The main language is Lao but French is widely spoken as an ex French colony. Minority languages.
English is spoken in major tourist areas.
Lao Kip (LAK)
Like most of Southeast Asia, cash is king. You’ll always need to carry cash to shop in local markets. ATMs are easy to find in the cities but you’ll struggle in more remote areas.
In some places Thai Baht and US Dollars are also accepted.
Validity of at least six months after your arrival back in the UK. Plenty of empty pages for visas.
Tourist Visa required and you can get this on arrival. Costs roughly US$40 so take some small notes and a passport photograph. The visa will take up a page in your passport and is valid for 30 days.
As always – Don’t travel without insurance.
Laos has limited medical facilities meaning people with serious injuries or illnesses are taken to neighbouring countries for treatment. Can you imagine how much that costs.
WHEN TO TRAVEL
November – March
High Season : Warm & Dry
Best time to travel across the country with temperatures hovering around 25°C in the day and cooler in the evenings.
This is considered the best time of year to go trekking in Laos. If you plan to visit the far northern mountains and hills note that in December and January it can get very cold so you’ll need to pack some warm gear. During particularly cold years snow can fall on the high mountains.
Accommodation prices are expensive and you need to book in advance.
April – June
Low Season : Humid & Hot
From April temperatures start to rise and can hit highs of 40°C. The southwest monsoon arrives in May or June and peaks in September.
Once the rain starts rivers swell turning turquoise waterfalls into muddy cascades – if you’re looking for the idyllic picture of Kuang Si waterfall in Luang Prabang you need to travel before or a while after the rains once the water has settled. If you’re into adventurous watersports like rafting this time of year is ideal.
July & August
Shoulder Season : Humid & Wet
Popular with backpacking students who have just finished their exams. Most of them head to Vang Vieng. It’s worth booking accommodation in advance in cities like Luang Prabang which can be busy with European tourists.
September – October
Low Season : Wet
September is normally the peak of the rainy season with tropical downpours in October.
Accommodation prices are generally lower but are hiked up over Lhai Heua Fai (festival of the lights) which celebrates the end of Boun Awk Phansa (Buddhist Lent). The festival normally takes place in October and lasts three days.
What to Wear
It’s hot in Laos so the temptation is to wear as little as possible, but this is a deeply conservative country. Locals dress modestly with shoulders and knees covered – even to go swimming. Dressing modestly is strictly observed in temples and you will not be allowed to enter if you’re showing too much skin. Buddhist Temple Etiquette. It is recommended that you dress modestly all the time, not just for visiting temples to respect local customs. Keeping covered will protect you from sunburn in the day and insect bites at night.
Head & Feet
The head is considered the most sacred part of the body in Buddhism and the feet the most impure. It’s therefore considered to be extremely improper to touch someones head. Likewise, pointing at things with your feet, putting your feet on furniture or pointing towards people with feet are rude gestures. You shouldn’t be surprised or offended if shop owners ask you to remove your shoes before entering and this is required when visiting a temple.
As with many Southeast Asian nations, if there isn’t a marked price it’s appropriate to barter. At first you might feel uncomfortable but soon you’ll enjoy it. Plus, bargaining in Laos is much more laid back compared to the rest of Southeast Asia.
You should always look to pay in the local currency and have a maximum price you’re willing to pay in mind – it can be very easy to get carried away! You can get an idea of costs by asking around at different vendors. Start by offering 50% lower than the asking price and work up from there. You’re more likely to get a good price if you’re friendly and keep smiling. Rudeness and aggression are not good tactics for negotiation and are generally seen as embarrassing. Arguing over 10,000 kip (about 80p) is really not worth it.
THE SECRET WAR & ITS ONGOING IMPACT
In the 1960s CIA agents worked in Laos to stop the spread of communism. By the end they were arming children. No one in the USA knew this was happening which is why the involvement in Laos is know as ‘The Secret War’.
As the war in Vietnam intensified neighbouring countries Laos and Cambodia became more of a target. Both countries were strategically important as the Ho Chi Minh trail ran down the spine of Vietnam within the boarders of the two tiny nations. Two million tons of ordnance during 580,000 bombing missions where dropped between 1964 and 1973. More bombs then were dropped during WWII, making Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita. One of the most heavily used bombs was the Cluster Bomb; canisters which opened as they fell from the sky releasing small explosive devises known as bombies. Up to 30% of all bombs failed to detonate.
Nearly 45 years later, millions of unexploded bombs remain scattered across the country. Killing tens of thousands of people and causing life altering injuries. The most effected are those working on the land in rural communities and children who are drawn to play with the bombies. Charities are working to clear the land and educate communities about the risk UXOs, often poorly equipped and funded. It’s important that if you want to contribute to the efforts to only give money to a listed charity. You will see people at the night market selling jewellery and other souvenirs made from the metal of UXOs. Do not buy these. Purchasing goods made form UXOs encourages the hunt for scrap metal and puts lives at serious risk. You can learn more at the UXO Laos Information Centre in Luang Prabang.
FOOD & DRINK
Freshness is very important in Lao cooking with everything prepared from scratch. Dishes are based on balance between sweet, sour, cooked, fresh, mild, bitter, salty and spicy.
Sticky rice, a staple of any Lao meal.
Also spelt Larb or Lahp, this is a meat based salad flavoured with lime, garlic, fish sauce, mint leaves, spring onion and ground toasted rice.
Tam Mak Hoong
Papaya Salad similar to Thailand’s som tam
The national beer of choice
WHERE TO STAY
These are most common form of accommodation in Laos. The cheapest options will have cold showers, basic bedding with fans and mosquito nets. Pay a little more for hot showers and aircon.
Some guesthouses offer services like laundry or breakfast.
In some areas like Nong Khiaw you’ll find little private bungalows. Chose from bamboo huts with fans or brick river view spaces with aircon.
Normally set in pretty rural areas, homestays offer the opportunity to experience local life.
Once you’re out of the biggest tourist areas there aren’t many hostels and guesthouses become the most cost effective option.
Standards of hotels vary across the country. There are some luxury options in Luang Prabang and Vientiane but generally there isn’t a high-end market.
Arrive into Wattay International Airport (Vientiane), Luang Prabang International Airport or Pakse International Airport.
Travelling by air is far quicker than land saving you considerable time. The downside is you’ll miss out on the countryside views.
Slow and scenic, travelling by boat is a fantastic way to experience the country. Take the slow boat from Luang Prabang to northern Thailand.
Buses and mini buses are a cheap way of getting around the country. Major routes tend to have newer vehicles than remote areas.
Hiring a car and driver is a great way to explore the countryside at your own pace.
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In the early morning, locals sit on the side of the street to give alms to monks and novices. This peaceful ceremony is conducted in silence where Buddhists gain spiritual merit by the act of giving. The traditional offering is sticky rice but any type of food can be offered. Participants keep their heads bowed…
FIND YOUR WAY The river’s scenic east bank (officially called Ban Sop Houn) is where most guesthouses and restaurants are. ACTIVITIES Visiting Nong Khaiw can just be about enjoying the stunning scenery, but if you want to get out and explore, here are some ideas. RockclimbingClimb the limestone formations that surround the town. TrekkingThere are…
Food in Laos is more distinctive than you might expect. Freshness is very important with everything prepared from scratch. Dishes are based on balance between sweet, sour, cooked, fresh, mild, bitter, salty and spicy. Herbs including galangal (similar to ginger) and lemongrass are commonly used. DAY CLASS Start early with a tour or the market…
What to WearDressing modestly is strictly observed in temples and you will not be allowed to enter if you’re showing too much skin. It is recommended that you dress modestly all the time, not just for visiting temples to respect local customs. Keeping covered will protect you from sunburn in the day and insect bites…