Laos, formally 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.
Thailand promotes itself as amazing, Vietnam can well be described as bustling, Cambodia's Khmer temples are awe-inspiring, Myanmar's junta is often described as brutal... but the adjective most often applied to Laos is forgotten. The Lao National Tourism Administration uses the epithet "Jewel of the Mekong". 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.
Laos is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours. First created as an entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lan 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 in what was later known as the Secret War.
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 westernized 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.
Despite its small population, Laos has no less than 68 tribal 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 and Mien tribes who live higher up. 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, patterned skirt, although tribal groups often have their own clothing. 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).
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, 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).
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. Meals are usually under US$5 for even the most elaborate dishes, 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.
Lao nowadays issues 30-day visa-on-arrival at official border crossings. Prices range from US$30 to US$42 depending on nationality - Canadians pay US$42, Belgians US$30, Dutch US$35.
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, or less (possibly same day, depending where and when you apply) if you're prepared to pay extra. 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.
There are Visa-on-Arrival facilities at the international airports in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and at some (but not all) border crossings. Visa-on-Arrival facilities are not available when entering overland from Cambodia. The cost is US$30 (if paid with US$ notes; paying with Thai baht will cost around 25% 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).
The international airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang are served by national carrier Lao Airlines and a few others, including Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways (Luang Prabang only) and Vietnam Airlines. Some seats on flights of Vietnam Airlines are reserved for Lao Airlines (codesharing / better price).
Laos has long been off-limits to low-cost carriers, but in November 2007 Air Asia plans to start serving Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur three times a week. Another cheap option for getting to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani in Thailand 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.
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.
The busiest crossing is at the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong between Vientiane and Nong Khai. It's also possible to cross the Mekong at Huay Xai / Chiang Khong (with easy bus connections to Chiang Rai and points beyond on the Thai side), Tha Khaek / Nakhon Phanom, Savannakhet / Mukdahan (via the Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, opened early 2007), and elsewhere.
There are at least six border crossings that can be used by foreigners. These include:
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.
State carrier Lao Airlines has a 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, a recent example being the leasing of an Airbus jet to supplement the aging Soviet and Chinese fleet. Although dual pricing means much higher fares for foreigners, the fairly comprehensive network is by far the fastest (and, relatively speaking, the safest) way of reaching many parts of the country.
Some common routes through Laos include:
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.
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 (from Houai Xai to Luang Prabang) An attractive choice for some, with a 6 hour ride, 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.
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 October 2007 speedboats were still cruising the Mekong, operating the Vientiane-Paklay-Vientiane route on five days/week.
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.
Suggestions for those who decide to take the risk:
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. Pay off the driver to reserve the seat in front of you for your legs (you might have to book a double seat in advance), or simply endure the slow boat ride instead.
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.
The Lao currency is the kip, which is inconvertible, unstable and generally inflationary. As of 28 August 2007, there are around 9,700 kip to every US$1.
The largest bill is only 50000 kip, though the largest notes in common circulation are 20000 kip or 10000 kip; withdrawing 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. For short visits to the main centres there's little point in exchanging kip, as changing them back is a hassle in Laos and impossible elsewhere.
More touristy places and banks are also starting to accept euros. 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.
The first ATMs have recently arrived in Vientiane, as well as in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Pakse. (There is also an ATM on test run in Luang Nam Tha). ATMs are becoming more common. They accept MasterCard, Maestro and a few others. Outside of Vientiane, ATMs do not accept VISA. Relying on them is at this stage risky due to their ludicrous unreliability — but if it doesn't work the first time, keep trying every few hours.
Many banks, travel agents and guesthouses 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. Changing traveller's cheques is easy in any large village.
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 except restaurants is closed on Sundays.
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...
Lao cuisine is very similar to the food eaten in the north-eastern Isaan region of Thailand. The staple here is sticky rice (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 (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. Other favourites include tam maak hung, the spicy green papaya salad known as som tam in Thailand, and ping kai, spicy grilled chicken.
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.
The national drink of Laos is the ubiquitous and tasty Beerlao, one of the few Lao exports. The yellow logo with its tiger-head silhouette can be seen everywhere, and a large 640 ml bottle shouldn't cost more than 10 to 12000 kip in restaurants. The brewery claims they have 99% market share, yet you can get Carlsberg (from the same brewery) and Heineken (imported from Thailand) - but why should you?
Rice whiskey, 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 among 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, 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.
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 a few fancy hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
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).
Crime levels are low in Laos, although petty theft (bag snatching) is not unknown and seems to be on the rise.
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:
In the northern and eastern parts of the country near the Vietnamese border, unexploded ordnance, a legacy from Laos' good friends the US, are a risk factor. Be careful if you leave the roads in these areas and never ever touch anything that may be a grenade or other explosive, even if it seems old and harmless. Every year there are numerous accidents involving people working their fields or children playing, who set off one of those "souvenirs".
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 travel with an armed guard (with a machine gun!). If in doubt, ask fellow travelers in Luang Prabang about the current situation. Between 2003 and 2006 the primary forest in this area has disappeared - hiding would be difficult for snipers now.
Laos is considered very malarial so anti-malarials are recommended, but check with health professionals: there is a high incidence of parasite drug resistance 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.
Dress respectfully (long trousers, sleeved shirts) when visiting temples and take your shoes off before entering temple buildings and private houses.
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.
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.
Mobile phone connectivity in Laos has mushroomed, with no less than four competing GSM operators.
Postal service in Laos is slow and not particularly reliable, although outgoing mail is usually OK. As of January 2005, sending a postcard to most of the world outside Asia costs 6500 kip.