Lao customs regulations limit visitors to 500 cigarettes and one litre of distilled alcohol per person upon entry, but in practice bags are rarely opened unless a suspiciously large amount of luggage is being brought in. A customs declaration form must be filled out along with the arrival form, but typically nobody bothers to check that the information is correct. There is no limit on the amount of foreign currency you can bring into Laos.
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Laos is one of the world’s poorest nations, and consequently one of the cheapest Asian countries to travel in. Your largest expense is likely to be transport, with journeys usually costing between 60,000 and 120,000K; accommodation and food are very inexpensive.
By eating at noodle stalls and cheap restaurants, opting for basic accommodation and travelling by public transport, you can travel in Laos on a daily budget of less than $20. Staying in more upmarket hotels and resorts, and eating in the best restaurants will push your budget up to a very reasonable $40–60 a day – though you’ll struggle to find upmarket accommodation and restaurants in much of the country. Note, however, that prices are significantly higher in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
While restaurants and some shops have fixed prices, in general merchandise almost never has price tags, and the lack of a fixed pricing scheme can take some getting used to. Prices, unless marked or for food in a market, should usually be negotiated, as should the cost of chartering transport (as opposed to fares on passenger vehicles, which are non-negotiable). Hotel and guesthouse operators are usually open to a little bargaining, particularly during off-peak months.
Bargaining is very much a part of life in Laos, and an art form, requiring a delicate balance of humour, patience and tact. It’s important to remain realistic, as vendors will lose interest if you’ve quoted a price that’s way out of line, and to keep a sense of perspective: cut-throat haggling over 1000K only reflects poorly on both buyer and seller. As the Lao in general – with the exception of drivers of vehicles for hire and souvenir sellers in Vientiane and Luang Prabang – are less out to rip off tourists than their counterparts in Thailand and Vietnam, they start off the haggling by quoting a fairly realistic price and expect to come down only a little. It’s worth bearing in mind that the country’s dependence on imported goods from its neighbours does push prices up – whether for food, toiletries or transport.
Supplied at 220 volts AC. Two-pin sockets taking plugs with flat prongs are the norm. Many smaller towns, including several provincial capitals, have power for only a few hours in the evening or none at all, so it’s worth bringing a torch.
Good, reliable information on Laos is hard to come by and, because everything from visa requirements to transport routes are subject to frequent change, your best bet is often to get the latest advice from internet forums, guesthouses and fellow travellers.
The government-run Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA for short; wwww.tourismlaos.org), which has offices around Laos, including Vientiane and Luang Prabang, should be able to supply decent brochures and maps, including Destination Laos, a free mini-guidebook published annually.
Privately owned travel companies such as Green Discovery and Diethelm Travel can provide reliable tourist information in provincial capitals, as well as some free fold-out maps. For more detailed maps of the country, try one of the bookshops in Vientiane or Vang Vieng.
wwww.destination-laos.net Attractive province-by-province guide to Laos, featuring maps, pictures and plenty of useful information.
wwww.vientianetimes.com Features news, accommodation listings and links to hundreds of other websites on Laos.
wwww.catmekongexpress.com Huge general info site.
wwww.laoembassy.com Website of the Lao embassy to the United States features tourist info and updated visa regulations.
wwww.ecotourismlaos.com A slick, award-winning website by the Lao National Tourism Administration that features helpful tips on exploring Laos’s national parks.
wwww.laos-travel.itgo.com Useful site (if a little dated) with province-by-province info.
wwww.laosglobe.com Laos-related news from around the world is collated on this regularly updated site.
wwww.tripadvisor.com User-generated reviews of hotels, guesthouses and tourist attractions in Laos.
wwww.muonglao.com This locally run website includes travel tips and a list of tourist highlights.
wtheboatlanding.com An excellent site on travel in Northern Laos. Features information on independent trekking and eco-tourism.
It is important to purchase a good travel insurance policy before travelling that covers against theft, loss and illness or injury. Good medical coverage is particularly important in Laos where the poor healthcare system means that any serious accident or illness while there would most likely require you to travel to Thailand for treatment.
Internet cafés are increasingly common in Laos, though there are still a fair few towns that don’t have access. Prices range between 6000 and 15,000K per hour; in most places, connections can be excruciatingly slow. Numerous cafés and many hotels and guesthouses in Vientiane and Luang Prabang now offer wi-fi – outside of these places wi-fi is limited to more upmarket accommodation and occasionally cafés in more touristy towns.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Laos, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
Most guesthouses and hotels offer a same-day laundry service, and in larger towns a few shops offer laundry service which can be cheaper than what you’ll be charged at your accommodation. In either situation, the charge is usually per kilogram. Your clothes will take a beating, so it’s best not to entrust prized articles to these services. If you want to wash clothes yourself, you can buy small packets of detergent in many general stores and markets around the country. Hang out your underwear discreetly – women should take particular care, as women’s undergarments are believed to have the power to render Buddhist tattoos and amulets powerless.
Lao currency, the kip, is available in 50,000K, 20,000K, 10,000K, 5000K, 2000K, 1000K and 500K notes; there are no coins in circulation.
Although a law passed in 1990 technically forbids the use of foreign currencies to pay for goods and services in local markets, many tour operators, and upmarket hotels and restaurants quote their prices in dollars (especially common when the price is above 350,000K). Many shops, especially those in more touristy towns, and tourist services will accept Thai baht or US dollars in place of kip, usually at a fairly decent exchange rate, though it makes little sense unless you’re paying for something that would require a large amount of kip.
Due to the high denominations of Lao money, it can be rather cumbersome to carry even relatively small amounts of money in kip. It’s far easier to carry large sums of money in dollars or baht and to change them as you need to – bear in mind though that larger US notes will get you better exchange rates. It’s not possible to convert money to or from kip outside of Laos.
Banks and exchange
Banking hours are generally Monday to Friday 8.30am to 3.30pm. Exchange rates are fairly uniform throughout the country, though marginally better in larger towns and cities. Most towns have a bank with at least the most basic of exchange facilities – usually dollars and baht – though travellers’ cheques (US dollars) are now accepted at many banks and a wide variety of international currencies can often be changed, including euros and sterling. Moneychangers are common in larger towns, and rates are generally a little lower, though not disproportionately so, than the banks.
Travellers’ cheques, cash and cards
The most convenient way to carry money in Laos is to take a good supply of US dollars or Thai baht with you. Travellers’ cheques are the safest way to carry larger amounts of money, and as they are now accepted at banks throughout the country they are a good option if you’re travelling for a few weeks, though cashing them will incur a charge of around $1 per cheque. ATMs are becoming more prevalent, but are still fairly rare, and even so it’s best not to rely on them. In addition, some travellers have had problems with receiving funds from ATMs, with reports that their accounts were debited despite not receiving cash at the end of the transaction. In such a situation, contact your bank as soon as possible.
Major credit cards are accepted at upmarket hotels and restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and in a limited number of other tourist centres. Cash advances on Visa cards, and less frequently Mastercard, are possible in some banks in larger towns, though minimum amounts and commission are likely to be imposed. Bear in mind that electricity supply in much of the country can be somewhat temperamental, so paying by credit card or getting a cash advance on a card is not always possible even when the service is advertised – it’s important not to rely on plastic in Laos and to always have some cash as a fall-back option.
The Lao postal system can be slow and unreliable – mail takes seven to fourteen days in or out of Laos, depending on where you are. Post offices are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm, sometimes with an hour break at lunchtime. When sending parcels, keep the package open for inspection.
Poste restante services are available in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Post offices in both towns charge a small fee for letters (postcards received this way are free) and keep mail behind the counter for two or three months. Bring your passport on the off chance that you’re asked to show identification when picking up your mail. Mail should be addressed: name, GPO, city, Lao PDR.
Opening hours and public holidays
Hours for government offices are generally Monday to Friday from 8am to noon and from 1 to 5pm. Private businesses usually open and close a bit later, with most opening on Saturday but almost all closed on Sunday. Details of banking and post office hours are given and above respectively.
The posted hours on museums are not always scrupulously followed outside of the major cities and on slow days (almost every day) the curators and staff are often tempted to pack up and head home. Unless a festival is taking place, monasteries should only be visited during daylight hours as monks are very early risers and are usually in bed not long after sunset.
Government offices, banks and post offices close for public holidays – a lot of shops, especially in smaller towns, also close for the day.
The majority of internet cafés now have facilities for international calling, usually through Skype. Alternatively, international calls can be made at the local Telecom Office, though prices are generally quite high.
Regional codes are given throughout the Guide: the “0” must be dialled before all long-distance calls. Some hotels have consecutively numbered phone lines – thus t021/221200–5 means that the last digit can be any number between 0 and 5.
GSM or Triband mobile phones can be used in Laos, though call and text charges will be high, so if you’re planning on using your phone it’s worth buying a local SIM card. These are readily available from shops and markets and cost 20,000–30,000K, which will also give you an initial amount of credit to use. Mobile phone coverage is limited in more remote provinces – at the time of writing, the most comprehensive network was ETL. Top-up cards can be purchased in most towns and villages that have even the most basic shop – just look for the flag displaying the network’s name.
Most hotels and guesthouses in Laos now claim to have hot-water showers – though in reality the water is often disappointingly cold. Traditional Lao showers, sometimes found in accommodation in rural areas, consist of a large, ceramic jar or a cement tub resembling an oversized bathtub without a drain. Standing next to the tub, you use the plastic scoop provided to sluice water over your body. While it may look tempting on a hot day, don’t get into these tubs or try to use them for doing your laundry, as the water has to be used by others. In many towns villagers opt for an even more traditional technique – the river. Men usually bathe in their underwear, women in sarongs.
Hard to find outside Vientiane’s minimarkets, which have a very limited selection. Bring supplies.
Ignoring daylight-saving time abroad, Laos is 7 hours ahead of London, 15 hours ahead of Vancouver, 12 hours ahead of New York, 3 hours behind Sydney and 5 hours behind Auckland.
Squat toilets are the norm throughout Laos, although almost all hotels and guesthouses have Western-style porcelain thrones. Public toilets are not common in Laos though you’ll find them at airports and most bus stations; at the latter a small fee is usually collected. Not all toilets will have toilet paper, so it’s worth carrying some with you. Most squat toilets require manual flushing – you’ll find a bucket of water with a scoop floating on the surface for this purpose. In some small, rural villages people tend to take to the woods because of a lack of plumbing. On long road trips this is also a perfectly acceptable way to relieve yourself, though keep in mind that many parts of Laos have UXO, so it’s not wise to wade too far into the bush when the bus stops for a bathroom break.
Travellers with disabilities
For anyone with limited mobility, Laos is a difficult country to explore. Even in the big tourist cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, you’ll be met with uneven pavements, which lack ramps, and small sets of stairs leading into most restaurants and guesthouses. In smaller towns the situation is even worse – there are often no pavements and most of the roads are dirt tracks.
However, a handful of the newer hotels in Laos (especially in cities) have been built with some regard for disabled guests. The best places have ramps at the front of the building, lifts to all floors of the hotel, and wider doorways that at least allow wheelchair users to pass from one part of the building to another. That said, your chances of getting a room that’s been specially adapted for a wheelchair user, complete with grab-rails and a roll-in shower, are close to zero.
Hotels that do make specific allowances for disabled guests include the 3 Nagas by Alila in Luang Prabang and the Lao Plaza in Vientiane.
The best way to alleviate transport difficulties is to take internal flights and hire a private minibus with a driver. You should also consider hiring a local tour guide to accompany you on sightseeing trips – a Lao speaker can facilitate access to temples and museums. Flying an international carrier whose planes are suited to your needs is also helpful. Keep in mind that airline companies can cope better if they are expecting you, with a wheelchair provided at airports and staff primed to help.
When preparing for your trip, it’s a good idea to pack spares of any clothing or equipment that might be hard to find. If you use a wheelchair, you should have it serviced before you go and carry a repair kit. If you do not use a wheelchair all the time but your walking capabilities are limited, remember that you are likely to need to cover greater distances while travelling (often over rougher terrain and in hotter temperatures) than you are used to.
Healthcare in Laos is so poor as to be virtually nonexistent; the average life expectancy is just 57. Malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases are rife, and you’ll need to take a number of precautions to avoid contracting these, especially if you plan on spending long periods of time in rural regions. The nearest medical care of any competence is in neighbouring Thailand; if you find yourself afflicted by anything more serious than travellers’ diarrhoea, it’s best to head for the closest Thai border crossing and check into a hospital.
Plan on consulting a doctor at least two months before your travel date to discuss which diseases you should receive immunization against. Some antimalarials must be taken several days before arrival in a malarial area in order to be effective. If you are going to be on the road for some time, a dental check-up is also advisable.
While there are no mandatory vaccinations for Laos (except yellow fever if you are coming from an infected area), a few are recommended. Hepatitis A, typhoid, tetanus and polio are the most important ones, but you should also consider hepatitis B, rabies and Japanese encephalitis. All shots should be recorded on an International Certificate of Vaccination and carried with your passport when travelling abroad.
Hepatitis A is contracted via contaminated food and water and can be prevented by the Havrix vaccine which provides protection for up to ten years. Two injections two to four weeks apart are necessary, followed by a booster a year later. The older one-shot vaccine only provides protection for three months. Hepatitis B is spread via sexual contact, transfusions of tainted blood and dirty needles. Vaccination is recommended for travellers who plan on staying for long periods of time (six months or more). Note that the vaccine can take up to six months before it is fully effective.
Rabies can be prevented by a vaccine that consists of two injections over a two-month period with a third a year later and boosters every two to five years. If you haven’t had shots and are bitten by a potentially rabid animal, you will need to get the jabs immediately.
Japanese encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease, is quite rare, but doctors may recommend a vaccination against it. The course of injections consists of two shots at two-week intervals plus a booster.
The average traveller to Laos has little to worry about as long as they use common sense and exercise a few precautions. The changes in climate and diet experienced during travel collaborate to lower your resistance, so you need to take special care to maintain a healthy intake of food and water and to try to minimize the effects of heat and humidity on the body. Excessive alcohol consumption should be avoided, as the dehydrating effects of alcohol are amplified by the heat and humidity.
Good personal hygiene is essential; hands should be washed before eating, especially given that much of the Lao cuisine is traditionally eaten with the hands. Cuts or scratches, no matter how minor, can become infected very easily and should be thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and bandaged to keep dirt out.
Most health problems experienced by travellers are a direct result of something they’ve eaten. Avoid eating uncooked vegetables and fruits that cannot be peeled. Dishes containing raw meat or fish are considered a delicacy in Laos but people who eat them risk ingesting worms and other parasites. Cooked food that has been sitting out for an undetermined period should be treated with suspicion.
Stomach trouble and viruses
Most travellers experience some form of stomach trouble during their visit to Laos, simply because their digestive system needs time to adapt to the local germs. To deal with travellers’ diarrhoea, it is usually enough to drink lots of liquids and eat lightly, avoiding spicy or greasy foods in favour of bland noodle soups until your system recovers. The use of Lomotil or Imodium should be avoided, as they just prevent your body clearing the cause of the diarrhoea, unless long-distance road travel makes it absolutely necessary. Diarrhoea accompanied by severe stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting is an indication of food poisoning. As with common diarrhoea, it usually ends after a couple of days. In either case, be sure to increase your liquid intake to make up for lost fluids. It’s a good idea to bring oral rehydration salts with you from home. If symptoms persist or become worse after a couple of days, consider seeking medical advice in Thailand.
Blood or mucus in the faeces is an indication of dysentery. There are two types of dysentery and they differ in their symptoms and treatment. Bacillary dysentery has an acute onset, with severe abdominal pain accompanied by the presence of blood in the diarrhoea. Fever and vomiting may also be symptoms. Bacillary dysentery requires immediate medical attention and antibiotics are usually prescribed. Amoebic dysentery is more serious: the onset is gradual with bloody faeces accompanied by abdominal pain. Symptoms may eventually disappear but the amoebas will still be in the body and will continue to feed on internal organs, causing serious health problems in time. If you contract either type of dysentery, seek immediate medical advice in Thailand.
Hepatitis A, a viral infection contracted by consuming contaminated food or water, is quite common in Laos. The infection causes the liver to become inflamed and resulting symptoms include nausea, abdominal pains, dark-brown urine and light-brown faeces that may be followed by jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of eyes). Vaccination is the best precaution; if you do come down with hepatitis A, get plenty of rest and eat light meals of non-fatty foods.
Another scatological horror is giardia, symptoms of which include a bloated stomach, evil-smelling burps and farts, and diarrhoea or floating stools. As with dysentery, treatment by a physician in Thailand should be sought immediately.
Occasional outbreaks of cholera occur in Laos. The initial symptoms are a sudden onset of watery but painless diarrhoea. Later nausea, vomiting and muscle cramps set in. Cholera can be fatal if adequate fluid intake is not maintained. Copious amounts of liquids, including oral rehydration solution, should be consumed and urgent medical treatment in Thailand should be sought.
Like cholera, typhoid is also spread in small, localized epidemics. The disease is sometimes difficult to diagnose, as symptoms can vary widely. Generally, they include headaches, fever and constipation, followed by diarrhoea.
Malaria, caused by the plasmodium parasite, is rife in much of Laos. Symptoms include chills, a high fever and then sweats, during which the fever falls; the cycle repeats every couple of days. These symptoms aren’t so different to those of flu, making diagnosis difficult without a blood test; if you think you’ve contracted malaria, check into a Thai hospital immediately.
Vientiane is said to be malaria-free, but visitors to other parts of Laos should take all possible precautions to avoid contracting this sometimes fatal disease. Night-feeding mosquitoes are the carriers, so you’ll need to take extra care in the evening, particularly at dawn and dusk. High-strength mosquito repellent that contains the chemical compound DEET is a necessity, although bear in mind that prolonged use may be harmful. A natural alternative is citronella oil, found in some repellents. Wearing trousers, long-sleeved shirts and socks gives added protection.
If you plan on travelling in remote areas, bring a mosquito net. Most guesthouses provide nets but some of these have holes; gather up the offending section of net and twist a rubber band around it. Many hotels have replaced nets with screened-in windows, which is fine if the room door remains shut at all times, but doors are usually left wide open when maids are tidying up the rooms between guests. If you can’t get hold of a mosquito net, try pyrethrum coils which can be found in most markets and general stores in Laos.
For added insurance against malaria, it’s advisable to take antimalarial tablets. Though doxycycline and mefloquine are the most commonly prescribed antimalarials for Laos, the plasmodium parasites are showing resistance to the latter drug. While none of the antimalarials guarantees that you will not contract malaria, the risks will be greatly reduced. Note that some antimalarials can have unpleasant side effects. Mefloquine in particular can sometimes cause dizziness, extreme fatigue, nausea and nightmares. Pregnant or lactating women are not advised to take mefloquine.
Day-feeding mosquitoes are the carriers of dengue fever. The disease is common in urban as well as rural areas, and outbreaks occur annually during the rainy season. The symptoms are similar to malaria and include fever, chills, aching joints and a red rash that spreads from the torso to the limbs and face. Dengue can be fatal in small children. There is no preventative vaccination or prophylactic. As with malaria, travellers should use insect repellent, keep skin covered with loose-fitting clothing and wear socks. There is no specific treatment for dengue other than rest, lots of liquids and paracetamol for pain and fever. Aspirin should be avoided as it can aggravate the proneness to internal bleeding which dengue sometimes produces.
The Lao hot season, roughly March to May, can be brutal, especially in the lowlands. To prevent sunburn, fair-skinned people should wear sunblock and consider purchasing a wide-brimmed straw hat. UV protective sunglasses are useful for cutting the sun’s glare, which can be especially harsh during river journeys. The threat of dehydration increases with physical exertion. Even if you don’t feel thirsty, drink plenty of water. Not having to urinate or passing dark-coloured urine are sure signs that your system is not getting enough liquids.
Heat exhaustion, signified by headaches, dizziness and nausea, is treated by resting in a cool place and increasing your liquid intake until the symptoms disappear. Heatstroke, indicated by high body temperature, flushed skin and a lack of perspiration, can be life-threatening if not treated immediately. Reducing the body’s temperature by immersion in tepid water is an initial treatment but no substitute for prompt medical attention. Heat and high humidity sometimes cause prickly heat, an itchy rash that is easily avoided by wearing loose-fitting cotton clothing.
Critters that bite and sting
In Laos the bugs are thick, especially during the rainy season when they swarm round light bulbs and pummel bare skin until you feel like the trampoline at a flea circus. Fortunately, most flying insects pose no threat and are simply looking for a place to land and rest up.
Visitors who spend the night in hill-tribe villages where hygiene is poor risk being infected by scabies. These microscopic creatures are just as loathsome as their name suggests, causing severe itching by burrowing under the skin and laying eggs. Scabies is most commonly contracted by sleeping on dirty bedclothes or being in prolonged physical contact with someone who is infected. More common are head lice, especially among children in rural areas. Like scabies, it takes physical contact, such as sleeping next to an infected person, to contract head lice, though it may also be possible to contract head lice by wearing a hat belonging to someone who is infected.
The leeches’ most commonly encountered in Laos are about the size and shape of an inchworm, and travellers are most likely to pick them up while trekking through wooded areas. Take extra care when relieving yourself during breaks on long-distance bus rides. The habit of pushing deep into a bush for privacy gives leeches just enough time to grab hold of your shoes or trousers. Later they will crawl their way beneath clothing and attach themselves to joint areas (ankles, knees, elbows) where veins are near the surface of the skin. An anaesthetic and anticoagulant in the leaches’ saliva allows the little vampires to gorge themselves on blood without the host feeling any pain. Tucking your trouser-legs into your socks is an easy way to foil leeches. Wounds left by sucking leeches should be washed and bandaged as soon as possible to avoid infection.
Laos has several varieties of poisonous snakes, including the king cobra, but the Lao habit of killing every snake they come across, whether venomous or not, keeps areas of human habitation largely snake-free. Travelling in rural areas greatly increases the risk of snakebite, but visitors can lessen the chances of being bitten by not wearing sandals or flip-flops outside urban areas. While hiking between hill-tribe villages especially, take the precaution of wearing boots, socks and long trousers. If you are bitten, the number-one rule is not to panic; remain still to prevent the venom from being quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. Snakebites should be washed and disinfected and immediate medical attention sought – a challenge in most parts of Laos, making avoidance of the problem vital. Huge, black scorpions the size of large prawns lurk under the shade of fallen leaves and sting reflexively when stepped on, another solid reason to restrict flip-flop-wearing to urban areas. While the sting is very painful, it is not fatal and pain and swelling usually disappear after a few hours.
Animals that are infected with rabies can transmit the disease by biting or even by licking an open wound. Dogs are the most common carriers but the disease can also be contracted from the bites of gibbons, bats and other mammals. Travellers should stay clear of all wild animals and resist the urge to pet unfamiliar dogs or cats. If bitten by a suspect animal, wash and disinfect the wound with alcohol or iodine and seek urgent medical help; the disease is fatal if left untreated.
Sexually transmitted diseases
Prostitution is on the rise in Laos, and with it the inevitable scourge of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Gonorrhoea and syphilis are common but easily treated with antibiotics. Symptoms of the former include pain or a pus-like discharge when urinating. An open sore on or around the genitals is a symptom of syphilis. In women symptoms are internal and may not be noticed. The number of cases of AIDS is also rising in Laos, mostly the result of Lao prostitutes contracting HIV in Thailand.
Bring condoms from home; most sold in Laos are imported from Thailand, and are often defective.
What about the water?
The simple rule while travelling in Laos is not to drink river or tap water. Contaminated water is a major cause of sickness due to the presence of pathogenic organisms: bacteria, viruses and microscopic giardia cysts. These microorganisms cause diseases such as diarrhoea, gastroenteritis, typhoid, cholera, dysentery, polio, hepatitis A, giardia and bilharzia, and can be present even when water looks clean.
Safe bottled water is available almost anywhere, though when buying, check that the seal is unbroken as bottles are occasionally refilled from the tap. Water purifying tablets, carried with you from home, are an environmentally friendly alternative as they help to reduce the number of plastic bottles left behind after your travels.
Chinese tea made from boiled water is generally safe, but travellers should shun ice that doesn’t look factory-made. Some of the fanciest hotels have filtration systems that make tap water safe enough to clean your teeth with, but as a general rule, you’re best off using purified or bottled water.
Tightly controlled by the communist party since the Pathet Lao came to power in 1975, Laos’s minuscule media struggles to compete with flashy Thai TV gameshows and the multitude of channels offered by satellite dishes. With only one-tenth of the population of its neighbour, it’s very hard for Laos to compete with Thailand.
Newspapers and magazines
Laos has only one English-language newspaper, the Vientiane Times, established in 1994. Despite being somewhat thin, self-censored and nearly impossible to find outside the capital, it is nonetheless a good window on Laos. Published by the Ministry of Information and Culture, the Vientiane Times focuses primarily on business and trade issues, although interesting cultural pieces do slip in from time to time, and the occasional column showcasing people’s opinion on a selected social topic is a worthwhile read. You’ll also find ads for restaurant specials and local teaching jobs.
There are two Lao-language dailies and five weeklies. Of the two dailies, Wieng Mai and Pasason, the latter is more widely read. Both get their international news from KPL, the government news agency, and, for the most part, have their own reporters who file domestic news. Neither is known for independent-minded reportage. In fact it’s fair to say you’ll find much more news about Laos online (a list of recommended websites appears below) than you can in the country.
Foreign publications are extremely difficult to find outside Vientiane, and even in the capital there are scant copies. Newsweek, The Economist, Time and the Bangkok Post are all sold at minimarkets in Vientiane.
Online news about Laos
www.vientianetimes.org.la The official website of the Vientiane Times contains most of the stories from Laos’s only English-language newspaper.
www.laosguide.com News gathered from around the world, with a strong bias towards issues affecting Laos.
www.laosnews.net Daily news updates from Laos, including links to stories about its economy and tourist industry.
www.muonglao.com An online magazine running articles that focus on the people and culture of Laos.
www.bangkokpost.net The website of Thailand’s leading English-language daily, which often runs stories about Laos.
www.asianobserver.com This lively web forum has news and debates on all things Laos.
Television and radio
Lao television’s two government-run channels broadcast a mix of news, cultural shows and Chinese soaps for several hours a day, with no English programming. Reception is poor, however, in rural areas. One of the oddest sights in Laos is that of rickety bamboo and thatch huts and houses all over the country with huge, modern satellite dishes attached to the roofs. Many mid-range and top-end hotels provide satellite TV – though often these show only a handful of channels – as do a few coffee shops and bakeries in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Lao radio thrives, helped along by the fact that newspapers and TV stations are not available to many people in the countryside. The main radio station, Lao National Radio, can be picked up in the vicinity of Vientiane or on shortwave in roughly seventy percent of the country. LNR gets its international news from a number of sources, including CNN, BBC, Xinhua and KPL, and broadcasts news in English twice a day. Tuning into LNR will also give you a chance to hear traditional Lao music, which you otherwise may only get to hear at festivals.
During their period of colonization, the French regarded traditional Lao therapies as quaint and amusing, and this attitude was passed on to the Lao elite who studied in France. In an essay about traditional Lao medicine written in the 1950s by a former Minister of Health, the traditional Lao doctor is repeatedly referred to as “the quack”. But renewed interest, partially fuelled by a similar rekindling of enthusiasm in neighbouring China, has seen a resurgence of confidence in traditional techniques.
Tourism has been partially responsible for renewed interest in traditional massage and herbal sauna, though these alternative therapies are generally limited to larger towns and cities. Besides the obvious physical benefits the Lao massage and sauna afford the recipient, administering massage and sauna to others is believed to bring spiritual merit to those who perform the labour, making Lao massage and sauna a win-win proposition for all involved.
Lao massage owes more to Chinese than to Thai schools, utilizing medicated balms and salves which are rubbed into the skin. Muscles are kneaded and joints are flexed while a warm compress of steeped herbs is applied to the area being treated. Besides massage, Lao doctors may utilize other “exotic” treatments that have been borrowed from neighbouring countries. One decidedly Chinese therapy that is sometimes employed in Laos is acupuncture (fang khem), in which long, thin needles are inserted into special points that correspond to specific organs or parts of the body. Another imported practice is the application of suction cups (kaew dut), a remedy popular in neighbouring Cambodia. Small glass jars are briefly heated with a flame and applied to bare skin; air within the cup contracts as it cools, drawing blood under the skin into the mouth of the cup. Theoretically, toxins within the bloodstream are in this way brought to the surface of the skin.
Lao herbal saunas
Before getting a massage, many Lao opt for some time in the herbal sauna. This usually consists of a rustic wooden shack divided into separate rooms for men and women; beneath the shack a drum of water sits on a wood fire. Medicinal herbs boiling in the drum release their juices into the water and the resulting steam is carried up into the rooms. The temperature inside is normally quite high and bathers should spend no more than fifteen minutes at a time in the sauna, taking frequent breaks to cool off by lounging outside and sipping herbal tea to replace water that the body so profusely sweats out. The recipes of both the saunas and teas are jealously guarded but are known to contain such herbal additives as carambola, tamarind, eucalyptus and citrus leaves.
Culture and etiquette
While history may have given them ample reason to distrust outsiders, the Lao are a genuinely friendly people and interacting with them is one of the greatest joys of travelling through the country. Always remember, though, that Laos is a Buddhist country and so it’s important to dress and behave in a way that is respectful.
Because of the sheer diversity of ethnic groups in Laos, it is difficult to generalize when speaking of “Lao” attitudes and behaviour. The dominant group, the so-called “Lao Loum”, or lowland Lao, who make up the majority in the valleys of the Mekong and its tributaries, are Theravada Buddhists and this has a strong effect on their attitudes and behaviour. The focus here is on dos and don’ts within that culture; customs among the hill-tribe peoples are often quite different from those of the lowlanders.
Dress and appearance
Appearance is very important in Lao society. Conservative dress is always recommended, and visitors should keep in mind that the Lao dislike foreigners who come to their country and dress in what they deem a disrespectful manner. This includes men appearing shirtless in public, and women bearing their shoulders and thighs. Be aware also that dreadlocks, tattoos and body-piercing are viewed with disfavour by lowland Lao, although hill-tribe people are usually more accepting. Dressing too casually (or too outrageously) can also be counterproductive in dealings with Lao authorities, such as when applying for visa extensions at immigration.
When in urban areas or visiting Buddhist monasteries or holy sites, visitors should refrain from outfits that would be more suited to the beach. Women especially should avoid wearing anything that reveals too much skin or could be conceived of as provocative – this includes shorts and sleeveless shirts. Sandals or flip-flops can be worn for all but the most formal occasions; in fact, they are much more practical than shoes, since footwear must be removed upon entering private homes, certain Buddhist monastery buildings or any living space. The habit of leaving your footwear outside the threshold is not just a matter of wanting to keep interiors clean, it is a long-standing tradition that will cause offence if flouted.
Lao social taboos are sometimes linked to Buddhist beliefs. Feet are considered low and unclean – be careful not to step over any part of people who are sitting or lying on the floor, as this is also considered rude. If you do accidentally kick or brush someone with your feet, apologize immediately and smile as you do so. Conversely, people’s heads are considered sacred and shouldn’t be touched.
Besides dressing conservatively, there are other conventions that must be followed when visiting Buddhist monasteries. Before entering monastery buildings such as the sim or wihan, or if you are invited into monks’ living quarters, footwear must be removed. Women should never touch Buddhist monks or novices (or their clothes), or hand objects directly to them. When giving something to a monk, the object should be placed on a nearby table or passed to a layman who will then hand it to the monk.
All Buddha images are objects of veneration, so it should go without saying that touching Buddha images disrespectfully is inappropriate. When sitting on the floor of a monastery building that has a Buddha image, never point your feet in the direction of the image. If possible, observe the Lao and imitate the way they sit: in a modified kneeling position with legs pointed away from the image.
The lowland Lao traditionally greet each other with a nop – bringing their hands together at the chin in a prayer-like gesture. After the revolution the nop was discouraged, but it now seems to be making a comeback. This graceful gesture is more difficult to execute properly than it may at first appear, however, as the status of the persons giving and returning the nop determines how they execute it. Most Lao reserve the nop greeting for each other, preferring to shake hands with Westerners, and the only time a Westerner is likely to receive a nop is from the staff of upmarket hotels or fancy restaurants. In any case, if you do receive a nop as a gesture of greeting or thank you, it is best to reply with a smile and nod of the head.
The Lao often feel that many foreign visitors seem to be a bit aloof. They have obviously spent a lot of time and money to get so far from home, but once they get to Laos they walk around briskly, looking at the locals, but rarely bothering to smile or greet those they have come so far to see. Foreign visitors who are not grin-stingy will find that a smile and a sabai di (hello) will break the ice of initial reservation some locals may have upon seeing a foreigner, and will invariably bring a smile in response.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, as in the rest of Asia, showing anger in Laos is rather futile – it’ll more likely be met with amusement or the swift departure of the person you’re talking to, in order to save face.
Lao people are very hospitable and will often go out of their way to help visitors. Especially in rural areas, you may find people inviting you to join them for a meal or to celebrate a birth or marriage. This is a real privilege, and even if you don’t wish to stay for long, it’s polite to join them and to accept at least one drink if it’s offered to you. More than anything, it gives you a chance to experience local life, and gives Lao people a good impression of the tourists that come to their country, and an opportunity to learn more about the world.
Public displays of affection – even just hugging – are considered tasteless by the Lao and is likely to cause offence. Though the gay scene remains very underground in Laos, gay travellers are unlikely to be threatened or hassled. Sexual relations between an unmarried Lao national and a Westerner are officially illegal in Laos – in Vientiane especially, the law prohibiting Lao nationals from sharing hotel rooms with foreigners is sometimes enforced.
Crime and safety
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.
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.
In recent years Laos has seen a steady rise of drug tourism. Ganja (marijuana) is widely available in Laos, although it’s illegal to smoke it. Tourists who buy and use ganja risk substantial “fines” if caught by police, who do not need a warrant to search you or your room. As in Thailand, there have been many instances of locals selling foreigners marijuana and then telling the police. In Vang Vieng, mushrooms and weed are offered at most backpacker bars – either straight up or baked into a dizzying array of “happy” pizzas – but you should bear in mind that plenty of travellers get sick, or robbed, after indulging.
In northern towns, tourists are sometimes approached by opium addicts who, in return for cash, offer to take the visitors to a hut or some other private place, where opium pipes will be prepared and smoked. Many Westerners feel the romanticism of doing this all-but-extinct drug is just as appealing as the promise of intoxication, but the opium prepared for tourists is often not opium at all, but morphine-laden opium ash that has been mixed with painkillers. The resulting “high” is, for many, several hours of nausea and vomiting. While real opium is not as addictive as its derivative, heroin, withdrawal symptoms are similarly painful. Visitors caught smoking opium (or even opium ash) face fines, jail time and deportation.
In addition, it’s important to consider the local implications of using drugs in Laos. There remains a serious problem with drug addiction in some rural communities, which local organizations are working hard to address, and using drugs while in the country can encourage local people to do the same, thus undoing a lot of hard work.
Travelling with children
Travelling through Laos with children can be both challenging and fun, but the rewards far outweigh any negatives. The presence of children can help break the ice with locals, especially as the Lao people are so family-focused, but long, bumpy journeys and poor sanitation can make things a struggle at times.
Laos’ s lack of adequate healthcare facilities is a major concern for parents, so sufficient travel insurance is a must for peace of mind. It’s worth taking a first aid set with you, as well as a rehydration solution in case of diarrhoea, which can be quite dangerous in young children. Rabies is a problem in Laos, so explain to your children the dangers of playing with animals and consider a rabies vaccination before departing.
In tourist areas it should be no problem finding food that kids will eat, and dishes like spring rolls, fried rice and fõe, where chilli is added by the diner, are a good choice for those who may not be used to the spiciness of Lao cuisine.
A major consideration will be the long journeys that are sometimes necessary when travelling around the country – these can be bone-numbing at the best of times, and young children may find them excruciatingly boring. That said, bus journeys are a real “local” experience that can make more of an impression than wandering around temples. It is easy, however, to see a fair amount of the country by sticking to journeys of less than six hours.
Most hotels and guesthouses are very accommodating to families, often allowing children to stay for free in their parents’ room, or adding an extra bed or cot to the room for a small charge.
If you’re travelling with babies, you’ll have difficulty finding nappies (diapers) throughout Laos. For short journeys, you could bring a supply of nappies from home; for longer trips, consider switching over to washables.
For more advice on travelling with children, consult The Rough Guide to Travel with Babies and Young Children.
Kip and dollars
In Laos, expect to see more expensive goods, services and accommodation (generally things that cost over $25) priced in dollars rather than kip. However, unless you’re staying in high-end accommodation, most of your transactions will be in kip.
January 1 New Year’s Day
January 6 Pathet Lao Day
January 20 Army Day
March 8 Women’s Day
March 22 Lao People’s Party Day
April 13–15 Lao New Year
May 1 International Labour Day
June 1 Children’s Day
August 13 Lao Issara
August 23 Liberation Day
October 12 Freedom from France Day
December 2 National Day