Laos Fast Facts
The ‘land of a million elephants’ offers rugged mountainous terrain, quaint French colonial towns, glittering Buddhist stupas and a sparsely populated landscape that is home to abundant wildlife. While rapid development has transformed neighbouring countries, Laos provides visitors with a unique insight into a forgotten Asia.
There are no direct flights into Laos from Europe or North America and most Western tourists fly into neighbouring countries for onward connections to Laos. The country’s main international airports are Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Luang Prabang International Airport and Pakse International Airport. Domestic connections from these airports throughout Laos are primarily operated by Laos’ national airline, making travelling around the expansive terrain of mountainous Laos much easier.
Arrival and Departure information
Prior approval is no longer required for visas to Laos. Foreign tourists are generally admitted into the country for 30 days with a visa on arrival (obtained at most border check points) without prior authorization and also for 30 days with a visa issued at a Laotian embassy overseas. Please contact your nearest embassy or consulate of Laos to get specific information. Applications for an e-visa are possible for many nationalities yet are only valid when arriving at one of the three main international gateways: Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Luang Prabang International Airport and Pakse International Airport.
Applicants need to fill in an application form and provide two passport-sized photographs. The applicant’s passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the expected departure date from Laos. Please contact your local Lao embassy for the most accurate information. Visitors can extend a tourist visa either through the immigration office in Vientiane or through a travel agent. There is a departure tax for all international and domestic flights which is included in the ticket price. The various visa cost, online application procedures, and those exempted for a visa can be found on this website
All the above information may change without prior notice. It remains the traveller’s responsibility to check visa requirements before traveling.
Offices are usually open from Monday to Friday, between 8.30am until 5pm. Shops are open from Monday to Saturday between 9am and 5pm with some also open on Sunday. In the developed tourist areas such as Luang Prabang, shops often open later until 8pm.
Banks are open Monday to Friday, from 8am to 3.30pm. In Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, and other major towns, ATMs are plentiful. ATM machines distribute only Lao currency and follow the limits, set by the visitor’s bank: a small fee is levied for every transaction and charged to your account (currently 25,000 KIP per transaction). VISA and Master Card are accepted at the larger hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. For everyday expenses, it is advisable to carry both US dollars and Lao Kip (Lao currency). Make sure you always have a stock of small denominations as many vendors will not have much change. The BCEL Bank can change American Express Travellers’ cheques for Lao kip or US dollars (a three to five per cent commission is typically levied).
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 remote locations in Laos. However, most upscale hotels, shops and restaurants in Luang Prabang and Vientiane accept VISA and Master Card. Visitors should be made aware that an average 2.5% to 3% are added to the total bill when payments through credit cards are preferred.
As with other regional tropical countries, lightweight cotton clothing is the most comfortable. Warm clothing is needed when visiting northern Laos during the winter months from November to February. The dress code is fairly casual throughout the country. A lightweight raincoat is a good idea in the rainy season. It is advisable to cover arms and legs in the evenings to protect against mosquito bites. An umbrella is also a good idea in both the hot and rainy seasons as it will offer protective shade from the strong sun and the tropical downpours.
Tourists should respect a dress code at temples and palaces. Visitors must not wear the following when entering these revered places: sleeveless shirts; sportswear; tights/leggings; shorts; short skirts; three-quarter length trousers; flip flops/sandals without a strap behind the heel; swimwear/beachwear; and t-shirts with offensive texts or images.
The kip is the currency of Laos and notes are distributed in denominations of 500, 1,000, 2.000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 kip and 100,000 Kip. US dollars and Thai baht are also accepted in many places in the more popular tourist areas and these currencies are more convenient to carry than large wads of kip. Banks, hotels, and jewellery shops all offer currency exchange services.
Foreign currencies such as the US dollar, Euros, UK Pounds, Australian Dollars and Thai Baht are widely accepted for exchanging it into KIP through banks, at airports and at licensed money exchange offices. Visitors regularly require showing personal ID (passport) when exchanging money.
The following goods may be imported into Laos without incurring a customs duty:
- 500 cigarettes ,or 100 cigars, or 500 grammes of tobacco;
- two bottles of wine
- one bottle of other alcoholic beverages;
- Personal jewellery up to 500 grammes.
The export of antiques such as Buddha images and other artefacts is prohibited. Any antique items purchased in other countries must be declared to customs on arrival in Laos.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do’s in Laos
- ‘Nop’ is a greeting performed by joining one’s hands together in a praying gesture at the chest level.
- The Lao word for “hello” is Sabaidee – say it with a smile and you will be well received.
- In Lao homes, if the host (especially elderly people) sit on the floor, you should sit there as well – don’t sit anywhere higher if you want to be seen as a polite.
- It is polite to gently crouch down when walking past someone who is seated, especially older people.
- Lao people usually serve water to guests at their home – it is polite to accept it even if you don’t want to drink it.
- Dress respectfully when visiting religious shrines or temples.
Don’ts in Laos
- The head is considered ‘high’. It is not polite to touch local people’s heads.
- Feet are considered “low” so placing them on furniture or pointing at people with them is considered highly disrespectful.
- Personal cleanliness is valued highly in Laos. Anyone who has strong body odour will be considered with disdain.
- Overtly physical displays of affection, such as kissing and hugging in public are considered ill-mannered.
- Don’t be aggressive – the local people are peace loving, they avoid confrontation and speak with soft tones….it is best to do the same!
- Do not use illegal substances. As in most countries in the region, the consequences if you are caught are very severe.
Laos uses 220V. Power outlets usually vary between two-pronged round or flat sockets; however, there is no set standard. It is recommended travellers bring a universal plug adaptor. Power outages happen occasionally but some higher-end hotels have their own generators to provide an emergency power source.
Entertainment and Nightlife
The Lao nightlife is quiet and laid-back as it is technically illegal for a nightclub or bar to stay open later than 23.30pm but some nightclubs in Vientiane do remain open later than this designated time. The capital’s French Cultural Centre provides movies and musical performances. Elsewhere in the capital, there are plenty of bars along the river. Luang Prabang provides laid back bars serving cold beer but be wary that the streets empty early in Laos and guesthouses bolt their doors early, so don’t get locked out!
Lao cuisine has many similarities to Thai and Vietnamese combining influences from both sides with lots of aromatic herbs and spices – such as lemongrass, chillies, ginger and tamarind – used to flavour dishes. Sticky rice is the main ingredient in Lao cuisine. Laotians reportedly eat more sticky rice than any other country in the world per capita and sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be Lao person. Many Laotians even refer to themselves as Luk Khao Niew, which can be translated roughly as: “Children/descendants of sticky rice”.
This rice is usually served with fermented fish, and a fish sauce called nam pa. Chicken and pork dishes are also popular. Soups served with noodles, bamboo shoots and fresh vegetables abound. A culinary remnant of French colonial occupation is evident in the crunchy baguettes stuffed with pate and salads and an abundance of French restaurants that offer sophisticated food at astoundingly affordable prices. Other Western and fusion cuisine, where East Meets West, is freely available in the major tourism destinations of Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
No vaccinations are required except for yellow fever if you are coming from an area where the disease is present. However visitors should be inoculated against typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A and B, tetanus and polio. Malaria and Dengue Fever are present in Laos and it is advisable to take precautions, especially if travelling off the established tourist trail. Medical facilities are rather limited /basic in the country and it is essential to take out good medical insurance coverage in case medical evacuation is needed (usually to Bangkok, which is a 1 to 2 hour flight). If you are on any medication, bring an adequate supply of pills/medicine as these can be difficult to find within the country.
Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Pakse and Vientiane provide a good range of accommodation, but facilities remain basic / rustic in destinations off the beaten track. From October to February (during the high season) many of the best hotels are full. By contrast during the low, green season (June to September) – any date that falls outside of January to February – there is more scope for cheaper rooms. Laos has several five-star options and some fantastic boutique hotels. Luang Prabang, in particular, offers many elegant colonial buildings that have been converted into stylish boutique hotels.
Laos is eager to promote ecotourism and visitors can stay in specially constructed eco-lodges around the country. Especially popular are the luxury lodges embedded with local communities that allow easy exploration of river life and rural settings. Another option is home stays which are an excellent way to immerse oneself in the local way of life. Asian Trails can supply details about our accommodation packages in this country.
We highly recommend that all travellers to Laos purchase comprehensive travel insurance beforehand which covers evacuation by air. Medical facilities are limited; therefore, the policy should cover the cost of a medical evacuation flight out of Laos, usually to Bangkok. For adventure excursions such as cycling tours, proof of purchase of a travel insurance policy is usually required.
Major hotels throughout the country offer both Wi-Fi access and business centres with timed computer use. Cyber cafes are slowly diminishing out of major towns as more public areas offer free-of-charge Wi-Fi. Many souvenir and electronic shops, mini-marts and kiosks at the major airports sell pre-paid international phone cards.
The national language is Lao, which is closely related to Thai. Although there are five major dialects, they are all mutually intelligible and Lao people believe they all speak variations of one language. In Luang Prabang and Vientiane, English is widely spoken.
Laotians are hospitable and friendly people and are characterized by a laid-back charm. The ethnic Lao in Laos account for 50 to 60 per cent of the population. Related groups include the Tribal Tai, Black Tai, White Tai, and Red Tai. These groups are Buddhists and are influenced by the neighbouring Sino-Vietnamese culture. The country has also some animist groups such as the Hmong and the Akha. The country contained 43 ethnic groups at a recent official classification. These are mostly resident in the countryside and mountainous areas. The cities contain significant ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese populations.
Closure of tourist sites can occur at short notice on public holidays and our Asian Trails guides will give guests advice about this situation. The dates of national holidays may change every year.
You will find that your feet or a hired bicycle will serve you the best to get around most towns. Even the capital Vientiane is easy to walk around as it is quite compact. Peaceful Luang Prabang is one of the nicest walking and biking destinations in Asia. Alternatively, tuk-tuks provide the main form of transportation in many towns. These noisy three-wheeled machines will get you to your destination in no time and at little cost. Regular taxis can sometimes be found in Vientiane. To explore the countryside in depth, it is best to hire a car and driver. Asian Trails provides safe and reliable transportation across the country.
As in the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion. Approximately 60-70 per cent of the population are said to be followers of this faith and saffron-robed monks are an iconic sight across the country. The remaining population predominantly follows animism in the form of spirit (phii) worship. Less than two per cent of the population is Christian and there are also small communities of Muslims, mainly in Vientiane.
Laos is generally a safe country and crime directed against foreigners is rare. Nevertheless, as a global rule, never leave belongings unattended and always maintain a firm grip on cameras and shoulder bags. In some tourist sites you may encounter some insistent souvenir sellers. A polite “No, thank you” usually will suffice. Leave your expensive jewellery at home and always use hotel safety deposits boxes or in-room safes for valuables.
The Lao dress or pha sin made from silk or cotton is the most authentic purchase. The markets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang are worth visiting to buy this product. Silk, cotton fabrics, wood carvings, pottery, silver jewellery and handmade shirts are the best buys. Aside from Vientiane, large western style shopping malls and international brand stores are conspicuous by their absence but this is one of the attractions of a country that offers something different from more developed countries in South East Asia.
Although the majority of vendors have fixed prices, bartering is still advisable for more expensive items at main markets and street stalls. In Vientiane, it’s worth heading out to the weaving district of Ban Nong Bouathong, northeast of the city. For markets, try Talat Sao and the Mekong Night Market in Vientiane and the Night Market in Luang Prabang which offers fabrics, handicrafts, jewellery and much more.
Hotels have IDD phones but for a more inexpensive option, we recommend to make use of the abundance of Wi-Fi options. If you have worldwide coverage, you can bring your mobile phone and use it to make domestic or international calls, but this again can be expensive so check the rates beforehand. The Lao mobile network is cheap and affordable. Local “pay as you go” SIM cards can easily be purchased in the main cities, with international rates around 2,000 kip per minute.
Laos is GMT + 7 and does not operate on a daylight-saving system.
Tipping for good service is always appreciated. Tipping the guide on your tours should depend on how satisfied you are with the excursion. Hotel porters should be tipped for carrying bags to the room. In other cases, it is totally up to the individual when and how much they tip. Be mindful that large parts of these salaries depend on tipping.
It is not advisable to drink tap water but bottled mineral water is safe and available everywhere. All hotels provide a complimentary bottle of local mineral water, per person, in the room. Ice cubes in drinks are generally okay in good standard hotels and restaurants but it is best to avoid them on street stalls or in country areas. Some minor stomach problems are always possible when travelling in exotic countries so bring the appropriate medication.
The weather is divided into three districts – north, central and south. The dry season runs from November to May which is the best time to visit as the temperature is most bearable. However, the mountainous areas can be very cold at this time – down to around 5°C (41F). The wet season varies according to the location; in Vientiane it is generally from May to September; in Luang Prabang, August is generally the wettest month.
|General Emergency (in Vientiane)||1623 or 1624|
|Luang Prabang Provincial Hospital||+856-71-254-027|
|Alliance International Medical Centre||+856-21-513-095|
|International Clinic of Mahosot Hospital||+856-21-214-022|
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