Luang Prabang is slowly catching up with the rest of the modern world but venture outside of the town centre and it doesn’t take long before you’re immersed in rural Laos. A trek or homestay is a good way to get away from other tourists, to delight in nature and learn about village life. It can be enjoyable — so long as travellers have realistic expectations of the experience.
Luang Prabang is the largest town in northern Laos. While charmingly behind the times in many ways, the town is developing and that development is spreading. Trips will always begin with a drive. A one- or two-day “trek” simply get travellers moving under their own steam in the outskirts of town. Options include a combination of walking, kayaking or cycling with cultural or natural highlights such as one of the waterfalls, Pak Ou Caves or a craft village. Expect pretty scenery of rice paddies and hills, quiet riverways and country roads, while ticking a few of Luang Prabang’s must-sees off the list. Even a one-day trip can leave participants feeling fulfilled — but off-the-beaten-track stuff this is not.
In this region, the ethnic villages (those that do not belong to the ethnic Lao majority) are Khmu and Hmong. Village visits are an opportunity to learn about the many cultural differences between Lao, Khmu and Hmong, like how they build their houses, what they eat, make, grow and worship. These villages are accustomed to foreigners and may not actually be that far from town, but it does not make the village life less authentic. In fact, it may come as a surprise how rustic, remote-feeling and rudimentary the infrastructure is despite its proximity. A lot of the experience will depend on how good the guide is and how willing travellers are to engage. Perhaps he’ll teach you how to fish, how to eat sticky rice and undoubtedly, how to drink lao-Lao whiskey. For the average punter experiencing Laos for the first time, this will be fun, eye-opening and informative.
However, if you’re expecting traditional dress, locals who are shocked by the sight of a foreigner, dramatic virgin landscape and wildlife, forget about Luang Prabang province. For true hilltribe trekking, check out Muang Sing or Muang Long. For wildlife, try the Gibbon Experience in Bokeo or venture to Viengthong for the Nam Nern Night Safari in the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area.
The longer the trek, the further “out there” you can get. A sample three- or four-day trek would be to Nong Kiaow and Muang Ngoi, a jumping off point for some fantastic hard trekking and fairly remote ethnic villages. Tiger Trails has a multi-active trip to Nong Kiaow. We were quoted US$245 per person for three days or US$318 per person for four days, based on a group of two including all transport. Another option is simply to go to Nong Kiaow or Muang Ngoi and arrange it locally. Alternatively, the multi-day off-road motorbiking trips cover greater distances and can access hard to reach rural spots. Of course, confident skills off-roading with a 250cc motorbike is a must. Off Road Laos Adventures quoted us US$300 per person, per day, based on two people.
Unfortunately the cost of a longer trip can be prohibitive; operating costs are high in Laos. The most economic way is to have more people on the trip as the price works on a sliding scale. Trips usually require at least two participants to run and start at 400,000 kip per day. Companies will try to sell more onto the departure. Rather than correspond with a company through email, it is often easier to show up and shop around (most offices are within a few steps of each other on the main street). Upcoming departures to join are advertised on blackboards in front. It’s a cinch to find something in the high season; low season is more challenging and it may require a private trip.
When shopping around, review what’s included. It’s important to do the trip that is right for you: Test the knowledge of the sales staff. Ask to be shown the trip on a map. What is the max group size and what is the ratio of guides per group? What do you do in the village? For the homestay do you sleep in someone’s home or in a separate hut? How difficult is the walking? What is the terrain like? How many hours of walking is it?
Generally, treks include an English-speaking guide, transportation, meals, water, necessary equipment (bicycle, kayak, life jacket) and luggage storage. Expect very simple accommodation and basic facilities. You’ll need a day-pack, good shoes/sandals, mosquito repellent, snacks, hat and sunscreen. If staying overnight in the village: bathing usually takes place in the river or at the central tap. Women should wear a bathing suit with a T-shirt overtop or a sarong.
It’s more conservative in rural Laos. Dress modestly when in the village — covered shoulders and knees are best. No kissing or other showy displays of affection.
Do not give lollies or money to children. Instead, support one of these organisations or pick up Lao books at Big Brother Mouse to give.
Be sensitive with the camera. Locals can be superstitious about having their photograph taken. Ask permission.
Rainy season makes for tough trekking conditions. Be prepared for mud, leeches and high, fast water. Stay hydrated in hot season.
Salaries in Laos are low. If you’re happy with the trip, remember to tip the guide.
Be skeptical of buzzwords like “fair trade”, “fair trek”, “volunteer”, “social business”, “social enterprise”, “eco-tourism”, “eco-trek”, “supporting communities”, “community tourism”, “sustainable tourism”.
Be wary of booking treks or homestays through one of the dozens of travel agents on the main street. Agents could be booking a proper outfitter — or they could simply be calling up an inexperienced freelance guide (or a friend) to take you for a walk. Book directly with a specialised operator. Below are four longstanding, licensed companies.
Green Discovery: Sisavangvong Rd; T: (071) 212 093; www.greendiscoverylaos.com.
Off Road Laos Adventures: 29/2 Chaosomphou Rd; T: (071) 254 695; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.trekkinglaos.com.
Tiger Trail: Sisavangvong Rd; T: (071) 212 311; email@example.com; www.laos-adventures.com.
White Elephant Adventures: Sisavangvong Rd; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.white-elephant-adventures-laos.com.
By Cindy Fan
Last updated on 31st August, 2016.