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Population : 6,7 million
Capital : Vientiane
Religion : buddhism (67%)
Political regime : republic
Official Language : lao
Currency : kip

After years of war and isolation, Southeast Asia’s most pristine environment, intact cultures and quite possibly the most chilled-out people on earth mean destination Laos is fast earning cult status among travellers. It is developing quickly but still has much of the tradition that has sadly disappeared elsewhere in the region. Village life is refreshingly simple and even in Vientiane it’s hard to believe this sort of languid riverfront life exists in a national capital. Then, of course, there is the historic royal city of Luang Prabang, where watching as hundreds of saffron-robed monks move silently among centuries-old monasteries is as romantic a scene as you’ll experience anywhere in Asia.

Away from the cities, there is so much more to see; the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuang Province, the forested mountains of Northern Laos, the gothic limestone karsts around the backpacker-haven Vang Vieng and in the deep south, past the market town Pakse, is Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), where the mighty Mekong spreads out and all the hammocks are taken.

The Lao wilderness is drawing travellers looking for nature, adventure or both. Kayaking, rafting, rock-climbing and biking are all available, but it’s the community-based trekking that is most popular because it combines spectacular natural attractions with the chance to experience the ‘real Laos’ with a village homestay – while spending your money where it’s needed most.

There is undoubtedly a growing tourist trail in Laos, but that just means there’s plenty of roads off Rte 13 where you can make your own trail. After all, half the fun of travelling here is in the travel itself – the people you meet, chickens you share seats with, wrong turns you take and lào-láo you drink with the smiling family at the end of the road less travelled.


Laos is an inexpensive country to visit by almost any standards. Not including transport, a budget of US$15 a day brings with it decent food and comfortable, but basic, accommodation. When you add air-con, hot water and falang (Western) food, costs are around US$20 to US$25 per day if you economise, and around US$75 for top-end hotels and food. Of course, you can spend even more if you stay in the best hotels and eat at the most expensive restaurants, although such a scenario exists only in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

For those on a tight budget, in Vientiane or Luang Prabang you can squeeze by on about $10 a day if you stay in the cheapest guesthouses and eat local food; in remote areas where everything’s less expensive you can whittle this figure down to around US$7 or US$8 a day.
Add to these estimates the cost of transport, which varies considerably depending on how fast you’re moving. Flying with Lao Airlines costs from US$40 to US$100 per leg. Most bus trips cost between US$2 and US$.

All these costs are paid in a mix of US dollars, Thai baht and Lao kip. Credit cards and other bank cards aren’t widely accepted, so pack cash and travellers cheques.

Tipping is not customary in Laos except in upmarket restaurants where 10% of the bill is appreciated – but only if a service charge hasn’t already been added.

The official national currency in Laos is the Lao kip (LAK). Although only kip is legally negotiable in everyday transactions, in reality three currencies are used for commerce: kip, Thai baht (B) and US dollars (US$). In larger cities and towns, baht and US dollars are readily acceptable at most businesses, including hotels, restaurants and shops.

In smaller towns and villages, kip is usually preferred. The rule of thumb is that for everyday small purchases, prices are quoted in kip. More expensive goods and services (eg long-distance boat hire) may be quoted in baht or dollars, while anything costing US$100 or more (eg tours, long-term car hire) is quoted in US dollars.

Despite experiencing relative stability in recent years, the kip cannot yet call itself a stable currency. As such, prices in this guidebook are given in the US dollar equivalent.
The Lao kip is not convertible to any currency outside of the Lao PDR. Because of this, the only reliable sources of foreign exchange information are those inside the country.

Before you go

Pack medications in their original, clearly labelled, containers. A signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names, is also a good idea. If carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician’s letter documenting their medical necessity. If you have a heart condition bring a copy of your ECG taken just prior to travelling.

If you happen to take any regular medication, bring double your needs in case of loss or theft. In Laos it can be difficult to find some of the newer drugs, particularly the latest antidepressant drugs, blood pressure medications and contraceptive pills.

The only vaccine required by international regulations is yellow fever. Proof of vaccination will only be required if you have visited a country in the yellow-fever zone within the six days prior to entering Southeast Asia. If you are travelling to Southeast Asia from Africa or South America you should check to see if you require proof of vaccination.

Specialised travel-medicine clinics are your best source of information; they stock all available vaccines and will be able to give specific recommendations for you and your trip. The doctors will take into account factors such as past vaccination history, the length of your trip, activities you may be undertaking, and underlying medical conditions, such as pregnancy.

Most vaccines don’t produce immunity until at least two weeks after they’re given, so visit a doctor four to eight weeks before departure. Ask your doctor for an International Certificate of Vaccination (otherwise known as the yellow booklet), which will list all the vaccinations you’ve received. In the US, the yellow booklet is no longer issued, but it is highly unlikely the Lao authorities will ask for proof of vaccinations (unless you have recently been in a yellow-fever affected country).

Over the last 15 years or so Laos has earned a reputation among visitors as a remarkably safe place to travel, with little crime reported and few of the scams so often found in more touristed places such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. And while the vast majority of Laotians remain honest and welcoming, things aren’t quite as idyllic as they once were. The main change has been in the rise of petty crime, such as theft and low-level scams, which are more annoying than actually dangerous. That’s not to say Laos is danger free. However, most dangers are easy enough to avoid.

The Lao follow the usual Southeast Asian method of queuing for services, which is to say they don’t form a line at all but simply push en masse towards the point of distribution, whether at ticket counters, post-office windows or bus doors. It won’t help to get angry and shout ‘I was here first!’ since first-come, first-served simply isn’t the way things are done here. Rather it’s ‘first-seen, first-served’. Learn to play the game the Lao way, by pushing your money, passport, letters or whatever to the front of the crowd as best you can. Eventually you’ll get through

While Lao are generally trustworthy people and theft is much less common than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, it has risen in recent years. Most of the reports we’ve heard involve opportunistic acts that, if you are aware of them, are fairly easily avoided.

Money or goods going missing from hotel rooms is becoming more common, so don’t leave cash or other tempting items (such as women’s cosmetics) out on show. If you ride a crowded bus, watch your luggage and don’t keep money in your trouser pockets. If you ride a bicycle or motorcycle in Vientiane, don’t place anything of value in the basket – thieving duos on motorbikes have been known to ride by and snatch bags from baskets. Also in Vientiane, we’ve had several reports of (usually) women having daypacks stolen after they’ve changed money near the BCEL bank on the riverfront – be especially careful around here.
Other reports involve theft on buses between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and on the slow boat between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. Simple locks on your bags are usually enough to discourage the light-fingered.

The annual monsoon cycles that affect all of mainland Southeast Asia produce a ‘dry and wet monsoon climate’ with three basic seasons for most of Laos. The southwest monsoon arrives in Laos between May and July and lasts into November.

The monsoon is followed by a dry period (from November to May), beginning with lower relative temperatures and cool breezes created by Asia’s northeast monsoon (which bypasses most of Laos), lasting until mid-February. Exceptions to this general pattern include Xieng Khuang, Hua Phan and Phongsali Provinces, which may receive rainfall coming from Vietnam and China during the months of April and May.

Rainfall varies substantially according to latitude and altitude, with the highlands of Vientiane, Bolikhamsai, Khammuan and eastern Champasak Provinces receiving the most.
Temperatures also vary according to altitude. In the humid, low-lying Mekong River valley, temperatures range from 15°C to 38°C, while the mountains of Xieng Khuang it can drop to 0°C at night.

When to travel
The best time for visiting most of Laos is between November and February, when it rains the least and is not too hot. It’s also Laos’s main season for both national and regional bun (festivals).

If you plan to focus on the mountainous northern provinces, the hot season (from March to May) and early rainy season (around June) is not bad either, as temperatures are moderate at higher elevations. Southern Laos, on the other hand, is best avoided from March to May, when day-time temperatures break into the 40s and nights aren’t much cooler.

The rainy season is not as bad as you might think. While it will rain – very heavily – the downpours are often fairly brief and can be bracketed by long periods of sunshine. The rains also clear dust from the skies and land, making everything clearer and brighter. Of course, there are downsides; unsealed roads can become quagmires and extensive travel in remote areas like Salavan, Phongsali and Sainyabuli might be impossible. River travel can be a good alternative during these months. If you intend to travel extensively by river, November is the best; flooding has usually subsided yet river levels are still high enough for maximum navigability. Between January and June, low water can make navigating some rivers difficult.
December to February and August are the peak tourist times. January, in particular, is very busy and booking ahead is advisable.

  • The Laos greeting/hello is 'Sabai Dee' and nearly always said with a warm smile. Usually, this is accompanied with the 'Nop', which is pressing the hands together in a prayer like fashion, much like the Thai 'Wai'.
  • Showing the bottom of your feet, touching someone with your feet, or relaxing with your feet raised up on the table is considered extremely rude in Laos culture... don't do it, ever. Feet are for walking or kicking a football.
  • A cultural clanger often made by foreigners is touching the head of a Laotian, be that playfully or in a friendly gesture. This is extremely impolite, the head of someone else should not be touched.
  • Dirty, smelly, unwashed backpacker types are frowned upon. Keep yourself clean and smart.
  • Don't plod into someone's home with your shoes on, EVER!
  • Physical displays of affection, kissing, even hugging in public is considered impolite. Respect the local customs and be discreet.
  • Laos people are peace loving, avoid confrontation and speak with soft tones... you should do the same.
  • Don't go to the temple bare chested and scruffy. Show some respect... dress neatly and conservatively. Don't go snapping pictures in the temple like a paparazzi... be discreet and ask if it's OK first.
  • Women... you must not touch a monk or his robes. If you do so, he will have to spend ages ritually cleansing himself of the disgrace.
  • DO NOT buy unexploded ordinance! Doing so encourages people to retrieve UXO but this is an extremely dangerous practice and kills many every year. Don't even touch it.
  • Do not use illegal substances. As in most countries in the region, the consequences if you are caught are very severe.
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