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Laos guide

Overview

Laos is the last, largely untouched country in South East Asia were you can still experience a peace and tranquillity hard to find in other places in our hectic world. Isolated for decades, travellers are now re-discovering this remote Asian backwater, its stunning scenery, warm and friendly people and fascinating cultural history.

Laos exudes a unique cultural ambience, which can be found as readily in the local rice shops and noodle stands as it can be in the colourful Hmong-Mien and Thai hill tribes of the north. The former Royal Kingdoms of Vientiane and Luang Prabang boast a wealth of superb Buddhist temples along with more recent French colonial architecture, and the mysterious Plain of Jars is sure to leave you wondering. A rich assortment of distinctive handicrafts is available, including silverware, textiles, woodcarvings, tribal crafts, and ceramics.

The hilly, jungle-covered landscape is home to an astonishing variety of rare and beautiful wildlife, including leopard cats, Javan mongoose, goat-antelopes, gibbons and langurs, bears, gaurs and of course the majestic elephant. Gently flowing through the entire length of the country, the mighty Mekong River is home to the incredibly rare Irrawaddy Dolphin and also helps to support numerous species of resident and migratory birds.

But above all, Laos is a country of people – simple, warm, friendly and always with a welcoming smile. Their laid back approach and the gentle, unhurried pace of life is a real and refreshing change to the hustle and bustle that characterises much of the rest of Southeast Asia.

Brief History

The early inhabitants of Southeast Asia date back as far as 8,000 BC, and were simple hunter-gatherers. However, a slow southwestwardly migration of Austronesian (Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian) and Austro-Asiatic (Mon, Khmer, Vietnamese) speaking settlers, from China, gradually pushed out the native Australo-Melanesian speaking inhabitants. These new settlers brought with them Chinese agricultural practices based on intensive rice production, so that by about 4,000 BC rice was being cultivated throughout the region, and from about 3,000 BC metalworking started. Read more...

Highlights

  • Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Cahmpasak – classical Buddhist temples and colonial French architecture
  • Phonsavan – Plain of Jars, mysterious stone containers scattered across grassy meadows
  • Luang Nam Tha – colourful culture of the Hmong and Thai hill tribes and other ethnic minorities
  • Si Phan Don – beautiful collection of islands on the Mekong River, and home to the rare Irrawaddy Dolphin
  • Vang Vien – Limestone caves, waterfalls and traditional Lao villages

When to go

The driest and coolest time to visit Laos is from November to February. You will experience days of cool breezes and low temperatures and miss the monsoon season (May to November). Certain provinces of Laos (Xieng Khuang, Hua Phan and Phongsali) will also get rain blowing in from Vietnam and China from February to May but this northeast monsoon usual bypasses the rest of Laos.

This time of year is also Laos’s main season for both national and regional bun (festivals) though December to February and August are the peak tourist times. January, in particular, is very busy and booking ahead is advisable.

If you are interested in ‘river travel’ you will best visit during November when the floods have subsided but the rivers are still filled to capacity. This type of travel can be difficult from January to June when water levels are low.

Geography

Laos is a landlocked country that has borders with Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. The great Mekong River runs the length of the country from north to south, and forms a border with Thailand to the west. The Mekong and its vast floodplain are important for wet-rice production as well as providing an abundant source of fish, a staple of the Laos diet. The two largest areas of wet-rice production surround Vientiane and Savannakhet. Almost the entire northern half of Laos is covered by broken mountains ranges rising to a high point of 2,817m at the summit of Phou Bia Mountain in Xieng Khuang Province. To the east bordering Vietnam, the Annamite Mountain Range runs for nearly half the length of the country. Laos has numerous mountain plateaus, the largest of which is the Xieng Khuang plateau just north of Phou Bia Mountain. Another is the Bolevan Plateau, which stands at the southern end of the Annamite Mountain Range and is an important rice, tea and coffee-growing region.

Weather & climate

Like the rest of Southeast Asia, the climate in Laos is governed by the yearly cycle of ‘wet’ monsoon followed by ‘dry’ monsoon. The south-westerly ‘wet’ monsoon arrives between May and July and lasts until November. It brings with it, substantial rainfall across the country, with the heaviest rain in the highland provinces of Vientiane, Khammuan and Champasak. Temperatures average around 29 oC in the lowlands, dropping to 25 oC in the highlands.

From November to May the weather is dry and relatively cool (this is the effect of the north-easterly monsoon which actually bypasses Laos), and the temperature can drop to 15 oC. Night-time temperatures in the mountains can fall as low as 0 oC, but from February onwards the temperature steadily rises, reaching a high of 38 oC in March and April.

Click for Vientiane, LaosForecast
Phnom Penh
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Rain (mm)
5
15
38
99
267
302
267
292
302
109
15
3
Sun (hrs)
8
8
7
8
7
5
5
5
8
8
8
8
Temp (Max)
28
30
33
34
32
32
31
31
31
31
29
28
Temp (Min)
14
17
19
23
23
24
24
24
24
21
18
16
Days of Rain*
1
2
4
7
15
17
18
18
16
7
1
1
Hum (%)
52
44
40
49
60
67
69
73
72
69
63
57
* denotes number of days with at least 1.0 mm of rainfall

Money

Laos kip

1 US$ = 8,021 Lao kip (June 2012)

Common notes

  • 100 kip
  • 500 kip
  • 1,000 kip
  • 2,000 kip
  • 5,000 kip

NB: It’s worth noting that US$ are widely accepted throughout Laos and are often actually preferred for higher value purchases. Travellers arriving from Thailand will also find that the Thai baht is another currency welcomed in Laos. However, when paying in these currencies change will most likely be given in kip which should be kept for more day-to-day purchases and transactions.

You can change money at any bank (08.30 – 16.00 Mon-Fri) although a variable commission will be charged. In general, it’s a good idea to try and find the lower rates which are usually available through exchange kiosks or hotels. In the capital city Vientiane you can exchange UK£, Euros, AUS$ and other currencies but in the smaller towns around the rest of the country, US$ and Thai baht are preferred. Traveller’s cheques are widely accepted in major cities and do benefit from a slightly better rate but this can be offset by the commission charged to change them. ATM’s have now made it into Laos and these are available in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Viang Vieng. For some reason, Mastercard is sometimes preferred to Visa but a lot of debit cards such as Cirrus and Maestro are now accepted. You can also use credit cards to pay for hotels and some restaurants but credit and debit cards are far from being accepted everywhere so having an alternate way of accessing funds is vital.

Holidays

Fixed Public Holidays

New Year's Day-1st January
Pathet Lao Day-6th January
Army Day-20th January
Women's Day-8th March
Lao People's Party Day-22nd March
Chakri Memorial Day-6th April
Lao New Year-15th-17th April
International Labour Day-1st May
Children's Day-1st June
Lao Isara-13th August
Liberation Day-23rd August
Freedom from France Day-12th October
"> National Day-2nd December
New Year’s Eve-31st December

For a complete list of holidays and festivals for the coming year and their confirmed dates please click here.

Religion

Laos is a dominantly Buddhist country (60%), however animist ‘spirit’ worship, though officially banned, is still widely practised. There is also a small Christian following (1.5%) leftover from the French occupation.

Vaccinations

We do always recommend that you seek professional medical advice when considering holiday vaccinations but the ones that are normally recommend for travel to Laos are listed below:

  • Diphtheria
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Tetanus
  • Typhoid
  • Malaria prophylactic drugs are recommended
  • Yellow Fever (A Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is required)

For direct, up-to-date information on vaccination requirements for Laos please click here

Customs

  • Traditional greetings in Laos start with a small bow before bringing your hands together in prayer. The bigger your smile the better!
  • Buddhism is the main religion of Laos and plays an important part in the day-to-day culture of the country. The Buddha and his images are considered sacred and visitors to the country should respect this. Shoes should always be removed before entering temples while the rest of your appearance should be conservative, i.e. shorts are not allowed. As with Thailand, women are forbidden from touching monks, even if this is to give to or to receive.
  • Throughout the country public shows of intimacy and emotion are frowned upon therefore you should refrain from kissing and holding hands and you should never display anger openly as this is considered impolite. Women in Laos are conservative which means they should never be touched without their consent even if offering a handshake.
  • In Laos, the feet are considered as unclean (the lowest part of the body) and therefore they should never be used to point out things or to touch someone with – if this happens by accident, a swift apology is required and will suffice. Never show the soles of your feet in public so this rules out putting your feet up, either on chairs or tables and even while travelling in buses and rickshaws. The head (highest part of the body) is respected so try not to touch people’s head or ruffle their hair, as this is also considered rude. If invited into someone’s home, as with temples you should always remove your shoes.
  • It’s important to be respectful of all local customs and doing so will increase the enjoyment of your time in Laos. For example, in small minority villages a lot of tribes have an inherent fear of photography so it is vital that you ask permission before taking any photos of people and religious monuments. If the language barrier presents a problem try indicating this through simple hand gestures.
  • Although tipping is not expected apart from at certain fashionable resorts and hotels, small tips are always appreciated if you are happy with the service.
  • Bartering or haggling for goods is much more sedate in Laos than in neighbouring countries but still essential. You will be expected to haggle for more or less everything but if arriving from Thailand bear in mind that you won’t receive the similar significant price drops as Laos tends to be a lot more reasonable with their opening ‘foreigner prices’. It’s important to remain friendly and always barter with a smile for the best results. Street sellers are common, particularly in tourist areas but exercise caution here as what they are trying to sell you may not always be what you think it is.

Security

Generally speaking, Laos is a perfectly safe place to travel to but taking normal precautions will minimise any potential risk. Low level crime does still exist and the main problem that you may fall victim to is theft. This is usually through stealth rather than violence so visitors should remain vigilant and guard personal possessions at all times. Muggings can occur in more remote areas of the country but the risk is very low in terms of comparison to the West.

A real problem to the north and east of Laos is the danger from unexploded ordnance with 15 out of 18 provinces experiencing some level of contamination. It is estimated that over 500,000 tons of unexploded bombs and mines are left over from the Vietnam War and these are responsible for approximately 120 casualties a year though it is worth remembering that the majority of these accidents affects locals and occur well away from the usual tourist trails. The areas which are most affected are the provinces of Xieng Khuang, Salavan and Savannakhet. US cluster bombs, 2,000lb B-52 bombs, mortar rounds, phosphorus canisters and countless land mines are just some of the types of ordnance that remain in the country. The risk to the visitor remains incredibly low as all tourist areas in the country have been thoroughly cleared of ordinance. Unfortunately, you don’t have to stray too far to enter a risky environment so bear this in mind and think twice before leaving well-worn paths and never give in to the urge to pick up any military looking objects.

Know before you go

In association with the ‘Know Before You Go’ Campaign, we are working with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to do all that we can to help British travellers stay safe overseas. Before you go overseas, check out the FCO website at www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo. It is packed with essential travel advice and tips, and up-to-date country information.

FCO know before you go logo

Visas

15-day visas are available for most foreign nationals and cost US$30. These are available on arrival into Vientiane International airport or when crossing into Laos from Thailand, either at the friendship bridge land border or even when crossing over from northern Thailand into Huay Xai. Longer 30 day tourist visas and business visas can be arranged prior to departure either in your home country or by using an agency in one of the neighbouring countries although this will incur a fee.

When leaving the country by air there is a US$10 departure tax payable at the airport.

How to get there

By Air

There is one main airport in Laos, in the capital Vientiane. There are no intercontinental flights to Vientiane.   Most people coming to Laos will come via Bangkok, the nearest International hub.   By far the easiest, cheapest, most reliable, frequent and interesting way to get to Laos by air is to use Thai Airways' domestic flight to Udon Thani. Flights between Bangkok, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh and Phnom Penh & Siem Reap are also regular with Bangkok Air, Vietnam Airlines, Air Asia and Dragon Air operating several flights every day.

Flying from the UK

If you are flying from the UK, then there are only indirect (1 stop) flights to Vientiane with the best being with Thai Airways. The flight takes around 16 hours depending on connection times. Fares range from around UK£700 if you book well in advance, but do increase significantly during busy periods. In general, the earlier you book the better, as flights tend to get more expensive closer to departure. Flying from regional airports such as Manchester, Newcastle or Glasgow will require a stop-over in London, Europe or the Middle East and normally is a little more expensive than flying from London.

Where to book

We hold an ATOL, and you are welcome to book your flights with us. Please discuss your ideal dates and departure airport with our sales staff, and we will send you a selection of airlines, flight times, and prices. You can then choose whether to book your flights through us, or to make your own arrangements. If you book your own flights, we will still include both your arrival and departure airport transfers.

By Land

Vietnam

The main border crossing between Laos and Vietnam is Lao Bao connecting the Centre of Vietnam and Savannakhet Province of Laos. Transports by bus or taxi to this border are available in Da Nang, Dong Ha and Lao Bao and you will find the same to Savannakhet waiting for you on the Laos side. Otherwise, every day buses run between these nations via Lao Bao. You will need a Laos visa and a re-entry Vietnamese visa if you go back to Vietnam. Other border crossings are available such as: Tay Trang border crossing between Dien Bien Phu of Vietnam and Luang Pra Bang of Laos. Nam Can border crossing connecting Nghe An Province and Xiangkhoang Province.

Cambodia

The boat crossing between Laos and Cambodia is currently closed and the best way to make this border crossing is by purchasing an organised package for a travel agent in Pakse, Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon. They will be able to sell you a through ticket to the Cambodian town of your choice. Prices may seem a little high, but when compared to what it will cost you to cross the border independently, the rates for the border crossing segment are a bargain.

Thailand

One of the easiest and most common ways to enter Laos from Chiang Rai, Thailand is by boat along the Mekong River. There are 2 types of boat, fast and slow, with the overnight (Pakbeng) slow boat being the safest and most popular.

You can also get a train from Bangkok to Vientiane. There is a daily overnight sleeper train direct from Bangkok to Nong Khai and a special connecting local train to the new international rail terminal at Thanaleng, 13km outside Vientiane.

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Factfile

Time: GMT+7
Dial code: 00 855
Area: 181,040 sq km
Elevation: Lowest point: Mediterranean Sea 0m
Highest point: Mt Ararat 3,754m
Population: 14,242,000 (2009)
Capital: Phnom Penh
Government: Democracy under a constitutional monarchy
Language: Khmer (official) 95%, French, English

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Customer feedback

"A++, everything was perfect and we are still blinded by all the luxury at he Lebua hotel."

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