I’ve been meaning to blog this guide for months (March 2016 update – make that a year), ever since I compiled it for a fellow overlanding couple who was following on our tyre-tracks back in 2015! Considering the fact I’ve shared it at least half a dozen times in the past few months, I thought it worthwhile to now post it here, hoping it may benefit anyone overlanding – or indeed holidaying – in this gorgeous part of Laos.
I’m always quite eager to share my tips on southern Laos. After 18-months in Southeast Asia, and with the gift of hindsight, I fervently rate this as my favorite corner of all in this region. Ironically enough, I distinctly remember thinking – at the time we visited in January 2015- that Laos was the most ‘touristy’ region we’d come across in a while. But, of course, all in travel is relative. We’d just spent two months crossing remote regions of China, and 6 months prior to that zig-zagging our way through the Stans. Compared to them, Laos was touristy. Compared to what we experienced afterwards – Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia – it most certainly was not!
The answer is quite a simple one: it’s the one ‘half’ of the country I loved most and – more importantly for a guide – the one which people know the least. Don’t get me wrong, we had an amazing time in northern Laos! We made some gorgeous new friends, discovered some unexpected treasures (like Nong Kiaw) and relished the first hint of the popular backpack route known as the Banana Pancake Trail. Yes….northern Laos is where I first devoured the Nutella and banana pancake! We very much enjoyed popular hubs like Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and the Plain of Jars, but these are destinations which anyone who is headed for Laos knows all too well.
Northern Laos has a well-established tourist infrastructure, is (relatively) bustling with tourists and everything is good and dandy. You don;t need a guide on that from me.
That’s why I want to write about the south. Because the wilderness, remoteness and relative peace and quiet south of the capital, Vientiane, is something to behold. Because there are few buses, fewer guesthouses and infinitely fewer people. Because the best way to see it all is by private vehicle (your own or rented from Vientiane), because it’s a camper’s haven (you know, in winter!) and here nature is centre stage. Not night markets, and temples, and pancakes (however great they all are).
For reasons unbeknownst even to me…I wrote this guide backwards to the way we travelled it and, most likely, the way you will travel it too! 🙂
From the tip of the southern end, all the way to Vientiane (and just beyond), here are my favourite highlights of southern Laos.
For your travelling pleasure…
4 Thousand Islands
A stunning archipelago on the southern reaches of the Mekong River, Laos’ 4 Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don) are a haven of tranquillity and nature. A place where Laotian-time slows down to infinite degrees, if that is even possible. There are three main inhabited islands where visitors head to, one of which is renowned as a bit of a party town, with much tubing, alcohol-consuming and debauchery after dark. Everywhere else, life is simple, tropical and very enchanting.
We based ourselves in Don Khong which is the only island attached to mainland by bridge. We contemplated leaving the bikes behind to stay on one of the islands, but in the end, decided to visit them on day trips instead, as transport by boat is easy to arrange, relaxing and cheap as chips. We stayed in a guesthouse, but if you’re an overlander you can head to the southern end of the restaurant/hotel strips (very short strip) where you’ll find a huge open field where I am sure you can park & stay overnight without any bother at all.
You’ll find lots of restaurant ‘shacks’ along the waterfront at Don Khong, the best we discovered is the second last (from the southern end). They make amazing Mok Pa (fish amok in Cambodia), which is the local dish of fish cooked in coconut milk & spices. Super yum!
From here we took a day trip to Don Det which was USD6 pp by long-tail boat (about an hour there & hour back). Don Det is the most famous island and bit of a party place at night, which means it is sleepy and quiet during the day. Everything in DD is set around the boat pier so the moment you walk away from there along the road (there is only one) you are in very quiet countryside. Take a walk for couple of hours, grab lunch/ice cream back at pier and take a boat back. From 9am to 3pm. It’s a gorgeous day-trip to take. Just about every guesthouse on the water runs the same boat trips. Staying just one night will also give you a chance to enjoy stunning sundowners, but I’d recommend walking away from the pier to find accommodation. The last few guesthouses in the village looked absolutely divine!!
Fertile and relatively unpopulated, the Bolaven Plateau is Laos’ coffee growing plantation, revered for its (only slight) elevation and myriad of waterfalls. This is still UXO territoty, made almost entirely uninhabitable during the Vietnam War thanks to the obscene cluster bombing from the US. Read all about Laos and it’s dirty, evil little secret. Strategically placed just inches away from Vietnam, the area is slowly being cleared of unexploded bombs, and farmers are busy planting coffee and fruits.
If you drive north from the 4 Thousand Islands you’ll come across Pakse, a particularly uninspiring town, but a great food & refuelling station, ideal for stocking up the camper with supplies, before a loop trip to the Bolaven Plateau, the coffee plantation area of Lao.
Now, the loop is ‘nice’, I’d even say it’s ‘beautiful’, but I would not say it is a must-see, not all of it anyway. if you’re on a tight visa/holiday schedule, then this is the part I would personally recommend you skip. BUT, on this loop, only 80kms from Pakse, is where you’ll find Tad Lo and it’s amazing waterfalls. We loved this village so much, we ended up intentionally stranded here for a whole week. As you do 🙂
Behind the falls there is an upmarket resort (Tadlo Lodge) home to two elephants. At 4m every day, they go down to the river for a swim and a wash. Yes, there are tourists there, but it so beautiful to see them playing in the rapids (the elephants, not the tourists) and so close to you. I despise these creatures being used for tourist rides, but at least here they enjoy a peaceful bathtime every afternoon. The manager of the Lodge is American, and he can be seen frequently intercating with teh ellies and hgging them. My optimistic side hopes it’s not just for our benefit.
A gorgeous round trip of a few hundred kms, the Thakhek Loop takes in the best sites of roads 12 and 13, brimming with bright orange dirt roads with the occasional spurts of tarmac. No doubt, in a few years, this whole route will be tarmacked, so my recomendation is to get here before that happens. Caves, waterfalls and submerged valleys are the highlights. Gorgeous guesthouses and eateries are splattered along the route.
Thakhek is the popular base town from where people rent scooters to do the famous Thakhek Loop. You can skip the town (although it’s good for food shopping) but definitely do not miss this loop. It’s the best part of southern Lao.
On the loop road, do stop at the Sabaidee Guesthouse in a village called Tha Lang. the owner is crazy fun and the food in the restaurant is AMAZEBALLS!!! Especially if you’ve been in Southeast Asia a while and the sight of a bowl of sticky rice has the ability to send you into a murderous rage in 2 seconds flat.
Arguably the best highlight of the whole country (as rated by moi) Konglor Cave is truly a spectacular sight. Her sheer size is breathtaking. A karst lime carved cave that is 8 km long and anywhere between 25 and 50 m wide. It’s only accessible by motorized canoe, on a ride that includes time on-land to inspect rock formations, stalagmites and stalactites. This is the one highlight of Southern Laos no one should miss.
The cave is set within a National Park (costs a couple of bucks to enter) and from here you can take a longtail boat ride through the underground cave. Stay a bit on the other side and the head back. 2-3 hours for the whole lot BUT outside the cave (on the return, opposite car park) you can swim, sunbake & picnic the whole day on the river’s edge. The boat trip costs about USD 15 – plus $3 cave entry fee. A boat can take 4 pax, so visitors often team up at the entrance, to share costs. Mind you, we ran into 4 people the whole day we were there (love low season!)
Here we stayed at the Spring River Resort which has the most idyllic, quiet setting away from all the villages, right on the river. If you can’t find a spot to park overnight on the river’s edge, I reckon these guys will let you park here for a couple of bucks. GREAT food and incredibly peaceful spot!!
Great base for a couple of days but absolutely nowhere to park/camp near town, there are no hotels with gardens or anything like that. Great food & massages to be had here!!
BTW, dysentery is quite strife up in Laos so do be careful with salads/ice/water etc. It’s a water borne bacteria. Starts with diarrhea and basically doesn’t end until you poop blood, panic, go to hospital and get 3 doses of antibiotics. Talking from experience, here. It’s hideous and can kill if untreated so please be aware and be careful. The treatment we got in Laos was the same as our family doctor would give us at home (I double checked) so trust them that they have the rights meds. Note: this is not a highlight.
2 hour drive north of Vientiane – Nirvana Lodge (next door to Blue Lagoon)
Have a few days to spare? Bypass Vientiane and head north to Nirvana, where you’ll meet Christoph, a gorgeous Frenchman who has a stunning lodge by the river, and rescues animals. At the moment he has an adorable little black bear, who’s just divine. (NB update March 2016: Just checked latest photos and oh my lord tthat bear is huuuge!! 🙂 )
This spot ended up being our favourite for R&R. My Chris was recovering from amoeabic dysentery so we ended up chilling here for 2 weeks. Heaven.
If you want a place for a couple of nights to just completely chillax, read, etc this is the place!!
You may understand now, why we rate Laos as our fave country in Southeast Asia. So far.
We’re off to Indonesia in a few days and hoping we’ll finally get to experience some more of that gorgeousness we found in sothern laos.
Go see it. You won’t regret it.