Lonely Planet Laos 6
First published 28th August, 2007
What a difference a new edition makes. Lonely Planet's brand new guidebook, Laos 6th edition, released August 2007, is easily the best on the market. The traveller looking for comprehensive coverage in a guidebook need look no further. An extra 60 pages long, this title packs an impressive punch, with a good balance of exhaustive coverage of the key destinations along with sound information on the lesser known spots.
The friendly people at Lonely Planet sent Travelfish a complimentary copy of Laos 6, so even though we didn't pay any money for it, we'd suggest you do -- it's worth every kip.
To accompany the review, co-ordinating author Andrew Burke sat down with Travelfish for a 45 minute chat about Laos. The broad ranging discussion touched on a diverse range of topics from human rights concerns and the challenges Laos faces managing its tourism industry through to itinerary planning, how to get off the beaten track, what's it like being a Lonely Planet author and of course, just how good is BeerLao? The interview is in three parts -- and it's a bit rough and ready -- we're not tried this before!
Andrew Burke interview part 1 (MP3 - 4.7mb)
Andrew Burke interview part 2 (MP3 - 8.1mb)
Andrew Burke interview part 3 (MP3 - 6.5mb)
Thanks again to Andrew for making the time to talk to us.
Quite simply, Australian co-authors Andrew Burke and Justine Vaisutis have put together what is the best offline resource for travel in Laos. From a tourism perspective, Laos is a rapidly developing nation, especially in the major tourist centres where new accommodation options multiply at a seemingly ever-increasing rate, yet they've done a fine job of boiling down a snapshot of the country into a guide that will be more than enough for the most demanding traveller.
Matters get off to a good start -- a good, easy-to-read colour map (even if some of the roads look a tad sketchy), suggested itineraries and a completely rewritten history section by Professor Martin Stuart-Fox, author of A History of Laos (1997). This is followed by a pretty stock-standard introductory section -- the people, government and culture are all covered, though the government -- arguably the most repressive and certainly the most secretive in Southeast Asia after Burma -- gets off the hook pretty lightly.
What does stand out in the introduction is the generous space given to Laos and its natural environment -- particularly its budding eco-tourism industry. As Burke says in an upcoming interview with Travelfish.org, "If there's anywhere in Asia where eco-tourism can be a success, then it's Laos". There's an outstanding summary of all the main trekking opportunities in the country's NPAs -- this alone makes the book worth buying (or at least a quick use of the library photocopier).
At the other end of the book, the "Directory" section, covering everything from getting a flight to what you should have in a medical kit is informative and rather well organised. As with other Lonely Planet titles, I think it's a bit too lengthy and hand-holding in nature.
The guidebook's listings are comprehensive, not exhaustive -- if you expect every place on Don Dhet to be listed, prepare to be disappointed. Perhaps half the available options in Vang Vieng are listed, similarly so in Luang Prabang, but what are listed are the best, and these can be taken as representative of others in the offing. Burke and Vaisutis do a fine job of brushing away the slimy rambutans and spoiled sticky rice to leave you with a feast of the best options to choose from.
The accommodation listings are generally easy to digest, with one exception -- Luang Prabang. There, the listings have been divided up geographically into "Near the Mekong", "Historic Temple District", "Thanon Pha Mahapatsaman", "Ban Wat That" and "Elsewhere". This is confusing in a number of ways -- "Near the Mekong" and "Historic Temple District" could easily be taken to be the same area -- neither is marked on any of the maps of Luang Prabang -- nor is "Ban Wat That". "Thanon Pha Mahapatsaman" is a short strip of around 200m of road that carries just three accommodation listings, and "Elsewhere" is just vague and meaningless. All this for just 37 listings -- Luang Prabang isn't that big a place!
Where this guide does come into its own is regarding things to do -- and this is particularly the case with the Southern Laos section. While it tends to be motorcycle-focused, there are lots of good tips and suggested day-trips to week-long adventures you can undertake. Less of this type of material is suggested in the north, where the focus is more orientated towards trekking and the tried and tested destinations, but you'll find ample material within the book to point in the right direction.
One of the big issues people face in Laos is the time it takes to get from A to B. Over time the road network has improved considerably but it still takes a while to get around, so it's refreshing to see that most of the bus and songthaew travel information includes an estimated trip time.
Border information is outstanding. Every main international border has a boxed section containing detailed information on how to get to and from the various border crossings and what's particularly good is there's information on onwards travel as well.
Text and design
As always, the densely-packed text has been put through the Lonely Planet humour wringer, so don't expect too many Laugh Out Loud moments, but the facts are all there and that's what really matters. As with all the new Lonely Planet titles, there's more fact boxes scattered throughout the book than I'd like, but at least in this case they're mostly interesting or of some practical use.
With 61 maps you'll struggle to find yourself needing many more. Some -- the Wat Phu locale (p 267), Wat Xieng Thong (p 142) and Around Vang Vieng (p 124) -- seemed superfluous, but all the key spots are mapped out well.
I had two issues with the regional maps: they're difficult to read, and make frequent use of the "unsealed road" indicator. Some of these roads are really little more than foot-trails. Perhaps they need an extra map indicator for goat-tracks.
The guide contains a pretty good collection of pics. There's one of kids fooling around in the Nam Song at Vang Vieng (p 11) which really caught my eye, but it's a shame that given the weight the NPAs get in the text, there's only one photo taken in one -- and that of an easily visited waterfall. Having photos taken of the more remote (and beautiful) parks would have been a great means to showcase some of Laos' more challenging destinations. People aren't going to go if they don't know about it!
My gripes are minor and mainly focussed on the layout and in some cases organisation of the title. These are factors that will be minor inconveniences once you're on the road. Lonely Planet's Laos 6 really delivers the goods -- it isn't exhaustive (that's why it's called a guide), but it's succinct, accurate and very easy to use. Be you a first time visitor to Laos or a repeat visitor looking to get off the beaten track, you'll do well with this title in your backpack.
Buy Lonely Planet's Laos 6 from Amazon.com
Have you used the latest edition of Lonely Planet's Laos guidebook? If so, please add your feedback on the Travelfish forum here. Thanks!
Other book reviews
Rough Guide Laos 3 -- just a very rough guide -- 6/10
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. ... Read the full review
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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