Movies to watch before planning a trip to Luang Prabang, Laos

I tried looking up for movies based on Luang Prabang, Laos before my trip to the country. To be honest, most of the suggestions revolved around warfare. The American secret war on Laos during 1970s. There was hardly any account of Laos life, aspiration of the people of Laos and stories weaved on the human connection and love. 

To be honest, I was tired of seeing too many gory scenes portrayed in movies based on Vietnam war already. War movies are thrilling nonetheless. Movies like Apocalypse Now which has attained a cult status for all the right reasons. 

But these are all narrated through a narrative styled after Hollywood and the west. I was craving for something Asian, more real, closer to home, an authentic Laos experience. My travels in Southeast Asia have been an eye opener for me. i feel I know them more intricately by the virtue of being a fellow Asian rather than the exotic painting brushed by the west.

It was hard to come by authentic Laos movies directed by Laos people until recently. Many attribute the reason to Laos government;s lack of willingness to promote a movie industry. In fact, if I recall correctly Luang Prabang was the only destination where people did not identify me based on Bollywood! “Oh, India? Bollywood. Shahrukh Khan!” Everyone and their grandma screams otherwise. Though local cafes played a number of Hindi soap operas dubbed in Laos language. I think I spotted a Nageen series while hunting down the best alleys serving local food in Luang Prabang. 

They say, Laos has only a handful of traditional movie halls. The numbers are as low as 4 or 5. A number of cafes in tourist destinations play “movie night” for free for travelers.

Not ranking very high on economic metrics, Laos government decided to invest efforts to more constructive industries compared to storytelling through cinema. Of course it is changing at the advent of  2020, with more Laos expats trained in world class cinema coming back home to tell stories on Laos and the region. Mattie Do is one of the forthcoming movie directors of Laos. It is heartening to see the way things unfold. There is a remarkable difference in story telling among people belonging to Laos, and people willing to portray the country as an exotic nation shrouded under the mist of obscurity! 

Following are a list of movies based on Laos that you must watch before visiting the country.

They are bound to instill a sense of respect for the land, a melancholy for the war bygone and a deep sense of love for Laos people. I have included a sizable number of documentaries in the suggestive list of watching as well. 

Read all my travel blogs on Laos PDR!

Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice

Directed by Daan Veldhuizen (2015), Documentary, IMDB 7.2

The documentary is based on a remote village in Northern Laos which has recently turned doors open for the world outside. Soon after, long wooden boats packed with backpackers reach the shore of the river flown by the village. The pregnant melancholy and peaceful life of the village surrounded by towering mountain karsts suddenly come to a halt as more tourists visit, interact with locals, money flows in and starts to challenge the traditional lifestyle. Change is inevitable and more number of locals are growing fond of these short interactions with the outside world. But a number of people start to doubt the impact of tourism in the long run. 

Banana pancakes refer to the trail of backpackers, mostly western gap year travelers, covering the expanse of southeast Asia. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam are inevitable parts of it. The documentary is shot in an excellent manner, often doubling as a tourism ad. But you can not argue with the untouched pristine beauty of mountainous regions of northern Laos. They are as scenic as shown on screen, i can guarantee as an experienced traveler. 

I remember a scene. Two friends sit by the riverside in silence and in awe. Peace prevails. A white tourist looks at the river and exclaims that it is pretty and dives right into it! The locals are shocked by that act. I burst out laughing while watching this! There is an undercurrent of humor of two drastically different cultures meeting for the first time, interacting, manifesting and learning from each other in the process! It is intriguing to watch the blending! 

Also read: Complete guide to plan a trip to Luang Prabang, Laos!

Sabai Dee, Luang Prabang

Directed by Sakchai Deenan (2008), Comedy, IMDB 7.1

Sabai Dee Luang Prabang is a romantic drama and the first feature film shot in Laos after the Communist regime took over power. The historic movie opened with open air screening in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Neighbouring Thailand also celebrated the joyous event since the country helped in the making process of the movie. 

The movie revolves around an Australian photographer with Laos ancestry, named Sorn, visiting the country on a photographic assignment. He meets his tour guide named Noy from Laos. Together they explore ethereal landscapes of Laos starting from the south of the country’s peninsula. Pakse, waterfall Kon Prapeng, LeePee, Si Phan Don (Four Thousand islands), Luang Prabang etc. River Mekong witnesses as their love story blossoms. 

It is a feel good romantic movie with great backdrop of scenic destinations of Laos playing at the background and should be your first choice if you want to be initiated with the natural beauty of the landlocked country!

The movie is dubbed in English as Good Morning Luang Prabang. 

Also read: 3 days in Luang Prabang, guide to best things to do and what to eat!

Love is Forver

Directed by Hall Bartlett, (1983), Adventure Drama, IMDB 5

In a twist of political drama, Love is forever is a movie filmed mostly in Thailand. It depicts a western journalist in Laos under the Pathet Lao regime brings too much ire of the state police, headed by an East German advisor. I know, cold war propaganda of some sorts. Eventually he meets a Laos lady, who was originally sent to spy on him but the two eventually fell in love. They escaped Laos by crossing the massive river Mekong. The underwater shots were groundbreaking for contemporary movie makers.

Also read: The famous night market of Luang Prabang!

Lost in Laos

Directed by Alessandro Zunino, (2012), Drama, IMDB: 7.6

A rather western take on Laos hospitality and being close to pristine nature are the key takeaways from the movie Lost in Laos. A tourist couple, Daniela and Paolo, were vacationing in Vang Vieng. While having fun at tubing, they were swept away with strong currents and soon after were “lost”. With no communication device and money, they meander their way through the tribal villages, who were prompted to shower them with unprecedented hospitality. In being lost, they touched on the raw pulse of human connection in Laos. The movie showcases some beautiful heart touching moments.

Also read: Cultural and offbeat experiences in Luang Prabang!

Chanthaly

Directed by Mattie Do, (2012), Horror, IMDB: 5.9

The first Laos film to be directed by a Laos woman, Chanthaly is a horror story bringing out nuances of a mother daughter relationship. The daughter hallucinates her mother voices and tries to decipher the meaning behind those words.  The movie was entirely shot at a house in Vientiane, Laos. 

Also read: Trip to Nong Khiaw, the best kept secret of Southeast Asia!

Dearest Sister

Directed by Mattie Do, (2016), Horror, IMDB: 6.1

The second movie directed by Mattie Do, Dearest Sister is another horror story.

A village girl, Nok, travels to Vientiane. She is asked to take care of her cousin, Ana by Ana’s Estonian husband Jakob. Jakob is well off and the fortune has been extended to Ana, who can not see however has visions on certain days. Her visions usually bring fortune for Nok, in the form of a lottery jackpot. 

The story unfolds in myriad ways, with the changing dynamics of the sisters’ relationship. The other servants of the house and Jakob and Ana’s mother, all play a part in An’s predicament and vision, which culminates when she finds herself estranged in the washroom with her sister, Nok. 

Also read: How to score a visa for Laos with an Indian passport?

The Long Walk

Directed by Mattie Do, (2019), Sci-fi, IMDB: 7

Mattie Do’s latest release has brought out the best of her talent in the same genre she is most comfortable with, horror and mystery. The Long walk has been premiered on Venice International Film Festival.

The Old Man, who has never been named in the movie, had witnessed a woman dying in his childhood. The woman’s deceased spirit turns into a benign ghost and becomes a companion of the Old Man, often transporting him back in time. It is complex thriller based on supernatural spirit and a treat to the eyes.

Also read: Trip to Kuang Si waterfall from Luang Prabang Town!

The Rocket

Directed by Kim Mordaunt, (2013), Sports Drama, IMDB: 7.3

Do you know, the UXO (unexplored Ordinance) is also known as sleeping tiger among the locals of Laos?

Directed by Kim Mordaunt, who also made a documentary of the banal effects of UXO in Laos, Bomb Harvest, directs a heart touching sports movie. The protagonist is a 10 years old boy, an outcast, who has to win a game to prove his point, that he is not cursed, he means nothing bad for his family.

The boy, Ahlo, lives with family until the announcement of a hydel-power project threatens their life. The dam is built and eventually they have to home for a newer home. In the process, many pressing issue of today’s Laos surface. The multiple dam projects and its impact on the local community heavily dependent on natural resources, the horror of the secret war by America and its aftermath as remnants littered in cluster bombs, threatening drought situation for an agrarian economy: all the issues that plague Laos and its population.

Also read: List of books to read on Laos, travel memoirs and American war on Laos!

The Betrayal-Nerakhoon

Directed by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, (2008), Documentary, IMDB: 7

The documentary tells the riveting story of a Laos family uprooted during the secret war in Laos during the 1970s. A man helps the US army during the war but he sides with the wrong party. The Communists won the war, the American retreated and he found a possible re-education camp stay, almost styled after Soviet Gulags. The punishment was extended to his family too, his wife and 10 children. 

They took the hardship to cross river Mekong and reach Thailand and eventually immigrate to the USA. However, all these toil became futile when a shocking truth about the man unearthed. 

Also read: Handmade local souvenirs, Shopping guide from Luang Prabang!

At the Horizon

Directed by Anysay Keola, (2011), Drama, IMDB: 7.2

A revenge drama based on the unequal economic strata of Laos. A man, supposedly rich and roaming in the high class of Laos destroys a scooter mechanic’s life. He is vindictive in turn. This movie gives a sneak peak in the world of local people of Laos.

Also read: 25 astounding photos on Luang Prabang, Laos!

Air America

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, (1990), war film, IMDB: 5.8

Mel Gibson and Robert Downy Junior are recruited by the CIA to fly into Laos for a secret war and bomb the mountains. It is a big budget war film but also raises serious moral questions.

Also read: Staying at the Sofitel Luang Prabang, Laos!

River

Directed by Mattie Do, (2019), Sci-fi, IMDB: 7

An American doctor lives in the south of Laos. His otherwise peaceful life is jolted when he stops a sexual assault on a local woman. The net day, the dead body of the assailant  floats on the Mekong river. He has to prove his innocence to escape the wrath of the state. While the movie rolls in slow, the fascinating scenery at the backdrop is worth a watch.

Also read: Old Town Phuket, offbeat experiences in Phuket!

The little land of mines

Directed by Erin McGoff, (2019), Documentary, IMDB: 8.8

A documentary film shot in Laos depicting the perils of UXO left on the land, littered on the mountains and the aftermath local has to suffer till date.

It emphasizes on the people and many organisations employed to take the tremendous task to clear the cluster bombs from Laos, one of the most heavily bombed countries on the face of earth.

Also read: offbeat experiences in Goa, India!

Hak-Am-Lam

Directed by Panumas Deesattha, (2013)

One of the first Laos movies to have pushed the strict censorship boundary of Laos film board. However, these movies are hard to come by since OTTs hardly ever stream them.

Also read: Taking part in Baci ceremony, Laos!

Rescue Dawn

Directed by Werner Herzog, (2016), War film, IMDB: 7.3

My favorite actor, Christian Bale acted in this movie and I was hoping for something tremendous. While he went skeletal (yet again) and the performance was nothing short of extravagant, I could not match the portrayal of Laos people with the warm hospitality I experienced. 

That said, this is a movie based on America’s secret war on Laos. A US navy plane goes to a secret bombing mission but is shot down and the pilot is captured as a POW. He struggles to escape but repeatedly faces hurdles. Needless to say, his experience as a POW is not pleasant at all.

Rescue dawn streams on Netflix.

Also read: A complete guide to visit Mauritius!

Red Lotus (Bao Deng)

Directed by Som Ock Southiponh, 1988

A Laos woman named Khammanh is in love with Boa Deng. The man went to fight for the Pathet Lao regime. Khammanh’s step father opposes the match and presses her to marry someone else meanwhile but will love triumph? This movie is set in the era of Laos-American war and was originally a propaganda film shot against the last monarchy. 

Champa Blossom

A joint venture by China and Laos, this movie was shot over three years with Chinese and Laos actors. This is a love story and a drama. It chronicles the travels of 5 young Chinese students in Laos and other countries in Southeast Asia. they meet a Lao-Chinese girl in Luang Prabang at a restaurant. their love blossomed.

Laos Wonderland

A documentary available on Amazon prime (US). I tried to access from India but to no avail.

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