Laos: 25 Years On

Lucky enough to have travelled through Laos in 1989, but 25 years on, Laos has changed markedly.

About six months after Laos opened to “falangs” (foreigners) and as only the third lot of Australians to go through suring1989, the stark changes in Laos in October 2014 forced me to put pen to paper and write this post. Or, should that be fingers to keyboard?

A visa in 1989

Although very anxious as I had to post my passport to Canberra for the Laos visa and knowing that Australia Post loses mail, post it I did.

Laos, South East Asia
2-weeks travelling through Laos in 1989

After several long weeks, which should have only take ten business days, the passport finally returned safely – stamped with a one-page visa.

Landing in Laos

At Thailand’s Nong Khai border, we were allowed to cross the Mekong River in a small local timber boat to Vientiane.

We didn’t realise until arriving that our visa was not stamped “By Air”. This was a bonus as well as the cheapest method of getting across.

Other travellers with “By Air” stamped on their visa were turned back at the Nong Khai border, told to return to Bangkok, and fly back into Laos. Travellers were pretty angry.

Vietiane, Laos
Open air kitchen in Vientiane (1989) – view from our accommodation

Australian Embassy

The Australian Embassy in Vientiane warned us not to travel outside a 5-kilometre radius of Vientiane, because of the danger of rebels still roaming Laos and especially in the hills.

This same official advised he had been living in Vientiane for over 5 years and never ventured outside this designated perimeter. Not taking the advice, we did decide to register with the embassy just in case.

Laos in 1989

As the travel was part of a six-week honeymoon without any real plans, which included Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos, we were only allowed two weeks to explore as far as we could get to in Laos – oblivious to how hard travel would be in reality.

It took almost all of this time to hitch from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.

No buses, Tuk-tuks, barely any cars in those days and mostly one-tonne armed supply trucks or army vehicles only travelled on the dirt road.

Although we walked a lot, we still managed to hitch rides.

Very little English was spoken, if at all. The older locals did speak French. So, with my high school French, I found everyone to be extremely helpful and friendly, in fact, absolutely delightful.

Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir, Vietiane, Laos
Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir (1989) – mother or grandmother?


Travellers in Laos were scarce in 1989.

The country’s main road, which ran north/south of Vientiane was sealed in only about a 30-kilometre stretch. The rest of the road was dirt track or in parts, a mere resemblance of a trail bike or goat track.

Deforestation was in its inception, as were cars in this country.

Most locals travelled on riverways by a small timber motor boat or rustic dugout canoe.

Only a few hotels existed in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, with nothing much at all in-between these two major cities.

With nowhere to stay in Vang Vieng, a few of us travellers were herded into an open room, which turned out to be the small Town Hall.

This is where we all slept. On the floor, on woven mats for a couple of nights. There was nowhere else and no other accommodation in town.

Tourism was almost unheard of and so were tourists. But the thirst that brought very few to this country in this early stage was unanimous.

Travellers wanted to experience something unique.

Laos was in its natural “untouched” state. Unscathed by tourism. Still very unpolished and raw.

To hitch a lift meant walking through tiny villages, which were built impossibly high on the side of mountains.

Walking towards these villages would draw out many locals especially children from their huts in disbelief.

Occasionally, inquisitive children followed us out of a village for half a kilometre or more. Their faces looked as if they had seen a couple of ghosts. What an amazing but humbling experience and one that is still quite vivid in my mind today.

Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir, Vietiane, Laos
Armed boat official (1989) – Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir

The rivers were the life-line everywhere we travelled.

Small handmade boats plied their way up and down, or across the man-made dam, which flooded the lowlands and displaced many villages. Most locals travelled this way as roads were difficult, non-existent, or impassable, especially in the wet season.

Typically, an armed government official travelled on some of the boat routes, to ward off any rebels or fighting.


Hitching was the only way to get anywhere in Laos although as cars were scarce, you often walked a long way and for many kilometres. Anyone who’s travelled in Laos knows how strenuous this is as it’s a very mountainous country.

Only the other day (2014) whilst travelling in Laos, I overheard a group of American travellers talking amongst themselves. Two of the travellers tried to hitch, but no one would pick them up…how times have changed.

One of our rides was with a one-tonne UNICEF utility truck. The vehicle carried large boxes of medicines, a few escorts, and a couple of armed guards. And, also picked up another couple of locals and us during the trip.

UNICEF truck (1989) – our 5-hour transport on top of those boxes, hanging onto ropes

The driver spoke a little English and advised that there were still instances of rebels coming down from the hills to attack food and medicine supply trucks.

Just to add to the apprehension as not much transport went past for a couple of hours, we took this 5-hour ride. Sitting on top of the supply boxes whilst hanging onto the ropes that held the boxes together for dear life, it was touch and go whether we would arrive.

No mobile phones to call anyone for help. No internet. Nothing. We were on our own.

Vang Vieng

With only one 20-minute stop for food during the 5-hour journey, it was an exhausting, crazy but exhilarating ride, with very friendly locals, and arrived in Vang Vieng safely.

From Vang Vieng, the aim was to travel to Luang Prabang, so we started walking north on the outskirts of Vang Vieng to a smaller village.

Laos, Vang Vieng
Near Vang Vieng (1989)

Remember, we only had an A4 badly copied map of a section of Laos. No phone, no internet, no information. Nothing was available in those days to facilitate travelling.

Village of Phu Khoun

The next ride kind enough to pick us up was with a couple of army guys, in a decrepit left-over army jeep. The driver only knew a handful of English words and with our few Lao words, we had a laugh trying to communicate.

The jeep was in such poor condition that the gear stick kept slipping out. So the driver together with his army pal, pushed the gear stick back in when changing gears, whilst glancing over at us in the back seats, with a sheepish smile. And gear changes there were many, as this dirt road was very mountainous and pot-holed.

Needless to say, it was a very long and slow trip also hindered by the last hour of torrential rain.

Laos, Ang Nam Ngum reservoir
On Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir (1989) – scared faces when the boat hit a submerged tree trunk – not sure how many could swim

We arrived in Phu Khoun at almost midnight.

I didn’t know the name of the village back then and it wasn’t on my map. This tiny village perched high on a mountain with a handful of thatched huts, no shops or accommodation, nothing, seemed eerily isolated.

The army guys motioned that this was the cross-road and that they were headed right, asking if we wanted to go with them to the army base towards Phonsavanh. Luang Prabang was our left-turn.

Both were very kind and tried to explain a famous site that we must visit if we went to Phonsavanh. As we didn’t know what was out that way, decided to stick to the Luang Prabang destination – at least this was on the map. Also, who knew whether we could not make our way back from this new destination?

Waking the village

To our surprise, both guys proceeded to knock on each hut’s door in the village until someone agreed to put us up for the night. We said our goodbyes and were left alone in a village in the middle of nowhere, without speaking the hills tribe’s language.

The family that put us up for the night was very sweet.

I felt guilty as the bed – mat and blanket on the dirt floor – was still warm when I slid in exhausted. I’m sure someone was kicked out.

In the morning, our breakfast was sticky rice and a tiny amount of tinned salted fish, which was all this very poor family had. Extremely humbling.

We gave them a little money, thanked them for their kind hospitality as best we could, and set out again for the long walk to Luang Prabang.

Leaving Phu Khoun

The village children were gorgeous, inquisitive, and followed us for a long way out of the village.

I doubt they’d seen many foreigners before – if at all – especially walking into the never-never. Remember, we had no idea of distances, terrain or whether a vehicle would pass by anytime soon.

Phu Khoun, Laos, village
Early morning at Phu Khoun village (1989)

Later on, I found out that the site that the army guys were trying to tell us about is the famous Plain of Jars, which I did finally see this year in 2014.

Phu Khoun, Laos, village
Inquisitive locals at Phu Khoun village (1989)

In hindsight, it was probably lucky not to visit the site in 1989 as the area was still heavily littered with UXOs. Today, however, MAG has done and is still doing, an amazing job of clearing much of the unexploded ordnances around this site.

Luang Prabang

After only a brief visit to Luang Prabang, we had to catch a flight back to Vientiane.

The small airport’s old twin-prop Russian plane that flew locally is today replaced with an international airport.

Luang Prabang, Laos, plane
Luang Prabang (1989) – back to Vientiane; me turning around to face the camera (Photo: Colin Palmer)

Modern changes

There’s an abundance of new and expensive cars travelling on the roads nowadays.

One can only guess that a lot of this money has been Chinese-influenced as China is pumping huge investments into Laos. Not everyone seems to reap the rewards. As with most countries, it’s always a select minority that benefits from progress.

Although I hadn’t travelled in the Bokèo, Luang Namtha, and Oudômxai provinces before when I arrived in Laos this year, the first noticeable change is the numerous power lines. Good progress for the people of Laos.

Apart from Vientiane and Luang Prabang, I don’t remember many power lines in 1989 or much power at all.

Laos, SE Asia
Two-month journey in Laos during 2014

Travelling by minivan from Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh this year took just six hours and still passes through the Phu Khoun junction.

The changes in Laos are immense.

The not-so-gruelling road is still very winding, of course, this can never change and apart from many potholes in sections, at least the road is mostly sealed.

Travelling along this route, the power lines slice through the already scarred deforested mountains.

This once pristine spectacular vista is rapidly and surely falling victim to progress, corruption, and greed.

As with many countries including Australia, the demand for old-growth timber or any timber, supersedes any conservation aspirations. With China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam supposedly closing down deforestation in their own countries, these countries are now hungry for the valuable timber in Laos.

It’s predicted that only around 30% of forests in Laos will be left by 2020, which is only six years away. I would see this country now. After the noticeable forest devastation during the last 2 weeks of travelling here, this problem is already paramount.

The sporadic tiny villages with thatched huts built on impossibly high mountainside slopes have mostly been replaced with much larger houses of concrete and tile or tin roofing.

Phu Khoun junction village is now a large town that starts a few kilometres out in all directions with many shops, houses, and a round-about marking North, South, and East. This is all I see whilst whizzing past in the minibus before turning on the bumpy road to Phonsavanh.

Luang Prabang, Laos, Hmong
Luang Prabang markets – Hmong wife (1989)

I would still hitchhike in this country as it feels safe enough. Although public transport is much better and actually exists these days, there isn’t a need yet…


After two months in Laos this year travelling from north to south in this spectacular country, it seems that locals have also changed since 1989, or have a different mindset towards tourists.

Back then it was ‘how can I help or be more hospitable to a falang?’. Sadly now, it seems to be ‘how do I fleece more dollars out of a falang in the shortest possible time?’

Is this a result of tourism overload?

Although tourism is good for a country and a way in which locals earn money, it also comes at a cost. You can’t have one without the other. I’m not sure what the solution is really.

Perhaps this is a harsh observation and hope that someone can prove me wrong, but this is a noticeable difference. However, travel out of major cities or tourist destinations and you’ll soon experience the Lao people that I remember – most warmest and wonderful smiles, happy, and truly hospitable just as in 1989.

I still love Laos for its spectacular diversity and sincerely hope that this doesn’t change in the future.

Visit my Nilla’s Photography Laos gallery for more images. More blogs on Laos.

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4 responses to “Laos: 25 Years On”

  1. Carolyn Avatar

    Laos. Sigh. I was there in 1963 and 1964. I think it was ’64 when there was a coup d’etat which happened in the middle of the night. Gunfire nearby and next door was a colonel in the army so lots of activity. My parents slept through it and in the morning when I mentioned it they must have thought I was imagining. Mum was going to the market and off we went in a samlor. Halfway down the road people were rushing about and our man turned us around, dumped us and took off as fast as could be. We did not know what was happening until the BBC news that night. It was not the safest place. A Filipino who was attached to the US forces was shot dead one night when mistaken for Pathet Lao. We lived across street from the El Morocco (nightclub/whorehouse) Their band had very little material so it was Roll out the Barrel over and over. And over. We heard a bang one night and Dad exclaimed “someone finally shot the bastard” (owner). Turned out, that’s exactly what happened. I can’t remember, but it must have been silent after that. Sadly I only ever saw Vientiane and it was just dusty roads (or muddy at other times). A few years ago I found books about a Lao detective agency. I was intrigued and they turned out to be quite amusing. Written by a Brit who had been there a long time and knew all the ups and downs. Tourism will have had tremendous impact. Some benefit. Much corruption. Did you see Air America? Mel Gibson….long ago. It was a comedy but all pretty much real. Air America used to fly over the house, with the door open. Wacky, wacky place. Thanks to your photos I can at least view some of what I missed. And you are way more intrepid than I ever was! That truck…give me my Bedford truck!!!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Carolyn, your life sounds much more intrepid than mine and this story is another example of your unique life experiences. The El Morocco made me laugh until I read he was shot!
      Your mind is a library full of wonderful (and sometimes not) memories, which for me is what travelling’s all about. I work to travel. 😉
      I haven’t seen Air America, but I’ll have to check it out – probably when we land in the UK in June sometime as we’ll be staying with my partner’s elderly mother so will be catching up with movies, writing, and everything else.
      Laos is definitely on my “one of my favourite countries” list, but as you say, progress can change a country and the second time I visited it was both good and bad. I’m not a fan of returning to a country as and like to remember a country how it was, but SE Asia is easy to revisit from Australia and with our lousy currency, we don’t need a bucket of cash.

  2. Sam Montana Avatar

    Excellent article about Laos, which is a country that has always fascinated me.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Sam for the great feedback!
      I would love to return to Laos for a 3rd time, but I’ve learnt that sometimes it’s best not to return to a country…

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