Editor’s note: “A comparison of (travel) guides to Laos” by Ms Lena Koch is the third research article in the new series “Language education and global citizenship” edited by I. Martin (University of Education Karlsruhe).
Ms Koch’s article is based on her research on both travel guides and culture guides to Laos, which she conducted as a participant of my “Global English(es)” seminar at the University of Education Karlsruhe in 2018. She is also planning to apply to the Laos project after she finishes her Master’s degree.
Mr Siegfried Hadatsch, her first editor for this post, participated in the same seminar and is my student helper and a tutor for my classes on culture and literature. After the seminar he applied to the Laos project and then worked in Team VIII at the Lao-German Technical College in spring 2019. On his return, he offered to (pre-)edit the contributions to this series which originate(d) in the “Global English(es)” 2018 class. For this, many thanks – and an extra thank you for extra effort to secure the publishers’ permissions to use their illustrations for this post!
We also thank the authors and publishers of the books introduced here, for their permission to reprint extracts.
When planning to go abroad, travellers tend to inform themselves about their destination of travel, be it a short trip for recreational purposes or a prolonged stay for several weeks, months, or even years. Here, in the age of Internet, Facebook and Instagram, printed travel guides can offer a more deeper insight into the destination of travel. It turns out, however, that looking for the right guide might prove more difficult than expected. The question is: How does one find the right guide for one’s individual trip? Does one want to go where everyone else already went, based on some pictures you saw on the Internet? Or what kind of different trip is this supposed to be?
Naturally it helps to realise what exact kind of trip or stay is planned and what kinds of guides are available. If you are actually considering going to Laos, five guides (books) are introduced to you here. These guides drastically differ in terms of focus, meaning labelling all of them “travel guides” would do some of them no justice. Instead, there are guides focussing on travel tips and experiences, and those focussing on Laos and its different aspects from a non-touristic angle – simply put, a distinction between “travel guides” and “cultural guides”.
Travel guides are primarily meant to help inform the reader about what to expect when travelling, as opposed to a rather lenghty stay that may or may not be of touristic or recreational nature. They provide an approach to the country with which readers are able to plan and take vacations there more easily and better informed, all the while not really delving into the background of Lao culture, history, and society.
Culture guides, on the other hand, emphasise history, people, ways of life, and different cultural aspects of Laos over travel recommendations and tips about where to stay and what restaurants to eat at. Those books do not focus on how to experience Laos by the thrill of adventure and entertainment, but on what Lao society and culture are today. Those guides show what living in Laos permanently – or at least for a significant amount of time – would mean and how this could be approached coming from a Western background.
Each book will be introduced in short before taking a closer look at the table of contents, because this helps to understand its structure and content. The table of contents gives an overview of the topics in the book and shows how much information will be provided (by the page numbers). This way, you see at a glance which topic is treated and much much attention is given to it.
After analysing the five guides, a comparison will be drawn in the conclusion regarding the similarities and differences regarding the respective travelling goals, information, and focus presented. Hereafter, you should be able to choose the right book(s) for you if you ever intend to travel to Laos.
Lonely Planet Laos
The first travel guide is Lonely Planet Laos, written by Nick Ray in 2007.1 It is written in German and part of the Lonely Planet series of travel guides. This is a series which features travel guides to locations that could be considered “foreign” or “unknown” by western standards. Other entries in this series include, for example, Guatemala, Indonesia, or Panama, making Laos one of many entries to the “Lonely Planet”.
To get an overview of this kind of book, it helps to take a closer look at the table of contents first. For Lonely Planet Laos, it looks as follows:
- Plan your trip (p. 4-31)
- Travel destinations (p. 34-255)
- Understand Laos (p. 264-296)
- Practical information (p. 306-346)
- Specials (in between)
Going by the page count, the biggest part of this travel guide to Laos is the second part, travel destinations. With roughly two thirds of the guide consisting of this second part, it becomes clear that the main focus here is to explore the country, or simply put, travelling. Several headlines indicate a sense of adventure, like rivers, activities, adventure or adventure ship tours history (p. 31/32).
Activities that are described are almost exclusively recreational (from a western point of view): Hiking, climbing tours with motorbikes or kayaks. This coincides with a new trend in (western) travel-culture, that of an “adventure-style” holiday full of excitement. Looking at the recommended activities and the colourful and active imagery used within the guide, one quickly gets the impression that everything there is to do in Laos is akin to an adventure. Or rather, this is what this guide makes it out to be.
The subsections of travel destinations are always structured in the same way. First, different regions are described separately. First general information about one region is given, like climate, points and cities of interest, and recommended restaurants and accommodations. Included is also a map of the region showing all cities and sights that might be of interest to the reader.
A rather big part of each subsection is then dedicated to the multitude of different possible activities and biking or kayaking tours in the region. Another part of each of these chapters is some more general information about the region, for example what to keep in mind when traversing this region or where to go and not to go during which part of the year.
These subsections of travel destinations read like they are aimed towards people who want to explore the country by themselves. While they provide a rough outline of each region rather than an in-depth description and can serve as pointers for interested travellers who are looking where to go next.
The later section of the guide contains basic facts about Laos – history, economy, culture, people, and nature are described in a concise way. This short passage gives the reader a simple overview of the country and its people. While not sufficient enough for a longer stay, it gives some basic advice about what to expect as a westerner going to Laos, how to behave and what to avoid, and thus fits perfectly with the tone of the rest of the guide: That of a travel guide for the adventure and awe-seeking traveller.
Subsection four, general information, contains lots of tips for what a would-be traveller would know before their trip to Laos. For example, it is mentioned what kind of electric adapter is needed to charge one’s electrical devices. A second example is what to do and who to contact in case of a sickness, among many other day-to-day tips.
This travel guide would be a good choice for young travellers or backpackers who want to explore the country on their own and feel a sense of adventure while doing so. The information provided is sufficient enough for a short stay in the country, but fails to grasp and go into detail about what is underneath “the surface” of this country and culture. This guide caters to the style of travel it aligns itself with, that of a thrill-seeking backpacker.
Laos – Travel Handbücher
The next travel guide Laos – Travel Handbücher was published in 2015 by the “Stefan Loose Travel Handbücher” publishing house and is written by Jan Dueker.2 Like the aforementioned Lonely Planet Laos, it is written in German.
One of the first things to note is that the table of contents is prefaced by twelve colourful pictures of Laos, visually engangig the reader even before they can take a closer look at the structure of the guide. Here, the table of contents is structured as follows:
- Travel tips from A to Z (p. 33-84)
- Country and people (p. 85-128)
- The region of Vientiane (p. 135-207)
- Luang Prabang (p. 207-269)
- The North (p. 269-368)
- Central Laos (p. 369-414)
- The South (p. 415-480)
- Appendix (p.481-512)
- Travelatlas (p. 513)
There are similarities between the indexes of Laos – Travel Handbücher and Lonely Planet Laos. Again, Laos is introduced by way of approaching its different geographical areas, although with a somewhat different structure than in the other guide. Information about cities and regions, however, are structured in the same way. At first, the reader is introduced to the history and local culture of a certain location, which gives an overview. This introductory information is complemented by a map and recommended places of accommodation, restaurants, and activities. While the activities mentioned are sometimes described in adventurous and active ways, the focus of these recommendations is to get the reader to experience local festivals, exploring nature, or visiting museums and monuments: In short, to help the reader get to know Laos better.
Overall, compared to Lonely Planet Laos, Loose’s Laos – Travel Handbücher contains more information about the people, history, and culture of Laos. This is helpful for travellers who want to go around the country and explore, but also bring with them interest to learn about Laos, its cultures and its peoples.
Both Lonely Planet Laos and Laos – Travel Handbuecher fall into the spectrum of traditional travel guides. They provide sufficient information for those interested in traveling to Laos for recreational purposes and for a limited amount of time. However, there are also guides to Laos which are not aimed towards travellers and people on vacation. This is why the following books are to be considered cultural guides rather than travel guides.
The first of these cultural guides is KulturSchock Laos by Michael Schultze, who wrote this guide in German in 2005.3 Schultze has lived permanently in Laos since 1993 and has worked with both local and international organisations on many development projects. Looking at the table of contents of the book, it becomes apparent that this book differs greatly compared to the first two guides. To begin with, nothing about accommodation or restaurants can be found in here:
- The historical roots (p. 11-21)
- The cultural frame (p. 23-81)
- The society today – country, politics and economy (p. 83-113)
- Families and gender roles (p. 115-143)
- Everyday life from A to Z (p. 145-185)
- As foreigner in Laos (p. 187-223)
- Appendix (p. 225-240)
Instead of providing travel information, the guide delves deeply into culture-specific fields, such as how the current society of Laos is shaped, what kind of family or gender roles exist, or many other topics one would not find in a conventional travel guide. Schultze instead aims to describe and explore Laos how it is and works, rather than how it can be recreationally experienced.
KulturSchock Laos provides an approach to the country that is not of touristic intention – especially compared to the first two entries – and gives deep and excellently researched insider insights into many areas that might interest readers who have taken an interest in Laos for other-than-tourist-adventure reasons. Knowing about history, religious practices and festivals, appropriate behaviour, ethnic groups, political systems amongst many other things can help to understand locals and their ways of life better and to also possibly adapt to the circumstances in Laos better if one instends to stay there for a longer time (or not simply travel for “adventure”). For travellers who believe that respecting local culture, its habits and traditions should be welcomed by travellers all around the globe, and if you are hoping to do this in Laos, KulturSchock Laos provides you with your basis.
The Lao, Laos… and you
The Lao, Laos… and you is a book written in English in 2008 by Robert Cooper, an English economic anthropologist and writer. Having lieved in the Laotian capital city of Vientiane for many decades, where he also opened a bookshop, Cooper, like Schultze, is an expert in local customs.
The book explores a large variety of topics which are important to get a sense of what kind of country Laos is. Compared to KulturSchock Laos, the indexes of both books are quite similar. The biggest difference here is that Cooper includes a chapter called Testing time in his book. It is framed as situations to set your thinking: From page 243 to 253 several situations that could happen in Laos are described. The reader has to think about their own reaction to these situations, best done after reading the book. There is no “right or wrong” here, but rather explanations are given how these situations might be approached and resolved.
Generally, great emphasis is put on everyday life in Laos, as can also be seen in the index:
- First Impression (p. 11-16)
- Land, History, Religion, Economy (p. 16-53)
- People (p. 53-67)
- Culture (p. 67-117)
- The Lao and You (p. 117-150)
- The Practicalities (p. 150-183)
- Eating in Laos (p. 183-197)
- Ceremonies and Festivals (p. 197-213)
- Learning Lao (p. 213-222)
- Lao Business (p. 222-237)
- Fast Facts and Fingertips (p. 237-243)
- Testing Time (p. 243-253)
- Do’s and Don’ts
- Further reading
- Resources Guide
- Glossary/useful terms
- About the author
Reading the book, one quickly comes to the conclusion that it goes way deeper into detail about life in Laos than the three other books before. People who intend to stay for a longer period of time in Laos thus might find this book very helpful for their preparation and time in Laos, as there is a lot of information about behaviour and etiquette, enriched by a closer insight into the Lao culture. Additionally, The Lao Laos … and you is a book which is suitable for research about the country, as political and economic topics are also explained and analysed in thorough detail.
Laos – Work in Progress
A sobering thought from the author: When the average Lao was my age he had already been dead for six years. (R. Cooper)
Another book by Robert Cooper that warrants a closer look is Laos – Work in Progress, which was published in 2014. Reading this book as someone who has yet to visit Laos it quickly becomes apparent that this is a guide written for people who are quite familiar with the country, or best, have already been there. The book’s index lists aspects of sociocultural relevance, such as infrastructure, international affairs, or ethnicity. Those aspects are reported on and analysed in much more details than would be necessary for private touristic interests – which means they benefit another (academic) readership. Additionally, they require pre-knowledge of the situation in Laos, as the guide is written in such a way that readers could not follow if they did not possess previous knowledge about the country.
Again, taking a closer look at the table of contents of the book helps to grasp the exact nature of the contents of the book. The preface outlines the country and its history, and the book is structured as follows:
- Measuring Laos (p. 39-72)
- Ethnicity (p. 72-96)
- Religion (p. 96-124)
- Geography and Environment (p. 124-142)
- Resources (p. 142-162)
- Infrastructure (p. 162-175)
- Economy (p. 175-240)
- International Affairs (p. 240-260)
- Security (p. 260-278)
- External Affairs (p. 278-293)
- Conclusion (p. 293-311)
In Laos – Work in Progress Cooper mainly outlines how the government of Laos envisions its future economic development, specifically drawing attention to concrete plans for the way the country wants to develop in the next five to ten years. In addition to the information given in the book, the reader should also know about the current economic and political situation in Laos to fully understand its development goals, the motivation behind them, and how they are influenced by other sociocultural factors.
Laos – Work in Progress can thus be described as a book aimed at providing its readers with in-depth knowledge about current developments in Laos – the reasons behind and the challenges in front of its people. While it is not aimed at people planning a short trip to Laos, people who are already well-informed about the country – e.g. expatriates, business partners. NGOs, our project participants, or locals involved in politics and education – will find it a very informative and analytical reference guide about Laos from a semi-detached perspcetive. However, now, five years after its initial release, comparing Laos – Working in Progress with the actual progress that has been made in the last years offers even more thorough insights into the country.
This is further elaborated in Cooper’s latest book, Laos: Economy, Society, Vulnerability, released earlier in 2019, which updates and expands upon Laos – Work in Progress. It also expands its analysis of change within Laos to take social and international consequences into consideration. Since Both Laos – Work in Progress and Laos: Economy, Society, Vulnerability are only available in Laos itself, either at Mr Cooper’s bookstore in Vientiane or at the airport book shops in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, it was not yet possible to obtain a copy of the book to thoroughly review in this post.4
There is no “right” guide to a country. This always depends on the kind of trip or stay one has in mind, as has become clear after the analysis of the five different books introduced here. They are all good for their respective (different) readerships.
Lonely Planet Laos and Laos – Travel Handbücher are “classic” travel guides, albeit written with a different readership in mind. While the first one puts great emphasis on “wild, adventurous” Laos and all the thrills the traveller might there, the second guide takes a more grounded approach. In regard to the aspect of cultural information, Laos – Travel Handbücher is the better choice.
This guide provides more cultural aspects that can be important for tourists. Lonely Planet Laos, on the other hand, contains more information on recreational activities. Looking for cultural information in this specific book, however, is difficult – there a small bits and pieces here and there, but nothing too substantial.
In contrast to those two travel guides, the three cultural guides contain a lot of information about Laos, its different culture,s and many more diverse aspects of the country. Different concepts are explored in those guides, issues such as gender roles, the socioeconomic situation of the Laotian people, political systems, and many more. How deep the information goes varies from book to book.
KulturSchock Laos and The Lao Laos … and you are great aids for travellers who want to stay for a longer time in Laos and have an interest in getting to know Lao everyday life (if they can read German, English, or both). Both books address aspects of interset regarding cultural events in Laos. Readers who want to get a deeper understanding of the culture need one of those two books.
Laos – Work in Progress, however, is different from the other books introduced here. It is definitely not written as a handy guide for tourists, even if they are very interested in Laos. Before reading this book, a deep understanding and knowledge about the country is required, but – if you have it – it provides fascinating and first-hand impressions of current and future developments (among other insights).
It turns out that selecting a suitable guide to Laos not only depends on the length of your trip, but also on your personal interests. As someone who has never been to Laos (like me, Lena), reading all these guides made Laos seem like a most fascinating country to want to get to know. Getting to “know” Laos by way of researching different written guides has definitely sparked my interest – to the point where I can not help myself and want to experience “The Laos Experience” myself.
Text by L. Koch, edited by S. Hadatsch, with editor’s notes by I. Martin
Photos reprinted by the kind permission of the publishers (cf. references)
1 Nick Ray is an author, producer and film director from the UK, currently based in the UK, whose bibliography includes travel guides for most Southeast Asian countries.
2 Jan Dueker is a German author specialized in writing travel guides for countries all over the world, although his main focus of work lies within the Southeast Asian sphere.
3 Editor’s note: Schultze is also the co-author of a travel guide “Laos” to Laos. It is written in German and was published by Reise-Know-How in 2018 (co-author Vanessa Leppert).
4 Editor’s note: We will do so when as soon as we get a copy of this – no doubt – highly interesting new guide.
Cooper, Robert (2008). The Lao Laos…and You. Lao Insight Books: Vientiane.
Cooper, Robert (2014). Laos Work in Progress. Lao Insight Books: Vientiane.
Loose, Stefan (2015). Laos. Stefan Loose Travel Handbücher: Berlin.
Ray, Nick (2017). Laos. Lonely Planet: Stuttgart.
Schulze, Michael (22013 ). KulturschockLaos. ReiseKnow-How: Fenwald.
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