Rough Guide Laos 3
First published 14th August, 2007
Four and a half years of change have washed through Laos since the excellent second edition of Rough Guide's Laos was published. If you expect the new edition, released in February 2007, to be in the same league, prepare to be disappointed. Where Laos 2 was easily the best on the market, Laos 3 falls into the "read before departure ... and leave at home" category.
That The Washington Post describes it as "...the best guidebook available..." is more a reflection of a lack of other options back then. Now with the new Lonely Planet hot off the press, Rough Guide's Laos 3 is worth buying for its background section only as for facts on the ground it's just a well, very rough guide.
One of the highlights of Laos 2 was the detailed background information, and in the new edition this highlight remains, with some tweaking and expansion. A comprehensive history is accompanied by a catalogue of cultural habits, religious beliefs, environmental issues and a short but good reading list. A snappy language section brings up the rear.
At the other end of the book, the introductory section, covering everything from getting a flight to the difficulty of buying nappies is informative, well organised and easy to digest. There's even a very brief overview on the border crossings. Some sections get more than their fair share -- four and a half pages on getting to Laos seems excessive, as does almost an entire page on opening hours and public holidays -- lists anyone? Nevertheless, it's decent so far.
For many, accommodation is the prime purpose of a guidebook, yet Laos 3 sometimes fails to deliver. Don Dhet and Don Khon form the highlight of southern Laos for many, and there's in excess of 40 places to choose from across the two islands -- ranging from $1 a night shacks to tasteful $30 a night retreats. Laos 3 sums it up in two paragraphs and suggests just six places. Vang Vieng boasts more than 80 guesthouses and hotels to choose from but Laos 3 rustles up just 15. Admittedly in both places some offerings are similar, but one can't help but think the authors just thought "Ah, they're all the same -- I just couldn't be bothered to look at any more". I guess you'll have to check Travelfish to find the rest.
Then there's what they missed altogether. In Savannakhet, "the Mekong Hotel is the only place that views the river". Actually, it's not -- the Nong Soda, a couple of hundred metres up the road, does as well. And it's a great place to stay. There's also no mention of any of the trekking opportunities from Savannakhet. Heading north, there's no mention of the Gibbon Experience. Head north again, trekking out of Phongsali gets short shift for anything more than a stroll to outlying villages (5+ day treks are available).
It's not all bad though. The guide is strong for the key drawcards. Luang Prabang is well covered, as is Vientiane. Activities around Tha Khaek and Vang Vieng are treated pretty well. Further south, Champasak, Wat Phu and especially Don Khong are covered comprehensively.
Rough Guides have an odd way of handling transport -- rather than it being listed with each town, it's listed in a summary format at the end of each region -- but there's no prices! Sometimes cost is listed in the body of the text, but not often enough. Matters are confused further by shaded boxes that list transport information. These sometimes include price, sometimes don't, sometimes list destinations covered in the summary section, sometimes don't. Not all destinations have these shaded boxes, and not all destinations are covered in the summary. The result is a confusing, hodgepodge mess.
Confusing again are border crossings. Some, such as Boten to China and Chong Mek to Thailand, are covered in the shaded boxes, but the Nam Phao / Cau Treo crossing (with opening hours) is in the body text -- as is the Dansavanh / Lao Bao crossing (without opening hours). Veun Kham to Cambodia gets neither -- just a footnote to the Don Dhet and Don Khon practicalities section. For the Na Maew / Nam Xoi border crossing into Vietnam, you have to make do with "It's not usually hard to find transport up to the border at least but you'll need to have a Vietnamese visa in advance to use the crossing." -- Transport details? Opening hours? Onwards travel? Lao visa on arrival? The Nam Can / Nam Khan crossing is similarly vague. A vital portion of the book reads like an afterthought.
Text and design
Rough Guide designers know what white space is and they make liberal use of it. This makes the title's single-column, well-spaced layout far easier on the eyes than the dense-as-sardines Lonely Planet.
Organisation is a little unfortunate. Some sections within each region are ordered in the reverse of how many would actually use it. The Far North commences with Udomxai (the first sizeable town you'd hit if coming from Luang Prabang) while I'd expect most would arrive in the Far North from Huay Xai (which is covered in the middle of the section).
I like Rough Guide maps -- they're not glamorous but are easy to use. The maps in Laos 3 are no exception. They eschew the hi-tech approach witnessed in the latest Lonely Planets (which has delivered near unusable maps). They're clean, with easy lines and shading, and are straightforward to follow. I did find the revised numbering confusing though -- legends are listed alphabetically, but keyed according to where they appear on the map. Some of the regional maps mark roads where nothing more than glorified goat tracks lie -- perhaps one of their mappers should go and try Route 18 on something bigger than a goat.
Compared to other guides, the Rough Guide is light on colour pics, though there are some very catching grey scale shots. Colour is restricted to the introduction, and two inserts -- one for festivals, the other on hill tribes. The pics are good -- not fabulous.
While Laos 2 was oh so good, Rough Guide's Laos 3 is oh so ordinary. If you're planning on a bit of straightforward touristing, taking in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, you'll find it adequate -- and it does get a lot of brownie points for its background section. But if you're planning on extensive off-the-very-beaten track travel, you'd be well advised to look for an alternative -- the new Lonely Planet is excellent (review coming soon).
Buy Rough Guide's Laos 3 from Amazon.com
Have you used the latest edition of Rough Guide's Laos guidebook? If so, please add your feedback on the Travelfish forum here. Thanks!
Other book reviews
Lonely Planet Vietnam 9 -- LP's best try yet -- 8.5/10
For the first-time visitor to Vietnam, Lonely Planet's Vietnam 9 overall is a fine production -- and is easily Lonely Planet's best swing at Vietnam -- even if the style police are trying to ruin the show. It covers all the big-ticket destinations comprehensively, with detailed sleeping, eating, drinking and sights information ... Read the full review
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