Laos, or more correctly the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, may not have the climbing reputation of its neighbor Thailand but there’s enough established terrain to lure in the traveling climber for a stopover. The country only opened their doors to tourism a little over a decade ago, and likewise the climbing culture is still young, but the potential is there to establish Laos as destination area in the climbing world. The Lao are friendly and energetic opportunists and are more than willing to invite falang onto their lands if it’ll earn them a buck – or a fraction of.
The main body of the country in the north is mountainous and perforated by limestone crags jutting out of the flat rice fields covering the valley floors. The rock is the same white limestone that you’ll find around the rest of this part of the continent; though you can find a variety of styles it’s predominantly single-pitch over-hanging sport climbing on tuffas and pockets. The biggest hindrance to the popularity climbing is the weather, which is a fair bit wetter than down south during the season (June – Sept) and closes down a lot of areas. Fortunately there’s a few established area that are climbable in the pouring rain, which makes it quite comfortable temperature-wise.
As of now (2009) there are two primary climbing areas developed, and a third that is located in a ‘special zone’ that may or may not be accessible; even so, the red-tape and hassle involved with going there may be more than most are willing to put up with. Vang Vieng is the undisputed Mecca of Laos climbing and well ahead of Luang Prabang in the maturity of the climbing scene. Perhaps ‘maturity’ is the wrong word, for although the climbing is far more developed in Vang Vieng, there’s nothing mature about the place at all.
The capital of Laos, Vientiane, lies on the southern border next to the Thai town Nong Khai and is easily accessible via the Northeastern Train Line from Bangkok. The overnight train is quite comfortable and will drop you off just shy of the border for $20. From Vientiane buses take off all day long for Vang Vieng (3 hours) and Luang Prabang (9 hours). Alternately, if you’re doing the climbing circuit in Thailand you can come in through the west from Chiang Mai and get to Luang Prabang, though the bus-ride in is an arduous journey.
Dangers and Annoyances
Laos has most of the basic dangers of Thailand, so if you’ve read about them you can lose sleep over traveling to Laos as well. If you’ve been there, well, you know that if you just use your head you’ll be ok. The medical care in Laos isn’t near the quality of that in Thailand, if you are seriously hurt you should look to evacuating to Thailand.
If you’ve been traveling around S.E.A. you’ll surely note that the Lao are far more laid back than any of their neighbors. You won’t have to deal with the hagglers of Thailand and Vietnam, nor the scam artists of Cambodia. However, the Lao have begun to work on grasping the concept of capitalism, and thus the prices have been skyrocketing as the tourism grows. I usually found that the price drops almost instantly to true market value with a firm stance; take the offer once it’s fair, don’t belabor the issue trying to get another 20 cents knocked off. I’ve witnessed this on more than one occasion and it comes off as very rude and insulting.
Be wary of the Lao Lao whisky.
Laos has much more of a wet season than Thailand and sees considerable rain from June to September. Although there are places in Vang Vieng that are climbable in the rain your options will be more limited.
On the plus side, Laos being the only land-locked country in South East Asia, you don’t have to worry about the corroding SS bolts like in Thailand.
Accommodation, Supplies, and Climbing Needs
Accommodation can still be found reasonably cheap in Laos. They have picked up on the rising tourism and are trying their best to capitalize on it, but they’re still a bit new to the art. I had a hotel in Luang Prabang quote me $80 US a night, so I walked across the street, down a little alley and found a nice guest house for 50,000 kip ($6). The prices are far less outrages in Vang Vieng.
Supplies can be picked up at any market store scattered across the streets. ATMs are widely accessible, however see warning in Vang Vieng section.
Green Discovery is a corporate outdoors company and will gladly take herds of noobs to the local cliff and pull them up topropes for a modest fee. They have shops in Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang. In Vang Vieng, where the bulk of the climbing is located, I recommend searching out Adam’s Rock Climbing School for supplies of a guide. Adam is a climber, not just a corporate top rope, and can set you up with whatever you need.
There are electronic guides easily available on the net, most notably a three-part guide by Volker Schöffl. I'll refrain from posting links as they change often.
The Thailand Climbing Guide by Sam Lightner Jr also has a section in the back on Laos.
The best option is to just pick up a printed copy of the guide from Adam in Vang Vieng. The $5 you spend goes towards bolting.
This aptly named climb starts down in the green and boulders out over a bulge to the wall proper. Continue up thin face to a large tuffa (that seeps heavily in the rain) and then onto to more thin face to the anchor. Fun moves if a bit delicate up top. The friction moves across the tuffa are incredibly difficult when wet hence I'll just call it 5.11+....[more]Browse More Classics in International
Here is a free topo for all the climbing around Vang Vieng. laos-climbing.com/Adams-topo.html .Good topo that will get to all the climbing. Rent a pedal bike to get to Sleeping wall area, only about three miles north of Vang Vieng. Print out a copy before you get there as the internet is not very fast in Laos and printing something can be a pain. Great climbing hardly any crowds at the crag.
BRING YOUR OWN ROPE!!! The climbing in Vang Vieng was amazing till the first fall my partner took on local rented gear in 2008. The rope stretched like a bunji cord. We took a close look at the sheath because that is always the first thing to go back home but the smooth edges and wet condition there may tell a different story. The next year we went back with new gear and had a blast. Well worth the return trip.