Travel to Laos?
is one of the two least developed countries (the other being pariah
Myanmar) left in South-East Asia, where locals smile even when you're
not waving a dollar bill at them and tranquil Buddhism rules.
Not unlike Thailand fifty years ago, Laos is culturally rich, the
temples are exquisite, the rural scenery green and unspoilt, eco-activities
are available while Asian-French fusion food is excellent.
And in spite of the country's assets, tourist numbers are still
low, as are prices.
- UXO, unexploded ordnance (e.g. bomblets) is present in quantity,
so no hiking off-piste in some areas.
- Laos doesn't have ultra-special sites such as Cambodia's Angkor,
or Thailand's Ayutthaya, though there are plenty of pretty little temples.
- road journeys can be very time consuming in this long, thin country.
Nov-Feb (the cool, dry season with good festivals)
OK: March-May (dry but very hot).
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: 1 week for a look at
Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Recommended: 3 weeks to get around the country in a relaxed fashion.
***Vientiane. The capital of Laos and a pleasant, calm town
with some gorgeous temples, stupas, buddhas and French restaurants.
***Luang Prabang - a lovely town on
the banks of the Mekong packed with with temples and monks. This
is a great activity base and World Heritage listed.
***Vang Vieng. A major TV bar and backpacker
activity base in gorgeous limestone peaks and caves country.
**Phonsavan (Xieng Khuang province)
is off the beaten tourist track but the Plain of Jars site is beautifully
bizarre and the war relics educational.
**Hongsa is centre of the Thai Lu culture
which has successfully preserved ancient architectural styles, religious
customs and uses elephants as workhorses.
**Nam Ha NPA (National Protected Area),
a new UNESCO supported wildlife park up north, offers rafting and
trekking in dense forest, wildlife including elephant, tiger and
nearly 300 species of bird.
*Vieng Xai, former home of the Pathet
Lao is a dramatic valley riddles with large caves that housed senior
staff during the last Indo-china war.
**Tham Lot Kong Lo, a 5 mile (7km)
cave transfixed by a huge river (Nam Hin Bun), with spectacular
temple and karst-speckled valleys at either end, would be amazing
to go through by kayak tho' motorised canoes are all that's
available at present. Oct-Feb best.
*Wat Phu Champasak, this 7thC Khmer
temple complex is wonderfully tranquil and exotic. It's a World
Heritage site, though not of Angkor size and a long way from Vientiane.
Many roads, especially highways, have been resurfaced and some decent
buses are in service, particularly the luxury VIP buses.
However there plenty of lumpy, long and winding roads out there
that can make adventurous trips an endurance test, especially in
the back of a converted pickup truck with shot suspension.
River transport is popular though routes are limited. The Huay Xai
ferry to/from Luang Prabang is Laos' most wanted, though it's basic
and not exactly comfortable. Coming back from Luang Prabang the
boat is far less crowded.
Hiking: similar to Thailand but less spoilt, with colourful
hill tribes, occasional temples, pointy hills (karsts), waterfalls
and rice paddies, but beware UXOs off-piste in some areas.
Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng are common starting points.
Day hiking is fine but the authorities are a little paranoid about
Nam Ha NPA is a particularly superb and organised hiking area, with
wild things thrown into the mix.
Biking: traffic in Laos is light and
slow so cycling is popular here. Bikes, both regular and mountain
varieties, can be hired widely, or even bought at reasonable prices.
Roads can be rough or non-existent, so mountain bikes have real use here.
River transport: there are some lovely
trips on the Mekong and other watery highways, by longtail - such
as the classic two day Nam Tha jaunt, or by slow ferry - such as
the two days between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang.
Kayaking, canoeing and rafting: with
plenty of water, scenic river banks, exotica galore and low prices,
Laos is a great boating destination. Bring your own craft or rent
from the bigger tourist locations. Guided tours can also be arranged.
Climbing: Laos is a karst country and
thus offers lots of tempting climbs. Some especially serious routes
have been set up across the river from Luang Prabang's Pak Ou caves.
Wildlife watching: due to lack of human
interference and development there are plenty of colourful and varied
monkeys, deer, mid-size cats, flying squirrels, bats, snakes, birds
and even wild elephants in Laos. Nam Ha NPA is probably the best
spot for wildlife watching at present.
Check guide books or online for precise dates as Laos runs on a
lunar calendar so dates change yearly.
February, Makha Busa (Full Moon), nationwide festivities.
February, Bun Wat Phu, in Champasak, see highlights.
February-March, Vietnam Tet and China New Year, celebrated in Vientiane,
Pakse and Savannakhet.
March, Bun Pha Wet, nationwide festivities.
April, Bun Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year), Luang Prabang.
May, Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival), nationwide festivities.
July, Bun Khao Phansa, nationwide festivities.
October, Bun Awk Phansa, nationwide festivities.
October, Bun Nam, (Boat Race Festival), Vientiane, Savannakhet,
October-Nov, Bun Pha That Luang, Vientiane.
For some precise dates, more suggestions and information
see: Exotic Festivals
220v, 2 round or flat pins.
As usual a few words of the local language will show that you're
a traveller rather than a tourist.
French is useful, but English is becoming increasingly common, especially
with the young.
This is not a good country for hypochondriacs. Local medical facilities
are poor and the list of potential health problems includes malaria
and dengue fever (keep mozzies off you), hepatitis A (get the vaccine),
B (use protection if you mix it with locals), E (eat/drink with
care), year-round flu, opisthorchiaisis (don't eat uncooked fish),
bilharzia (don't swim in lakes), typhoid (get the vaccine). Dysentery,
giardiasis, varied parasites and loose tummy can be avoided
by eating/drinking with care. n.b. that also means not brushing
your teeth with tap water!
See Travel Health.
Haggling is a recognised part of shopping life in this country with
the exception of a few fixed-price establishments, so bargain the
price down but don't be too obsessive, this isn't Marrakesh.
The export of antiques and Buddha images are banned.
Popular souvenirs are silk and cotton fabrics, carvings in wood
and stone - take care not to buy ivory - and gold and silver jewellery.
It's more interesting for you and better for locals if you buy from
as close to the source as possible.
All visitors to Laos need a visa except Japanese and ASEAN visitors. You will need a passport with at least 6 month's validity remaining.
Carefully check your Laos visa stamp on arrival or departure to ensure you have received a correctly dated entry/exit stamp.
A tourist visa, business visa and any others Laos visa are available from the Laos Embassy in your country or a country near you. Alternatively, you can get a visa on arrival for 30 days at most border crossings and international airports but ensure you have 2 passport-size photos and some US dollars or Thai Bahts.
The Kip is Laos money but US dollars and Thai Bhat are widely accepted in restaurants and shops. If you wish to change your cash to Laos currency do it in local banks where the rate will be far superior to hotel exchange desks and also much better value than getting cash from ATMs.
Lao food is not unlike that of their Thai neighbours, surprisingly
complex and spicy using fresh ingredients, grilled or roasted meats,
river fish, rice and noodles. Burger addicted tourists with retarded
tastebuds may have difficulty adjusting, but Vietnamese and Chinese
style cuisine also makes an appearance and may be less strange and
Vegetarians won't have trouble finding vegetables, but avoiding
sauces that contain fish or animal products is another matter.