Laos is a relatively safe country for travellers, although certain areas remain off-limits because of unexploded ordnance left over from decades of warfare. As a visitor, however, you’re an obvious target for thieves (who may include your fellow travellers), so do take necessary precautions.
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Carry your passport, travellers’ cheques and other valuables in a concealed money belt and don’t leave anything important lying about in your room, particularly when staying in rural bungalows. A few hotels have safes which you may want to use, although you should keep in mind that you never know who has access to the safe. A padlock and chain, or a cable lock, is useful for doors and windows at inexpensive guesthouses and budget hotels and for securing your pack on buses, where you’re often separated from your belongings. It’s also a good idea to keep a reserve of cash, photocopies of the relevant pages of your passport, insurance details and travellers’ cheque receipts separate from the rest of your valuables.
As tranquil as Laos can seem, petty theft and serious crimes do happen throughout the country – even on seemingly deserted country roads. Petty crime is more common in Vang Vieng than just about anywhere else in Laos, with drunk (or stoned) tourists often leaving themselves open to theft and robbery. Although crime rates in Vientiane are low, be on your guard in darker streets outside the city centre, and along the river. Motorbike-borne thieves ply the city streets and have been known to snatch bags out of the front basket of other motorbikes that they pass.
If you do have anything stolen, you’ll need to get the police to write up a report in order to claim on your insurance: bring along a Lao speaker to simplify matters if you can. While police generally keep their distance from foreigners, they may try to exact “fines” from visitors for alleged misdemeanours. With a lot of patience, you should be able to resolve most problems, and, if you keep your cool, you may find that you can bargain down such “fines”. It helps to have your passport with you at all times – if you don’t, police have greater incentive to ask for money and may even try to bring you to the station. In some instances police may puzzle over your passport for what seems like an awfully long time. Again, such situations are best handled with an ample dose of patience. If your papers are in order, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
With far more serious consequences than petty theft, banditry is still a possible threat in some parts of Laos. In the past, buses, motorcyclists and private vehicles on certain highways have been held up, their passengers robbed and, in some instances, killed. Because information in Laos is tightly controlled, no one knows exactly if rumoured bandit attacks have actually occurred or if other incidents have happened and gone unreported. Therefore it’s always good to ask at a Western embassy in Vientiane for any travel advisories before heading out into remote regions.
Security has improved greatly in recent years along Route 13 between Kasi and Luang Prabang, though the insurgent/bandit group generally thought to be responsible for the attacks in this area in the mid-1990s, the Chao Fa, is still active in parts of Xieng Khuang province. Back in 2004 two European tourists were killed, along with six Lao, when a shadowy group attacked a bus on Route 13 just north of Vang Vieng. After punitive attacks on nearby Hmong villages by the Lao army in 2004 and 2005, the road fell quiet. Though in February 2007 the US embassy in Vientiane reported small skirmishes just north of Vang Vieng, the situation didn’t escalate, and the road is now considered safe once again – bus drivers in the area have stopped carrying guns.
Although the chances of getting caught up in an incident are very small indeed, it’s a good idea to be aware of the potential risks, especially when travelling on Route 7 or the northern stretch of Route 13. Locally based expats in both Vientiane and Luang Prabang will often have the best idea of whether or not the routes are safe to travel.
The Second Indochina War left Laos with the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare. The areas of the country most affected by aerial bombing are along the border of Vietnam – especially in southern Laos where the border runs parallel to the former Ho Chi Minh Trail; also heavily targeted was Xieng Khuang province in the northeast. Other provinces, far from the border with Vietnam, were the site of land battles in which both sides lobbed artillery and mortar shells at each other. A fair quantity of this ordnance did not explode.
These dangerous relics of the war, known as UXO (unexploded ordnance), have been the focus of disposal teams since the 1980s. According to the Lao government, most areas that tourists are likely to visit have been swept clean of UXO. That said, it always pays to be cautious when in rural areas or when trekking. UXO unearthed during road construction can be pushed onto the shoulder, where it becomes overgrown with weeds and forgotten. Disposal experts say that fast-growing bamboo has been known to unearth UXO, lifting it aloft as the stalk grows and then letting it fall onto a trail that was previously clean. Consequently, it’s best to stay on trails and beware any odd-looking metallic objects that you may come across. Picking something up for closer inspection (or giving it a kick to turn it over) can be suicidal. When taking a toilet break during long-distance bus journeys, it’s not a good idea to penetrate too deeply into the bush looking for privacy.
In some southern towns locals use old bombs, bomb cases, mortar shells etc for a variety of functions, from demarcating plots of land to decorating. These will have been checked by UXO disposal experts, and should pose no threat. Still, it pays to have a healthy respect for all UXO. After all, these are weapons that were designed to kill or maim.