With public boats disappearing from Laos’s many waterways, do-it-yourself boating is increasingly the way to see some of Asia’s most stunning and untouched wilderness. Rafting, canoeing and kayaking trips are all available, with varying degrees of comfort and cost. Operators in Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Tha Khaek, Pakse and Don Det offer guided rafting and kayaking trips, complete with the necessary equipment, along waterways in those areas.
As with bicycles, you shouldn’t have any special customs difficulties bringing your own small boat to Laos. Because often difficulties of overland transport, however, the smaller and lighter your craft is the better.
For trained paddlers almost any of the major waterways draining from the western slopes of the Annamite Mountains towards the Mekong valley can be interesting. In the north, the Nam Ou, Nam Tha, Nam Khan, Nam Ngum and of course the Mekong River are navigable year-round. In central and Southern Laos and the Man Theun (though not for long) Nam Kading, Nam Hin Bun and Se Kong as well as the Mekong are safe bets. The upstream areas of all this rivers can be accessed by road, so drop-offs, pick-ups are limited only by the availability of transport.
Several tributaries that feed into the Mekong between Vientiane and Tha Khaet are particularly recommended because they see so little boat traffic and run through spectacularly rugged limestone country. In particularly, the Naro Kading and Nam Hin Bun are wide and relatively clean river, though a proposed dam on the Nam Kading might chance things there. Upstream put-in spots are limited but possible. If you’d prefer someone looks after the logistics, we (www.activetravellaos.com) offer rafting and kayaking in this area.
Several companies and guesthouses on Don Den rent kayaks so it’s possible to explore the islands of Si Phan Don this way. Rafting is possible here.
If you want to go local, small wooden canoes can be bought for between 60 USD – 140 USD without a motor; add from to 90USD for motors. Small Japanese cheaper Chinese outboard motors of 5.5 HP to 11 HP can he purchased in and of the large cities along the Mekong. These sorts of boats are suitable only for well-navigated waterways as their bulk prohibited portage around shallows or rapids.
The overall lack of vehicular traffic cycling an attractive proposition in Laos, although this is somewhat offset by the generally absence of roads in the first place. Bike can be hired in the larger towns but they’re generally cheap Chinese affairs unsuited to much more than pedaling around town. For any out-of-town cycling you’re better off bringing your own bike, one that’s geared to road conditions.
In terms of road gradient and availability of food and accommodation, the easiest long-distance ride is along Rte 13, which extends the entire north – south length of the country from Boten on the Chinese-Lao border south to Voen Kham on the Cambodian border. In the dry season this road may become very dusty even in the paved sections, and trucks though near as overwhelming as in Vietnam or Thailand can be a nuisance.
There are a number of other good cycling routes less traffic. The various loops described are just as good on a bicycle as they are on a motorbike, just lower. We wouldn’t recommend heading into the former Saisombun Special Zone north of Vientiane on a bicycle as the roads are punishingly steep. Lodgings are few and camping is not encouraged at all.
Other cycling routes of interest – several in unpaved – include: Luans Prabang to Muang Khua; Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha, Thang Beng to Lak Sao; Muang Xai to Phonxavan; and Sam Neua to Phonasavan. The last two routes are quite remote it need to camp.
Hiking and Trekking
Trekking through the mountains and forests is the best way to experience what is one of the most untouched environments in Southeast Asia. Indeed, trekking has popular it’s almost a mandatory part of any visit to Laos. And thanks to several project aimed at getting money in to communities, there are now more than 10 areas you can choose from. Bed trek is different, but most involve walking through a mix of forest and agricultural land and staying in homes or community guesthouses in remote villages. Prices including all food, guides, transport, accommodation and park fees. In most cases you can trek with as few as two people, with per person cost falling the larger the group.
While the cultural side of a trip is limited without some language skills, trekking alone is possible in most of the country. However, doing so in the north-eastern provinces and the area formerly known as the Saisombun Special Zone might attract attention of local authorities unused to seeing random falang wandering about unguided. Walking off the track in most of eastern Laos can be dangerous given the amount of unexploded ordnance still lying around.
If you do go it alone and have some language skills or a phrasebook it’s often possible to spend the night in a remote village, though do offer to pay for your food and bed. Finally, you can set off on a day hike from just about any town or village in Laos. Take a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water.
The limestone karsts of Laos are perfect for rock climbing and routes have been established at two main sites, near Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng has the most established scene, with dozens of climbs ranging from beginner to very tough indeed. Climbers have compared the routes and guides here favorably with the high-profile climbing at Krabi, in Thailand.