Wednesday, 27 April 2011

5 Excellent Spots for Outdoor Adventure in Laos

It’s remote, exotic, & perhaps not the first destination that springs to mind when you’re after last minute travel deals. However, if you’re seeking outdoor thrills in a leafy, miraculously undeveloped tropical landscape, Laos is full of excellent wilderness travel opportunities. 

South of China, between Vietnam & Thailand, Laos is dry & comfortably warm from November to February. Its predominantly rural landscape is naturally beautiful & largely unspoilt, & its laid-back people are friendly & accommodating.

For outdoors enthusiasts, Laos holidays can take many different forms, from gentle elephant-treks through virgin jungle, to riding a tube down a river or spelunking in ancient caves.

The number-one activity in Laos at the moment is trekking, & the country is one of the best places in the world to explore on foot. Most of the best trails are in the north. Luang Nam Tha is top-notch for wildlife spotting; the Nam Ha protected area contains all manner of beasties & birdies. If you're very lucky, you might even spot a tiger!

It’s also possible to hike from Luang Nam Tha up into the hills, to visit the villages & homes of tribal people in the area. It’s currently illegal to hike without registered guides, though, so make sure to get some, or risk deportation. One of the nicest treks round here is the two day Ban Nalan trail, which takes you along riverbanks & through miles of beautiful forest before emerging at a tiny village, where you meet members of the Khamu tribe & observe their traditional lifestyle.

Phongsali, home to a large group of displaced traders from Yunnan who have really left their mark on the town's identity, is quite difficult to get to, but worth it. Chinese is more widely spoken here than Lao, & at 1000m it's refreshingly cool - even chilly, at times. The trekking here is world-class – think crystal-clear rivers, rows of green hills fading into the clouds, waterfalls crashing all around & the odd temple emerging from the undergrowth.

Treks also run straight out of Luang Prabang – why not treat yourself & go by elephant? Tiger Trail runs a two-day adventure with elephants which involves riding, washing & learning all about these majestic animals.

Vang Vieng, in the south, is home to those infamous tubing adventures. Put simply, this involves jumping in an inflated tractor tyre innertube & floating down a river. Like at those fancy swimming pools, but for real. It’s a pretty cool way to see the jungle & the river from right up close, but it’s become more & more dominated by the party scene & bars now throng the waterways. For a more natural experience, try the cave walks further up-river, or even some river kayaking. If you’re really ready to splash out, you can even take a hot-air balloon over the whole region, giving unparalleled views. 

Si Phan Don, the ever-shifting 4,000 Islands, is an archipelago in the mighty Mekong River. There might not seem to be much to do down here, but you’ll find excellent scenic cycling along the largely flat islands, stunning limestone karst scenery that matches Thailand, & the chance to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. Try hiring a boat & pootle about the islands, playing at Robinson Crusoe.