Tripologist: Head for the hill-tribes

A friend and I are going to Laos in December. We're doing volunteer work for the first two weeks in Luang Prabang, then have two weeks for travel. Besides the sights and activities in Luang Prabang, can you suggest how best to experience the essence of Laos? What are the must-sees and should we head in one direction or try to hop around?

- G. Betteridge, Cammeray

Luang Prabang stands head and shoulders above every other Laotian wonder, so your first two weeks might be a tough act to follow.

You'll see plenty of hill-tribe people in the city, to whom the word "colourful" scarcely does justice. If you want to see them on their own turf, a good base is Phonsavan, the capital of the Plain of Jars region, from where you can organise visits to surrounding villages.

The trip from Luang Prabang upstream along the Mekong to Huay Xai is popular, although the 300-kilometre journey is essentially a mirror image of the short trip upstream from Luang Prabang to Pak Ou Caves, multiplied a hundred times. The river journey takes one-to-three days, depending on the boat. Luang Say Mekong Cruises (luangsay.com) offers a luxury version. Something else you might consider is World Expeditions' 15-day Luang Prabang-to-Hanoi bike trip (worldexpeditions .com).

This escorted tour travels through some of the less-visited parts of Laos to visit hill-tribe villages and bases used by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party during the so-called Secret War. In forests north of Luang Prabang, Muang La Resort (muangla.com) is a relatively new arrival on the Laos tourist scene and is getting a good rap from travellers.

It's remote, small, plush and pricey but could provide a happy ending to your travels.

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