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At the end of the Vietnam War, Laos could add to its list of achievements being the most bombed country during warfare. It's not surprising, then, that the communist government which took control in the 1970s was not particularly interested in opening its doors to foreign visitors. Some three decades later, however, a poor economy has brought the country to a time of reconsideration; tourism seems to be the light at the end of the tunnel for Laos.
For a long time only a few travellers would adventure across the Mekong to Laos. In the last few years this has changed. Laos has become very popular among the more adventurous backpacker crowd and nature lovers. Cities that only a few years ago would see a handful of travellers a week now have hundreds a day sometimes. The major cities are now filled with carbon copy foreigner friendly restaurants restaurants and cafes similar to the ones in Thailand. It is still possible to see the less developed Laos by going slightly off the beaten track, but if you're expecting a quiet ride down the river in a tube in Vang Vieng, be warned that it can be like a traffic jam of foreign tourists all pushing their tubes downstream whilst drinking lots of beer.
The official history of Laos as introduced in government textbooks, is conventionally traced to the establishment of the kingdom of Lan Xang by Fa Ngum in 1353. This is a relatively conservative date to begin the history of the nation, providing a contrast to the course taken by Thai historiography. By the 14th century, when this "official history" begins, the speakers of early Lao-related languages had probably developed a reasonable base of population among the prior inhabitants of (what is now) Laos over the prior century or two. Lan-Xang prospered until the 18th century, when the kingdom was divided into three principalities, which eventually came under Siamese suzerainty. In the 19th century, Luang Prabang was incorporated into the 'Protectorate' of French Indochina, and shortly thereafter, the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane were also added to the protectorate. It is generally assumed that, as late as the 16th century, King Photisarath helped establish Theravada Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country. However, this aspect of official history may now have to change given recent archaeological discoveries in Cambodia and Vietnam, showing intact Pali inscriptions as early as the 9th century.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied French Indochina. When Japan surrendered, Lao nationalists declared Laos independent, but by early 1946, French troops had reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos. During the First Indochina War, the Indochinese Communist Party formed the Pathet Lao resistance organization committed to Lao independence. Laos gained full independence following the French defeat by the Vietnamese communists and the subsequent Geneva peace conference in 1954.
Laos was dragged into the Vietnam War and the eastern parts of the country followed North-Vietnam and adopted North-Vietnam as brother country. Laos allowed North-Vietnam to use its land as supplying route for its war against the South Vietnam. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. The result of these actions were a series of coups d'état and, ultimately, the Laotian Civil War between the Royal Laotian government and the communist Pathet Lao. Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos in this period than was dropped during the whole of the Second World War.
In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao, along with Vietnam People's Army and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Lao government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on 2 December 1975. The new communist government led by Kaysone Phomvihane imposed centralized economic decision-making and incarcerated many members of the previous government and military in "re-education camps" which also included the Hmongs. While nominally independent, the communist government was for many years effectively little more than a puppet regime run from Vietnam. The government's policies prompted about 10 percent of the Lao population to leave the country. Laos depended heavily on Soviet aid channeled through Vietnam up until the Soviet collapse in 1991. In the late 1980s the communist party began to give up centralised management of the economy but maintained a control of political power.
Laos shares international borders with China to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar to the north-west. At the present time a tourist can cross legally with all countries except Myanmar. Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, and it lies mostly between latitudes 14° and 23°N (a small area is south of 14°), and longitudes 100° and 108°E. Its thickly forested landscape consists mostly of rugged mountains, the highest of which is Phou Bia at 2,818 metres, with some plains and plateaus. The Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand, whereas the mountains of the Annamite Range form most of the eastern border with Vietnam and the Luang Prabang Range the northwestern border with the Thai highlands. There are two plateaux, the Xiangkhoang in the north and the Bolaven Plateau at the southern end. The eastern border with Vietnam extends for 2,130 kilometers, mostly along the crest of the Annamite Chain, and serves as a physical barrier between the Chinese-influenced culture of Vietnam and the Indianized states of Laos and Thailand. The topography of Laos is largely mountainous, with the Annamite Range in the northeast and east and the Luang Prabang Range in the northwest, among other ranges typically characterized by steep terrain. Elevations are typically above 500 meters with narrow river valleys and low agricultural potential. This mountainous landscape extends across most of the north of the country, except for the plain of Vientiane and the Plain of Jars in the Xiangkhoang Plateau. The southern "panhandle" of the country contains large level areas in Savannakhét and Champasak provinces that are well suited for extensive paddy rice cultivation and livestock raising. Much of Khammouan Province and the eastern part of all the southern provinces are mountainous. Together, the alluvial plains and terraces of the Mekong and its tributaries cover only about 20% of the land area.
For someone looking for great adventures in the rustic wilderness, Laos is the country for them. There are several different outdoor activities that can be found across the country. Remember to think safety first because this is a remote area of the world without good medical care and people have been hurt and died in the past.
The enigmatic Plain of Jars in mountainous Xieng Khouang Province inspire awe and wonder. These large stone jars and sitting in an open plains with no current day purpose. Many think it was part of ancient rituals and customs long forgotten. Luckily these jars survived the Vietnam War and are now considered an UNESCO World Heritage site. A long and hard trip to get to them it is well worth it.
The Gibbon Experience is one of the most interesting eco-projects in all of Southeast Asia. A small group of gibbons, thought to be extinct in the area, were found and this nature preserve was built. The area needs lots of care and so do the gibbons in order to have a fighting chance of recovery. The project is part conservation and part local development. Tourists pay to stay in the hotel and take care of the gibbons while riding on zip lines to different parts of the preserve. Although not cheap it is a great experience and an amazing way to give back.
Laos has a hot and humid tropical climate. There are two seasons. The rainy season lasts from May until October while the much more pleasant dry season lasts from November until April. During the rainy season there is about 200 to 300 mm of rain a month and the high temperatures, averaging around 33 °C during the day and around 24 °C at night, makes this time the worst for a visit. The dry season is much more pleasant with days still close to 30 °C and nights a nice 15 °C to 18 °C. Daytime in the period of March until May can be very hot in large parts of the country, with temperatures regularly exceeding 40 °C. Mountainous areas, especially in the north, can get rather chilly during northern hemisphere winter, when northern winds blow from China.
Because of the humidity during the rainy season clothes that are made from quick-drying material is smart. Dryers are virtually non-existent there and if you hand wash clothes, there is no guarantee it will dry because the sun is so unpredictable. It can get quite cold in the mountains and northern Laos near December, so try to pack a sweater or windbreaker of sorts if you are headed to Xieng Khouang Province or up north towards the Chinese border. Remember that Laos is still a very traditional Buddhist country and it is best to wear modest clothing, so avoiding shorts, tank tops or short skirts is recommended.
There are three international airports in Laos:
Lao Airlines flies from different international cities in the region including Bangkok, Hanoi, Siem Reap and Kunming. From Kunming they offer a direct flight to Laos every Wednesday, Fridays and Sundays. Tickets can be bought online and picked up at the Lao Airlines office at the Camellia Hotel in Kunming. They accept USD or RMB.
AirAsia now provides a budget option for travellers with flights from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Vientiane, Laos. For those on a tight budget, another option is to fly domestic from Bangkok to Udon Thani, before catching the Thai-Lao friendship bus at the BKS (Bor Kor Sor) bus station in town to Vientiane.
Bangkok Airways flies daily from Bangkok to Luang Prabang.
You can drive into Laos from all neighbouring countries except Myanmar. From China, very few people do so as there are extra regulations for foreigners to drive in China. Be sure to have the proper documentation, insurance and driving licence.
The very comfortable Thai-Lao International Bus runs from Nong Khai and Udon Thani (nearest major Thai airport) in Thailand to the Talat Sao bus station in Vientiane. Tickets can be bought, on the day itself, at all stations. First bus leaves at around 8:00am. Visas have to be arranged beforehand - passports are checked before tickets are issued.
To Savanakhet you can also cross to and from Thailand. Buses also go directly between Bangkok and Pakse.
There are even direct buses from Vientiane daily to Hanoi taking 24 hours but it's a long and tough journey.
The Chiang Kong - Huay Xai crossing from northern Thailand into Laos is a popular riverine route among travellers, largely because of the slow scenic journey. This involves a night stop at Pak Beng before reaching Luang Prabang the next evening. Crossings to/from Stung Treng are made to Cambodia by river. Near Savanakhet you can also cross the river.
Many cities in Laos have domestic flights, therefore making it easy to travel between cities by air. Most of the airports in the country are very small and the staff is pretty relaxed. If arriving early for a Lao Airlines flight and the earlier flight is about to take off, if there is room it is very easy to jump on it. Airports with regular domestic service are in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Pakse, Phonsavan, Savannakhet and Muang Xay. Some of these towns will only have 1 or 2 flights a day to certain cities, therefore plan carefully. Other towns have airports but are mainly used by the military and for charter flights.
There is currently no railway system in Laos. Therefore a traveller must find a different mode of transport.
Renting a car with or with out a driver is becoming more and more popular among travellers in Laos. The roads in the country have greatly improved making highway driving a breeze. Also compared to most Asian countries Laos traffic is much more manageable and easier to navigate.
Travelling in Laos means getting up early. From Vientiane to Luang Prabang the bus ride can take up to 11 hours if you are on the government bus because of the frequent stops so most buses leave starting at 6:00am with 10:00am seeing one of the last buses out. At this point most of the major roads are paved. The only one that may still present problems is the road from Luang Nham Tha to Huay Xai, the border town of Thailand, but that is currently being cemented now. In worst case scenarios you have to get out and help push the bus out of the mud.
The speedboats are safe, even though the helmet they provide can be a little disconcerting. The spaces are cramped though, meaning you sit knees to chin for the entire duration.
All visitors require a visa to enter Laos. Tourist visa permitting a stay of 30 days can be obtained in advance at Lao Embassies and Consulates. Visa fee varies depending on nationality.
If you are staying for 15 days or less, visa-on-arrival is available at most border checkpoints. It is very easy and hassle-free. Two passport-size photos (4 x 6 cm) are required and the fee is US$30. They usually give you change in USD unless otherwise specified. Visa-on-Arrival is available at the following border checkpoints:
See also: Money Matters
The kip (₭ or ₭N) has been the currency of Laos since 1952. Frequently used banknotes are in denominations of 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 kip. Less frequently you may find banknotes with the denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 or 50,000 kip. There are also 10, 20 and 50 att coins, but these are rarely used.
ATMs are becoming increasingly common in the larger cities in Laos, including Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Viang Vieng and Luang Namtha.
See also: Lao Phrasebook
Laotian is the official language of the country. Learning a few words can be helpful in big cities but once in the countryside it won't go very far because half of the population of Laos does not speak Laotian as their first language or at home. Although Russian and French are spoken by older people, most of the younger people learn English as the common international language. Laotian is a non-tonal language with an alphabet based on the Thai one.
It may be harder to meet fellow travellers in Laos than in Thailand due to the guesthouse lodging system as opposed to hostels. Most of the rooms are either singles or doubles and so being placed with an unknown traveller is not common.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Laos. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Laos) where that disease is widely prevalent.
If you are on medication, be sure to bring along the patient information leaflet. Also be sure to bring along extra medication so that you won't have to worry about finding a pharmacy if you do lose some of your medication. Bring along an English explanation from your doctor regarding the medicine you are taking. If applicable, you may also want to bring along a clean set of syringes and needles. Remember to bring along a doctor's statement for these as well.
If you wear glasses or contact lenses, bring along the optician's description or an extra pair of glasses or set of contact lenses. Divers and snorkelers can purchase or rent goggles at diving shops/schools. Be sure to contact your local medical authorities prior to departure, such as your local doctor or travel clinic. Arranging a last minute trip to Laos shouldn't be a problem for a healthy person. Be sure to always bring along your vaccination documents, if you have these. Of course, it is best to arrange vaccinations well before departure if at all possible.
There is a risk of contracting malaria in Laos all year round, especially beyond the larger cities. Therefore it is very important to limit the risk of contracting malaria by taking preventative measures such as by taking malaria medication. Other preventative measures are: covering arms, legs and feet in the evening, wearing mosquito repellent and using mosquito-netting to keep mosquitoes at bay. You can also saturate the mosquito-netting with a mosquito repellent. Also, be sure to bring something to hang your mosquito-netting up with such as rope and a screw-hook or cork-screw (Swiss army knife). The type of malaria medication you should take depends on the length of your stay, your personal medical background and the area that you wish to visit. Advice on malaria medication is quite personal; therefore it's best to get advice about your personal situation from the medical authorities mentioned earlier.
Dengue and Japanese B-encephalitis
Dengue and Japanese B Encephalitis are both illnesses which are spread by mosquitoes; therefore you should take the same precautions to ward of infection as you would for malaria. There is no vaccine for dengue; however there is a vaccine for japanese B-encephalitis. Vaccination is recommended if you are planning on staying in Asia for more than 6 months.
Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP)
These vaccinations are advised for most countries beyond Europe, the vaccination is active valid for 10 years.
Choose from either short or long-term protection regarding hepatitis A. Long-term protection is valid for 10 years.
Stomach Typhoid Fever
The typhoid vaccination is advised by medical authorities if you decide to stay in Laos for longer than 2 weeks. The vaccination is valid for 3 years.
Be sure that you have received the correct vaccinations for your holiday destination. It's also important to try to be as healthy as possible prior to departure. Of course you will also want to avoid becoming ill while you are on holiday. Remain vigilant about your health, when in doubt, consult a doctor.
Jet lag & overcoming it
The common traveller's 'ailment' known as "Jet lag" is caused by a disruption to your biological clock (primarily your sleeping and waking rhythms) due to flying through different time zones. The body needs time to adjust to the new biorhythm for the first few days after your flight. During this time you can feel tired and irritable. Try to avoid drinking coffee or alcohol during the flight or do so in limited amounts. On arrival, try not to demand too much of your body for the first couple of days. It's also best to adjust to the time-difference and the new sleeping rhythm as quickly as possible. It is recommended to have an hour of sleep after arrival and then remaining awake until (early) bedtime.
Diarrhoea & preventing it
A change of rhythm, climate and food (especially spicy food) can cause your stomach to become out of sorts. As long as your only symptom is loose, watery stools and no other symptoms, you should be just fine if you rest a bit and drink plenty of water in small quantities. It may be necessary to take some Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) dissolved in water to prevent dehydration and this is especially important for the elderly and for children. Drugs, such as loperamide and diphenoxylate, can be taken if you really need to when on the road to prevent diarrhoea (not suitable for children under two years old). These drugs prevent the peristaltic action of the intestine, which stops stomach cramps and suppresses the diarrhoea. Only use these drugs when you're on the road and do not have regular access to a toilet. If diarrhoea persists for more than 48 hours and is also accompanied by headache, vomiting, or blood in the stool or if you’re taking any other medication at the time, you should contact a doctor. The doctor can send a stool sample to a lab for analysis to determine the source of the problem. Diarrhoea can end suddenly, but can leave a lingering feeling of lethargy since your intestines need time to recover.
To prevent diarrhoea only consume water and soft drinks from properly closed and sealed tins or bottles, or drink boiled water; such as tea or coffee. Fruit juice is safe, provided no water has been added. Food, particularly meat and fish, must be well cooked. We advise against the western-style salads offered in salad bars (in expensive hotels). Hamburgers are generally a lot less safe than the normal meat the locals eat. It is not always safe to eat from street stalls. Eat where it is busy, the time between food preparation and consumption is therefore the shortest, which is good for the hygiene. Take note of how the plates, glasses and cutlery are washed. There is often no running water and only a bucket with soap in it, baking in the sun. If that is the case, it is sensible to find somewhere else to eat. Restaurants where you can see how clean it is are recommended. With regards to street stalls, it’s probably smart not to eat meat at the end of the day; the meat can sometimes have been lying around all day un-refrigerated. A tried and trusted remedy to prevent dehydration during diarrhoea is to drink cola or bouillon. Cola can be bought everywhere and you can bring stock cubes and a single-cup beverage with you from home.
Prevent infection by small worms by not swimming in still water. The southern part of the Mekong River should also be avoided for swimming.
Take all cuts, scratches etc in the tropics seriously. Keep a close eye on them, clean them with disinfectant and keep them covered with a plaster during the day. Don't scratch mosquito bites. Always use a high factor sunscreen cream on exposed skin, even in the rainy season. Snorkelling with a t-shirt and shorts is not unusual. The sun is super strong at the equator, even if it's cloudy. You can avoid attracting biting insects, by not wearing brightly coloured or black clothing, strong perfume or deodorant or aftershave (try to avoid resembling a flower). It you’re prone to skin irritations, wear cotton or linen clothing. You can help avoid prickly heat by using talcum powder on your body after your morning shower. Wash or disinfect your hands after using the toilet, and don't bite your nails. During the dry season, in the woods, there is a slight chance that a tick may land on you (in European woods there is a far greater chance). Check your body for these bugs in the morning and evening; especially behind the knees and in the crotch. Should you find one, don't try to just pull it out, use tick pincers (obtainable from chemists) or seek medical attention. If, after being in the woods, you find a bloody circular skin wound, slowly increasing in size, seek professional medical attention.
Sunstroke can be prevented by wearing a hat, and sunglasses. Always keep a bottle of water with you, especially if you are in the wilderness and unlikely to come across drinking water. If you suspect sunstroke (feeling light-headed, headaches), you can prevent it from getting worse by drinking water and finding somewhere in the shade to sit and stay there, if possible.
Health when you get back home
If you have a fever, bowel problems or other physical complaints of an unknown nature after you return home (up to months after your return home), contact your doctor and let him/her know you've been in Laos and inform them of the length of your stay and what you have done there.
See also: Travel Safety
Like Cambodia unexploded ordinances can be a major issue in Laos. The issues with land mines is much lower but the USA dropped an amazing amount of bombs in very remote areas of the jungles. If you see and unexploded ordinance in the wilderness, such as bomb or even a bomb casing, do not touch it or get near it. Just walk away very slowly and report it to local authorities.
Most provincial capitals have internet access, particularly those that a more popular with tourists. In Luang Prabang and Vientiane rates are usually very reasonable at about US$0.50 to US$1.50 per hour. In more remote towns where competition is low, rates are a fair bit higher at around US$3 to US$6 per hour. If you're looking to save a bit of money, it's best to save your emailing until you reach the larger towns and cities.
See also: International Telephone Calls
The country code for Laos is 856. To dial out of the country, the international access code is 00. There are plenty of public phone booths in Laos but these are pretty useless as phonecards are no longer sold and the technology is rather archaic. For long distance calls it's much better to use a post office or internet cafe. The best place however is the local Telecom Office.
Mobile phone users can use their own GSM mobile phone in Laos. Roaming tends to be expensive, so if you're planning on using your phone a fair bit it may well be worth buying a local SIM card and purchasing prepaid minutes. SIMs are normally around US$5 and both Lao Telecom and ETL have good network coverage.
For the best postal services, send your mail from Vientiane as the post in the provinces is less reliable. In general it takes anywhere from 1 to over 2 weeks to send post to/from Laos. Post offices generally are open from 8:00am to 5:00pm, with some having shorter hours on weekend days as well. If you are going to Thailand, post from there as it's more reliable and faster. If you are worried about sending home valuable items there is a Federal Express office inside the main post office in Vientiane. You might also check possibilities with companies like DHL, TNT or UPS.
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Ask meganjane03 a question about Laos
I spent a month in Laos last year (mainly in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang).
Ask kichikacha a question about Laos
Cycled north of Laos
Ask TylerJames a question about Laos
Wicked country only been a few places but will help in any way i can
Ask garygwilliam a question about Laos
I made the trip from Pai in Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang via Van, and the Slow Boat up-river. Although the experience was beautiful in it's scenery going up river, some of the other legs of the journey can be a bit annoying, uncomfortable to some older travellers wanting to take the "Scenic route". I definitely think the "The road less travelled" in this case should be the 35 year olds and under. For as long as this route has been made available, it seems a pity that the operators of the different legs have not made it easier, more comfortable, and more accommodating to more seasoned travellers by re-investing some of their capital into an enterprise that could be made easier without effecting the overall cost of the journey.
Ask pomelo a question about Laos
I travel to Laos a few times a year and love the place. Can guide you through the country without any problem. Not really sure about the border though
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