Laos has more of a laid-back vibe than a lot of places in Southeast Asia; for many visitors, this is a huge plus. And it doesn’t mean you can’t get adventurous! Whether you’re heading for the capital Vientiane, with its French colonial and Buddhist architecture, or the calm river-town atmosphere of Luang Prabang, here’s all the info you need to plan your trip!
Population: 7.4 million
Religion: Theravada Buddhism in the majority, animism in the minority
Emergency numbers: Police, 191; Tourist Police, 192
- Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It shares borders with China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.
- The Khone Pha Pheng waterfall, located in Champasak Province, is the largest waterfall in southeast Asia.
- The national sport is kataw, similar to volleyball but using a rattan ball and feet instead of hands.
- Laos was a French protectorate until 1954 (apart from one year when it was occupied by the Japanese towards the end of World War II). Many of the older population still speak French.
- The Lao language is closely related to Thai.
- The country houses the Vieng Xai Caves which are a network of about 450 shelter caves that were used during the Vietnam War.
- 13-15 April: Laos New Year (Pi Mai). Celebrations can last for more than a week; be prepared to be soaked as throwing perfumed water is part of the festivities.
- 2 December: Lao National Day. Celebrating the victory of the proletariat in 1975.
Hot spots and itineraries
Popular destinations include Luang Prabang, Vientiane, the Plain of Jars, and Pakse. There are two World Heritage Sites: Luang Prabang town and the Vat Phou Champasak temple complex.
Some itinerary ideas
- The North: Vientiane – Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang – Plain of Jars
- The South: Vientiane – Savannakhet – Pakse – Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands)
Staying safe and healthy
- Unexploded mines and ordnance are a hazard in Laos, and kill around 300 people each year. Don’t stray off main routes in rural areas, and don’t pick up metal objects.
- Water-borne, food-borne and other infectious diseases are common, and serious outbreaks occur from time to time. Wash hands often, wash food when possible and drink bottled water.
- Always check for the latest COVID-19 updates and restrictions.
While you’re there, please don’t…
- … forget the deodorant. Personal cleanliness is valued highly in Laos; anyone with strong body odour will not make themselves popular.
- … show too much skin. Laotians dress conservatively and will swim in rivers and waterfalls with at least shorts and a T-shirt on.
- … disrespect the monks. The morning alms-giving in Luang Prabang is popular, but be respectful. Don’t use flash photography, and avoid levelling your head higher than the monks’ heads.
- … haggle too hard. Remember, what’s 50c for you is much more for them.
Before you go, read …
- Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos by Outhine Bounyavong – short stories by arguably the most famous contemporary writer in Laos.
- The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan – the personal tale of a year-long journey along the nearly 3,000 miles of the Mekong River, from Tibet to the South China Sea.
Before you go, watch …
- The Betrayal – Nerakhoon. Academy Award-nominated documentary about a Laotian family’s struggles to assimilate into American life.
- The Long Walk – 2019 horror/time-travel film by Laotian American director Mattie Do; this is her third film set in Laos to date.
They said it
“The progress that Laos has made is quite momentous.” – Antonio Maria Costa, former UN Under-Secretary-General
“… this tamarind tree was near a road, so it belonged to everybody. We should all share it, not destroy it. It enriched our lives and our happiness. Wherever there was a tree, there was happiness.” – Outhine Bounyavong, Laotian writer
“If you like things easy, you’ll have difficulties; if you like problems, you’ll succeed.” – Laotian proverb
Do I need a visa?
Yes, most visitors need a visa to visit Laos. Visas can be obtained on arrival at major points of entry and are valid for 30 days. You’ll need two passport-size photographs (in fact, it’s a good tip to carry a couple of these to any country you visit), a passport valid for at least six months, and US dollars to pay the fee. For more info, or to arrange your visa before you go, visit the Laos Embassy in Singapore.
How long will it take me to get there?
Three hours from Singapore. Laos is 7 hours ahead of GMT and 1 hour behind Singapore.
What’s the money situation?
The official national currency in Laos is the Lao kip (LAK), although US dollars and Thai baht are also generally accepted. Try to ensure that you have sufficient kip if you’re heading out of the larger towns. You’re likely to find ATMs in all major towns in Laos, but note that the majority will allow only a maximum of 2,000,000 kip (US$250) per withdrawal. Only big hotels and higher end shops and restaurants in Luang Prabang will accept credit cards, usually for a small charge.
When’s the best time to visit?
December and January are considered the best time to travel, but November through March is also recommended. The dry, hot season is from March through May, followed by the rainy season from May through October. September is generally the rainiest month of the year.
What’s the lingo?
Lao. French and English are spoken in larger cities and tourist spots. Here are some phrases to get you started:
- Hello: Sa bai dee
- What is your name? Jâo seu nyãng?
- My name is __: Kháwy seu __
- How much? Anh nee thao dai?
- Thank you: Khawp jai
- Yes: Jâo
- I don’t understand: Koi boh kow jai
Last but not least
Is there anything I should know about meeting the locals?
Place your hands together just below your chin and dip your head at the same time in a slight bow saying “Sa bai dee”.
What’s a must-try dish?
Laap (larb), a salad with a meat base, flavoured with lime, garlic, fish sauce, mint leaves, spring onion and ground toasted rice. A vegetarian version is also an option, with a base of mushroom or tofu.
What should I buy as a souvenir?
Laos silk and other traditional textiles; organic bath and body products; Lao coffee.
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