Laos is a landlocked country with a deeply-rooted Buddhist culture. Visitors will experience this through participation in the morning procession of monks and giving “alms,” to witnessing the love and care of the country’s majestic and beloved elephants. Explore intriguing areas like the mysterious Plain of Jars, a megalithic archaeological landscape dating to the Iron Age. Or, observe the ways of life on the Mekong River by taking in the archipelago at Si Phan Don, also known as “4,000 Islands.” Travelers are able to experience the laid back hospitality of a relatively sparse population, whether in the cities or rural villages. Laos has also become a destination for those seeking outdoor fun, as the topography is covered with rivers, mountains, caves, and limestone formations. If you seek adventure, insight into a mystical place, or simply an enjoyable holiday, then come with us to Lan Xang, the “Kingdom of a Million Elephants.”
HISTORY AND CULTURE
Mainland Territory: 237,955 sq. km
National Capital: Vientiane
International Calling Code: Laos: +856
The history of Laos can be traced to the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants), founded in the 14th century. Theravada Buddhism was established as the state religion of the prosperous land. The nation’s Golden Age occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries under King Suriyavongsa, when the capital of Vientiane became known as a major center for Buddhist learning. Laos became a French colony in 1893, was briefly under Japanese rule during WWII, then returned to the French before ultimately gaining independence in 1953. Despite attempting to remain neutral, Laos found itself stuck in the middle of the Cold War when strife crossed its borders and bombs rained down. Today, Laos is at peace and looking forward with investment projects and more visitors than ever before who discover the diversity of its people and cultures, which features Buddhist art and architecture as a cornerstone.
The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos (commonly referred to colloquially as Muang Lao) is located at the heart of the Indochinese peninsula, bordered by Myanmar and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the southwest, and Thailand to the west and southwest. The Mekong River is the main geographical feature in the west, and in some areas if forms a natural border with Thailand. The Mekong flows through nearly 1,900 km of Lao territory and shapes of the lifestyle of the people of Laos. In the south the Mekong reaches a breadth of 20 km, creating the area known as “4,000 Islands.”
Approximately 70% of Laos’ terrain in mountainous, reaching a maximum elevation of 2,820 m in Xieng Khouang Province. The landscapes of northern Laos and regions adjacent to Vietnam, in particular, are dominated by rough mountains.
Laos is divided into 17 provinces and one prefecture, which includes the capital city of Vientiane. Provinces are further divided into districts and then villages.
Lao, a monosyllabic and tonal language, is the official language. English and French are also widely spoken.
Lao Loum (lowland) 68%, Lao Theung (upland) 22%, Lao Soung (highland), including the H’Mong and Yao, 9%, ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese 1%
– Passports are required to be valid for at least 6 months upon arrival in Laos. If the expiration date is less than 6 months, you will be fined or not allowed to enter Laos. Passports must have 2 blank pages.
– Visas can be applied for on arrival at international airports or any of 10 international borders. Immigration will provide you with the filling form, and this may take about 10-15 minutes and about 20 minutes at airports.
– Tourist Visa valid for 30 days, you must have a passport, passport-size photo and Visa fees depend on nationalities from 30-42USD.
International check point borders:
– China (Mohan) – Luang Namtha Province (Boten)
– Thailand (Chiang Khong) – Bokeo Province (Houay Xay)
– Thailand (Nong Khay) –Vientiane (capital) (Friendship Bridge)
– Thailand – Xayabouly Province (Nam Heuang Friendship Bridge)
– Thailand (Nakhon Phanom) – Khammouane Province (Thakhaek)
– Thailand (Moukdahan) – Savannakhet Province (Friendship Bridge II)
– Thailand (Chong Mek) – Champasak Province (Vang Tao)
– Vietnam (Nam Kanh) – Xieng Khouang Province (Nong Haet)
– Vietnam (Kao Cheo) – Bolikhamxay (Nam Phao)
– Vietnam (Lao Bao) – Savannakhet Province (Dene Savanh)
Laos has three international airports:
– Wattay International Airport in Vientiane (capital)
– Luang Prabang International Airport in Luang Prabang Province
– Pakse International Airport in Champasack Province
WEATHER & HOLIDAYS
Laos has a tropical climate with two distinctive seasons. The rainy season lasts from early May until the end of September. The dry season runs from October to April. The average temperature is around 28°C/82°F, with the hottest temperatures around 38°C/100°F occurring in April. In the mountains, temperatures from December until February may dip down to 15°C/59°F.
Holidays and Festivals
– January 1 – New Year
– April 13-15 – Lao New Year (Bun Pi Mai): This occasion is quite picturesque in Luang Prabang, with colorful costumes and elephant processions.
– May 1 – International Labor Day
– Mid-May – Visakha Busa: This is celebrated at the day of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. It takes place on the 15th day of the 6th lunar month, with beautiful ceremonies centered around the wat.
– End of April – Rocket Festival: This is the rain ceremony celebrated to instigate the rainy season for rice cultivation. Festivities include music, dance, folk theater, and bamboo rockets to open the skies.
– Mid-October – End of Buddhist Lent and national boat races
– Beginning of November – That Luang Festival in Vientiane
– December 2 – National Day
Lao cuisine is like Thai food with meat salad and papaya salad being popular dishes. Vegetables, fish (mostly freshwater varieties, as Laos is landlocked), chicken, duck, pork, beef, and water buffalo are often grilled or roasted in lime juice, lemongrass, mint leaf, coriander, coconut milk, hot chilies, and other spices.
Free Wi-Fi is fairly standard and available in many hotels, guesthouses and in the main tourist destinations. Internet cafes are still available in Vientiane, but rare elsewhere. Computers in most internet cafes have instant-messaging and Skype, though headsets are not always available.
Travelers are advised to be up-to-date on tetanus, typhoid, and polio immunizations. Bottled water is available throughout the country, though when buying water, check that the seal is not broken as bottles are sometimes refilled from the tap.
A brief checklist:
– Consider taking water purification tablets with you.
– Take insect repellent with DEET. You may want to consult your physician on proper medication to take for malaria.
– Mosquito netting is always suggested when sleeping.
Currency and Banking
Lao currency is called kip. One USD is worth approximately 8,550 LAK (Lao Kip). Money may be exchanged at banks, authorized shops, and hotels. Rates fluctuate slightly on a daily basis. Visa and Master Card are widely accepted in most hotels, and in higher-end restaurants and shops. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. Traveler’s checks may be cashed inside banks; a fee (around 1.8%) is usually charged if exchanged for USD but not for kip. Most hotels do not accept traveler’s checks. Visitors are advised to take USD in denominations of 50, 20, 10, 5 and 1.
Visa is the most common. Master Card and American Express are accepted at most banks and in larger towns such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and in more upscale hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops.
ATMs can be found in the main towns and in shopping malls. In small towns, they are located in front of banks and markets. You can withdraw up to 10 times per day up to 700,000 LAK (roughly 82 USD) each time. You can withdraw only local currency (LAK).
Silk and cotton fabrics, wood sculptures and cut-out figures, pottery, and traditional instruments are part of the rich tapestry of Laotian craftsmanship.
220 volts, 50 Hz. Power outlets are two-prong round or flat sockets. Adaptors are recommended and may be purchased on Amazon or at your local travel or electronics store.
DO'S & DON'TS
– Dress appropriately when visiting a temple, covering shoulders and knees.
– In Buddhist culture, it is considered rude to point your feet in another’s direction.
– When offering alms to monks, camera flashes are not appropriate when they are quietly practicing their faith. If you see someone being disrespectful, please speak up.
– Public displays of affection, such as holding hands, are frowned upon.
– Lao people are modest. It is never appropriate to bath or swim in the nude.
– Please avoid purchasing old objects or antiques as souvenirs, as they may have been stolen from unprotected temples or historic sites. They are part of Lao national treasures and should be left for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.
– Lao people are frank, open, and friendly, and they possess a strong sense of courtesy and respect for all people. Please reciprocate when visiting.
– The following are basic guidelines for communicating in Laos: The generally accepted form of greeting among Lao people is the Nop. It is performed by placing one’s palms together in a position of praying at chest level, but not touching any part of the body. The higher the hands, the greater the sign of respect. Nonetheless, the hands should not be held above the level of the nose. The Nop is accompanied by a slight bow to show respect to persons of higher status and age. It is also used as an expression of thanks, regret, or saying goodbye. With western people it is acceptable to shake hands.
– The feet are considered the inferior part of the body, both physically and spiritually. Please do not indicate or touch another person or object with your foot.
Emergency Travel and health insurance is not included in our tour package. This is an important requirement when you travel with us for your safety and peace of mind in the unexpected event that you need urgent international standard care. You should buy travel insurance in your country as it will be more convenient for you to deal with any claims and adjustments upon your return home. AIG, Allianz, or John Hancock have good travel coverage and respond very quickly to emergencies. We do not endorse any one travel insurance company but suggest you consider www.travelguard.com, as past clients of ours have had good experiences with them in times of need. Also, check with your insurance provider to see if they cover:
1. emergency evacuation during your travels, and
2. emergency airlift to an international hospital or provide professional medical care to transport you home. The cost alone for airlifting a person home can cost up to the 100’s of thousands of USD. Travel more safely with fewer worries.
A packing list is often a forgotten part of the planning processes, but it’s one of the most important steps to ensure an enjoyable vacation. Here are some important reminders from our traveler’s experiences:
– Your passport should have at least 6-months validity from the date of departure on your trip.
– Check your visa requirement to your destination. Check the entry date on your visa and validity of the visa.
– When possible book e-tickets. If you happen to lose your ticket you can always print your ticket online.
– Always make extra copies of your passport and keep it separate from your original.
– Make a copy of your travel insurance and emergency contact information. It’s best to have those numbers entered in your mobile phone.
– Call your credit card company to inform them of the dates of your trip so that your charge card won’t get blocked by your card company because of a foreign charge. This will also protect you in the event your card is stolen, and you have fraudulent charges on your account. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted as oppose to Amex.
– Make sure your tour operator knows of any allergies you may have.
Electronics or gadgets:
– If you have a 3-pronged plug, you will need to bring an adapter to change to 2 prongs (flat and round). Most countries will have plugs for 2 prongs.
– Make sure your electronics can take 220 volts as this is standard in most countries.
– Sometimes it’s a good investment to bring a backup mobile phone where you can use a local SIM card for calls. It’s much cheaper than using your regular mobile phone and paying for roaming calls.
– Don’t forget your charger for your electronics and check to see if they are compatible with 220 volts.
– Bring small pocket solar calculator to convert exchange rates.
Clothing & Miscellaneous:
– Know where you are traveling and the weather you should expect. Traveling to a tropical area you will expect to see mosquitoes, so bring some long sleeve shirts and long pants for evenings.
– Traveling to Asia it is frowned upon to wear shorts that are 6 in. above the knee, especially when visiting temples or places of worship. Wearing a dress is fine if you plan to dress light. But again, when visiting temples please make sure dresses are no more than a few inches above the knee with a shirt or blouse covering your shoulder. Revealing shoulders are frowned upon.
– Good walking shoes and socks
– Slip-on shoes for ease of taking them on and off when visiting pagodas, houses, and other places where footwear in inappropriate.
– Rain-resistant light jacket
– Head cover to protect from hot tropical weather
– Insect repellent with DEET
– Stomach medicine
– Prescription medication
– A good book for those occasional flight delays
For good service, guides are usually tipped $10-15 USD/day, and drivers about $5-10. Tips are not expected in restaurants, but for good service you may leave $1-2 USD in the local currency.
Before 45 days, no charge tours.
45 to 30 days prior arrival date: 5% of the total price
29 to 15 days prior arrival date: 10% of the total price
7 days to the day of arrival: 50%
3 days to the day of arrival: 100%