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. 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.
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 admission into ASEAN in 1997.
Despite being less than two hours by air from the westernized hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos has continued in 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.
Despite its small population, Laos has no less than 68 tribal groups. About half 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, 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 is 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 are frequent, and 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 as in Vientiane. Meals are usually under US$5 for even the most elaborate dishes. And plain local dishes can cost less than one US$. A bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng costs US$6; the slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai costs US$12 for both days.
Several ASEAN nationalities can enter Laos "visa free"; all other tourists need a tourist visa. Most nationalities are issued a 30 day entry permit stamp if they apply for a visa in advance, but only a 15 day entry permit stamp if they obtain their visa on arrival. When applying for a visa, one or two passport photos will be required.
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.
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 in Thai Bahts will cost around 25% more and border officials will not accept Lao Kips 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 and Bangkok Airways. Due to lack of competition prices are comparatively steep, and for Vientiane it's 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 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, 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 (eg. US$57 for Vientiane - Luang Prabang), 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 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).
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
Very 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 Speed Boat (from Houai Xai to Luang Prubang) Attractive choice, 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 their are no seats, with your knees against your chin for the full 6 hours. Expect an incredibly loud motor inches behind your head. Expect the motor to break a few times, and stops for delays to fix the motor. That being said, when this ride finally ends, if you make it with no trouble, you will never be happier to get to Luang Prubang. Stories of this small, overpacked speedboat 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 speed boat 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 Prubang is an incredible city, worth a thousand of these journeys.
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 20 January 2006, there are 10,561 kip to the US$.
The largest bill is only 50000 kip, though the largest notes in common circulation are 20000 kip or 10000 kip; withdrawing 1M kip from an ATM (about US$100) could result in 100 notes of 10000 kip each. This makes carrying large quantities of kip quite inconvenient. Fortunately, there is little need to do so, as US$ are readily accepted throughout the country (although sometimes at somewhat disadvantageous rates - 10000 kip to the US$ is common), and Thai baht are also readily accepted in many areas. For short visits to the main centres there's little point to exchanging kip, as changing them back is a hassle in Laos and practically impossible elsewhere.
The first ATMs have recently arrived in Vientiane, but relying on them is at this stage foolhardy. 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 10000 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.
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.
Lao cuisine is very similar to the food eaten in the north-eastern 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 Lao version can use raw meat (dip) instead of cooked meat (suk). 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 650 ml bottle shouldn't cost more than 7000 kip.
Rice whisky, known as lao-lao, is widely available and at less than US$0.30 per 750 ml bottle, the cheapest way to get hammered.
Lao coffee (kaafeh) is widely reckoned to be among the best in the world. Unlike the Thai version, it's 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 are limited to basic hotels and guesthouses, excluding two or three fancy hotels in Vientiane. There are very good hotels in Luang Prabang
Lao work permits are difficult to obtain, unless you can secure employment at one of the numerous NGOs. English teaching is possible but poorly paid (US$5-8 an hour).
Crime levels are low in Laos, although petty theft is not unknown.
Lao judicial processes remain somewhat arbitrary and, while you are unlikely to be hassled, if accused your legal rights may be slim or non-existent. Two points in particular to beware of:
One other note of caution: there has been some violence between Hmong rebel groups in the north against the main Laos government. 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 disapeared - hiding would be difficult for snipers now.
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 temple buildings.
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 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 4500 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.