Laos is one of the better outdoor-adventure destinations in Southeast Asia: there are excellent trekking opportunities, vast cave systems to be explored and crashing whitewater rivers to be rafted. With the emergence of a number of specialized travel companies offering inexpensive, organized, adventure tours in previously remote reaches, it’s now easier than ever to experience the wild side of Laos.
Over seventy percent of the country comprises high terrain, with chains of mountains reaching heights of over 2800m running its entire length. Covering many of these ranges are expanses of virgin rainforest. And from these highlands run steep, narrow valleys through which rivers rush down from the mountain heights to join the “Mother of Waters”, the mighty Mekong River, which flows the entire length of Laos.
The easiest and most popular adventure sport in Laos is trekking, with new routes opening up across the country all the time. Trekking is rapidly becoming a major money-earner for Laos, with a range of one- to five-day treks (usually with an environmentally conscious twist) attracting visitors from around the world.
The far north has mountain scenery, forest areas and colourful ethnic hill tribes living in traditional villages. There are excellent tourist facilities available in many northern towns, and Guide Service Offices are gradually being opened throughout the north to support tourists who want to take part in guided treks that are both environmentally friendly and have a low impact on the local peoples.
For visitors interested in hill tribes and organized trekking, the best towns to head for are Luang Namtha, Muang Sing, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, all of which have developed programmes for travellers wanting to make a series of day-trips based out of town or take part in multi-day treks involving camping and village stays.
If you want to take a more independent, DIY approach, other towns highly suitable for independent trekking opportunities using self-hired local guides include Muang Long, Xieng Kok, Houayxai, Vieng Phoukha, Muang Khoua and Nong Khiaw, all of which have guesthouses and are close to tribal areas.
In South Central Laos, new companies have been set up to allow visitors to discover sacred lakes, trek through ancient forests and interact with diverse local tribes. The tours have been built to foster development and improve the lives of local people without destroying the region’s natural beauty.
NBCAs and eco-tours
A handful of Lao companies organize eco-tours to wilderness areas featuring rare and exotic flora and fauna. Here, nature lovers and birdwatchers will find some of the rarest species on the planet and vast forest canopies. Although Laos does not have any national parks in the Western sense, since 1993 the government has established twenty National Biodiversity Conservation Areas (NBCAs), many still with villagers and hill tribes living within their boundaries. Unfortunately, though NBCA status means government recognition of their biodiversity, this status has not conferred any real protection (see Southern Laos).
The NBCAs are scattered around the country, often in remote border areas without roads. While many of the parks are inaccessible short of mounting a professional expedition, several have been developed for eco-tourism and have visitor centres and guided walks. The best developed NBCAs for tourists are Phou Khao Khouay, Nam Ha and Phou Hin Poun, all of which can be reached by road.
While most river-journey enthusiasts are satisfied with a slow boat down the Mekong between Houayxai and Luang Prabang, many opportunities exist for exploring Laos’s faster waterways. Several companies offer whitewater-rafting trips out of Luang Prabang on a number of northern rivers, including the Nam Ou, the Nam Xuang and the Nam Ming.
Even more popular are river-kayaking adventures ranging from easy day-trips for beginners to multi-day adventures down rivers with grade 5 rapids. Professional guided kayaking tours are currently operated on a regular basis on eight northern rivers as well as the Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir (near the capital) and in Si Phan Don. The best bases for kayaking tours are Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha. Another fantastic region for kayaking is the Khammouane Limestone NBCA. Among other scenic wonders, this NBCA features a 7km-long natural river-tunnel through the heart of a mountain, and is becoming popular for organized tours out of Vientiane.
Caves and rock climbing
With its great forests of limestone karst scenery receding into the distance like an image in a Chinese scroll painting, Laos is a great destination for cave exploring, spelunking and rock-climbing. Prime areas for limestone karst scenery in Laos include Vang Vieng, Kasi, Thakhet and Vieng Xai. For most tourists, cave exploring is limited to climbing up to and wandering around in caves that are fairly touristy and have clearly defined pathways. Serious spelunkers can find vast cave and tunnel systems to explore in the Khammouane Limestone NBCA and the Hin Nam No NBCA, but should seek local permission before launching any major expeditions as many caves have yet to have archeological surveys done. With so many awesome unclimbed and unnamed peaks, rock climbing is one sport that seems to have a huge future in Laos. At present the sport is still in its infancy, but new routes continue to be opened up around Vang Vieng.
With some of the best untamed scenery in Southeast Asia, many unpaved roads, and little traffic, Laos is becoming a very hot destination for cross-country mountain-bike touring. A lot of independent travellers do self-organized mountain-bike touring in northern Laos, bringing their bikes with them from home. Route 13 from Luang Prabang to Vientiane seems to be the most popular route, but be warned that despite the beautiful scenery, the route is also extremely mountainous, crossing several large ranges before reaching the Vientiane Plain. There are much better routes in Houa Phan and Xieng Khuang provinces where you’ll find fantastic landscapes, plenty of remote villages and paved roads with very few vehicles on them.
It’s a good idea to plan carefully. What appear to be very short distances on the map can often take many hours, even in a vehicle. One good thing about bicycle touring in Laos is that should things get too difficult, you can always flag down a passing sawngthaew and throw the bike on the roof. Another alternative is to join an organized cycling tour. There are plenty to choose from but London-based Red Spokes (t020/7502 7252, wwww.redspokes.co.uk) runs a popular two-week tour that takes in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane, as well as some rural stretches with spectacular scenery.