Backpacking in Laos – (Almost) Everybody Hates Attapeu.
Above Photo: One of the reasons I like Attapeu – it’s early-morning market.
Ok, I confess, I like Attapeu – just a little…
Whether that’s because I have been there so often that I’ve grown resigned to the frustrations, problems and hassles of staying there, or whether it’s a Traveller version of Stockholm Syndrome, I don’t know, but I have a soft spot for the place, while being in no way blind to its failings.
I’ve visited Attapeu a few times in recent years, using it as a base for trips to, and research on, the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the tri-border jungle, for my novel BACK.
Attapeu is also where I based the American and British backpackers in the novel, before they set off on their ill-fated trip into the tri-border jungle, looking for something that was left behind from the Vietnam War
Many of the problems they encountered in Attapeu were borne out of my own experiences, and the frustrations and problems they encountered have all been mine, usually on every visit.
1. Lack of Public Transport
2. Appalling Town Planning
4. Lack of tourism infrastructure/tourist help
Some of them overlap but I’ll try to explain them:
1. Lack of Public Transport
On arrival at the bus station 7 km from town, often there isn’t any public transport into the town centre. This meant you had to walk the whole way into town with a backpack. This might change now a closer-to-town bus station has opened (now only a 4 km walk), but anyone arriving at the old one still has this problem to deal with.
Also, once in town, there are very few tuk tuks, absolutely no motorbike taxis and no other public transport options in the town centre, making getting anywhere in Attapeu a long, tiring and hot walk.
2. Appalling Town Planning
Apart for the 7 km slog into town from the stupidly-located bus station, some town-planning knobhead decided to locate the ‘Tourist Office’ 2 kilometers out of the town centre, meaning you have to walk there and back along hot shade-less streets, usually arriving back at your hotel room dehydrated and disoriented, having spent half the day trying to find the place.
There are no signs in town telling you where the tourist office is, and absolutely nobody in Attapeu really knows where it is, so frequent, hot, tiring detours are required in order to find it. As it was new when we first visited, there were no guide books showing its location either.
When you finally do find it, your problems are just beginning (see below).
3. Lack of tourism infrastructure/Tourist Assistance
Even when you find the Tourist Information office, the people staffing it are absolutely useless, except at eating.
There were five people ‘working’ in there when we finally staggered in. None of them could help with finding a guide, they didn’t know anything about the region, told me there were no tour guides in town, no tour offices, and couldn’t suggest how I could get to the Dong Amphan National park. They then they handed me a map of the town and went back to their food and the TV. Talk about overstaffed and under-qualified.
It’s not just in the tourist office that lack of tourism support is in evidence in Attapeu.
There really are no tour companies, no official guides, and the only way to arrange anything is by sheer hard work, tons of patience and allowing yourself some extra days, as nothing is easy or straightforward when you’re trying to work something out.
We usually end up with a driver and a car and the guy has no idea what he’s doing, where he’s going or what we want to see. We did have one superb guide back in 2008 but he’s gone, and the hotel he operated out of has been demolished and a revolting, new, ‘five star’ Vietnamese White Elephant of a hotel now squats on the site, deserted and hopelessly out of place for the nature of the town.
Nobody in Attapeu knows anything about the town or the region, it seems. Then again as they’re mostly Vietnamese and don’t speak Laotian, this is hardly surprising.
Attapeu is rapidly and increasingly becoming a Vietnamese province and a Vietnamese border town rather than a Laotian one. Most people don’t seem to understand Laotian, nobody can speak English, but if you can speak Vietnamese you’re laughing.
When you do find Laotian-speakers, who ARE from Laos, they are the same as elsewhere – friendly and welcoming. It’s just that you find them less and less in Attapeu.
You get used to the sullen Vietnamese youths congregating outside the proliferating Vietnamese knocking shops, karaokes and bars on the dark and dodgy streets there, but it’s never a pleasant experience walking around at night.
Everything is just so much hard work, Attapeu really isn’t worth bothering with unless you desperately want to get into the nearby National parks (Dong Ampham and Xepian) or trek to see hilltribes (if you can find a guide who knows what he’s doing) or if you wish to visit the old Ho Chi Minh Trail routes. But you have to add a few days extra to your time there for the headbanging factor alone.
Of course, all that made it a perfect base for the backpackers in BACK before they embark on their fateful trek into the jungle heading to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but as a relaxing stop in a pleasant Laotian town? Forget it.
It’s not just me who thinks this way about it, and don’t forget I profess to LIKE the place, but other writers have few – if any – good words to say about it either. Here are a couple of quotes and extracts about Attapeu written by other visitors which I found on the internet:
This extract below is from: http://www.nelfinberg.com/?page_id=785
Why does traveling here sometimes just seem hopeless …
The [hotel] owner is Vietnamese, barely even speaking Lao, an indication of the nature of the town, which seems wholly given over to the citizens of the neighboring country.
Why would anyone in their right mind come here, although one could ask oneself that about the town, and in fact more than just the town. But the young man at the reception is polite, accommodating, even apologetic: his friend [who was a tour guide] couldn’t make it this morning because he had to go to Pakse… He also refers to a travel agency somewhere else in town…however, it will not be possible to contact that travel agency because it is Saturday.
The tourist bureau? Don’t even bother going there, since they won’t be open today. Oh, I forgot! I didn’t realize that tourists just visit between Monday and Friday.
This one is from Travelfish.org
Is this the least friendly place in Laos?
We arrived in Attapeu from Paksong on 22nd Dec… The first negative impression came at the bus station (the Lao usual – about 8km out of town) when a tuktuk driver (one of only two in sight) took 3 attempts to even look at me let alone answer my question – in Lao – about getting into town.
Anyway we made it but we just didn’t like Attapeu at all. No-one spoke to us (so unlike the rest of Laos!), the restaurant we had lunch in overcharged us; we found the tourist info office with great difficulty and got no help from them and failed to find anywhere much to eat an evening meal in.
We decided to cut our losses and head towards Siphandon the next day. However, it took a lot of trudging round in the early morning to find a tuktuk to get back to the bus station. (Had been advised to try the market but drew a blank). We were thankful to get out of Attapeu and reconnect with the lovely friendly Laos we know so well. I’m sure there are interesting things to see in the area but with a total absence of tuktuks and such reluctance to give any info I’m not sure how accessible anything is.
NB In fairness I should add that there seems to be a large Vietnamese population. This is not an anti-VN comment but reflects the fact that many people possibly speak little Lao themselves so although I can usually make myself understood quite well it didn’t work here. But that doesn’t address the total absence of transport! It’s quite scary to feel you might actually be stuck somewhere because it’s so difficult even to get to the bus station.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
Reviews: Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews