Laos, Musings

To Visit Laos in March? The Burning Question!

Laos had been on the hit list for quite a while.  This time, we thought, this time.

We had initially wanted to travel to the south, to see Wat Phou and the 4000 islands. But time was tight and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t make the itinerary work for us.

The city of Luang Prabang in Laos had been on my wish list for a long time, but the time of year that we usually travelled seemed to rule it out because of the slash and burn agriculture that takes place around March in that area.  It’s a farming method which is used widely across SE Asia and causes terrible smog and haze.

We were really keen to visit Laos though, and tentatively set our sights on Luang Prabang.  It seemed that everything that I read did warn against travelling to northern Laos at this time of year though – it would be awful, the smoke would be thick, the views obscured and your health compromised. But this year, after a bit of deliberation, we took all this on board and went anyway!

I won’t lie, I was a bit worried about it, what if it was that bad and it ruined our time there? It’s a long way to go and money down the drain if we are shrouded in a smog that makes us cough and splutter every day!

I trawled the internet for even more information, I found a handful of reviews from years past that said it hadn’t been that bad around that time of year…I clung onto those, hoping that it would be the same this year!

But by this time the tickets were booked, and with my partner casually telling me ‘it’ll be fine!’ off we went.  Despite the issue of the smog, I was still very excited about arriving in Laos…and a bit apprehensive. I always get a bit nervous before we land in a new country, I’m not too sure why, but any fears or nerves I had before arriving are usually dispersed as soon as we get there.  

And Laos was no exception!  We flew into Luang Prabang, the approach taking you through the surrounding mountains, a spectacular entry into this spectacular country.

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The beautiful city of Luang Prabang

And as we disembarked from the plane and walked down the outside corridor towards immigration, we were greeted with the most amazing sunset.  

The sun was making its approach towards the mountains and glowed a bright pinky orange, a perfect sphere, welcoming us into Laos. It was hazy and the colours and light were dispersed across the mountains and countryside before us.  A few prepared visitors had their cameras ready and were able to take photos. I fumbled around for my phone or camera, but getting through immigration was a more pressing matter…still that sight when we arrived will stay with me forever.

As mentioned, it was quite hazy when we arrived, and I was sure that I could smell whiffs of smoke, but it wasn’t anywhere as bad as I had imagined.  We had not passed flaming hillsides as we flew in, as my overactive imagination had feared we might!

I continued to imagine that I could smell whiffs of smoke into the next day, but that could have been my imagination!  I was so relieved that, despite the haze, which was probably more to do with the heat and the dust, there didn’t seem to be much burning going on…yet!  

On our second day in Laos, we headed out to the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) which is located a few hours out of Luang Prabang at Sayaboury.  Again, no sign, of anything untoward as we headed out there.

The ECC is located on a big lake surrounded by forest and it was there that we saw the first evidence of burning. It was fine to begin with, then we noticed the odd fire spark up in the distance in the forest across the lake.

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The first sighting of the burning

It wasn’t big enough to cause us any problems though at that stage and we left there to head back to Luang Prabang without any ill effects.

However, it seemed that we left at the right time. A few people in our group stayed for an extra night. We ran into them back in Luang Prabang and they said that it had gotten a lot worse and it was very smoggy there the next day.  We had a lucky escape by the sounds of it!

Back in Luang Prabang, there was still no sign of any burning…until our second to last day there.  We walked down to the shore of the Mekong to take some photos and noticed that further up river had disappeared from view.

It was smog… and as we looked up we saw what looked like snow…that can’t be right!  It took us a moment to realise that it was ash falling from the sky.  We couldn’t actually see any fires but the evidence was falling from the skies! Having said that we didn’t find the air quality that bad, however, someone with breathing difficulties may notice it more than us.

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A very hazy Mekong River

On our last day, we noticed it had gotten worse and the smog was increasing. We were getting snowed on intermittently and this time you could see the smoke from fires rising in the distance. It was noticeable but not horrific, so it didn’t really have too much of an impact on our enjoyment of being in the city at all. 

Then our time in Laos was up and we had to leave – just as the weather turned and a huge thunderstorm rolled in!!  

I’m not sure what it was like after we left and whether it got any worse. But from our point of view, it turned out not to be a major issue for the week we were there, or the area we were in.

Yes, if you go at another time of year it’s probably much less hazy, or if you travel a bit later into March (or further North), maybe it gets worse. But what we experienced did not adversely affect our time in Laos at all. 

I’m very glad that we didn’t let it put us off this time. What we saw of Laos has whetted our appetite for more and I can’t wait to return to explore other areas of the country…hopefully soon!  

8 thoughts on “To Visit Laos in March? The Burning Question!”

    1. It is absolutely stunning there! I’m not sure to be honest, I’ve never experienced it firsthand but it does sound like it’s pretty horrendous. It’s so widespread I think it will take time for the tradition to change.

      Liked by 1 person

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