Travel to Laos
The Democratic Republic of Laos is a completely landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Laos shares borders with Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China.
Laos is currently one of the poorest nations in Asia with the tourism industry being the sector showing the most rapid growth. With a tourism slogan of ‘Simply beautiful’ – Laos definitely has potential as an exciting tourism destination.
There is great diversity in the geographical landscape from north to south. The north is more remote, hilly and with wild, jungle terrain. The limestone karsts, eked out by the mighty Mekong River are a wondrous sight to behold.
Vang Vieng is a popular base to set out exploring these karsts.
Towards the south, the sleepy, laid back atmosphere of the Mekong River Valley and its villages is also a sight to behold. In fact the capital of Vientiane is probably Southeast Asia’s sleepiest capital city. When visiting the capital, don’t neglect to visit the gilded monument of ‘Pha That Luang’- the National symbol of Laos.
A trip to Southeast Asia should consider the joys of visiting the relatively undiscovered nation of Laos. It has a wealth of cultural history, untamed wilderness to the north along with spectacular limestone karst formations and a sleepy, laid back charm, associated with its flat lands to the south.
Visa Requirements for Laos
The citizens of Russia, Japan, Korea, Switzerland and ASEAN nationals can enter Laos visa free. All other nationals require a visa issued from a Lao Embassy or Consulate. Alternatively a visa on arrival is available to people arriving at the Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse airports. The visa is also available at the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge between Nong Khai and Vientiane.
Check the guidelines for Laos visa on arrival. Please also check the current guidelines, of the visa requirements for your country and ways to get a Lao visa before you travel to Laos.
Important Cultural Information
Laos has 49 ethnic groups that are divided into four linguistic branches including Lao-Tai, Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Mien and Sino-Tibetan languages. The official language of Laos is Lao. English is a popular language, especially among the youth, who prefer learning it to French, which is a legacy of colonial days.
Laos embraces Buddhism although animism is also celebrated.
Lao women wear the traditional phaa sin, which is a long sarong in regional patterns and motifs. Women now wear a lot of Western contemporary clothing but Government office regulations, stipulate the phaa sin as mandatory attire. Lao men on the other hand, have adopted Western clothing, wearing the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions.
The best time to visit Laos is during the dry season from November to March with temperatures as low as 15 degrees Celsius.
It is advisable to dress conservatively with long trousers and sleeved shirts in Laos. Remember to remove your shoes before stepping into a Lao household or a temple. It’s disrespectful to show the soles of your feet to someone in Laos too.
Everything in Laos takes its own sweet time. Try not to vent frustration if things don’t run on time or as smoothly as expected.
Banking & Money in Laos
The currency of Laos is the kip which can be exchanged at banks in neighbouring countries and reciprocally can be converted back into foreign currency at Vientiane airport.
The notes in common circulation are 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000 and 50000 kip with the less common 100,000 kip also in circulation.
ATMs are available in Vientiane and also present in some major cities like Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Savannakhet, Tha Khaek, Pakse and Luang Namtha. BCEL is the largest bank and accepts both Visa/Cirrus and MasterCard/Maestro. VietinBank on 29 Khounboulom Road permits moderate withdrawal without fees.
Best exchange rates for foreign currency are available at banks. There are also private exchange booths in tourist areas.
Medical Emergency Information
Emergency number for Ambulance is 1195
Emergency number for Fire is 1190
Emergency number for Police is 1191
The names of major hospitals in Vientiane are Mahosot Hospital, Mittaphab Hospital and the International Clinic of Mahosot Hospital. Luang Prabang Provincial Hospital, Pakse Hospital and Savannakhet Hospitals are also of note.
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Wi-Fi and Internet in Laos
There are four operators offering mobile services. They are Lao Telecom, Beeline (formerly Tigo), ETL Mobile and Unitel.
Local prepaid SIM cards can be bought at shops and stores with relative ease, without paperwork.
Internet cafes are to be found in the larger towns and cities but the speed is slow and often quite costly. Many hotels, cafes might provide free Wi-Fi. Connection speed is bad, especially compared to neighboring countries. Mobile internet, even in Vientiane have slow speeds. Make sure to always use a VPN service (like ExpressVPN) when using free public Wi-Fi.
Arrival in Laos
The main points of entry in Laos are the international airports at Vientiane or Luang Prabang. The Laos airports are served by carriers like Lao Airlines, AirAsia, Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways and Vietnam Airlines. These are the main flights to Laos. Pakse is an international Laos airport with flights to and from Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City.
A budget option to get into Vientiane is to take a discount flight to Udon Thani in Thailand with Air Asia. There are regular buses between Udon Thani and Vientiane that take 2.5 hours.
Search for available flights to Laos on Expedia.
A train line between China and Laos is currently under construction connecting Kunming in China to Vientiane via Luang Namtha, Udomxay, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. There’s also a much awaited train connection across the Mekong from Nong Khai (Thailand) to Tha Naleng near Vientiane. Visa upon arrival is available on crossing the border, although the train station is in the middle of nowhere.
There are many border crossings with facilities to acquire a visa on arrival at crossings between Cambodia, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
Areas of Laos
Laos can be split geographically into three distinct regions with the major cities being Vientiane the capital, Luang Namtha the northern capital, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet.
The northernmost region of Laos sharing borders with China at its northernmost extremity. Characterized by hilltop villages inhabited by tribals.
Home to Laos’s sleepy capital Vientiane on the banks of the Mekong. Lots of rural countryside in this region.
This is the region of Laos that is the least visited and has mountains and the Mekong flatlands.
Transportation in Laos
Air travel is the fastest way to get around the country of Laos. The main domestic carrier is Lao Airlines and the network is quite far-flung. One of the most popular routes is the 40 minute flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. Otherwise, the route takes 10-12 hours by bus.
Although the highways in Laos have been greatly improved, the majority still remain unpaved and can make road travel a pain. Some popular bus routes around Laos include Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, Phonsavan to Sam Neua, Sam Neua to Muang Ngoi, Muang Ngoi to Luang Namtha, Luang Namtha to Huay Xai and Pakistan to Phonsavan.
As regards more local travel, there is a state run air-conditioned shuttle bus that runs from the airport to the Vientiane city center.
A songthaew is a mode of local transport- a small truck-like vehicle with a pair of benches in the back. Songthaew means ‘two rows’ in Thai. Tuk-tuks are smaller, lighter, three-wheeled vehicles that are useful for navigating shorter distances.
Motorcycle travel, although with its share of hazards, is a convenient way to get about Laos. Bikes are even available for hire.
Boat travel is a useful way to get about the Mekong. Slow boats and speedboats are both available and are often a good alternative to the jam packed roads.
Accommodation in Laos
Quality accommodations that adhere to international standards can be found in the big cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Outside the Mekong Valley’s main tourism hot spots, the accommodations are mostly limited to guesthouses and very basic hotels. Most fall into the budget and mid-range.
If looking for cheap and clean accommodation in Vientiane, consider the Backpackers Garden Hostel with its lovely garden and murals on the walls. Some accommodations in Laos have a French flair, harking back to the colonial era days. The New Laos Paris Hotel, harkens back to this time and is a budget-friendly hotel in the city-centre, resembling a tall, Parisian townhouse.
Some upscale accommodations in Vientiane include the Crowne Plaza Vientiane, Landmark Mekong Riverside Hotel and Muong Thanh Luxury Vientiane Hotel. The Settha Palace Hotel is a palatial 1932 building, exuding French colonial era charm. It’s been wonderfully modernized to make you feel quite at home.
Food & Dining Guide for Laos
Lao cuisine uses rice (mostly sticky rice) as the staple and is spicy and often incorporates bitter flavours into some dishes. Fresh herbs and raw vegetables, help to tone down the spice levels somewhat.
Some speciality Lao dishes to try include :
- tam maak hung (spicy green papaya salad) with pudem (fermented crab) and pa daek (chunky, intense fish sauce)
- laap (a salad of minced meat with herbs, spices, lime juice and chili)
- khao jii pat-te (French baguettes stuffed with pate)
- ping kai (spicy grilled chicken)
- mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaf)
- lao-lao (rice spirit- but drink discerningly as standards may vary)
The most important geographical feature of Laos is the Mekong River and its winding web of intricately knit tributaries, creating wilderness, remote rocky terrain in parts and unexplored jungle. There are a number of things to do in Laos.
Laos’ wilderness and unspoilt beauty remains its biggest attraction for lovers of wildlife. In the North, the path of the river has given rise stunning limestone karsts. Vang Vieng is a popular place to explore these karsts. The further north the traveler goes, the more remote and hilly becomes the jungle-like terrain. Luang Namtha is an extreme northern town that acts as a suitable base for wilderness exploration.
In comparison to the North, the Mekong Delta lowlands are perfectly flat in the south. Si Phan Don or the ‘four thousand islands’ is the perfect place that enables you to appreciate the sleepy, laidback charm of Lao village life.
The ancient capital of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This wonderfully preserved city with its gilded Buddhist religious monuments are wonderfully contrasted with French colonial era buildings and traditional Lao wooden houses. Bustling cafes on the banks of the Mekong and Nam Khan add to the charm. There are many things to do in Luang Prabang.
Laos has its own Angkor Wat – Wat Phu a ruined Khmer temple complex situated in the Champasak province.
The golden stupa of Pha That Luang in Vientiane is an important national symbol that dates back to the 16th century.
Shopping in Laos
The best souvenirs to get in Laos are textiles, handcrafted items, jewellery, homeware and art items.
Handmade Lao silk is a very desirable item to purchase as a gift item. Silk scarves, wall hangings and similar items may be purchased and are small enough to roll up into your suitcase. The Talat Sao (Morning Market) in Vientiane is the place to shop for this. The Talat Sao also doubles up as a shopping mall.
If you are looking for something a bit special, head to the Ministry of Silk in Vientiane, to pick up a luxurious, silk cocktail dress, scarf or shirt.
Vientiane also has a few markets that sell street food and fresh produce. The Vangthong Evening Food Market is packed with locals- a good sign that it is the place to go for bla kan sung (grilled fish), local sausage and roasted duck. Sticky rice with grilled chicken or skewered pork is also a good take-away item.
The Vientiane Night Market takes place along the Mekong waterfront and row upon row of vendors sell everything from electronics, clothes and handmade items. Lots of food stalls abound too.
The top three places to enjoy Lao nightlife are Vientiane, Pakse and Vang Vieng.
The capital Vientiane has numerous pubs, discos and bars but the government regulation of ending the partying at midnight, spoils the fun to a certain extent.
To truly party and let your hair down in Laos, head to Vang Vieng. The Sakura Bar on Main Street is always crowded, the drinks are cheap and the music is vibrant. The Lalaland Bar on Kangmuong Street plays live music and even has an open mic.The Viva Pub is open till 1 am and has cheap drinks and lets you party a little longer.
For something different, head to the Sala Sunset Khounta Boat in Vientiane. It’s situated on the banks of the Mekong and is the perfect place to down a few beers with local snacks.
In Pakse, the nightlife is more laidback. The Brick Bar in Pakse plays local bands with pub style food- wings, fries and local snacks and drinks.
Luang Prabang has a few notable bars and nightclubs too.
Safety Tips for Laos
Even though crime levels are quite low in Laos, petty theft, bag snatching and pickpocketing are common. Corruption is also a problem.
It is important to always have identification on your person when in Laos. It is acceptable to carry copies of the passport and visa. You might be asked to produce ID at any time and fines will be charged if you cannot comply.
Being in possession of drugs or trafficking will result in heavy fines, imprisonment or even execution in the most extreme circumstances. Tourists have been known to be arrested for simply being in the vicinity of people taking drugs.
Beware of “special” or “happy” shakes that are sold on the Laos backpacking trail as they are often doused with Methamphetamine.
Other hazards include unexploded landmines that are left over from the Vietnam War. Stick to designated paths and never venture into minefields. Stray dogs on the streets are also a hazard.
Laos has a chequered history and this history lends to its cultural diversity. The country has Buddhist history, the country was demolished by the Thai Army in the 1820s. In the 20th century, French colonialists rebuilt the country. The civil war in the 1970s ravaged the country.
Despite these setbacks, Laos is well on the road to revival through a newly burgeoning tourism industry. The tourism industry has tapped into Laos’ unassuming charms – making the tagline of ‘Simply beautiful’ quite meaningful. The relatively unspoilt wilderness and biodiversity in the North of the country is a joy to many intrepid wildlife enthusiasts.
One of the main draws to the country is the UNESCO World Heritage site of the ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang. A beautiful city, straddled on the banks of the river Mekong with a French colonial charm and with gilded Buddhist monuments – where in the world would you find such a curious juxtaposition of cultures?
Discover French colonial history, French food and also cafe culture along the banks of the Mekong River. It is a unique and blissful cultural experience that you will enjoy only in Laos.