Laos: The Sleepy Sister of Southeast Asia

Harold Michael CarterBy Michael Carter

Welcome to the Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), a land-locked and less-traveled nation in Southeast Asia. The population of the country has yet to reach 8 million. Most first time visitors to Southeast Asia concentrate on the Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang corridor. Perhaps rightly so, as Luang Prabang is truly a wonderful UNESCO world heritage site. But Laos has plenty of other less publicized gems located in the far southern and eastern Champasak region, hugging Vietnam and a small northern border section with Cambodia. Join me as we take a look.

Pakse, Laos

Pakse (population around 75,000) is the hub of the southwestern corner of Laos. It is located along the confluence of The Mekong and Se Don rivers. The backdrop contains a series of rugged hills. The riverside sunset views are spectacular. Mother Nature used a masterstroke when painting this scene.

What is there to actually do in Pakse? Surprisingly, I found the city has a decent selection of satisfactory eateries. The Panorama Restaurant on the rooftop of the Pakse Hotel provided a 360-degree view of the entire city. It offered optimum sunset gazing with cool, clear air in a relaxed setting. Makeshift restaurants pop up along the riverside in the late afternoon. This is an ideal way to mingle with the locals over some Beerlao. If alcohol is not your cup of tea, there are numerous excellent coffee shops in Pakse.

I rented a bicycle during the day to get around. This is one of my favorite ways to explore a new place. I get a bit of exercise and I can cover more distance than I would simply by walking. If you want a less tiring activity, watch or ask to join a game of pétanque. This French-introduced boules game is very popular in Pakse. 

Not impressed with the excitement factor yet? Read on.

Corner Cafe

Spread Your Wings

OK, so you’ve wound down for a couple of days in Pakse, Laos and now you want to become a little more active.

The nearby Bolaven Plateau is the country’s coffee-growing region. The French introduced the production of coffee in the early 20th century. Presently, Lao coffee is renowned and appreciated worldwide. Other attractions and curiosities in this area are numerous waterfalls and the villages of ethnic minorities.

The Bolaven Plateau is wedged between the Annamite Mountain Range. The Annamite straddles the Vietnamese border on the east and the Mekong River on the west. During the American-Vietnam war, the area was strategically important to both sides. The US heavily carpet-bombed the Bolaven Plateau. To this day, UXOs (unexploded ordinance) riddle the dense jungles. Sticking to marked trails or hiring a guide when hiking is advised.  

Been There, Don Det

Finished with your jungle trek and want to relax again? Head further south to Si Phan Don, a 50-kilometer region just east of the Mekong barely on this side of the Cambodian border.

Si Phan Don translates to approximately 4,000 islands, half of which are submerged during the rainy season. This is the widest area of the 4,350-kilometer-long Mekong River system, offering stunning views of lush jungles and scenic waterways. 

I caught a skiff in Ban Nakasang and settled on the island of Don Det.

Don Det gives an entirely new definition to the term ”laid back.” If you want to get your travel budget in order and slow down beyond belief for some time, Don Det is the haven for you. 

Pace of Don Det, Laos

Two Tribes

Two distinctly contrasting tribes coexist on the island of Don Det — the TVs (travelers, tourists, visitors… take your pick) and the DTs (permanent Det dwellers, locals, natives… take your pick). The TVs are a curious lot and a constant source of amusement for the DTs. I wonder what the DTs did for entertainment before the arrival of the TVs.

TVs come in all ages and from various nations, but all seem to share a fondness for lassitude. The biggest decisions of the day lie in the answers to: “Where to eat next?”, “Where to go for the next beer?”, and “Do I want to eat regular food or ‘happy’ food?”. The more adventurous of the TVs have been known to vacate their hammocks long enough to engage in the rather boisterous activities of floating down the Mekong on inner tubes, lounging on the small beach, or perhaps renting a bicycle to escape the hustle and bustle of the north end of the island. The favorite expression of the average TV is ”chill out.”

The DTs, on the other hand, are also a relaxed tribe, but in a much more traditional way. Their days are spent fishing, repairing fishing nets, playing pétanque, caring for their chickens and gardens… and of course, being amused by the behavior of the TVs.

Don Det Beach

Is it on Your Bucket List Now?

Some travelers have limited time and feel that hanging out and simply enjoying a place wastes too much of their travel time. Although true in some cases, remember that you won’t see the world in one trip. Stick around a while and enjoy the place you are at. 

If you like Vegas-style entertainment, 5-star accommodations, or piña coladas by the seaside — well, Laos might not make your bucket list.  

If you want something much simpler and want to take a step back in time for a while, then this is your ticket.

I hope to share my experiences in a different part of the world with you again soon.