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Laos

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Southeast Asia : Laos
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[[File:noframe|250px|frameless|Laos]]
Location
[[File:noframe|250px|frameless]]
Flag
[[File:La-flag.png|108px|frameless]]
Quick Facts
Capital Vientiane
Government Communist state
Currency Kip (LAK)
Area total: 236,800 km2
water: 6,000 km2
land: 230,800 km2
Population 6,521,998 (July 2007 est.)
Language Lao (official), French, English, and various ethnic languages
Religion Buddhist 60%, animist and other 40% (including various Christian denominations 1.5%)
Electricity 220V/50Hz (European & US plugs)
Country code +856
Internet TLD .la
Time Zone UTC +7

Laos [1], formally known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is one of the poorest nations in South-East Asia. A mountainous and landlocked country, Laos shares borders with Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar and China to the north.

Understand

Thailand promotes itself as amazing, Vietnam can well be described as bustling, Cambodia's Khmer temples are awe-inspiring, Myanmar's junta is barbaric... but the adjective most often applied to Laos is forgotten. Although there are a few grand (but relatively unheard of) attractions, those visitors who are drawn by the laid-back lifestyle and the opportunity to knock back a few cold Beerlao while watching the sunsets on the Mekong will simply explain the attraction by revealing that the true meaning of "Lao PDR" is Lao - Please Don't Rush.

History

Laos is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours. First created as an entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lane Xang ("Million Elephants"), the kingdom was initially a Khmer vassal state. After a succession dispute, the kingdom split in three in 1694 and was eventually devoured piece by piece by the Siamese, the last fragments agreeing to Siamese protection in 1885.

The area east of the Mekong, however, was soon wrenched back from Siam by the French, who wanted a buffer state to protect Vietnam, and set up Laos as a unified territory in 1907. Briefly occupied by Japan in 1945, a three-decade-long conflict was triggered when France wanted to retake its colony. Granted full independence in 1953, the war continued between a bewildering variety of factions, with the Communist and North Vietnam-allied Pathet Lao struggling to overthrow the French-leaning monarchy. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), this alliance led the United States to dump 1.9 million metric tons of bombs on Laos, mostly in the northeast stronghold of the Pathet Lao (for purposes of comparison, 2.2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Europe by all sides in World War II and unexploded ordinance still kills at least 1 person and 4 cows a day up there).

In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and admission into ASEAN in 1997.

Despite being just one hour by air from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos has continued in much the same way it has for hundreds of years, although things are now slowly beginning to change. In the mid-90s the government reversed its stance on tourism, and then declared 1998 "Visit Laos Year" - but despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer, monks still outnumbered tourists throughout the country. This is now rapidly changing, with tourist numbers rising every year. Indeed, Vientiane is a laid-back, yet charmingly cosmopolitan village.

Culture

Pha That Luang, Vientiane - the national symbol of Laos

Despite its small population, Laos has no less than 49 officially recognized ethnic groups. About half of the population are Lao Loum, "lowland Lao" who live in the river plains. Officially, this group includes the Lao Tai, who are subdivided into numerous subgroups. The Lao Theung (20-30%), or "upland Lao", live on mid-altitude slopes (officially defined as 300-900m), and are by far the poorest group, formerly used as slave labor by the Lao Loum. The label Lao Sung (10-20%) covers mostly Hmong peoples who live higher up. In today's egalitarian People's Republic, this caste division has been formally abolished, but it still persists in real life. There are also an estimated 2-5% Chinese and Vietnamese, concentrated in the cities.

Laos is officially Buddhist, and the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang, has replaced the hammer and sickle even on the state seal. Still, there is a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci (also baasi) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participant's body before a long journey, after serious illness, the birth of a baby or other significant events.

Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long sarong available in many regional patterns, however many ethnic minorities have their own clothing styles. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a common sight. These days men dress Western style and only don the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays women often wear western-style clothing, though the "phaa sin" is still the mandatory attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also for Lao women just visiting).

Climate

Laos has three distinct seasons. The hot season is from March to May, when temperatures can soar as high as 40°C. The slightly cooler wet season is from May to October, when temperatures are around 30°C, tropical downpours are frequent (especially July-August), and some years the Mekong floods.

The dry season from November to March, which has low rainfall and temperatures as low as 15°C (or even to zero in the mountains at night), is "high season" (when the most tourists are in the country). However, towards the end of the dry season, the northern parts of Laos — basically everything north of Luang Prabang — can become very hazy due to farmers burning fields and fires in the forests.

Regions

Map of Laos with regions colour-coded
Northern Laos (Huay Xai, Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Muang Xay, Pakbeng, Ban Nalan trail, Nong Khiaw,)
hilltribe villages, mountains and the remarkably charming former capital
Central Laos (Vientiane, Tha Khaek, Plain of Jars, Vang Vieng, Vieng Xai, Tham Nong Pafa Cave)
south-east Asia's sleepiest capital city and rural countryside
Southern Laos (Champasak, Pakse, Savannakhet, Si Phan Don.)
the Mekong flatlands, more mountains and the area least visited by tourists

Cities

  • Vientiane - the still sleepy capital on the banks of the Mekong River
  • Huay Xai - in the north, on the Mekong and the border with Thailand
  • Luang Prabang - a UNESCO World Heritage City known for its numerous temples, colonial era architecture, and vibrant night market.
  • Luang Namtha - capital of the north, known for its trekking.
  • Muang Xay - also known as Oudomxay, the capital of the multiethnic province of Oudomxay.
  • Pakbeng - halfway point on the overnight slow boat between Huay Xai & Luang Prabang
  • Pakse - gateway to the Wat Phu ruins and the "four thousand islands" (Si Phan Don)
  • Savannakhet - in the south on the Mekong, connected by bridge to Mukdahan, Thailand
  • Tha Khaek - south-east of Vientiane on the banks of the Mekong, a popular base for exploring the Phou Hin Boun National Park including the famous Konglor Cave.

Other destinations

  • Ban Nalan trail - a 2 days ecotourism trekking in the north of Laos.
  • Champasak - Angkor-style Khmer temples, a World Heritage Site
  • Nong Khiaw- North of Luang Prabang by 4 hour bus ride or 6 hour slow boat ride, this area is between beautiful Karst cliffs where you can discover hilltribe villages, kayak, bike ride, hang out in town or take a boat to the backpacker destination of Muang Ngoi
  • Plain of Jars - just what the name says, but nobody knows what they are or why they are there
  • Si Phan Don - the "four thousand islands" are nestled within the Mekong near the Cambodian border
  • Vang Vieng - backpacker hangout for spelunking in limestone caves and tubing on the Nam Song river
  • Vieng Xai - Remote cultural oasis and symbolic cradle of Marxism. See the caves where the Pathet Lao Leaders ran their opperations in defiance of the West.
  • Tham Nong Pafa Cave - a cave discovered in Khammouan Province in 2004; as many as 200 Buddha statues of all sizes have been found inside

Get in

Lao or Laos?
The people call themselves Lao and the language is Lao, so where did that "s" come from? The answer seems to be a mistranslation from French: somebody read royaume des Laos ("kingdom of the Lao people") as royaume de Laos ("kingdom of Laos"), and the name stuck. The politically correct form of the name, however, is Lao PDR and, should you have any incoming mail, using it will increase the odds of it passing the censors.


Most ASEAN nationalities as well as a few others like Russians, Japanese and Swiss can enter Laos "visa free" [2]; all other tourists need a visa in the form of a tourist visa (for one or possibly two months) issued by a Lao embassy or consulate. A visa on arrival is also available to most people entering at the airports in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, as well as the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge between Udon Thani in Thailand and Vientiane. When applying for a tourist visa or to obtain a visa on arrival, one passport photo is required.

Prices range from US$30 to US$42 depending on nationality - Australians pay $30, Canadians US$42, Chileans US$30, Belgians US$30, British, Dutch US$35, Swedes US$31.

Visas can be obtained in advance from Lao embassies/consulates. The fee varies by nationality/embassy; US$20 is common. Processing times also vary; 2-3 days is typical, though you may be able to pay an extra small amount to receive the visa in as little as one hour. In Phnom Penh the travel agencies can arrange the visa the same day (but may charge as much as US$58) while getting it from the embassy takes a few days. Getting a visa from the embassy in Bangkok costs around 1400B for most nationalities, plus 200B more for "same day" processing. It's cheaper and quicker to get one at the border.

There are Visa-on-Arrival facilities at the international airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, and at all border crossings with the exception when entering overland from Cambodia. The cost varies between US$30 and $42 (if paid with US$ notes; paying with Thai baht will cost considerably more and border officials will not accept Lao kip at all). A US$1 "out of office hours" surcharge, and a small (possibly 10 baht) entry stamp fee, might also be charged.

Entry permit extensions (sometimes referred to as "visa extensions") are available from the Immigration Department in Vientiane (US$2 per day) and via agencies elsewhere in Laos (who will courier your passport to Vientiane and back again, around US$3 per day minimum of 7 days).

By plane

The international airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang are served by national carrier Lao Airlines [3] and a few others, including Thai Airways [4], Bangkok Airways [5] (Luang Prabang only) and Vietnam Airlines [6]. Some seats on flights of Vietnam Airlines are reserved for Lao Airlines (codesharing / better price). Pakse is the third international airport, with flights to/from Siem Reap (Vientiane - Pakse - Siem Reap by Lao Airlines).

Laos used to be off-limits to low-cost carriers, however Air Asia now flies to Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur three times a week. Another cheap option for getting to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani in Thailand with discount airlines Nok Air or Air Asia and connect to Nong Khai and the Friendship Bridge via shuttle service directly from the airport (40 minutes); from here Vientiane is just 17 km away.

By train

The long-awaited first link across the Mekong from the Thai town of Nong Khai to Tha Naleng near Vientiane finally opened in 2009. There are two shuttle services per direction per day, with one timed to connect to the night trains to/from Bangkok. Visa on arrival is available when crossing the border by train.

By land

Most border crossings open for foreigners, with an indication where visas on arrival can be issued, are listed on the web site of the National Tourism Administration [7]. This list is unfortunately incomplete.

Cambodia:

Visa on arrival for Laos is currently not available when entering from Cambodia overland, however it is possible to get a Cambodian VOA when travelling in the opposite direction. The nearest Cambodian town is Stung Treng, and the border is a 90-minute speedboat ride away. Note that the border is lightly used and both Customs officers and transport providers have a reputation of gouging foreigners.

China:

The land crossing between Mengla (Yunnan) and Boten (Laos) is open to foreigners and visa on arrival is possible (or you can get in advance at the Lao consulate in Kunming). Daily bus service operates from Mengla to Luang Namtha and Udomxai.

Generally speaking, it is not possible for independent travellers to cross from China to Laos via the Mekong River, not least because there's a chunk of Myanmar in the middle and the Lao checkpoint at Xieng Kok does not issue visas on arrival. Travel agents in China, including Panda Travel [8], run irregular cruises from Jinghong (China) via Chiang Saen (Thailand) to Huay Xai (Laos), but schedules are erratic and prices expensive.

Myanmar:

Foreigners cannot legally cross the Laos/Myanmar border.

Thailand:

There are seven border crossings open to all between Thailand and Laos. From north to south:

Vietnam:

There are at least six border crossings that can be used by foreigners. These include:

  • Donsavanh - Lao Bao - to/from Savannakhet
  • Keo Nua Pass
  • Lak Sao - to/from Khammouan Province
  • Nam Can - to/from Plain of Jars
  • Na Meo - to/from Sam Neua
  • Tay Trang - to/from Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw
  • Bo Y (nearest town on Vietnamese side being Ngoc Hoi and on Lao side Attapeu)

Get around

Huay Xai seen from the Mekong

Being in transit by air, road or river in Laos can be as rewarding as the destination itself - but allow plenty of leeway in your schedule for the near-inevitable delays, cancellations and breakdowns.

By plane

State carrier Lao Airlines [9] has a near-monopoly on domestic flights, a dodgy safety history, and a horrible on-time record (in part caused by difficult weather conditions especially in the mountainous north) - but improvements are being made, with French ATR-72s slowly replacing the aging Soviet and Chinese fleet. The fairly comprehensive network is by far the fastest (and, relatively speaking, the safest) way of reaching many parts of the country. As of 2009, the popular Vientiane-Luang Prabang route costs US$78 (one-way full fare for foreigners), but covers in 40 minutes what would take you at least six to eight hours by speedboat or bus, and is usually operated with ATR-72s. Flights to more remote destinations, though, are flown on the Xian MA60, a Chinese knockoff of the Soviet An-24, and are frequently canceled without warning if the weather is bad or not enough passengers show up.

The second Lao airline is Lao Air [10], which flies 14-passenger Cessnas from Vientiane to Phongsali, Sam Neua and Sainyabuli (Xayabouly) several times a week. These airfields are all rudimentary and flights are cancelled at the drop of a hat if weather is less than perfect.

By road

VIP, minibus or car?
Minibuses are quicker and more expensive, however that doesn't mean they are necessarily better. A typical VIP Bus is just an old bus by Western standards, and may be more prone to breakdowns, but they usually have more leg room which can make a long journey much more comfortable. Both types are usually air conditioned.

Even more expensive, but certainly the most convenient, is a rented car with driver. A car with a driver will cost around $95 USD per day. Some can even drive over the border to Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam. The cars can be arranged at tour agencies, tourist hotels and car rental companies. The cars are new, so they're reliable. They have the bonus of your being able to stop the car at any time for photos, nosing around a village or just stretching your legs.


The highways in Laos have improved in the past ten years, but the fact that 80% remain unpaved is a telling statistic. Still, the main routes connecting Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet are now sealed, and the transport options on these roads include bus, minibus, and converted truck.

Some common routes through Laos include:

  • Luang Prabang to Phonsavan - minibus: cramped, so arrive early to get good seats as near the front as possible; beautiful views so secure a window seat if possible.
  • Phonsavan to Sam Neua - converted pickup truck: beautiful views but lots of hills and bends, hence possible nausea
  • Sam Neua to Muang Ngoi - converted Soviet truck: a 2 day trip along a horrible road; good views and a necessary evil, but fun if you're prepared to get a few knocks and talk to some Lao people who are, after all, in the same boat
  • Muang Ngoi to Luang Namtha - converted pickup truck: takes two days due to road conditions, with overnight accommodation possible at Muang Xay (Oudomxay); all right road, much travelled by backpackers
  • Luang Namtha to Huay Xai - road only passable in the dry season, but the same journey can be made by boat in the rainy season. China builds a new road to Thailand. The road from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai is part of this road and it is a very good road.
  • Paksan to Phonsavan - there is a new road between Borikham and Tha Thom. In Tha Thom there is a guesthouse with 8 rooms. The forest between Borikham and Tha Thom is still in a very good condition (but it's a dirt road). Since most of the forest in Laos has gone this is one of the last roads surrounded by primary forest. If you travel by motorbike this is a must go! And tell it to everybody - if no tourists go there the forest will be burned or sold. There are substantial road works being undertaken by the Vietnamese between Paksan and Phonsavan and there can be some fairly long delays along the way. Even though the trip is only a couple of hundred kilometers it can take 16-20 hrs to traverse this section.
Jumbo in Vientiane

A common form of local transport (less than 20 km) in Laos is the jumbo, a motorized three-wheeler mostly referred to as a tuk-tuk like in Thailand, although jumbos are somewhat larger. These are also known as taxis and, more amusingly, skylabs - after a perceived resemblance to a space capsule (clearly a warning sign of the dangers of excessive opium smoking). A jumbo should cost no more than 10,000 kip (about US$1) for short journeys of 1-5 km.

By boat

Boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are useful shortcuts for the horrible roads, although as the road network improves river services are slowly drying up, and many of the remaining services only run in the wet season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable. Huay Xai (on the border with Thailand) to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are the main routes still in use.

There are so-called slow boats and speedboats - the latter being tiny lightweight craft equipped with powerful motors that literally skid across the water at high speeds.

By slow boat

Many people go from Chiang Khong in Thailand via the border town of Houai Xai downstream the Mekong to the marvelous city (if you can call a 16000 capita place a city) of Luang Prabang. The ride takes basically two days and is very scenic. Apart from that, it is a floating backpacker ghetto with no (good) food sold, so bring some, cramped and considerably hot. It's your choice, but one of my fellow travellers remarked the second day 'no-one looks happy on this boat any more...' Be sure to bring a good (long) read, something soft for the wooden benches and your best patience.

By speedboat

Speedboat barreling down the Mekong

An attractive choice for some, with a 6 hour ride from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, as compared to the two-day trip on the slow boat, but not for the faint of heart. Expect to be crammed into a modified canoe made for 4, with 10 other people, along with all the luggage somehow packed in. Expect to sit on the floor of the canoe, as there are no seats, with your knees against your chin for the full 6 hours. Expect an incredibly loud engine inches behind your head. Expect the engine to break a few times, and stops for delays to fix it. That being said, when this ride finally ends, if you make it with no trouble, you will never be happier to get to Luang Prabang. Stories of small, overloaded speedboats sinking or hitting driftwood are common, but if you are a good swimmer, take comfort in the fact that you can see both shores throughout the entire trip. So, as you see, choosing between the slow boat and the speedboat is a hard call, based mostly upon your comfort level; would you prefer a slow unpleasant trip, or a much faster, but more dangerous unpleasant trip. Either way, the scenery along the way is gorgeous and unexploited, and Luang Prabang is an incredible city, worth a thousand of these journeys.

Speedboat warning

January 1, 2007: There are unconfirmed reports that as of January 1, 2007, the Lao Government has banned the use of speedboats due to environmental concerns. Relying on speedboats for travel may not be an option, and further information should be investigated. However, in early December 2007 speedboats were still cruising the Mekong, operating the Vientiane-Paklay-Vientiane route on five days/week and the Luang Prabang-Huay Xai route.

Though helpful in saving time, speedboats are not without danger: built to carry 8 passengers, they are often overloaded; the engine noise is well above a healthy level, which could be a serious hazard to your ears, especially if you are on the boat for a long time (as well as causing considerable noise pollution, scaring wildlife and spoiling the peaceful river life); and fatalities resulting from capsize due to incautious maneuvering, or hitting floating logs or hidden rocks, have been reported (and exaggerated by competing slow boat owners, some say...) However, the vast majority of speedboat users have no serious problems. If you are taller than the average Laotian (many are), are a bit claustrophobic and/or have inflexible leg muscles you are guaranteed an extremely uncomfortable experience for several endless hours.

Suggestions for those who decide to take the risk:

  • get one of the front seats as they allow you to stretch your legs and are far from the noisy motor
  • wear helmets and life jackets; reconsider your journey if these are not provided
  • bring a coat in the cold season, the strong wind can make you feel cold even at temperatures of 25C.
  • bring earplugs
  • protect water-sensitive equipment (you might get wet)

By motorcycle

Motorcycle travel in Laos is not without risks but the rewards of truly independent travel are great. There are several rental shops in Vientiane only and bike rentals in other parts of the country are few. Quality of machines varies from shop to shop so you need to fully inspect your new friend before you head out on the road. There are many good roads and many paved ones and touring Laos is done easily. Most bikes in Laos are Honda Baja or XR 250 dual purpose bikes and anything else is usually mechanically questionable. Helmets are not only mandatory in the country but a valuable item in a place where traffic rules are made up by the minute.

There is an operator in Laos that offers not only bike rentals but full support and tour guidance for self drive trips, Remote Asia Travel based in Vientiane. [11]

By bicycle

Cycling is a great option with quiet roads. Laos offers wonderful remote areas to discover, very little traveled roads, friendly people and even some companies providing cycling tours with the help of professional guides all over the country. The more time people seem to spent in Laos the more they seem to like the quiet travel mood and the opportunity to actually be in contact with the people along the way. Good maps are available about the roads in Laos and all major routes are with good roads. In normal distances you find simple guest houses and in all major towns better choices and restaurant. Food is not a problem as long as you remember to carry some stuff with you. Tropical fruits and noodle soup is one of the standards. There are two local operators running a wide selection of guided mountain biking tours through Laos:

  • "Biking-Laos.com based in Luang Prabang" [12]
  • "Greendiscovery" operating from Vientiane and Luang Prabang [13]

A thing to note if you travel on your own...there are very few proper bike shops outside of Vientiane but also for bikes with 28 inches wheels you would have a hard time. Bring your equipment with you and make sure you get contact details to a supplier maybe from Thailand (Chiang Mai or Bangkok)

Some may prefer the speed of a motorbike, note that some roads are still not brilliant condition for a scooter due to the poor balance of those chinese imports.

Talk

Lao script

       See also: Lao phrasebook

The official language of Laos is Lao, a tonal language closely related to Thai. Thanks to ubiquitous Thai broadcast media most Lao understand Thai fairly well, but it's worth learning a few basic expressions in Lao. French, a legacy of the colonial days, still features on signs and is understood by some older people, but these days English is far more popular.

There are two main ways to turn the Lao script into the Latin alphabet: either French-style spellings like Houeisay, or English-style spellings like Huay Xai. While government documents seem to prefer the French style, the English spellings are becoming more and more common and are (naturally) easier for English speakers to read, so they're used on Wikitravel as well. Two quick pronunciation tips: Vientiane is actually pronounced "Wieng Chan", and the letter x is always read as a plain old "s".

See

Do

Trek

Trekking in mountainous northern Laos is quite popular. The main hub for this is Luang Namtha. A new trekking spot is Oudomxay, just south of Luang Namtha.

Bathe

One Laotian experience definitely worth trying is the herbal sauna. Often (but not always) run by temples, these are simple-looking affairs, often just a rickety bamboo shack with a stove and a pipe of water on one side, usually open only in the evenings. The procedure for a visit usually goes like this:

  1. Enter and pay first. The going rate is around 10,000 kip, plus around the same if you want a massage afterward.
  2. Head for the changing room, take off your clothes and wrap yourself up in a sarong (usually provided).
  3. Keeping yourself modestly sarong-clad, head over to the shower or water bucket in one corner and wash up.
  4. Plunge into the sauna room itself. It will be dark, hot and steamy inside, with intense herbal scents of lemongrass and whatever the sauna master is cooking up that day, and you will soon start to sweat profusely.
  5. When you've had your fill, head outside, sip on a little weak tea and marvel at how the tropical heat of the day now feels cool and refreshing.
  6. Repeat at will.

Buy

The Lao currency is the kip, which is inconvertible (outside Laos), unstable and generally inflationary. As of March 2009, there are around 8500 kip to the dollar and 13,500 kip to the euro. Make sure that you get rid of all your kip before you leave the country, since there will be no possibility to exchange it in other countries. The Vientiane airport for example will exchange your kip into dollars.

The largest bill is only 50000 kip, the other notes in common circulation are 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 kip; withdrawing the maximum of 700,000 kip from an ATM (about US$70) could result in 70 notes of 10000 kip each. This makes carrying large quantities of kip quite inconvenient. Fortunately, there is little need to do so, as US$ are generally accepted (although typically at somewhat disadvantageous rates - about 5-10% less than the official rate is common), and Thai baht are also readily accepted in many areas near the border, notably Vientiane. For short visits to the main centers there's little point in exchanging kip, as changing them back is a hassle in Laos and impossible elsewhere. Beware though, that in remote places only kip is accepted and no ATM's will be available, so plan ahead.

More touristy places and banks are also starting to accept euro. So if you're from one of the euro countries, just bring some just in case. This could be cheaper than changing your euros into US$ or baht and then into kip.

There are now quite a few ATMs in Vientiane, and they have also appeared in other major cities including Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Savannekhet, Tha Khaek, Pakse and Luang Namtha. BCEL [14], the largest bank, accepts both Visa/Cirrus and MasterCard/Maestro, but surcharges of US$1-2 apply. Don't rely on ATMs outside Vientiane, since they're still rare and often unreliable — but if it doesn't work the first time, keep trying every few hours (they tend to get emptied in the course of the day, due to the huge numbers of notes withdrawn).

Many banks, travel agents and guest houses will allow you to take out cash from a credit card as a cash advance. This usually occurs by withdrawing the money in US$ from the card as a cash advance; the card issuer will usually charge a fee (about 3%), the Lao bank involved will charge about 3%, and then the agent providing the cash advance might (or might not) charge another 3%, and then the amount is converted from US$ to kip at a poor rate to the US$, costing another 5% or so - hence, overall, these transactions are much more expensive than the typical charge for withdrawing cash from ATMs in other countries. However, as for example euros get pretty bad rates compared to US$ when exchanged in Laos, getting a cash advance in US$ and changing it to kips might actually save money compared to bringing euros with you to Laos. Expats living in Vientiane routinely get cash from ATMs in Nong Khai or Udon Thani (Thailand), where the maximum per transaction is mostly 20000 baht, or ten times what you'll get in Laos.

The use of both ATM's and credit cards in banks is subject to computer functionality, staff's computer skills, power cuts, telephone network breakdowns, National Day, etc etc. A few travellers have been forced out of the country prematurely as they couldn't withdraw funds to further their travels. Always bring cash as well. Changing money can be next to impossible outside major towns.

Banks give good rates, but seem to abide in morbid fear that a tourist might stumble upon them and change money. To avoid this unpleasant eventuality, they ensure that the banking hours are very restricted and that both Laos and European holidays are fully observed, with generous buffer days between the official holiday and resuming work.

Many shops start an hour's lunch break at noon, and some maintain the (now abolished) official French two-hour break. Nearly everything is closed on Sundays, except restaurants and many shops.

Costs

US$20 a day is a good rule of thumb, though it's possible to get by on less than US$10. A basic room with shared bathroom can be as little as US$2 in Vang Vieng or as much as US$8 in Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Meals are usually under US$5 for even the most elaborate Lao, Thai or Vietnamese dishes (western food is more expensive), and plain local dishes can cost less than US$1. A local bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng costs US$2.50; the slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai costs US$20 for both days.

What to buy

Typical Lao dresses in cheap machine-made fabric can be made to order. Expect to pay around US$5 for the fabric and US$2 for labour. Handmade Lao silk is one of the most attractive things to buy. The Talat Sao (Morning Market) in Vientiane has dozens of small shops selling 100% handmade silk scarves or wall hangings from US$5 upwards depending on quality, intricacy of design and size. Beware cheap synthetic fabrics sold as 'silk' imported from China and Vietnam. Be careful also of 'antique' silk. There is very little left but new fabric can be made to look old and worn. Still attractive, but don't pay more than US$30-50. In markets, always bargain: it is expected, but keep smiling...

Eat

Clockwise from top right: Tam maak hung papaya salad, sticky rice in a tip khao basket and fresh lettuce leaves
Minty, chilli-laden goodness: laap neua beef salad

Lao cuisine is very similar to the food eaten in the north-eastern Isaan region of Thailand: being very spicy, more often bitter than sweet, and using lots of fresh herbs and vegetables served raw. The staple here is sticky rice (ເຂົ້າໜຽວ khao niaow), eaten by hand from small baskets called tip khao. Using your right hand, pinch off a bit, roll into a ball, dip and munch away.

The national dish is laap (ລາບ, also larb), a "salad" of minced meat mixed with herbs, spices, lime juice and, more often than not, blistering amounts of chili. Unlike Thai larb, the Lao version can use raw meat (dip) instead of cooked meat (suk), and if prepared with seafood makes a tasty if spicy carpaccio.

Another favourite is tam maak hung (ຕໍາຫມາກຫຸ່ງ), the spicy green papaya salad known as som tam in Thailand, but which the Lao like to dress with fermented crab (ປູດອງ pudem) and a chunky, intense fish sauce called pa daek (ປາແດກ), resulting in a stronger flavor than the milder, sweeter Thai style. Other popular dishes include ping kai, spicy grilled chicken, and mok pa, fish steamed in a banana leaf.

In addition to purely Lao food, culinary imports from other countries are common. Khao jii pat-te, French baguettes stuffed with pâté, and foe (pho) noodles from Vietnam are both ubiquitous snacks particularly popular at breakfast. Note that foe can refer both to thin rice noodles (Vietnamese pho) as well as the wide flat noodles that would be called kuay tiow in Thailand.

Drink

Sunset and Beerlao by the Mekong, Vientiane
Light and dark versions of Beerlao

The national drink of Laos is the ubiquitous and tasty Beerlao, made with Laotian jasmine rice and one of the few Lao exports.It maintains an almost mythical status amongst travellers and world beer afficionados. The yellow logo with its tiger-head silhouette can be seen everywhere, and a large 640 ml bottle shouldn't cost more than 12,000 to 15,000 kip in restaurants. It's available in three versions: original (5%), Dark (6.5%) and Light (2.9%). The brewery claims they have 99% market share, yet you can get Carlsberg (from the same brewery) and Heineken (imported from Thailand) - but why would you?

Rice liquor, known as lao-lao, is widely available and at less than US$0.30 per 750 ml bottle is the cheapest way to get hammered.

Lao coffee (kaafeh) is widely reckoned to be amongst the best in the world. It's grown on the Bolaven Plateau in the south; the best brand is Lao Mountain Coffee. Unlike Thai coffees, Lao coffee is not adulterated with ground tamarind seed. To make sure you aren't fed overpriced Nescafé instead, be sure to ask for kaafeh thung. By default in lower end establishments, kaafeh lao comes with sugar and condensed milk; black coffee is kaafeh dam, coffee with milk (often, however, you'll get non-dairy creamer) is kaafeh nom.

Tap water is not drinkable, but bottled water is cheap and widely available.

There is not much nightlife outside of Vientiane and Vang Vieng. To have a beer in some places, simply visit a restaurant.

Sleep

Accommodation options outside the Mekong Valley's main tourist spots are limited to basic hotels and guest houses, but there are many budget and mid-price hotels and guest houses and quite a few fancy hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

Work

Lao work permits are difficult to obtain, unless you can secure employment with one of the numerous NGOs. English teaching is possible but poorly paid (US$5-8/hour).

Stay safe

Crime levels are low in Laos, although petty theft (bag snatching) is not unknown and seems to be on the rise. Whilst it is highly unlikely to affect most travellers, Laos has some of the world's highest corruption levels, and is a big factor in many citizens' lives.

Lao judicial processes remain arbitrary and, while you are unlikely to be hassled, if accused your legal rights may be slim or non-existent. Three points in particular to beware of:

  • Sexual relations between a Lao national and a foreigner are illegal unless they are married, and marriage requires special permits. Lao hotels are not permitted to allow a foreigner and Lao national in the same hotel room together. "Number One" condoms are available for 1000-5000 kip for a pack of 3. These are probably the cheapest condoms in the world (and their quality seems to be ok).
  • Drugs are a large problem in Laos and should be avoided at all costs. Lao law makes little distinction between personal use and trafficking and any conviction will result in heavy fines and expulsion at best, and imprisonment or even execution at worst. Methamphetamine is widespread and often offered in "special" or "happy" shakes along the backpacker trail.
  • Any criticism of the Lao government or the Communist Party in any way, shape or form is unwise.

Laos is the most bombed country in history and hundreds of people are maimed or killed by landmines or unexploded ordinance left over from the Vietnam war every year. Almost all of these occur in the eastern and northern parts of the country, especially near the border with Vietnam. Never enter into areas marked as minefields and travel only on paved roads and well-worn paths. If you are unsure of what areas are and aren't safe to enter, ask the locals.

One other note of caution: there has been some violence between Hmong rebel groups in the north and in central Laos and government forces. This low-level insurgency has been brewing for years, and has been very sporadic. The main areas affected have been on Highway 13 (which runs from Luang Prabang to Cambodia, passing through Pakse and Vientiane). The last reported case was in 2003 around Kasi. Attacks have been on regular buses, not tourist buses. VIP and minibuses passing through these areas typically used to travel with an armed guard (with a machine gun!). As of October/November 2007 this wasn't the case anymore. Between 2003 and 2006 the primary forest in this area has disappeared - hiding would be difficult for snipers now.

Stay healthy

Laos is considered very malarial so anti-malarials are recommended, but check with health professionals: there is a high incidence of drug-resistant parasites in these parts. Other mosquito-born diseases, such as dengue, can be life-threatening, so make sure you bring at least 25% DEET insect repellant and ensure that you sleep with mosquito protection like nets or at least a fan. Vientiane seems to be malaria- but not dengue-free.

The usual precautions regarding food and water are wise. Bottled water is widely available.

Respect

Dress respectfully (long trousers, sleeved shirts) when visiting temples and take your shoes off before entering temple buildings and private houses.

As with other Buddhist countries, showing the soles of your feet is very poor manners. Never touch any person on the head. Despite prevelant cheap alcohol, being drunk is considered disrespectful and a loss of face.

Things in Laos happen slowly and rarely as scheduled. Keep your cool, as the natives will find humor in any tourist showing anger. They will remain calm, and venting your anger will make everybody involved lose face and is certainly not going to expedite things, particularly if dealing with government bureaucracy.

Respect for monks is part of Laotian life, and the monks take their duties seriously. Remember that monks are forbidden to touch women. Some undertake a vow of silence, and will not answer you even if they can understand and speak English. It is best not to compel them to stand next to you for a photograph, or start a conversation, if they seem reluctant.

Contact

Internet cafés can be found in larger towns, however access speeds are usually painfully slow. The most reliable connections are in Vientiane, and usually cost around 100 kip/minute, with the cheapest offering 4000 kip/hour. GPRS via mobile phone is also an option, if you have a local or Thai SIM.

Mobile phone connectivity in Laos has mushroomed, with no less than four competing GSM operators. Two of these offer roaming sevices.

  • Laotel [15] has agreements with some 30 international networks - see roaming with Laotel [16]. Their M-Phone prepaid service seems to be particularly popular among locals, at least in Vientiane.
  • Tigo [17] has agreements with over 100 International phone networks - see roaming with Tigo [18]. Another popular choice, they also have low-cost international rate of 2000 kip/minute to many countries, if you buy their SIM card and dial "177" instead of "+". However, as of February 2009, Tigo's coverage is still said to be poor away from larger towns.
  • ETL Mobile [19] is known to have better coverage in rural and remote parts of Laos. However, in Laos "better" certainly does not mean "everywhere". They seem to have low-cost international call service too. [20]

Local prepaid SIM cards can be purchased in various shops and stores without any paperwork (at least for M-Phone and Tigo).

Also, there is Thai GSM coverage close to Thai border (including significant part of Vientiane), and Thai SIM cards and top-up cards can be bought in Laos; in addition, DeeDial International Call Cards are available. Thus, if you already have Thai number, you can use (generally cheaper) Thai network and/or avoid buying one more SIM. However, beware - if your Thai SIM has International Roaming switched on, your phone will use Lao network when your Thai network is not available, and the roaming charges will be significantly higher.

Postal service in Laos is slow and not particularly reliable, although outgoing mail is usually OK. As of January 2006, sending a postcard to most of the world outside Asia costs 7000 kip.



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