Laos is for losers

Laos is for losers

Three days, 60 kilometers and one broken ego later, one rookie adventure racer decides in Laos, it’s best to come last
Laos hiking
When you walk, you get to gaze at scenes like this for longer.

It’s official. I am a loser.

It’s the end of my 60-kilometer ultra-marathon through Laos, and I finish almost last. The only people to finish after me are those who ran nearly twice as far and one guy who walked.

I'm not counting my ego, which is still curled up, sucking its thumb, on the side of a dusty track somewhere between the first and second hill.

Apparently it takes more than a bag full of energy bars and a pair of anti-chafe spandex shorts to become an adventure runner.

But I'm not too downbeat. If nothing else, my slow stroll through Laos allows me to soak the place in, to properly appreciate its details. Basically I suck, but Laos certainly doesn't. 

scorpion in laoslaos caterpillarlaos caterpillarlaos ladybugAbove: A few of the little details you can find in Laos when you care to look.

Back to basics

It's my first adventure race, which I sign up to through Action Asia Events. I join 45 others to run through hills, rivers, rice fields and villages in Laos’ rural interior. My group is going 60 kilometers, others with greater masochistic tendencies are running 100.

Each morning we run or hike to a village, stay the night in someone's home, then move on again the next day. There is little or no electricity in some places. We wash under communal taps or out of buckets. Dried noodles and just-add-water meals make up breakfast and dinner each day.

The event has been organized by Michael Maddess, director at Action Asia Events, a man who once unwittingly found himself running on a beach in Taiwan that was littered with unexploded landmines. That and the fact he has hired two men with rifles for this Laos trip "just in case" confirm that these are tough events for serious adventure junkies.

It all sounds like the perfect tonic to purge me of my city-slicker blues. And then it starts.

No pain, no gain?

By the fifth kilometer I've decided my plan to run the whole thing was a little ambitious, and I'll be content to run most of it, with some walking when required.

By the 10th kilometer I've developed a pain in my left knee and have to walk the rest of this day, maybe to jog occasionally tomorrow, depending on how I feel.

By the 20th kilometer I can't even walk downhill without limping, I'm half blind from the amount of sweat and sun lotion that has poured off my head into my eyes and I have invented abusive phrases that Shakespeare would have been proud of. I'm praying for the finish and I'm not even a third of the way through.

It all amounts to a failure of epically pathetic proportions.

But like I said, there is a silver lining to this cloud of endurance misery. While sponsor-dappled sticks of sinew blaze past me, eyes rooted to the road, minds fastened on the clock, I console myself with the knowledge that they're missing a lot of the cool little things that I can now enjoy.

The good side of failure

The butterflies that scatter as I blunder through their drinking holes. The ferns that curl up in protest as I brush past. The scorpion I nearly step on. The mother boar grunting a warning to stay away from her piglets. All sorts of other brightly decorated bugs and plants.

And of course the Lao people themselves. The bewildered faces of the kids, a mixture of curiosity and fear, as these strange visitors in colorful vests pant past their homes. Occasionally I stop to give out balloons and colored pens. Their reactions are a thrill.

I have a kindred spirit in the form of an ebullient Frenchman called Matt. He is penalized twice during the race for cheating and finishes each day by looking for a cold beer. My kinda guy. 

“What a place!” he cries at one point, as we pass each other in a bright green paddy field, laid out beneath an imposing stretch of karst rock.

He’s absolutely right. And if I wasn't such a loser, I would have missed out on a lot of it.

Scroll down for images of the trip, then click to page 2 for details on doing something similar yourself.

hills in LaosThe race takes place over three days on a route that winds through spectacular hills and simple villages.
adventure race in LaosIt's 6.30 a.m. and the runners are waiting for the start on day two.
running in LaosMist rises from the land as the sun climbs. October, when the race took place, is the end of the rainy season.
rural village in LaosVillages pockmark the route, providing short-term targets for the runners and a rare spectacle for the villagers.
village children in LaosChildren are always delighted to see you, often wanting to high-five as you go by.
rice field in LaosEven after three days, the scenery never fails to impress. This is a rice field owned by a local farmer.
rural scene in LaosThis bird resting on a bamboo stem is just one of the finer details of life in rural Laos.
Lao woman and childThe Lao people are always ready with a smile.
Lao woman carrying sticksSome of the locals put our efforts into perspective.

Laos riverThe race course takes us through some tricky features, including this knee-deep river. rural scene in LaosA wooden fence separates the road from farmland.


running in LaosThe fact that the route was a well established dirt track didn't make it easy.

Click to the next page for 'Getting there' details


Laos hiker

Getting there

This trip was organized by Action Asia Events. The entry fee was US$700 and return flights (Hong Kong - Hanoi - Luang Prabang) cost US$600. More events are planned for the future. Contact Michael Maddess for details (, tel. +852 2529 2814).

The three race nights were spent in simple villages, in the homes of the villagers. Accommodation was basic, washing facilities comprised buckets or cold water taps, and there was little or no electricity in some areas. We had to bring our own food.

The fourth and final night was spent in the upmarket Villa Santi Resort & Spain Luang Prabang. Dinner and breakfast were provided.

You could follow a similar itinerary on your own, hoping to find an obliging home owner in the villages when you arrive. But that is a risk. The places we stayed were not official hostels. Best pack a tent too.

Flights from Hong Kong to Hanoi, then Hanoi to Luang Prabang, can be arranged with Vietnam Airlines.

If you are going to attempt a run or a hike in Laos, here are some things to bear in mind:

May to October: Rainy season.
November to February: Cool and dry.
March and April: Hot and dry, sometimes reaching 40 C.

Visas can be attained on arrival at the airport for US$35-40.

Shops and restaurants in the cities and towns accept U.S. dollars, but if you want to buy anything in the villages (such as food, drinks, payment for accommodation etc) it would be wise to take some Lao kip with you. US$1 = 8,000 kip.

Even more important is to prepare adequately for the heat, the humidity and lack of basic amenities if you’re planning on a run or long hike. These are essential:

  • A minimum two-liter hydration system (such as those made by Camelbak).
  • First aid kit
  • Good running/hiking shoes
  • Energy bars, dried fruit etc to get you through the days
  • Headlamp/flashlight
  • Water purification tablets

Also consider:

  • Freeze-dried, carb-high food, just add water
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Sun lotion
  • Lubricant gel to prevent chafing
  • Light-weight camera


As senior producer for CNN Travel, James commissions stories, writes for, edits and manages the homepage of the site. 

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