Laos, formally the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia and one of the poorest countries on the continent. It borders Vietnam to the east, China and Myanmar to the north, Thailand to the west, and Cambodia to the south.
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. There are a few grand, but unheard of, attractions in this mountainous strip of a country and high visa costs discourage casual cross-border trips, but what draws a few intrepid visitors is the laid-back lifestyle, where you can knock back cold Beerlao and watch the sunsets on the Mekong.
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 war was triggered when France wanted to retake its colony. Granted independence in 1953, the war continued between a bewildering variety of factions, with the Communist and 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 the admission into ASEAN in 1997.
Less than a two hour flight from the westernized hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos continues in the same way it has for hundreds of years. But things are beginning to change. In the mid-90s the government reversed its stance on tourism and declared 1998 'Visit Laos Year.' Despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer, monks still outnumbered tourists throughout the country.
Despite its small population Laos has no less than 68 recognized tribal groups. About half the country are Lao Loum, "lowland Lao" who live in the Mekong valley. Officially, this group includes the Lao Tai, who are subdivided into numerous subgroups. Lao Theung (20-30%), or "upland Lao", live on mid-altitude slopes (officially defined as 300m to 900m), and are by far the poorest group in the country, 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 baasii (also baci) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participant's body before a long journey or other significant undertaking.
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.
Laos has three distinct seasons. The hot season from March to May, when temperatures can soar as high as 38°C. The slightly cooler wet season is from May to October, when temperatures are around 30°C, tropical downpours occur frequently and the Mekong floods. The best time to visit is hence the dry season from November to March, when rainfall is low and temperatures can cool down to as low as 15°C (or even to zero in the mountains at night).
On-arrival visas are available at the international airports in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, as well as at the Friendship Bridge crossing from Thailand. One passport photo and, in theory, proof of onward travel are required. The cost is generally US$30 for a 15-day visa although small semi-random administrative fees, including a US$1 weekend surcharge and an additional 10-baht entry fee can be added on.
Advance visas can be obtained at any Lao embassy at slightly lower prices (around US$20, although this varies by nationality) and you can typically obtain a 30-day visa this way. The Lao Embassy in Bangkok has an informative website. Processing time is usually two days, and advance visas are required for border crossings where on-arrival visas are not issued (eg. Vietnam, China, Myanmar and all land crossings with Thailand except the Friendship Bridge).
Visa extensions are only possible at the Immigration Department in Vientiane or from an embassy before you arrive.
The international airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang are served by national carrier Lao Airlines and a few other carriers, including Thai and Bangkok Airways. Due to lack of competition prices are comparatively steep, and for Vientiane it is considerably cheaper 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 kilometers away.
The most popular by far is the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong, connecting Nong Khai (Thailand) to the capital Vientiane. This is also the only land border where visas on arrival are available. You can also cross the river by ferry at Nakhon Phanom/Tha Khaek, Chiang Khong/Huay Xai and Mukhadan/Savannakhet; a second bridge is under construction at the last of these.
The land border between Cambodia and Laos, long closed to foreigners, appear to be open now. Enquire locally before setting off. The border to Myanmar evidently remains closed, although this too is uncertain.
The travelling element of travel in Laos is often as rewarding as the destination itself. This can be by air, by road or by river, and should not be attempted by the unadventurous. 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. The carrier has a dodgy safety record and a horrible on-time record, although this is in part caused by difficult weather conditions especially in mountainous northern Laos, and the carrier is making some effort to improve by eg. recently leasing its first Airbus jet to supplement its aging Soviet and Chinese fleet. Dual pricing means much higher fares for foreigners than Laotians (eg. US$57 for Vientiane-Luang Prabang), but the network is fairly comprehensive and by far the fastest (and, relatively speaking, the safest) way of reaching many parts of the country.
Some common routes through Laos include:
Boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are useful shortcuts for the horrible roads, although as the road network improves services are slowly drying up. Huay Xai to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are the main routes still in use. Also note that many services run only in the wet season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable.
Warning about speed boats
There are so-called slow boats and speed boats. The latter, though helpful in saving time if you are on a tight itinerary, are not without danger. They are very tiny vessels equipped with a powerful motor that literally skid on the water at full speed. Though built to accommodate 8 passengers, the captains will frequently overload, making the things even more feeble. The noise of the engine is well above a healthy level, which could lead to serious hazard to your ears, especially if you are on the boat for a long time. Several incidents of people dying when the boats capsize due to incautious maneuvering or hidden rocks below the water surface have been reported. Last but not least, the boats are responsible for considerable noise pollution scaring wildlife and spoiling the peaceful river-life. If you, however, decide to take the risk, obey the following rules:
However, the vast majority of speed-boat users have no problems.
A common form of local transport (less than 20 km) in Laos is the jumbo, a motorized three-wheeler which would be known as a tuk-tuk 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).
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. The kip is inconvertible, unstable and generally inflationary. As of January 2005, there are around 11000 kip to the dollar. As the largest bill is only 20000 kip, this makes carrying large quantities of kip quite inconvenient. Fortunately, there is little need to do so, as US dollars and Thai baht are readily accepted through the country, although often at somewhat disadvantageous rates (10000 kip to the dollar is common). Especially for short visits to the main centers there is little point to exchanging kip, as changing them back is a hassle in Laos and practically impossible outside the country.
The first ATMs have recently arrived in Vientiane, but relying on them is at this stage foolhardy. Many banks and guesthouses will allow you to take out cash from a credit card and changing traveler's checks is easy in any large village.
Many shops take an hour's lunch break between noon and 1 PM, and some maintain the (now abolished) official French two-hour break. Nearly everything except restaurants is closed on Sundays.
US$20 a day is a good rule of thumb, though it is possible to get by on as little as $10. A basic room with shared bathroom can be as little as $2 in Vang Viang or as much as $8 as in Vientiane. Meals are usually under $5 for even the most elaborate dishes. A bus from Vientiane to Vang Viang costs $6; the fast slowboat from LP to Huay Xai costs $12 for both days.
Lao cuisine is very similar to the food eaten in the northeastern Isaan region of Thailand. The staple here is sticky rice (khao niaw), 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 Laotian version can use raw meat (dip) instead of cooked meat (suk). Other favorites 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 Laotian 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 Laotian products exported outside the country. You'll see the yellow logo with its tiger-head silhouette everywhere, and a large 650 mL bottle shouldn't cost more than 7000K.
Rice whisky, known as lao-lao, is widely available and, at less than US$0.30 per 750mL bottle, the cheapest way to get hammered.
Laotian coffee (kaafeh) is widely reckoned to be among the best in the world. Unlike the Thai version, Laotian coffee is not adulterated with ground tamarind seed. To make sure you aren't fed overpriced Nescafe instead, be sure to ask for kaafeh thung. By default, coffee comes with sugar and condensed milk; black coffee is kaafeh dam.
Tap water is not drinkable, but bottled water is cheap and widely available.
Accommodation options outside the Mekong Valley's main tourist spots is limited to basic hotels and guesthouses, excluding two or three fancy hotels in Vientiane, but (unlike Myanmar) there are no restrictions on where you can stay.
Work permits in Laos are difficult to obtain, unless you can secure employment at one of the numerous NGOs in the country. English teaching is possible but poorly paid (US$5-8 an hour).
Crime levels are low in Laos, although petty theft is not unknown.
Laotian judicial processes remain somewhat arbitrary and, while you are unlikely to be hassled, if accused your legal rights may be slim or nonexistent. Two points in particular to beware of:
Laos is considered very malarial so anti-malarials are recommended. 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 a temple building.
Things in Laos happen slowly and rarely as scheduled. Keep your cool, as venting your anger will make everybody involved lose face and is certainly not going to expedite things, particularly if dealing with government bureaucracy.
Internet cafes can be found through larger towns in Laos. Access speeds are, however, usually painfully slow.
Mobile phone connectivity in Laos has mushroomed, with no less than four GSM operators competing for your custom.
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 6500K.