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, as well as two bridges connecting Laos with neighbouring Thailand: The Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge I near Vientiane, and Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge II connecting Thailand with the Savannakhet Province.
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 per nationality, 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 20,000 KIP per transaction, subject to change). 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) and is considered as one of the banks in Laos with the lowest fees.
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.
- Keep clean and dress politely, Lao people appreciate neatly dressed visitors.
- Ask permission before taking a photo of some local people.
- Help to keep Laos clean and beautiful by not leaving litter. Picking-up rubbish sets a good example for Lao youth.
- Remove your shoes when entering someone’s home or temples. This is also true whenever you see a shoe rack or other people’s shoes at the entrance of a location.
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.
- Overtly physical displays of affection, such as kissing and hugging in public are considered ill-mannered.
- Do not use illegal substances. As in most countries in the region, the consequences if you are caught are very severe.
- Buy antique Buddha images or other sacred items. Laos loses some of its heritage every time an antique is taken out of the country. Instead, support local craftsmen by purchasing new, quality handicraft.
- Distribute gifts or give money to street children as it encourages child labour and begging. Instead, you can offer to an established organization or village elders.
- Touch a monk or a monk’s robs if you are a woman, and keep some space when talking to the monk.
- Shout or raise your voice, the local people are peace loving, they avoid confrontation and speak with soft tones.
- Bathing nude in public is prohibited. Please also keep in mind that bikinis and shorts are very common bathing suits in western country but Lao people will very often bath in their clothes, their body almost remaining fully covered.
- Buying wildlife products. The illegal sale of wildlife and wildlife products endangers many species native to Laos.
- Sex tourism is illegal in Laos and child-sex tourism is a serious crime.
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. Lao nightlife seems quiet for visitors but plenty of entertaining places can still be found in city centre such night clubs, Karaoke bars, cinema. For a great local experience, Karaoke is a great entertaining and a typical activity for the local.
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!
Vientiane Centre is a place where you can find shopping centre with multiplex cinemas, restaurants. There are also rooftop bars in the capital city offering a great view on the Mekong and city skyline as well as a couple of speak-easy-like cocktail bars.
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. In addition, the local Lao are also well known for consuming different many eatable insects which contain high quality protein and vitamins for humans.
Sticky rice “Khao Niew” is a table food for many meals. This rice is usually served in bamboo baskets called “Tip khao” accompany by delicious papaya salad, grilled chicken and spicy chilli fermented fish sauce that only the Laotians know the secret of. Different types of herb are used in Lao cooking and more than 100 herbs can be found in Lao cuisine.
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, as well specific regions in north and south Laos 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. Currently, to enter Laos visitors from the age of 12 and above are required to have a certificate of fully vaccination for COVID-19.
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 and top-up SIM cards offering easy internet access to visitors.
The national language is Lao Tai (Lao) is the main official language with various language groups such as Mon-Khmer, Chin Tibet and Hmong are also spoken in Laos. Although there are five major dialects, they are all mutually intelligible and Lao people believe they all speak variations of one language. It is not rare to meet French speaking Lao elders who are always happy to speak French and share memories. 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, Red Tai, Lao Loum – the lowland people, Lao Theung (Mon-Khmer tribes) live in the central and southern areas and Lao Soung – the highland people.
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 51 ethnic groups at a recent official classification, but only under half of its population live in or around urban areas. 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. 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. It is recommended to check in advance whether certain souvenirs are on the illegal list when leaving the country.
Most Laotian cities have their own morning and night market the most famous one among visitors being Luang Prabang night market showcasing a lot of Lao handicrafts and great souvenirs to bring back home. Although the majority of vendors have fixed prices, bartering is still advisable for more expensive items at main markets and street stalls. 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.
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|
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