If you want to see one of South East Asia’s mostly forested and least populated countries, go to Laos, go now. This is a country with charm and beauty albeit with a recent history of pain and suffering. Laos is rapidly being developed with new dams, inter-country rail lines and numerous retail and commercial developments. My advice, go now.
Essential Travel Information for Visiting Laos
Visa Requirements Vary Depending on Nationality
Visiting Laos requires some planning. The specific visa regulations can vary depending on your nationality. It’s important to check the latest information from the Laotian embassy or consulate in your country before you travel. Some nationalities may be eligible for a visa on arrival, while others may need to obtain a visa in advance.
Lao is the Language of Laos, but English is also Understood in Tourist Areas
While traveling through Laos, you’ll find that the Lao language is widely spoken. However, don’t let that discourage you if you’re not fluent at all in Lao. In popular tourist areas and major cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, many people understand and speak English to some extent. You’ll still be able to communicate and arrange your travels.
The Local Currency is the Lao Kip (LAK)
The local currency used is called the Lao kip (LAK). It’s essential to have some Lao cash or Thai baht as credit cards may not be accepted everywhere you want to go. You can exchange your currency into Lao kip at banks or authorized money exchange offices throughout the country. Keep in mind that smaller denominations are more convenient for day-to-day transactions. Basically, don’t try to rely on a credit card.
Getting Around Laos: Towns, Cities, and Transportation
In Laos, there are several major cities that you should explore during your visit. The capital city is Vientiane, known for its interesting mix of French colonial architecture and Buddhist temples. Another popular destination is Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its traditional temples and stunning natural beauty. If you’re looking to experience the southern part of Laos, make sure to visit Pakse, a gateway to the Bolaven Plateau.
There are various transportation options available:
Limited Domestic Flights
While domestic flights in Laos are limited compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, they can be a convenient way to travel between major cities. Lao Airlines operates flights connecting Vientiane with other destinations such as Luang Prabang and Pakse. However, it’s important to note that flight schedules may be subject to change and availability can vary. The planes might not be of the very latest models. Laos is a poor country and the frantic hurried cosmopolitan live you may live back home is the opposite of Laotian culture.
Buses – The Most Common Mode of Transportation
Buses are the most common mode of transportation within the country and provide an affordable way to travel between towns and cities in Laos. They offer convenience if not great comfort while allowing you to see the variety of countryside along the way. There are different types of buses available ranging from local buses used by communities residing in rural areas to long-distance buses catering specifically to tourists.
Tuk-tuks and Motorbike Taxis
For shorter distances within towns or cities, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorized vehicles) and motorbike taxis are popular choices. These modes of transport are readily available on the streets of Lao cities and towns and offer a quick way to get around narrow city streets or explore local neighbourhoods. Just try and get an estimate of how much a journey should cost before hopping in.
Exploring on Foot or Bicycle
If you prefer a more leisurely pace and want to immerse yourself in the local culture, exploring on foot or by bicycle is a great option. Many towns and cities in Laos have compact city centers that are easily navigable by foot. Renting a bicycle allows you to explore at your own pace and discover hidden gems along the way. It’s also an eco-friendly mode of transportation that lets you experience the charm of Laos up close. Just watch out for chickens, stray dogs and motorbikes coming from no-where.
Local Transportation Services
Apart from buses, tuk-tuks, and motorbike taxis, there are other local transportation services available in Laos. These include songthaews (shared pickup trucks), which are commonly used for short-distance travel within towns or between villages. Private car rentals with drivers can be arranged if you prefer a more personalized experience or wish to visit off-the-beaten-path destinations. Many wealthier visitors coming to Laos for a short time choose to rent a car and driver in Vientiane to take them cross-country.
Experiencing the Rich Culture and Scenic Beauty of Laos
Laos is a landlocked country, bordered by China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Burma. From ancient ornate temples to traditional Buddhist ceremonies, there are plenty of sensuous experiences to immerse yourself in while traveling through this captivating country.
Explore Ancient Temples
One of the highlights of visiting Laos is exploring its Buddhist temples. In Luang Prabang, you can visit Wat Xieng Thong, a stunning Buddhist temple known for its intricate architecture and finely cradft decorations. The temple complex features beautifully carved walls and roofs adorned with colorful mosaics. Another must-visit temple is Pha That Luang in Vientiane, the national symbol of Laos. This golden stupa stands tall and majestic, representing the spiritual heart of the country.
Witness Traditional Ceremonies
To truly experience the local culture, witnessing traditional ceremonies is a must. One such ceremony is alms-giving to monks at sunrise. In towns like Luang Prabang, you can observe locals offering food to saffron-robed monks as they walk barefoot through the streets collecting their daily sustenance. It’s a humbling experience that allows you to witness the deep-rooted spirituality and devotion of the Laotian people.
Cruise Along the Mekong River
For an unforgettable journey through Laos’ scenic beauty, take a cruise along the Mekong River. As you sail downstream, you’ll be treated to views of rural life and lush landscapes. The river meanders through picturesque villages where locals go about their often arduous daily lives fishing or tending to their crops. You’ll also have opportunities to stop at riverside markets where you can sample local delicacies and interact with local vendors.
Visit Ethnic Minority Villages
To gain insight into Laos’ diverse cultural tapestry, make sure to visit ethnic minority villages. These villages offer a glimpse into the customs and traditions of different ethnic groups, such as the Hmong, Khmu, and Lao Loum. You can learn about their traditional crafts, taste their local cuisine, and even participate in cultural activities like weaving or dancing. Most of the Laotian population speak three or four languages. How many can you speak?
Laos is a country that has still managed to preserve its authenticity despite rapidly growing tourism and commercial development . The locals are chilled, friendly and welcoming. Just don’t come on too strong. Whether you’re visiting temple complexes watching age-old ceremonies, cruising along the Mekong River, or visiting ethnic hill-tribe villages, each experience in Laos is sure to leave a lasting impression.
So come to Laos.
Recommended Itineraries and Attractions in Laos
Discover UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Don’t miss the chance to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Sites scattered across Laos. Start by visiting Luang Prabang’s Old Town, where ancient temples, traditional wooden houses, and French colonial architecture coexist harmoniously. Take a stroll along the Mekong River at sunset or enjoy a cup of the renowned local coffee.
Another UNESCO treasure is Wat Phou in Champasak. This ancient Khmer temple complex dates back to the 5th century and offers splendid views of the surrounding countryside.
Trek through the Stunning Bolaven Plateau
For nature enthusiasts, a trek through the Bolaven Plateau is a must-do activity. This lush region is known for its stunningly lovely waterfalls, verdant coffee plantations, and ethnic villages. Immerse yourself in the amazing landscape.
Experience Adventure Activities in Vang Vieng
If adrenaline-pumping activities are more your style, head to Vang Vieng for adventure, although be warned – this town can get very touristy. Go tubing or kayaking along Nam Song River amidst towering limestone cliffs and lush greenery. Dive into cool blue lagoons or go rock climbing for an extra thrill.
Relax on Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands)
To unwind and soak in the tranquility of Laos, make your way to Si Phan Don, also known as the 4,000 Islands. This picturesque region is located in the southern part of the country and offers a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Relax in a hammock by the Mekong River, watch stunning sunsets over the water, and explore the islands by bicycle or boat.
Laos is a destination that truly has something for everyone.
Currency and Finances: Money Matters in Laos
ATMs Readily Available, But Limited in Rural Areas
ATMs are a convenient option. You can find them easily in most major towns and cities. However, keep in mind that their availability may be limited or even non-existent in rural areas. So don’t rely on finding ATM’s on your travels, come prepared with some Thai Baht or US dollar.
Cash Preferred for Smaller Establishments
While credit cards are accepted in hotels and restaurants, cash is preferred for smaller establishments, especially in markets. When you’re exploring local markets or enjoying street side cool drinks or coffees, make sure to have some Lao kip on hand. It’s always a good idea to carry smaller denominations for ease of transactions.
US Dollars Widely Accepted
If you happen to have US dollars with you while traveling in Laos, you’ll find that they are widely accepted. This is especially true for larger transactions or popular tourist areas. Many hotels and tour operators also quote prices in US dollars alongside Lao kip. However, keep in mind that using US dollars may not always give you the best exchange rate, and be careful of flashing big notes around. Remember this a poor country, theft is rare but don’t make it tempting by showing the world you are so rich.
Be Prepared with Sufficient Cash for Remote Regions
In the countryside, banking facilities might be scarce or non-existent. If you’re travelling cross-country and stopping at out of the way locations, t’s crucial to carry enough cash with you. This ensures that you have access to funds for accommodation, transportation, meals, and any other sundry expenses.
Budgeting Tips for Traveling in Laos
To make the most of your travel experience while keeping costs under control, consider the following budgeting tips:
- Do a bit of Research. Get an idea of how much things cost in Laos so that you can plan your budget before you arrive.
- Eat like a local: Explore the vibrant street food scene in Laos, where you can enjoy delicious and affordable dishes like sticky rice with local vegetables and spices. And if you need to indulge, there are always French pastries in the bigger towns, remnants of their former rule.
- Try guesthouses or homestays: These accommodations are often more budget-friendly than luxurious hotels, and they offer a chance to immerse yourself in the local culture.
- Take advantage of free activities: Laos is rich in natural beauty, so make sure to explore its waterfalls, caves, and hiking trails that don’t require an entrance fee.
Staying Safe and Secure while Traveling in Laos
Laos is a beautiful country but it’s important to prioritize your safety and security when traveling there. Here are some key points to keep in mind:
Petty theft can occur, so keep valuables secure and be cautious of your surroundings
While Laos is generally considered very safe for travellers, petty theft can still be an issue in tourist areas or crowded places. To minimize the risk of theft:
- Keep your valuables secure
- Avoid displaying expensive items like jewellery or electronic devices openly.
- Be cautious of your surroundings and avoid leaving belongings unattended.
Avoid political demonstrations or gatherings as they can turn violent
Laos is one of the last few communist ruled nations. Political demonstrations can occur in Laos, and it’s very wise to avoid such events. These gatherings have the potential to pose risks to personal safety. To stay safe:
- Stay informed about the local political situation through reliable sources.
- Avoid getting too close to any political demonstrations or protests.
- If you come across such gatherings unexpectedly, leave the area immediately.
Take precautions against mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria
Laos is located in a region where mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria are prevalent. To protect yourself from these illnesses:
- Use insect repellent on any exposed skin.
- Wear long sleeves, pants, and socks during peak mosquito activity times (dawn and dusk).
- Sleep under mosquito nets if you’re staying in accommodation without proper screens or air conditioning.
Respect local customs and traditions, including appropriate attire when visiting religious sites
Laos has deep-rooted customs and traditions that should be respected by visitors. When exploring religious sites or interacting with locals:
- Dress modestly, covering shoulders and knees especially when visiting temples or sacred places.
- Remove your shoes before entering religious buildings, as this is customary.
- Be mindful of local customs and traditions, such as greeting others with a “Nop” (a slight bow) or avoiding very public displays of affection.
Remember that respecting the local culture helps foster positive interactions with the town residents.
Can I travel to Laos without knowing the local language?
Absolutely! While it helps to know a few basic phrases in Lao, English is widely spoken in tourist areas. Locals are friendly, making communication easy even if you don’t speak the local language.
What is the best time of year to visit Laos?
The best time to visit Laos is during the dry season from November to February when temperatures are milder and rainfall is minimal. However, if you’re interested in experiencing traditional festivals like Boun Pi Mai (Lao New Year) or Boun That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa Festival), plan your trip around April or November respectively.
Are there any health concerns I should be aware of while traveling in Laos?
It’s always advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before traveling to any foreign country. In general, make sure you’re up-to-date on routine vaccinations and consider getting vaccines for diseases like typhoid and hepatitis A. It’s also important to take precautions against mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever and malaria by using insect repellent and wearing protective clothing.
How can I respect the local culture while traveling in Laos?
Respecting the local culture is crucial when visiting any foreign country. In Laos, it’s important to dress modestly, especially when visiting temples or rural areas. Remove your shoes before entering religious sites and be mindful of local customs and traditions. Interact with locals respectfully, learn a few basic phrases in Lao, and always ask for permission before taking someone’s photo.
Is it safe to travel solo in Laos?
Laos is generally a safe country to travel solo. However, as with any destination, it’s essential to take precautions and stay vigilant. Avoid walking alone at night in unfamiliar areas, keep your belongings secure, and trust your instincts. It’s also a good idea to inform someone about your travel plans and regularly update them on your whereabouts.
Remember, these FAQs are just a starting point for planning your trip to Laos. Feel free to explore further and dive into more specific information based on your interests and needs.