this 'resort' we stayed in has a pool.

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We rode on carefully, with working brakes and now no strange noises – a major relief after a few days of worry. Wheezy had done bike surgery all morning, followed by eight hours of non-stop riding. Friend Peter Desotto [Quartetto Gelato link] was flying from Toronto and meeting us in Phnom Penh Cambodia next day – we had to make up time and miles for the three days' mechanical-issue delay.

Hwy 13 south, we passed Si Phan Don (four thousand islands) and Khong Island in the dark – it might have been fine sightseeing otherwise, but we were just making miles.

The only nice place to stay on Hwy 13 near the Cambodian border is not easy to find but is worth the effort; they have a big sign that's invisible at night, we rode by three times in the dark. The Khonephapheng Spa [link] a resort and golf club at $35, is right on the very fast-moving, indeed this time of year torrential, Mekong River. Nice hotel, good food, lovely natural setting, wish we'd had more time ...

Our last Laos hotel, view from balcony, right on the Mekong River.
The river is a torrent during monsoons, moves at approx 5 miles/hr.

Next day we visited the nearby Khone Phapheng waterfalls (nice but not a destination) and crossed the border at Voen Kham [map link].

We're in Cambodia.

Because of time pressure meeting friend Peter, plus the bike technical issues – we'd skipped the Northeast provinces, the Plain of Jars [link] the Ho Chi Minh Trail [link] ... but one simply cannot see and do everything.

We liked Laos and recommend it as a couple weeks' adventure holiday for those seeking unspoiled Third World Asia.

It has, as Lonely Planet says, a bit of 'cult status.' The slower pace simply needs to be accepted. It is very safe, very inexpensive, the people are friendly, warm. Laos has abundant tropical nature to savor. Driving it is fun if you seek a total break from the autobahns. A backpacker's dream ... or for that matter a retiree's dream, if this is your pace and style – it's certainly within your budget.






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