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Laos - Travel Essentials

 

Type of Laos Holiday

Deciding what to include on a tour of Laos depends of course on your interests, time and budget. We can tailor make any itinerary to suit your exact requirements.

Our tailor made Laos Tours can include just flights, hotels and transfers without any excursions or your trip can be tailored to include a mix of guided excursions with time to explore independently (which we think is usually the best mix).

Typically many people combine a week long tour of Laos with a beach holiday in Thailand or a longer tour of Indochina.

A tour of Laos can easily be combined with a tour of Vietnam or neighbouring Cambodia.

Family Holidays to Laos

Laos has some great options for an adventurous family holiday to Asia. Activities might include spending a day with the elephants near Luang Prabang, trekking, kayaking and cycling around Vang Vieng or spending a few days at Muang La Resort in the Northwest of Laos.

Journeys around Laos can be quite long so bear this in mind if travelling with younger children, but generally older children find Laos an exciting destination and the locals tend to adore children.

Cultural Tours

Luang Prabang has enough temples to satisfy the most ardent of culture seekers.

It's very easy to spend quite a number of lazy days pottering around the streets, exploring the temples and joining the monks on their early morning Alms giving walk.

Vientiane also has it's share of temples including magnificent Wat Si Saket. Nearby is the Buddhist sculpture park which is well worth a visit.

The Northwest of Laos is hilltribe country, with diverse and colourful hilltribes each with their own unique culture, dress, language and customs.

River Cruises in Laos

The Mekong River is one of Asia's iconic waterways and Laos offers several options for a Mekong River Cruise.

Pandaw Cruises introduced a wonderful Mekong River Cruise in Laos in 2015 which is proving extremely popular.

One of the most popular is the two day journey from the north of Thailand via Pakbeng to Luang Prabang. This is very beautiful corner of Laos where the Mekong winds languidly between limestone cliffs.

Further south the Mekong is wider as it cuts through the plains of Central Laos.

The Vat Phou teak river cruiser is a great way to discover this region of Laos in a 3 day Mekong Cruise.

Nature & Wildlife Holidays

Laos is blessed with magnificent limestone mountain scenery in the north where the mighty Mekong is fed by various tributaries.

The high rolling grassland of the Xieng Khuang Plateau in the Northeast is home to the so-called 'Plain of Jars'.

Wildlife viewing in Laos isn't prolific but there are some interesting trips, including seeing Irrawaddy Dolphins in the south and visiting a bear sanctuary in the north.

Active Holidays

Laos offers plenty of opportunities for a more active style of holiday, especially in Vang Vieng, the adventure capital of Laos. In Vang Vieng, enjoy trekking, cycling, kayaking and even rock climbing.

Trekking is also a great option in the Northwest of Laos in the Nam Ha National Park.

A stay at Muang La Resort, north of Luang Prabang is a great option for those looking to enjoy some soft adventure activities in the north of Laos.

Undiscovered Laos

Getting off the beaten track in Laos is relatively easy as most areas of Laos are little visited. The Northeast of Laos is the region least on the tourist map and any visit here can be considered off the beaten track.

The Far north of Laos by the border with China is little explored and the central Mekong Valley travelling overland from Vientiane to Laos' second city Savannakhet is also suprisingly off the tourist trail.

Luang Prabang

This World Heritage designated town is the highlight of any trip to Laos. Laid-back and charming, Luang Prabang is a town of temples and monasteries where the pre-dawn alms round procession of monks brings out a steady stream of on-lookers.

The gold-clad temples, French style cafes and great local shops frequently detain those who only planned on staying a night or two.

There are a couple of luxurious boutique hotels in Luang Prabang which make it an even bigger incentive to linger longer.

Vientiane

Vientiane is one of the sleepiest capital cities in the world, with wide boulevards and little traffic.

The capital of Laos is very accessible by air or overland from Bangkok and is the springboard for travel into the north or south of Laos.

Vientiane has a few attractions including the stunning gilded That Luang Stupa and Laos’ own version of the Arc de Triumph.

Sunsets by the Mekong are always spectacular and most visitors find themselves by the Mekong for sun-down.

Northeast Laos

Northeastern Laos is one of the least visited regions of the country but received a great deal of attention from both the Americans and Vietnamese during the Vietnam War when the area was heavily bombed, obliterating whole villages and forcing the population to retreat to caves for shelter.

Many relics remain from that period, both in the form of bombs shells propping up village houses and in the physical scars on the population.

For visitors, the mysterious Plain of Jars is a highlight, with huge stone vessels scattered over several locations close to the main town of Phonsavan.

Northwest Laos

The mountainous former Opium growing region of Laos to the north and west of Luang Prabang is where Laos borders China and Thailand's Golden Triangle and where the Mekong languidly winds it's way through forested hills towards Luang Prabang.

This is Laos' Hilltribe region and a great area for trekking and cycling, especially around Luang Nam Tha in the Nam Ha National Park.

To the south, Muang La offers a great location from which to explore this diverse region.

A great river journey here is from Chiang Rai in Thailand on an overnight trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng has been something of a backpackers mecca for years, but this small picturesque town on the banks of the Nam Song River is now emerging as a more mature destination, offering something more than a hedonistic adventure stop for Gap Year kids.

Vang Vieng makes a convenient stop on the winding overland route from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, itself one of the most beautiful stretches of road in Laos.

Vang Vieng appeals to thos looking for activity, with trekking, kayaking, cycling and rock climbing all on the menu. With a couple of nice boutique hotels, Vang Vieng is now definitely a great option on a tour of Laos.

Southern Laos

Southern Laos is one of the most interesting regions of Laos, with historic sites, ancient temples, the Mekong River, waterfalls, diverse cultures and beguiling landscapes.

With Luang Prabang and the far north grabbing most of the headlines, Southern Laos is only now slowly emerging as an area of great interest to rival the attractions of the north.

Wat Pho offers a World Heritage Temple site dating back 1500 years, Don Khone Island reveals a glimpse of sleepy Lao River life and the Phapheng Waterfalls is the largest cascade on the lower Mekong.

Cruising on the Wat Pho River Cruiser is a great way to see this region of Southern Laos in comfort.

The lively town of Pakse is the main gateway to Southern Laos and is not without it's charms as more and more people are discovering.

Getting There

There are no direct flights to Laos. Flying time including connection is usually around 15 hours. Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse are the three international gateways.

Vientiane has connections via most major Asian cities such as Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh and Saigon.

Getting Around

Flying between the main destinations is the most usual way of getting around Laos. Lao Airlines has a modern fleet and efficient service.

Travel by road is an option for travelling the length of the country.

The Mekong River is a major highway, and a popular journey is to enter Laos from the Thai border in the far Northwest of Laos and cruise down to Luang Prabang with an overnight stop en-route.

Lao laws do not allow foreigners to rent and drive a car themselves.

It is highly advisable to rent a car with an experienced driver who knows the area and can speak Lao in case of any problems.

Traffic conditions may vary dramatically from what you are used to.

If you wish to hire a driver, please remember that in Laos drivers are only drivers. Tour guides must be licensed by the National Tourism Authority.

For in-town transportation, 3-4 seater tuk tuks (motorcycle-pulled carts) are the most popular options with larger sangthaews (also called jumbos) available to carry up to 12 people.

Laos towns are small enough to be toured by bicycle and most hotels and guestshouses have them for rent at reasonable rates.

Visas

Approval is no longer required for visas to Laos.

Foreign tourists are generally admitted into Laos for 30 days with a visa on arrival (obtained at most border check points) without prior authorization or for 30 days with a visa issued at a Laotian embassy.

This costs 30-42 USD (depending on nationality) and requires the filling in of an application form and two passport photos.

An additional 1-3 USD/person can be charged if you arrive on a weekend or public holiday.

Two passport-size photos are required and your passport must be valid for at least 6 months beyond your expected departure date.

Please note that visa information is subject to change at any time, so please check you have the correct documents for travel.

Costs

A typical 10 day Laos touring itinerary including flights from the UK will cost between £1,500 and £2,500 pp depending on the choice of accommodation

Costs within Laos are very low. Please find some sample costs below to help with an indication of costs within Laos.

Meal out in a local restaurant: £2-5

One hour spa treatment: £7 (locally), £20 (hotel)

Money

The kip is the currency unit of Laos. US dollars, Euros and Thai baht are also accepted in many places and are certainly more convenient to carry than great wads of the local currency.

Banks, hotels, and jewellery shops all offer currency exchange.

Banks are open Monday to Friday from 08:00 to 12:00 and 14:00 to 15:00.

In Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, and other major towns you can find ATM's to withdraw money (Lao Kip).

Visa Card and Mastercard are now accepted at the larger hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

NOTE: Should you wish to pay a bill expressed in Lao Kip with USD, ask for the exchange rate or ask your guide for assistance.

For everyday expenses, we recommend carrying a mix of US Dollars and Kip.

For larger items or when the exchange rate works in your favour, use US Dollars.

For tuk tuks, local food stalls and small purchases, it's best to use Kip. Make sure you always have a stock of small notes so that you don't have to worry about change especially in the countryside.

The BCEL Bank can change American Express Travellers' Cheques for Lao Kip or US Dollars in cash. Note that a 3 % or 5% commission is charged.

Very few shops, hotels or restaurants accept Travellers' Cheques and they can be difficult to exchange outside of the main cities.

The use of credit cards is still not widespread in Laos. Most upscale hotels and many shops and restaurants in Luang Prbang and Vientiane accept VISA and Mastercard but in other parts of the country often only cash is accepted.

Health & Safety

Laos is a very safe country for travelling if you follow the usual precautions.

Nevertheless and as a global rule, never leave your belongings unattended and always maintain eye contact or a firm grip on cameras and shoulder bags.

In some tourist sites you may encounter some insistent souvenir sellers. A polite but firm "No, thank you" usually will suffice.

Medical facilities are rather limited in Laos but you can easily find good medical facilities in the main Thai towns and along the Thai-Lao borders.

It is essential to take out a good medical insurance policy before travelling in case evacuation is needed (usually to Bangkok or Singapore).

If you are on any medications, please bring an adequate supply of pills with you as it can be difficult to find within the country.

The Australian and the French embassies have international clinics which can treat light injuries and minor pains. These clinics are open during the day time only and closed during the week end.

To see the latest travel advice we recommend the Foreign Office Travel Advisory website.

Bear in mind that the FCO advice does tend to err on the side of caution, but nevertheless is a good guide to health and safety considerations if taken within context.

Vaccinations

We aren't medical experts and prefer to leave medical advice to those more qualified.

Some GP's will offer very good advice, but many will not be as up to date on travel health issues. The main vaccinations for travellers are usually available at GP surgeries.

We find MASTA Travel Clinic extremely good and very thorough and those looking at doing any amount of travelling in South East Asia would do very well to contact the nearest MASTA clinic.

Bear in mind that many vaccinations need to be planned well in advance of travel.

Lao Cuisine

Although not as well known as Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, Lao food is a delicious mix of fresh flavors such as galangal, lime, lemongrass, basil, coriander, and mint.

Meals are generally shared communally with a soup, grilled or steamed meat, a variety of green leafy vegetables, dipping sauces, and sticky rice.

Rarely do the Lao eat with utensils, instead they form small balls of sticky rice in their fingers and used as an aid to pick up the food.

Chopsticks are only used in the case of noodle soups, but fear not! Utensils are commonly available for foreign tourists.

The national dish of Laos is laap, a delicious dish made of finely minced meat, lemongrass, and herbs. Spicy salads such as tam mak houng are also popular.

This particular dish is made from green (unripened) papaya, tomatoes, lime juice, peanuts, chilies, and fish sauce.

Grilled meats, especially chicken and fish, are extremely popular and walking down the street the smell is mouth watering!

Mok pa fork is a steamed fish in banana leaf dish, accompanied by a mild coconut sauce. A similar version of this is found in neighboring Cambodia and Thailand.

Most locals enjoy jaews with their meal. These are salsa-like dipping sauces, made from tomatoes, eggplant, or other vegetables.

Traditionally jaews have accompanied meals in poor villages to break the monotony of eating endless amounts of plain sticky rice, but nowadays are being enjoyed by more and more tourists.

For celebrations, a pun pa is a festive meal meant to be shared.

A whole steam fish, marinated in local herbs and stuffed with lemongrass, is served with a variety of fresh vegetables, herbs, and sauces.

Diners create their own individual parcels of lettuce wraps seasoned to taste!

If laap is the national dish of Laos, then Beer Lao is certainly the national drink of Laos!

This delicious beer was, up until recently, the only type of beer available in the country and regardless of how remote in the jungle you were, the villagers always seem to have a bottle ready to share.

For something a bit stronger, lao lao is the traditional rice wine. Made in the villages, this strong alcohol is made by fermenting rice and is often consumed at weddings and other celebrations.

In the southern Boloven Plateau, Laos grows fantastic tea and coffee.

The locals drink their coffee strong, often with a hefty dollop of sweetened condensed milk. Green, loose-leaf tea is served as an accompaniment although higher-end teas are beginning to appear.

Clothing

Comfortable lightweight clothing in natural fabrics such as cotton is most suitable for traveling in Laos.

The dress code is fairly casual as in most parts of the tropics but it is advisable to cover arms and legs in the evenings against biting insects.

A lightweight raincoat is a good idea in the rainy season. Warm clothing is needed for visiting the northern Laos during the winter months from November to February.

Visitors to Laos should not wear shorts, short skirts or other skimpy clothing when visiting religious buildings and shoes should be removed before entering a private home.

Shopping

The best buys in Laos are ethnic minority handicrafts and textiles. The Lao sarong or pha sin made from silk or cotton is popular souvenir. Other souvenirs to look out for include silverware, in particular from Luang Prabang

Communication

Major hotels throughout Laos have Business Centres with PCs connected to the Internet. Some have wireless broadband access. Check with reception for fares and facilities.

Cyber cafes are easily found in major towns and cities and prices are reasonable.

In many Internet cafes, you can buy pre-paid international phone cards to dial from a computer to landlines or mobile phones worldwide. Most Internet cafes are equipped with webcams, headsets and microphones.

Most hotels now have IDD phones in rooms and it is possible to send faxes from hotels and post offices although be warned these services are expensive in Laos.

Away from the major cities it may not always be possible to make international calls.

If you have worldwide coverage, you can bring your mobile phone and use it to make domestic or international calls.

Check with your mobile phone provider for the fares before using it abroad though as it may cost you an arm and a leg.

Insurance

We highly recommend that all travelers to Southeast Asia purchase Travel Insurance which covers medical evacuation by air.

In case of an emergency, be sure to collect all receipts and invoices, as well as a copy of the medical report, for your insurance company.

We also recommend carrying your medical insurance registration number to speed up the insurance process in case of emergency.

Cultural Considerations

Visitors to Laos should not wear shorts, short skirts or other skimpy clothing when visiting religious buildings and shoes should be removed before entering a private home.

What's the food like?

Lao cuisine has many similarities to Thai with lots of aromatic herbs and spices such as lemon grass, chilies, ginger and tamarind used to flavor dishes.

Sticky rice, or kao niao, is the main ingredient in Lao cuisine, usually served with fermented fish and a fish sauce similar to that used in Vietnamese cuisine called nam pa.

Chicken and pork dishes are also popular but beef is expensive in comparison. Soups served with noodles, bamboo shoots and fresh vegetables can be found everywhere.

What are the domestic airlines like?

Lao Airlines serves the domestic routes and connects the capital city Vientiane to major destinations in the country including Houay Xay, Luang Nam Tha, Oudomxay, Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Savannakhet & Pakse.

To more remote destinations such as Sam Neau, Sayabuli and Phongsali, Lao Air (LLM) offers scheduled flights in small Cessnas as well as helicopters.

Lao Airlines has a fleet of ATR's and 4 Airbus A320's.

Do I need to tip?

Tipping for good service is not expected but is always appreciated in a country where the average annual income is very low compared to Europe.

It is customary to tip tour guides and drivers at the end of a tour. Hotel and station porters also expect to be tipped.

Do not let a guide talk you into tipping more than you plan to. It is totally up to you who you tip, when and how much.

Currency

The kip is the currency unit of Laos and are presently in distributions of 1000, 5000, 10000, 20000 and 50000 kip. US dollars, Euros and Thai baht are also accepted in many places and are certainly more convenient to carry than great wads of the local currency. Banks, hotels, and jewelry shops all offer currency exchange.

Electricity

Lao uses a mix of 220V and 110V.  Power outlets usually feature two-prong round or flat sockets however, there is no set standard.  It is recommended to bring a universal plug adaptor.

Time Zone

Laos is 7 hours ahead of GMT.

Capital City

Vientiane

Population

Laos has 6.5 million people.

Language

The national language of Laos is Lao, which is closely related to Thai and is spoken in many different dialects. Lao, like Thai, is a tonal language.

French is still spoken by many government officials and educated members of the older generation but Thai and English are popular with younger people.

Religion

As in the neighboring countries of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion and saffron-robed monks are a common sight in Laos.

There are also a small number of Catholics and Protestants.