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Lonely Planet Laos (3rd ed) Paperback – October, 1998
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Things are changing so quickly in Laos and I dare say it is not for the best, please travel as gently as possible. Talking louder will not help.
There isn't a lot of material in English about Laos, and Cummings makes a good attempt at showing us the deep richness of Laos and the fascinating aspects of the culture.
He approaches Laos with respect, and not like some rampaging farang looking for a good time at the expense of the natives.
It's a guidebook that tries to honestly tell you something of the place.
Does it always succeed?
Perhaps not, but it's quite useful not only as a "guidebook" but a more condensed reference book about Laos, considering there are so few readable books about Lao culture, geography and society out there.
And having used it on my own month-long trip through Laos, it got me through things just fine. I also had a Let's Go guide, and between the two, I pitched Let's Go somewhere in Southeast Asia and still kept Cumming's book with me.
So I hope this review helps anyone thinking about this book.
Quite simply, Australian co-authors Andrew Burke and Justine Vaisutis have put together what is the best English-language 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.
The friendly people at Lonely Planet sent me a complimentary copy of Laos 6, so even though I didn't pay any money for it, we'd suggest you do -- it's worth every kip.
Not only did I find the accomodation and eating sections for popular locations as accurate and update as I would expect, but Cummings' did a fine job of briefly describing many off-the-beaten-track places, providing initial ideas for numerous adventures into the unknown.
And of course, as in any country to see the "real-thing", it is always rewarding to venture to places that you have not read about in a guide book. For this reason, I would certainly not criticize Cummings for not writing more.
All in all, in my opinion this book certainly meets the lofty standards set by Lonely Planet.
A bit of advice to would-be travelers: During my 12 months of diligently using Lonely Planet guides, I have been amazed by the travel-blunders made by fellow travelers who have carried travel guides, but have not used them. Some travelers perfer to do it "on their own", but I have seen numerous costly, time-consuming, and uncomfortable mistakes made that could have been easily avoided if they would have simply consulted the book in their hands. A little diligence goes a long ways.