Know Before You Go to Laos

Sabai Dii – in Laos

On the Search for the Asia of Old: The country on the Mekong regales visitors with its natural beauty and opportunities for relaxation.

Elephants from the jungle were constantly wreaking havoc on their fields, so earlier inhabitants of Ba Na tried to drive out their powerful intruders with violence. Today, however, the village doesn’t just live with these legally protected Proboscideans (to give them their technical name), but from them. With help from western agencies, a number of native Laotians have been trained as tourist guides, while others have begun to produce souvenirs or offer accommodation to visitors. The most important attraction here is a seven-meter-high observation tower on the river, where nature-loving tourists can spend the night in close proximity to elephants and watch them eat or bathe (the name of the ancient Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang stood for “Land of the Million Elephants”, after all!)

Much of Laos, whose total area is roughly equivalent to that of Great Britain, has been dedicated to ecotourism. This makes sense, since three quarters of the country consists of mountains, high plains, jungles, forests, rivers and waterfalls. Combined with its nostalgia-inducing French colonial heritage and rich array of cultural treasures, Laos’s spectacular natural beauty attracts ever-increasing numbers of romantic and active holidaymakers. The Mekong River (which runs through Laos for 1,850 kilometers) and its many tributaries entice visitors to get up close with nature on a boat trip, enjoy an exciting paddle tour or even have a go at “tubing”, which is a relaxing on a floating tyre while the current carries you along.

Framed by rice fields and the bizarrely-shaped Karst mountains, Vang Vieng has established itself as a destination of note for nature-lovers, while an air of history covers every square inch of former royal capital Luang Prabang. Its historic temple complexes and rows of houses are the best-preserved in the whole of Southeast Asia. Other globally recognized heritage sites include the legendary Plain of Jars in the Province of Xieng Khoung and the spectacular Wat Phou temple complex in the South. The slower ticking of time can even be felt in the metropolis of Vientiane, as the smallest capital city of the region, it offers a pleasant atmosphere of tranquility and calm.

By air: Visitors arriving in Laos by air usually travel via Bangkok or Hanoi, from where there are multiple daily flights to the metropolis of Vientiane and the former royal seat of Luang Prabang. Flights are also offered to the provincial capital of Pakse in the south of the country, though they are less frequent. The country’s three international airports are served by Thai Airways International (THAI), Lao Airlines, Vietnam Airlines and Bangkok Airways.

Overland or on the water: The most commonly frequented overland route starts in Nong Khai in Northeast Thailand and crosses the “Friendship Bridge” to reach the Laotian bank of the river, which is around 22 kilometers (a half-hour transfer) away from the capital of Vientiane. Since the beginning of 2007, a second bridge over the Mekong has connected Mukdahan in Thailand with the city of Savannakhet in the south of Laos. Visitors seeking a particularly scenic experience can take a boat trip on the Mekong to arrive in Luang Prabang. The starting point for such trip is usually the district of Chiang Saen or the town of Chiang Khong in the North Thai province of Chiang Rai.

Mains voltage in tourist areas is generally 220-230 Volt/50 Hz. Most outlets are compatible with European plugs. Travellers should always keep an emergency flashlight in their backpacks, especially since many rural areas are served only by generators and therefore do not have a 24/7 electricity supply.

The Laotian holiday calendar contains a striking number of political commemoration days. Most Buddhist festivals are based on the lunar calendar, which means that they fall on different dates from year to year. The most spectacular celebrations are always to be found in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Since the Laotians are very fond of celebrations, it is highly probable that travelers will get to encounter at least one religious festival, wedding or traditional Baci ceremony during their stay. The following list of festivals and celebration days is by no means an exhaustive one:

January 1: New Year’s Day

January 6: Day of the communist liberation movement Pathet Lao, celebrated with huge parades in Vientiane and other towns and cities

January 20: Lao Army Day

January/February: First new moon day of the year for Mayahana Buddhists, or Chinese New Year. It is celebrated by Chinese and Vietnamese minorities in Laos as the “Tet Festival”.

February: Wat Phu Festival – Celebrated at Champasak, and the largest festival in the South of the country. Nationwide, the Buddhist festival of “Boun Makha Bousa” is celebrated at the same time.

March 8: International Women’s Day

March 22: Day of Lao People’s Revolutionary Party

April 14-16: The Laotian New Year festival is one of the most important dates in the festival calendar, with celebrations lasting for three days. Rituals performed include the pouring of water and powder on friends and family member.

May 1: Labor Day

May: Visikha Puja (Buddha’s Birthday): An important religious festival. Celebrations in the temples are lit by candles and torchlight.

June 1: Children’s Day

July: Boun Khao Phansa –  The beginning of Buddhist Lent

August 13: Lao Issara – To commemorate the anti-French nationalist movement

End of October: Boun Ok Phansa – The end of Buddhist Lent

November: The That Luang festival is one of the most important dates in the festival calendar and takes place on the day of the first full moon in November. For a week afterwards, the area around the gold-covered That Luang stupa in Vientiane and the streets on the banks of the Mekong are transformed into a bustling fairground.

December 2: The founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – celebrated as a national holiday, with lavish festivities

December 31: New Year

The use of digital photography in Laos is becoming more and more widespread, which means that shops in many locations are now equipped to burn photos onto CDs or DVDs or print them out.

The Laotian currency is called the “kip” (LAK) and comes in six different denominations of banknote: 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000. Coins tend to be used only in souvenir shops. As in the neighboring countries of Vietnam and Cambodia, the US dollar serves as a parallel currency – the prices of most accommodation, flight tickets and tourist services are also shown in dollars. It is advisable to carry dollar notes in small denominations (1 to 20 USD). The euro is increasingly accepted as a form of currency; the Thai baht is also now accepted in many locations, particularly in the border regions. All international airports are equipped with banks, where currency can be exchanged directly upon arrival. In tourist hotspots, currency exchange services are offered by bureau de changes, souvenir shops and jewelers. The exchange rate in hotels tends to be somewhat more expensive than in other places.

Cash and credit cards: Laos’s small number of international ATMs tend only to accept credit cards; there are even some that will only accept Visa. Depending on the bank and currency, the fees for withdrawing money lie at between 2.7 and 5 per cent of the withdrawal amount (your own bank will charge separate fees in addition). Money is usually dispensed in the national currency, with a maximum withdrawal amount of between 700,000 and one million kip. The network of ATMs in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Vang Viang and Pakse is constantly being expanded.

No specific vaccinations are recommended for travel to Laos, but your protection against diptheria, tetanus and polio should be up to date. For all long-distance trips to tropical locations, we also recommend prophylaxis against Hepatitis A/B and Japanese encephalitis. Cases of malaria tend to occur only in areas that are of minimal interest to foreign tourists. Since a malaria prophylaxis does not offer protection against Dengue fever and is often associated with significant side effects, we recommend that travelers protect themselves against mosquitoes using clothing, nets, protective lotion and distance. Travelers may also lower their risk of infection by taking a daily Vitamin B1 tablet, since mosquitoes are repelled by the smell it produces in perspiration. Those wishing not to take any chances should bring an appropriate emergency malaria medication with them. Because of the latent danger of avian flu, it is generally recommended that travelers stay away from live birds. Cooked chicken meat, on the other hand, can be enjoyed without concern.

Generally speaking, health risks for tourist areas of Laos are low, particularly since most illnesses can be avoided through careful planning and taking the right precautions. Since medical care is inadequate, travelers should be sure to pack a well-stocked first aid kit. In the case of accidents and more serious illnesses, we recommend travelers to cross the Thai border and seek out one of the nearby (private) hospitals in Nong Khai or Udo Thani.

More detailed information is available on the website of the German Tropics Insititute or the German-language Center for Travel Information.

Hygiene: It is imperative that travelers avoid drinking tap water, eating ice cream or ordering ice in drinks. Bottled mineral water is available throughout the country and should be enjoyed in preference to tap water, though be sure to check that the seal has not been tampered with. Unwashed and unpeeled fruit and vegetables should be avoided. Travelers should bear in mind that sanitary conditions in street restaurants may not necessarily be up to European standards. In larger hotels and fancier restaurants, however, an international standard of hygiene is generally to be expected.

To get information about travel insurance or to book a policy for your trip abroad, please click here.

What to wear while visiting Laos? We recommend light, breathable cotton clothing and sandals – you’ll find these a suitable choice for most areas of the country. Naturally, you should also be sure to pack sunscreen, sunglasses and a protective head covering. An umbrella and waterproof poncho are essential if you’re visiting Laos during monsoon season. It’s also worth noting that the mountain regions of Laos can become decidedly cool during the winter months.

Excess Baggage: We recommend that travelers pack light, since every kilo of overweight luggage (economy class permits a maximum of 20 kilograms, while business class usually does not allow more than 30) carries a hefty fee. What’s more, the temptation to buy souvenirs is so great that it’s good to allow extra capacity from the outset! You needn’t worry too much about running out of clothes, since laundry can be taken care of quickly, efficiently and cheaply in most hotels.

Like the climates of its neighbouring countries, the tropical climate of Laos is dominated by the annual monsoon. From October to March, rainfall is extremely low, while the daytime temperature fluctuates pleasantly between 20 and 30 degrees. June to September is the rainy season. While rainfall is not continuous, the rainy season is characterised by one or more daily showers, some of which can be very intense or can last for several hours. April and May are the hottest months of the year, with temperatures reaching as high as 40 degrees.

December to January is the best time of year to visit, and the volume of tourists is noticeably higher during these months. Those who visit during the rainy reason will often be able to enjoy a cheaper and more authentic experience, even in major sightseeing destinations such as Luang Prabang. The increased flow levels also make for smooth expeditions on Laos’s many waterways. Travellers should be aware, however, that the rainy season is often accompanied by irregular flight times, floods, and blocked streets in many of the more remote regions of the country.

The conduct of the locals is characterized by tolerance, restraint and a peace-loving attitude. Expressions of impatience are seldom heard. Involvement in a public dispute causes one to lose face and to be seen as rude. For this reason, tourists should neither display anger nor criticize their hosts. Out of politeness, Laotians tend to avoid directly refusing a request, a habit that can sometimes lead to misunderstandings with foreign visitors. It is also considered unseemly for men or women to show emotions or to have any kind of physical contact in public.

Dirty or untidy clothing is often met with disapproval and will be perceived as particularly objectionable if worn to visit religious sites. Any clothing that emphasises the female figure is considered immodest, which means that trousers and skirts should end below the knee. Visitors should also make sure that they never show the soles of their feet. Shoes should be removed before entering a house or temple. If you want to take a cyclo, you should negotiate the fare in advance to avoid unpleasant surprises. The locals, of course, pay considerably less.

The communist government is extremely conservative and exhibits resistance to a wide array of modern developments. At times, their practices can be reminiscent of those of the former Eastern Bloc. With this in mind, it is sensible to avoid taking photographs of uniformed officials, military institutions and public structures such as airports and bridges. Visitors who flout this recommendation risk having their memory card, film or even their camera confiscated.

Telephone/Fax: it is usually very easy to make telephone calls (or send faxes) abroad. This can be done from most hotels (though some may levy high service fees), post offices or individual phone booths (with prepaid cards). Roaming with foreign operators is possible but costly. Travelers wishing to use their cellphones should purchase a local SIM card (available on every corner in tourist regions) to communicate using calls within the country or abroad.

Calls to Laotian landlines from other countries must be preceded by the country code 00856. This should be followed by the area code (minus the first 0) and then the actual number. The cheapest way to make frequent or longer duration calls to Laos is to call a Laotian cellphone number using a dial around service.

Internet: Internet cafes can be found in great numbers in all larger towns and cities as well as in many smaller ones. They often offer surprisingly fast internet speeds, since the connections come directly via satellites. However, WLAN is generally only found in Vientiane and in luxury hotels.

Letter: The Laotian postal service is generally reliable and represents good value for money. Letters and postcards to foreign addresses can be posted from post offices and hotel receptions. Post dispatched to Europe generally takes between six days and three weeks to arrive at its destination. It will usually arrive quickest if posted from one of the major tourist destinations, where the postal service is most reliable. Important/urgent letters and parcels should only be sent using an express service.

Though Laos now appears to be free from activities associated with international terrorism, opponents of the regime have been targeted with home-made explosives in Vientiane on numerous occasions in recent years. Furthermore, up to the year 2004, occasional muggings occurred along Route 13, the most important overland route used by tourists between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. When using this road, tourists should therefore maintain an enhanced level of risk awareness; the same applies for Route 7 between Phoukhoun and the Vietnamese border. The special zone of Saysomboun – to the north-east of Vientiane – should be avoided completely, since clashes between freedom fighters and the communist government are increasingly common.

Acts of violence against foreign tourists are rather rare, while discrimination against (or even harassment of) single female travelers is even rarer. That said, there is a increasing incidence of petty crime (e.g. handbag theft) in the tourist hotspots of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. Passports, flight tickets and credit cards should be locked in the hotel or room safe at all times. It may also be worth carrying copies of passports and visas with you. Signs or helpful locals will usually indicate the areas where a danger of landmines is still present. This applies mainly to the border region with Vietnam.

Up-to-date security advice can be found on the webpage of the German Foreign Office (English link coming soon)

Traffic: Travelers will find that the traffic discipline in Cambodia compares unfavorably with that of Europe or the United States and functions according to its own rules. Moreover, many roads are in poor condition, so overland journeys should not be taken in the dark. Foreigners who are involved in an accident on a rented motorbike will be asked to pay the full cost of the damage and/or compensation, regardless of where the blame lies. Speedboat accidents are relatively common, so those wishing to take trips on the river are advised to do so with a liner or luxury cruise ship. Particularly during the rainy season, flights to the remote northern provinces are to be avoided, since airports in that part of the country often lack the necessary technical facilities.

The official language of the country is “Lao” or “Laotian”, which is closely related to Thai, particularly to the Isaan dialect. English is widely spoken in tourist regions. Occasionally, you may also come across older Laotians who can speak French; the language of the colonial era is also used on the signs of many government offices and streets.

CENTRAL LAOS

Luang Prabang Luang Prabang is the oldest and most intact temple city in Southeast Asia and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Days in the city are broken up by the gentle chiming of temple bells. Carefully restored villas and and colonial-era business houses with arcades flank the city’s streets, which lead to a grand total of 29 Buddhist holy sites. The city’s authentic atmosphere comes in no small part from the large numbers of ever-present monks.

Vientiane As the affectionately-named “largest village in the world”, Laos’s capital alone makes a visit to the country worthwhile. Despite its not-inconsiderable 400,000 inhabitants, Vientiane has retained the country’s typical unhurried character. Visitors can also look forward to unforgettable temples and monuments.

Vang Vieng Having experienced considerable growth during the rucksack tourism of the 1990s, this lively town is often used as a stop-off point on the 430-km route between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng lies on Nam Song river and is beautifully framed by fascinating limestone formations.

Plane of Jars The province of Xieng Khouang is home to a number of culturally and historically significant sites containing huge numbers of mysterious of stone jars. Each site contains anything from 1 to 400 jars, while the jars themselves are up 2.5 meters high and 15 tons in weight and are estimated to be at least 2,500 years old. It’s still uncertain whether the jars were formerly used as funeral urns, wine jugs, brewing vats or rice containers.

Phonsavanh The quiet and pleasantly fresh capital of Xieng Khouang was founded in 1975 (following the air raids of the Vietnam War) and was designed to serve as a gateway to the mysterious Plane of Jars. It can be easily reached by the overland route from Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng.

THE NORTH

Houay Xai Just a stone’s throw from the legendary Golden Triangle (and thus from Thailand-Laos border), this small provincial capital functions as a gateway to Laos and a much-used starting point for river cruises to the former royal seat of Luang Prabang.

Pakbeng Pakbeng enjoys great popularity as an overnight stop-off point on river cruises between the border town of Houay Xai and the former royal capital of Luang Prabang. The village lies approximately halfway along the route and is located at the spot where the Nam Beng river flows into the Mekong. Two eco-lodges offer high levels of comfort and have been beautifully integrated into the natural landscape.

Pak Ou Travelers visiting Luang Prabang are highly advised to take a detour to these caves on the banks of the river Nam Ou, 25 km to the north of the provincial capital. Located within steep limestone cliffs, the caves serve as an important site of pilgrimage and are home to thousands of Buddha figures made of metal and wood.

Luang Namtha This remote province in the far north of the country will delight and surprise you with its diverse array of ecotourism opportunities: village communities made up of ethnic minorities (such as the Akha, Hmong, Tao or Khmu) are working together with aid organisations to provide access to attractions in their local areas, including artisan workshops, markets, festivals, caves and waterfalls.

Muang Sing Located to the north-west of provincial capital Luang Namtha, this small town serves as a bustling marketplace for the local mountain populations. It also provides a starting point for wonderful excursions to villages inhabited by Laos’s ethnic minorities, many of which offer homestay accommodation.

THE SOUTH

Savannakhet Laos’s second-largest city lies across from the Thai border town of Mukdahan and is an important hub for transport and trade. The province of the same name is home to a number of Vietnamese and Chinese people.

Pakse This provincial capital is an ideal starting point for excursions to the Bolaven Plateau and the ruins of Wat Phou. The former palace of Prince Boun Oum was converted into an attractive hotel in the mid-1990s.

Champasak This former royal seat, which is characterised by old colonial buildings and storehouses, seems to sleep peacefully on the banks of the Mekong. Virtually free of traffic, it serves as an important stop-off point on many travelers’ journeys to the temple ruins of Wat Phou to the south-west.

Wat Phou Located around 8 km from the former royal seat of Champasak, this temple complex was rediscovered by Mekong researcher Francis Garnier in 1866. The ruins of the 6th century mountain temple – with its imposing steps, ritual water basins, galleries and reliefs – are nestled gently against a lush green hill.

Bolaven Plateau With an area of 10,000 sq km and a height of up to 800 m, this seemingly endless plateau rises above the surrounding land like an upturned plate. Spectacular waterfalls cascade downwards at its edges. Tasty Arabic coffee flourishes here, among other things.

Vieng Xai The caves of this region were first opened to tourists a short time ago are considered to be the birthplace of the communist revolution. Like the Vietcong fighters in South Vietnam, the Laotian freedom fighters went underground – and even established a city in the subterranean labyrinth.

THE MEKONG

Houay Xai – Luang Prabang (North) The legendary Golden Triangle – the point where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet – doesn’t just mark the place where the Mekong enters Laos: it also marks the beginning of the 50,000-km river’s “lower course”. The first major town reached by the river is the border town of Houay Xai, from where a number of liners (2 days, basic, up to 50 passengers), high-speed boats (around 6 hours, loud and not without risk, usually with 8 people) and most cruise boats (1-2 days, high comfort) begin their journeys to the former royal seat of Luang Prabang. The most important tourist spots on this section of the river – which also serves as a major transit route for goods – are the village of Pakbeng and the Buddha caves of Pak Ou, which are popularly used for overnight stops. This stretch of the river also offers opportunities to spend an overnight stay in comfortable tents in the middle of the jungle, while an ecolodge provides a one-of-a-kind natural experience with a flavor of adventure. A contemplative boat trip on this stretch of the Mekong is one of the most enjoyable experiences on offer to tourists in Laos – and provides a wonderful opportunity for “deceleration”, the effects of which are gladly carried home by tourists as “souvenirs”. Passengers enjoy views of idyllic settlements, lush planted riverbanks, children playing in the river and peaceful water buffalo; of picture-perfect rock formations, sandbanks, fishing boats and even gold panners.

Luang Prabang – Vientiane (Central) While this section of the Mekong spans the distance between the former and current capitals of the country (its two most important tourist destinations) and is accessible by boat during most months of the year, frequent flight connections and the now-safe road network have meant that today, it is rarely used as a tourist route. This said, those who do opt to travel via this mighty river will be rewarded with captivating views of the Laotian landscape. Nowhere are these views more evident than the region around the metropolis of Vientiane, where magnificent sunsets can be enjoyed, ice-cold local beer in hand, as you gaze across the river to Thailand on the opposite bank. What could be more poignant than to spend such moments pondering the history, legends and wonder of the Mekong? Its significance during the Vietnam War, as a border river, a smuggler route or the home of the amazing “plabuek”, the largest scale-less freshwater fish in the world: this legendary catfish, which can measure up to 3 m long and weigh up to 300 kg, is just one of more than 1,200 types of fish that inhabit the world’s longest river. The fertile banks of the Ufer are also home to the majority of the Laotian population. Alongside Savannakhet and Chamapasak, Vientiane represents one of the country’s most important urban conurbations and rice-growing areas.

Vientiane – Si Phan Don (South) Although this stretch of the Mekong has much to offer, it is mostly known for the so-called “Niagara of Asia”: Around 40 km before the border with Cambodia, the otherwise slow-moving, clay-colored mass of water turns to seething rapids and powers its way through jagged rocks and sandbanks. Numerous legends surround this magnificent natural phenomenon, which, depending on the time of year, is responsible for the formation of up to 4,000 tiny islets.

An entry visa is required upon arrival and can be obtained easily at the international airports of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse or at most border crossings for overland routes. It is valid for 30 days and can be extended at the Immigration Office in Vientiane for two US dollars per day. For the “Visa on Arrival”, travellers require a valid passport with at least six months’ validity remaining, the appropriate visa form, two passport photographs and a fee of 30 USD (subject to change).

Detailed information from the German Foreign Office can be found here.

Click here to obtain the online visa application for Laos directly from our service partner.

Laos time zone is six hours ahead of Central European Time (CET) and five hours ahead of Central European Summer Time.

The usual duty-free allowances apply when bringing in cigarettes or alcohol. Taking Buddha figures out of the country is officially forbidden, which means that these may be confiscated at customs control. Travellers wishing to take antiques out of the country must obtain permission from the relevant governmental department. The transfer of weapons, narcotics or explosives is strictly forbidden.

Note: the airport departure tax at the international airports of Vientiane and Luang Prabang is set at 10 US dollars.

 

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