All About Travel to Laos

FAQs

Laos’s lifeline is the Mekong River, which runs the length of the country, at times bisecting it and at others serving as a boundary with Thailand; the rugged Annamite Mountains historically have acted as a buffer against Vietnam, with which Laos shares its eastern border. Most people visit the country as part of a wider trip in the region, often entering from Thailand and following the Mekong further south. However, Laos alone rewards further exploration, and with a little more time it’s not hard to feel like you’re visiting places where few Westerners venture. Stretching from the forest-clad mountains of the north to the islands of the far south, there’s enough here to keep you occupied for weeks, and still feel as though you’d barely scratched the surface.For such a small country, Laos is surprisingly diverse in terms of its people. Colourfully dressed hill tribes populate the higher elevations, while in the lowland river valleys, coconut palms sway over the Buddhist monasteries of the ethnic Lao. The country also retains some of the French influence it absorbed during colonial days: the familiar smell of freshly baked bread and coffee mingles with exotic local aromas in morning markets, and many of the old shophouses of its larger towns now (appropriately) house French restaurants.The effects of the wars, and of its communist government, are unmistakable – it remains completely inadvisable to strike out into the countryside without following paths for fear of UXO (unexploded ordnance) – and the country remains heavily dependent on its neighbours for all manner of products; indeed in some parts of the country, the local markets stock more Chinese and Vietnamese goods than Lao. However, whether you’re riding through the countryside on a rickety old bus crammed with sacks of rice, more people than seats, and blaring tinny Lao pop music, leisurely sailing down the Mekong past staggeringly beautiful scenery, or being dragged by a stranger to celebrate a birth over too much Beer Lao and lào-láo, it’s hard not to be won over by this utterly fascinating country and its people.
Weather in Laos

Laos has a tropical climate and its seasons are straightforward: it’s hot and wet from May–October (with August being the wettest and most humid), and dry and cooler from November–April. Within that broad picture, there are regional differences, which can generally be summed up as: the further south you go, the hotter it is. For example, in January, in the middle of the dry season, average maximum temperatures in Pakse and areas in the south are 29°C, which drops to 27°C in Vientiane, and a relatively cool 24°C in Luang Prabang.

Also, the climate in some northeastern areas – notably Phongsali and Hua Phan (Sam Neua) – can be surprisingly temperamental, even in the hot season. You could have one scorcher of a day, followed by a cold, wet day – which can make you wonder if you’re still in southeast Asia.
When is the monsoon in Laos?

The monsoon season in Laos falls between May and October, with the north of the country getting more rainfall than the south. This doesn’t mean it rains all day – rather that there are short downpours that usually last no longer than a few hours. However, although the rain doesn’t necessarily last for long, the wet weather can make travel difficult, particularly in rural areas. Also, during the monsoon, humidity tends to be high. So, if you’re wondering when is the best time to visit Laos to avoid a daily dousing, plan your trip for the dry season, from November – April.

When is the best month to visit Laos?

December is arguably the best month to travel to Laos for all-round favourable weather. The dry and pleasant conditions are ideal for both sightseeing, and all kinds of outdoor activities, such as hiking, cycling, exploring caves and river travel.

When to go to Laos in winter
Visiting Laos from December–February

This is the best time to visit Laos for a bit of everything: sightseeing, river travel and exploring the countryside.

November to January are the most pleasant months to travel in lowland Laos, when daytime temperatures are agreeably warm, evenings are slightly chilly and the countryside is green and lush after the rains. However, at higher elevations temperatures are significantly cooler, sometimes dropping to freezing point. Vientiane and Luang Prabang witness temperatures averaging around 27°C and 22°C, respectively, in December, while southern regions, such as Pakse, see them climb to around 30°C.

Water levels from the previous months’ rainfall are high, which is perfect for trips along the Mekong River. For those seeking bigger water-based thrills, there are opportunities galore for whitewater rafting and kayaking adventures, on northern rivers, such as the Nam Ou and the Nam Xuang. The best bases for kayaking tours are Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang andLuang Namtha. Also, the scenic waterfalls of the southern highlands are not to be missed.

Dry conditions on land are also ideal – for exploring mystical Buddhist shrines and mysterious caves, visits to elephant camps, coffee plantations and indigenous markets. It’s also the best time to go to Laos for active outdoor pursuits, such as rock climbing, adventurous hikes and cycling tours. For organised day trips and multi-day treks to hill tribes in the far north of Laos, book an excursion from towns such as Luang Namtha, Muang Sing, Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng.

If you’ve reached sightseeing saturation point and had your fill of high energy adventure, why not island hop the picturesque Si Phan Don(Four Thousand Islands) archipelago? Just a few of the islands are geared for tourists, such as Don Daeng and Don Det, but they offer the perfect laid-back getaway and slower pace of life.

For culture, don’t miss the excellent Luang Prabang Film Festival in December, which showcases films from Southeast Asia at outdoor locations in the city.

Be aware that the dry season inevitably attracts greater visitor numbers, so well-known attractions are at their busiest.

When to go to Laos in spring
Visiting Laos from March–May

Laos experiences quite a transition from the beginning to the end of spring. Temperatures rise rapidly, reaching a peak in April, when the lowlands are baking hot and humid, and the highlands are, for the most part, equally hot, if a bit less muggy – though there are places, such as Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau, that have a temperate climate year-round. Temperatures typically hover around 36°C in Luang Prabang, a roasting 38°C in Vientiane, and a notch higher in Pakse.

Water levels in rivers are at an all-year low by April, disrupting river travel. But May sees the start of the rainy season and Laos becomes both hot and humid. Trekking can be difficult as trails become slippery, but excursions to cultural sites are still on the agenda – if you’re willing to brave the heat.

Due to slash-and-burn agriculture, much of the north, including Luang Prabang, becomes shrouded in smoke from March until the beginning of the monsoon, which can be quite uncomfortable to deal with at times.

But it’s not all about the weather. Spring is perhaps the best time to travel to Laos for its festivals, as two big ones kick off at this time. Laos New Year falls in the middle of April and is big news on the events calendar. Locals wash Buddha statues and water fights typically ensue – the water seen as good luck, and has the added benefit of cooling off the recipient in hot weather. Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival) follows in May, which sees homemade rockets launched into the sky, with the intention of persuading the spirits to bring the rains.

When to go to Laos in summer
Visiting Laos from June–August

Laos is hot, wet and humid during the summer months, literally dampening tourism. The rain affects the condition of Laos’s network of unpaved roads, some of which become impassable and the monsoon hinders certain activities, especially those outdoors. That said, rivers which may be too low to navigate towards the end of the dry season become important transport routes again, after rain raises water levels. Also, the parched landscape bounces back to life: rice fields turn a shade of emerald and tumbling waterfalls are surrounded by vibrant greenery.

It’s also worth noting that, although most of Laos sees rain In June, it doesn’t usually last long, and the rain tends to bring the heat down a notch – meaning you can still pack in some sightseeing.

By July, the rains reach a steady tempo and the temperature hovers around 32°C in the south – again, cooler in the north. For relief from the sweltering heat from the Mekong Valley, head for the coffee bean producing Bolaven Plateau.

August sees rainfall reach a crescendo in August, with showers at their heaviest and lasting longer, and humidity high. Wet and muddy walking trails make hiking difficult, if not impossible, while roads can be slippery and hazardous – with flooding a possibility. Remote areas and caves can be off limits, as well as other popular attractions, such as the Kouang Si waterfalls. Tubing in Vang Vieng also becomes dangerous.

Pack an umbrella and light moisture-wicking apparel for when the weather gets too clammy.

When to go to Laos in autumn
Visiting Laos from September–November

Whilst it rains consistently for most of September, the end of the month brings bright, sunny weather again, with landscapes at their most picturesque.

By October, there’s only the odd smattering of rain now and then and temperatures are knocking around 30°C. As outdoor activities are back on the cards this is the best time to travel to Laos to enjoy its many delights before the throngs return during peak tourist season. It’s also prime time to bag a shoulder season bargain.

The river takes centre stage for October festivals. Boun Awk Phansa, the end of Buddhist Lent, brings the magical spectacle of Lai Heau Fai, (festival of lights), with Luang Prabang the setting for particularly lively celebrations. The town is aglow with lanterns and locals send enormous candlelit paper boats down the Mekong.

The biggest boat racing festival on the calendar also takes place at this time of year. Vientiane, on the Mekong river, is the prime spot, but river towns across Laos hold their own races and accompanying celebrations.

November is no longer wet but rivers are still full from the recent rainfall – time to mosey along the country’s waterways. Adventures outdoors, such as trekking, tubing and swimming are really picking up, and comfortable temperatures make sightseeing and temple-hopping – and exploring in general, highly enjoyable.

When to go to Laos for its festivals

Laos festivals are an explosion of colour, where parades, games, music and dancing are all accompanied by copious amounts of lào-láo (a fiery rice alcohol). If you happen to be in a town or village that is gearing up for a festival, consider staying in the area for a bit longer to enjoy the festivities. In rural areas especially, a festival can transform an entire village into a wild, week-long party.

Because the Lao calendar is dictated by both solar and lunar rhythms, the dates of festivals change from year to year and, even just a few days prior to a parade or boat race, there is sometimes confusion over exactly when it will take place. For the local people this is not really a problem, as the days leading up to and immediately following large festivals are equally packed with celebrations. Read our lowdown on Laos’s annual events to help you plan the best time to visit Laos.

Major festivals

The Makkha Busa Buddist Holy Day (February). Observed under a full moon in February, this commemorates a legendary sermon given by the Buddha after 1250 of his disciples spontaneously congregated around the Enlightened One.

Lao New Year (April). Celebrated all over Laos in mid-April, notably in Luang Prabang, where the town’s namesake Buddha image is ritually bathed.

Bun Bang Fai (rocket festival); (May). Crude projectiles are made from stout bamboo poles stuffed with gunpowder and fired skywards. It’s hoped the thunderous noise will encourage the spirits to make it rain after months of dry weather.

Lai Heau Fai (festival of of lights); (full moon in October). A festival of light. The celebrations are especially lively in Luang Prabang. In the days leading up to the festival residents build large floats and festoon them with lights.

Boun Souang Heua (boat racing festival); (October). There are other boat festivals during the year, but this is the biggest. The Mekong river at Vientiane is the main location, but other river towns hold their own races.

That Luang Festival (November). In the days leading up to the full moon, the great That Luang stupa in Vientiane comes to resemble the centrepiece of a fairground, with street vendors setting up booths in the open spaces around it. The week-long That Luang Festival then kicks off with a mass alms-giving to hundreds of monks.

Bun Pha Wet Festival (December–January). Bun Pha Wet, which commemorates the Jataka tale of the Buddha’s second-to-last incarnation as Pha Wet, or Prince Vessantara, takes place at local monasteries on various dates throughout December or January. In larger towns, expect live bands and dancing.

The high season for flights to Southeast Asia is from the beginning of July through to the end of August and also includes most of December, during which period fares can be twenty percent higher than at other times of year. If Laos is only one stop on a longer journey, you might want to consider buying a Round-the-World (RTW) ticket, which can be tailored to the destinations you want to visit. Also worth considering if you live in Australia, New Zealand or the west coast of North America are Circle Pacific tickets, which feature Bangkok as a standard option.

Package tours to Laos, some of which take in the country as part of a wider Indochina trawl, are inevitably more expensive and less spontaneous than if you travel independently, but are worth investigating if you have limited time or a specialist interest. Booking through a tour company in Laos will undoubtedly save you money compared to booking in your home country for details of recommended tour operators.

Flights from the UK and Ireland

Most flights from the UK and Ireland to Laos will involve a change of plane at Bangkok; an alternative route is via Vietnam, though this requires a change of plane in France or Germany first. In total, flying to Laos from the UK will take at least fifteen and a half hours, though this varies greatly according to connection times – flying on Thai Airways to Vientiane is usually the quickest option.

Flying from Ireland will involve changing planes at least twice – once in London or another European hub, and again at Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City – with a journey time of at least eighteen and a half hours.

Because of the lack of direct flights, prices are generally high throughout the year. Expect to pay at least £750 from London and €900 from Dublin, though prices often rise over £1000/€1500 respectively. With flights to Bangkok alone significantly cheaper (from £450/€600), it’s worth considering travelling overland between the Thai capital and Vientiane by train.

Flights from the US and Canada

Flying to Laos from North America usually involves one stop, in Bangkok, if travelling from the west coast, and two stops, often Hong Kong and Bangkok, from the east coast. Expect journey lengths of at least nineteen and twenty-three hours, respectively.

Fares from the west coast start at around $1200, while you should expect to pay upwards of $1500 from the east coast. From Canada, prices begin at Can$1300 for Vancouver departures, Can$1700 from Toronto.

Flights from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa

Flights from Perth to Laos are via Bangkok, while those from elsewhere in Australia may go via Vietnam or Hong Kong (the latter requiring an additional change at Bangkok); average journey time is around thirteen hours from Perth and sixteen hours from Sydney, depending on connections. Flights from Perth start at around Aus$1000, Aus$1200 from Sydney; a cheaper alternative could be to fly the budget airline Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur, from where you can connect to Vientiane. From New Zealand, flying to Laos involves at least two stops, usually in Australia, Hong Kong, Vietnam or Bangkok; the journey takes around nineteen hours and fares start at around NZ$1900.

Expect a journey upwards of nineteen hours if flying from South Africa, with at least two stops en route. Prices start at around R8500.

Getting there from neighbouring countries

Landlocked Laos is easily accessed from most of its neighbouring countries, either overland or by flying. Note that visa on arrival is not available at all overland entry points for details and check locally for the most up-to-date information.

From Thailand

Lao Airlines operates flights from Bangkok to Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet, from Chiang Mai to Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and from Udon Thani to Luang Prabang. In addition, Bangkok Air has twice-daily flights to Luang Prabang. All flights take between one hour and one hour forty minutes.

As of the time of writing, there are six routes across the Thai border into Laos: Chiang Khong–Houayxai; Nong Khai–Vientiane; Nakhon Phanom–Thakhek; Mukdahan–Savannakhet; Chong Mek–Pakse; and Beung Khan–Paksan. Visas on arrival are available at all but the last crossing, but check locally before travelling as the situation can change. It’s possible to get visas in advance from the Laos Embassy in Bangkok.

From Vietnam

Vietnam Airlines flies from Hanoi to Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Vientiane (all 3hr); both routes are also served by Lao Airlines. It’s also possible to travel overland into Laos at six border points: Tay Trang–Sop Hun; Nam Xoi–Na Meo; Nam Khan–Nam Can; Cau Treo–Nam Phao; Lao Bao–Dansavanh; Ngoc Hoi–Bo Y. Visas on arrival are available at all of these crossings.

From Cambodia

Lao Airlines operates direct flights from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang (1hr 30min) and Pakse (1hr 45min), and to Vientiane via Pakse (3hr). The only way to cross overland into Laos is at the Dom Kralor–Veun Kham crossing, where it’s possible to get a visa on arrival. It’s also possible to cross here by boat. You will probably have to pay a small “fee”, usually around $1–2, to the immigration officials at the checkpoint, in addition to your visa fee.

From China

It’s possible to travel by road or air into Laos from China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Lao Airlines operates flights from Kunming to Vientiane (1hr 20min). The only border crossing is at Mengla–Boten, from where buses run to Luang Namtha and Oudomxai – it’s best to travel first thing in the morning in order to be able to connect to either town.

Visas on arrival take just a few minutes to process, cost around $35, and are available to passengers flying into Luang Prabang Airport, Pakse Airport and Wattay Airport in Vientiane. Those travelling to Laos from Thailand can pick up visas on arrival at any of the border crossings open to foreign tourists, as can those entering from certain places in Vietnam (Nam Khan, Bo Y, Tay Trang, Cau Treo and Lao Bao) and China (Mo Han). Only US dollars are accepted as payment and a passport-sized photo is required. If you forget the photo, border officials will usually turn a blind eye for an extra $1. Note that passport holders from a number of countries, including Pakistan, Turkey and Zambia, are not eligible for visas on arrival and must obtain one in advance – for a comprehensive list see wtinyurl.com/3ykrvyy. To cross into Laos from all other points, including Cha Lo in Vietnam, you’ll need to arrange a visa before arriving at the border. Like visas on arrival, pre-arranged tourist visas allow for a stay of up to thirty days. Prices are generally a little higher though – especially if you pay a tour operator to help you out – so avoid buying one unless your border crossing demands it. If it does, visas can be obtained directly from Lao embassies and consulates. At the Lao embassy in Bangkok, thirty-day visas cost 1,400 baht for nationals of the UK, US and Ireland, 1,200 baht for those from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and 1,680 baht for Canadians. You’ll need to take two passport-sized photos with you but, provided you apply before noon, processing can usually be done on the same day. Advance visas can also be obtained at the Lao consulate in Khon Kaen, in the northeast of Thailand, or through one of the many travel agents concentrated on or around Khao San Road. However, prices (and processing fees) can vary wildly. Wherever you choose to get your visa, bear in mind that Lao visa regulations and prices are subject to frequent change.

The Lao embassy in Hanoi, and consulates in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, can also issue visas but it’s important to note that the prices charged vary from place to place, and the regulations and conditions change frequently. Lao visas issued in Vietnam are also significantly more expensive than those issued in Thailand.

Extending visas

Visa extensions are fairly easy to obtain, but you’ll need to plan ahead if you want to avoid overstaying your visa (there’s currently a $10 penalty for each extra day you spend in the country). The cheapest option is to visit the immigration office on Hatsady Road in Vientiane before your visa expires. Here, visa extensions are issued at the cost of $2 per day and the maximum length of extension is fifteen days. Alternatively you could leave the country and enter again (which might work out cheaper if you’re planning to extend by twenty days or more) or pay a local travel agent to arrange the visa extension for you. Generally this is more expensive, with most vendors charging around $4 per extra day required. Thirty-day business visas that have the potential to be extended can also be arranged in advance at the Lao embassies and consulates listed below.

Lao visas

Visa on arrival:

Thirty days. Available at Wattay International Airport (Vientiane), Pakse Airport, Luang Prabang International Airport, and all Thai–Lao border crossings open to foreigners. Also available at border crossings with Vietnam (Nam Khan, Bo Y, Tay Trang, Cau Treo and Lao Bao) and China (Mo Han).

Tourist visa (T):

Thirty days. Required for all border crossings where visa on arrival is not available. Can be arranged in advance at Lao embassies and consulates, or through tour operators in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Visitor visa (B3):

One-month stay. Extendable for two further months. Lao guarantor required, and intended for those visiting relatives who work in Laos.

Transit visa (TR):

Allows for a maximum of five days’ stay and intended to help travellers who wish to make a short stopover in Laos. The visa is only valid for one province, and takes three working days to process. To qualify you must have proof of an onward journey within five days.

Business visa (B2):

One-month stay, but can be extended until the end of your business term. Requires a Lao sponsor.

Multiple entry visa:

Only issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Consular Department.

Closely related to Thai cuisine, Lao food is, in fact, more widely consumed than you might think: in addition to the more than two million ethnic Lao in Laos, Lao cuisine is the daily sustenance for roughly a third of the Thai population, while more than a few Lao dishes are commonplace on the menus of Thai restaurants in the West. Although Lao cuisine isn’t strongly influenced by that of its other neighbours, Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants have made their mark on the culinary landscape by opening restaurants and noodle stalls throughout the country, while the French introduced bread, pâté and pastries.

Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the country’s culinary centres, boasting excellent Lao food and international cuisine. Towns with a well-developed tourist infrastructure will usually have a number of restaurants serving a mix of Lao, Thai, Chinese and Western dishes, usually of varying standards, but once you’re off the well-beaten tourist trail it can be hard to find much variety beyond fried rice and noodle soup.

Where to eat

Food is generally very inexpensive in Laos, with the cheapest options those sold by hawkers – usually fruit, small dishes like papaya salad, and grilled skewered meat – and the most expensive being the upmarket tourist restaurants (usually French or European) in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

Though hygiene standards have improved over recent years, basic food preparation knowledge in many places still lacks behind other countries in the region. However, though a little caution is a good idea, especially when you first arrive in the country in order to allow your stomach time to adjust to the change of cuisine, it’s best just to exercise common sense. Generally, noodle stalls and restaurants that do a brisk business are a safe bet, though you may find that this denies you the opportunity to seek out more interesting, less touristy food.

Markets, street stalls and noodle shops

Morning markets (talat sâo), found in most towns throughout Laos, remain open all day despite their name and provide a focal point for noodle shops, coffee vendors and fruit stands. In Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Luang Namtha, vendors hawking pre-made dishes gather towards late afternoon in evening markets known as talat láeng. Takeaways include grilled chicken (pîng kai), spicy papaya salad (tam màk hung) and in some instances a variety of dishes, displayed in trays and ranging from minced pork salad (larp mu) to stir-fried vegetables (khùa phák).

Most market vendors offer only takeaway food, with the exception of noodle stalls, where there will always be a small table or bench on which to sit, season and eat your noodle soups. Outside of the markets, noodle shops (hân khãi fõe) feature a makeshift kitchen surrounded by a handful of tables and stools, inhabiting a permanent patch of pavement or even an open-air shophouse. Most stalls specialize in one general food type, or, in some cases, only one dish; for example a stall with a mortar and pestle, unripe papayas and plastic bags full of pork rinds will only offer spicy papaya salad and variants on that theme. Similarly, a noodle shop will generally only prepare noodles with or without broth – they won’t have meat or fish dishes that are usually eaten with rice.

Restaurants

Proper restaurants (hân ahãn) aren’t far ahead of noodle shops in terms of comfort; most are open-sided establishments tucked beneath a corrugated tin roof. Ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese dominate the restaurant scene in some parts of Laos; indeed it can be downright difficult to find a Lao restaurant in some northern towns. Most towns that have even the most basic of tourist infrastructure will have at least one restaurant with an English-language menu – even if the translation can lead to some amusement. Away from the larger tourist centres, dishes will usually encompass variations on fried rice and noodle dishes, often with a few Lao, Chinese or Thai options intended to be eaten with sticky or steamed rice.

Tourist restaurants in larger centres usually offer a hotchpotch of cuisine – often encompassing standard Lao dishes like larp and mók pa alongside sandwiches, pastas and steaks. The most upmarket restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang generally serve French cuisine, often in very sophisticated, un-Lao surroundings, but at very reasonable prices – a meal for two, including wine, is unlikely to stretch past $40.

When it comes to paying, the normal sign language will be readily understood in most restaurants, or simply say “khãw sék dae” (“the bill, please”). You’ll generally only be able to use credit cards at upscale establishments in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Tipping is only expected in the most upmarket restaurants – ten percent should suffice.

What to eat

So that a variety of tastes can be enjoyed during the course of a meal, Lao meals are eaten communally, with each dish being served at once, rather than in courses. The dishes – typically a fish or meat dish and soup, with a plate of fresh vegetables such as string beans, lettuce, basil and mint served on the side – are placed in the centre of the table, and each person helps him- or herself to only a little at a time. When ordering a meal, if there are two of you it’s common to order two or three dishes, plus your own individual servings of rice, while three diners would order three or four different dishes.

The staple of Lao meals is rice, with noodles a common choice for breakfast or as a snack. Most meals are enjoyed with sticky rice (khào niaw), which is served in a lidded wicker basket (típ khào) and eaten with the hands. Although it can be tricky at first, it’s fairly easy to pick up the proper technique if you watch the Lao around you. Grab a small chunk of rice from the basket, press it into a firm wad with your fingers and then dip the rice ball into one of the dishes. Replace the lid of the típ khào when you are finished eating or you will be offered more rice.

Plain steamed white rice (khào jâo) is eaten with a fork and spoon – the spoon and not the fork is used to deliver the food to your mouth. If you’re eating a meal with steamed white rice, it’s polite to only put a small helping of each dish onto your rice at a time. Chopsticks (mâi thu) are reserved for noodles, the main exception being Chinese-style rice served in bowls.

If you are dining with a Lao family as a guest, wait until you are invited to eat by your host before taking your first mouthful. While dipping a wad of sticky rice into the main dish, try not to let grains of rice fall into it, and dip with your right hand only. Resist the temptation to continue eating after the others at the table have finished. Custom dictates that a little food should be left on your plate at the end of the meal.

Flavours

In addition to chillies, coriander, lemongrass and lime juice, common ingredients in Lao food include ginger, coconut milk, galangal, shallots and tamarind. Another vital addition to a number of Lao dishes is khào khùa, raw rice roasted in a wok until thoroughly browned and then pounded into powder; it’s used to add both a nutty flavour and an agreeably gritty texture to food.

The definitive accent, however, comes from the fermented fish mixtures that are used to salt Lao food. An ingredient in nearly every recipe, nâm pa, or fish sauce, is made by steeping large quantities of fish in salt in earthen containers for several months and then straining the resulting liquid, which is golden brown. Good fish sauce, it has been said, should attain the warm, salty smell of the air along a beach on a sunny day. Most Lao use nâm pa imported from Thailand.

While nâm pa is found in cooking across Southeast Asia, a related concoction, pa dàek, is specific to Laos and northeastern Thailand. Unlike the bottled and imported nâm pa, thicker pa dàek retains a home-made feel, much thicker than fish sauce, with chunks of fermented fish as well as rice husks, and possessing a scent that the uninitiated usually find foul. However, as pa dàek is added to cooked food, it’s unlikely that you’ll really notice it in your food, and its saltiness is one of the pleasurable qualities of the cuisine.

Use of monosodium glutamate (MSG) is also common. The seasoning, which resembles salt in appearance, sometimes appears on tables in noodle shops alongside various other seasonings – it’s generally coarser and shinier than salt.

Standard dishes

If Laos were to nominate a national dish, a strong contender would be larp, a “salad” of minced meat or fish mixed with garlic, chillies, shallots, galangal, ground sticky rice and fish sauce. Traditionally, larp is eaten raw (díp), though you’re more likely to encounter it súk (cooked), and is often served with lettuce, which is good for cooling off your mouth after swallowing a chilli. The notion of a “meat salad” is a common concept in Lao food, although in Luang Prabang you’ll find Lao salads closer to the Western salad, with many falling into the broad category of yam, or “mixture”, such as yam sìn ngúa, a spicy beef salad.

Another quintessentially Lao dish is tam màk hung, a spicy papaya salad made with shredded green papaya, garlic, chillies, lime juice, pa dàek and, sometimes, dried shrimp and crab juice. One of the most common street-vendor foods, tam màk hung, is known as tam sòm in Vientiane; stalls producing this treat are identifiable by the vendor pounding away with a mortar and pestle. Each vendor will have their own particular recipe, but it’s also completely acceptable to pick out which ingredients – and how many chillies – you’d like when you order. One of several variants on tam màk hung is tam kûay tani, which replaces shredded papaya with green banana and eggplant.

Usually not far away from any tam màk hung vendor, you’ll find someone selling pîng kai, basted grilled chicken. Fish, pîng pa is another grilled favourite, with whole fish skewered, stuffed with herbs and lemongrass, and thrown on the barbecue.

Soup is a common component of Lao meals and is served along with the other main courses during a meal. Fish soups, kaeng pa (or tôm yám paw when lemongrass and mushrooms are included), frequently appear on menus, as does kaeng jèut, a clear, mild soup with vegetables and pork, which can also be ordered with bean curd (kaeng jèut tâo hû).

A speciality of southern Laos and Luang Prabang, well worth ordering if you can find it, is mók pa or fish steamed in banana leaves. Other variations, including mók kheuang nai kai (chicken giblets grilled in banana leaves) and mók pa fa lai (with freshwater stingray), are also worth sampling, though they appear less frequently on restaurant menus.

Restaurants catering to travellers can whip up a variety of stir-fried dishes, which tend to be a mix of Thai, Lao and Chinese food, and are usually eaten with steamed rice. Fried rice is a reliable standby throughout the country, as are Chinese and Thai dishes such as pork with basil over rice (mũ phát bai holapha), chicken with ginger (khùa khing kai) and mixed vegetables (khùa phák).

Noodles

When the Lao aren’t filling up on glutinous rice, they’re busy eating fõe, the ubiquitous noodle soup that takes its name from the Vietnamese soup pho. Although primarily eaten in the morning for breakfast, fõe can be enjoyed at any time of day, and in more remote towns you may find that it’s your only option.

The basic bowl of fõe consists of a light broth to which is added thin rice noodles and slices of meat (usually beef, water buffalo or grilled chicken). It’s served with a plate of fresh raw leaves and herbs, usually including lettuce, mint and coriander. Flavouring the broth is pretty much up to you: containers of chilli, sugar, vinegar and fish sauce (and sometimes lime wedges and MSG) are on the tables of every noodle shop, allowing you to find the perfect balance of spicy, sweet, sour and salty. Also on offer at many noodle shops is mi, a yellow wheat noodle served in broth with slices of meat and a few vegetables. It’s also common to eat fõe and mi softened in broth but served without it (hàeng), and at times fried (khùa).

Many other types of noodle soup are dished up at street stalls. Khào biak sèn is another soup popular in the morning, consisting of soft, round rice noodles, slices of chicken and fresh ginger and served in a chicken broth, though it’s hard to find outside bigger towns. More widely available, and a favourite at family gatherings during festivals, is khào pûn, a dish of round, white, translucent flour noodles, onto which is scooped one of any number of sweet, spicy coconut-milk based sauces. These noodles also find their way into several Vietnamese dishes, such as barbecued pork meatballs (nâm néuang) and spring rolls (yáw), in which they are served cold with several condiments and a sauce. There’s also a Lao incarnation of khào soi, the spicy noodle curry eaten throughout northern Thailand and the Shan States of Myanmar; the version common in Laos (in Luang Prabang and certain northwestern towns) consists of rice noodles served in almost clear broth and topped with a spicy meat curry.

Vegetarian food

Although very few people in Laos are vegetarian, it’s usually fairly easy to persuade cooks to put together a vegetable-only rice or vegetable dish. In many places that may be your only option unless you eat fish. If you don’t eat fish, keep in mind that most Lao cooking calls for fish sauce so, when ordering a veggie-only dish, you may want to add “baw sai nâm pa” (“without fish sauce”).

Fruits and desserts

The best way to round off a meal or fill your stomach on a long bus ride is with fresh fruit (màk mâi), as the country offers a wide variety, from the more commonly known bananas, papayas, mangoes, pineapples, watermelons and green apples imported from China to more exotic options: crisp green guavas; burgundy lychees, with tart, sweet white fruit hidden in a coat of thin leather; wild-haired, red rambutans, milder and cheaper than lychees; dark purple mangosteen, tough-skinned treasures with a velvety smooth inside divided into succulent sweet segments; airy, bell-shaped green rose apples; pomelos, gigantic citruses whose thick rinds yield a grapefruit without the tartness; fuzzy, brown sapodillas, oval in shape and almost honey-sweet; large, spiky durian, notoriously stinky yet divinely creamy; oblong jackfruit, with sweet, yellow flesh possessing the texture of soft leather; and rare Xieng Khuang avocados, three times the size of those available in the West, with a subtle perfumed flavour. Restaurants occasionally serve fruit to end a meal, and, throughout the country, handcart-pushing hawkers patrol the streets with ready-peeled segments.

Desserts don’t really figure on many restaurant menus, although some tourist restaurants will usually have a few featuring coconut milk or cream, notably banana in coconut milk (nâm wãn màk kûay). Markets often have a food stall specializing in inexpensive coconut-milk desserts, generally called nâm wãn. Look for a stall displaying a dozen bowls, containing everything from water chestnuts to corn to fluorescent green and pink jellies, from which one or two items are selected and then added to a sweet mixture of crushed ice, slabs of young coconut meat and coconut milk. Also popular are light Chinese doughnuts, fried in a skillet full of oil and known as khào nõm khu or pá thawng ko, and another fried delight, crispy bananas (kûay khaek).

Sticky rice, of course, also turns up in a few desserts. As mangoes begin to ripen in March, look for khào niaw màk muang, sliced mango splashed with coconut cream served over sticky rice; those who don’t mind the smell of durian can try the durian variant on this dessert. Khào lãm, another treat, this one popular during the cool season, is cooked in sections of bamboo, which is gradually peeled back to reveal a tube of sticky rice and beans joined in coconut cream. Another thing to look out for at street stalls is kanom krok – delicious, soft little pancakes made with rice flour and coconut.

Soft drinks and juices

Brand-name soft drinks, such as 7-Up, Coca-Cola and Fanta, are widely available. Most vendors will pour the drink into a small plastic pouch packet (which is then tied with a string or rubber band and inserted with a straw) for taking away.

A particularly refreshing alternative, available in most towns with tourist restaurants, are fruit shakes (màk mâi pan), made from your choice of fruit, blended with ice, liquid sugar and condensed milk. Even more readily available are freshly squeezed fruit juices, such as lemon (nâm màk nao), plus coconut water (nâm màk phao) enjoyed directly from the fruit after it has been dehusked and cut open. Also popular is the exceptionally sweet sugar-cane juice, nâm oi.

Hot drinks

Laos’s best coffee is grown on the Bolaven Plateau, outside Paksong in southern Laos, where it was introduced by the French in the early twentieth century. Most of the coffee produced is robusta, although some arabica is grown as well. Quality is generally very high, and the coffee has a rich, full-bodied flavour. Some establishments that are accustomed to foreigners may serve instant coffee (kafeh net, after the Lao word for Nescafé, the most common brand); if you want locally grown coffee ask for kafeh Láo or kafeh thông, literally “bag coffee”, after the traditional technique of preparing the coffee.

Traditionally, hot coffee is served with a complimentary glass of weak Chinese tea or hot water, to be drunk in between sips of the very sweet coffee, though you’re unlikely to experience this in many places. If you prefer your coffee black, and without sugar, order kafeh dam baw sai nâm tan. A perfect alternative for the hot weather is kafeh yén, in which the same concoction is mixed with crushed ice.

Black and Chinese-style tea are both served in Laos. Weak Chinese tea is often found, lukewarm, on tables in restaurants and can be enjoyed free of charge. Stronger Chinese tea (sá jin) you’ll need to order. If you request sá hâwn, you usually get a brew based on local or imported black tea, mixed with sweetened condensed milk and sugar; it’s available at most coffee vendors.

Alcoholic drinks

Beer Lao, the locally produced lager, is regarded by many as one of Southeast Asia’s best beers, and is the perfect companion to a Lao meal. Containing five percent alcohol, the beer owes its light, distinctive taste to the French investors who founded the company in 1971, although the company was later state-owned, with Czechoslovakian brewmasters training the Lao staff, until it was privatized in the mid-1990s. Nearly all that goes into making Beer Lao is imported, from hops to bottle caps, although locally grown rice is used in place of twenty percent of the malt. Also available is the stronger Beer Lao Dark, which has a smooth, malty flavour and is generally more expensive than regular Beer Lao.

In Vientiane, draught Beer Lao, known as bia sót and sometimes appearing on English signs as “Fresh Beer”, is available at bargain prices by the litre. Often served warm from the keg, the beer is poured over ice, though some establishments serve it chilled. There are dozens of bia sót outlets in the capital, most of which are casual outdoor beer gardens with thatch roofs. You can usually get snacks here too, known as “drinking food” or káp kâem – typical dishes include spicy papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, omelette, fried peanuts (thua jeun), shrimp-flavoured chips (khào kiap kûng) and grilled chicken.

Other Asian beers, including Tiger and Singha, are often available (sometimes on tap in Luang Prabang), and closer to the Chinese border you’ll find cheaper and less flavousome Chinese lagers on many menus.

In Vientiane, Luang Prabang and other larger, more touristy, towns, you’ll find a good range of Western spirits and liquors, and more upmarket restaurants usually have imported wine available by the glass or bottle.

Lào-láo and other rice spirits

Drunk with gusto by the Lao is lào-láo, a clear rice alcohol with the fire of a blinding Mississippi moonshine. Most people indulge in local brews, the taste varying from region to region and even town to town.

Drinking lào-láo often takes on the air of a sacred ritual, albeit a rather boisterous one. After (or sometimes during) a meal, the host will bring out a bottle of lào-láo to share with the guests. The host begins the proceedings by pouring a shot of lào-láo and tossing it onto the ground to appease the house spirit. He then pours himself a measure, raising the glass for all to see before throwing back the drink and emptying the remaining droplets onto the floor, in order to empty the glass for the next drinker. The host then pours a shot for each guest in turn. After the host has completed one circuit, the bottle and the glass are passed along to a guest, who serves him- or herself first, then the rest of the party, one by one. Guests are expected to drink at least one shot in order not to offend the house spirit and the host, although in such situations there’s often pressure, however playful, to drink much more. One polite escape route is to take a sip of the shot and then dump out the rest on the floor during the “glass emptying” move.

Another rice alcohol, lào hái, also inspires a festive, communal drinking experience. Drunk from a large earthenware jar with thin bamboo straws, lào hái is fermented by households or villages in the countryside and is weaker than lào-láo, closer to a wine in taste than a backwoods whisky. Drinking lào hái, however, can be a bit risky as unboiled water is sometimes added to the jar during the fermentation process.

Laos’s road system has improved significantly over the last few years. Roads have been upgraded, and getting around is easier than ever, though often still challenging. Keep in mind, however, that a newly graded and paved road this year may get no maintenance, and after just two or even one rainy seasons the road will revert to being nothing but a potholed track. Some roads are only built to last a season, being washed away each year by the monsoon.

The country’s main thoroughfare is Route 13, which stretches from Luang Prabang to the Cambodian border, passing through Vientiane, Savannakhet and Pakse. Route 13 sees a steady flow of bus traffic, and it’s usually possible to flag down a vehicle during daylight hours provided it’s not already full. Off Route 13, you’ll encounter a wide range of road conditions – from freshly paved carriageways to bone-rattling, potholed tracks. With the improved road conditions, buses have largely supplanted river travel, the traditional means of getting around.

You only need to travel for a week or two in Laos before you realize that timetables are irrelevant: planes, buses and boats leave on a whim and estimated times of arrival are pointless. Wherever you go in Laos, the driver does not seem to be in any hurry to arrive.

Inter-town transport

Visitors hoping to see rural Laos can expect hours of arduous, bone-crunching travel on the country’s motley fleet of lumbering jitter-boxes. Buses link only larger towns, and on many routes can be few and far between, a fact which makes a number of attractions, such as ruins and waterfalls, difficult to reach. Even when there is transport, you may find that the limited bus timetable will allow you to get to a particular site, but not make a same-day return trip – something of a problem given the dearth of accommodation in far-flung spots. In the rainy season, some unpaved roads dissolve into rivers of mud, slowing buses to a crawl or swallowing them whole. Even vehicles in reasonably good condition make painfully slow progress, as drivers combat mountainous roads and make frequent (and at times long) stops to pick up passengers, load goods and even haggle for bargains at roadside stalls.

Buses

Ordinary buses provide cheap transport between major towns and link provincial hubs with their surrounding districts. Cramped, overloaded and designed for the smaller Lao frame, these buses are profound tests of endurance and patience. Seats often have either torn cushions or are nothing more than a hard plank. Luggage – ranging from incontinent roosters to sloshing buckets of fish and the inevitable fifty-kilo sacks of rice – is piled in every conceivable space, filling up the aisle and soaring skywards from the roof. Breakdowns are commonplace and often require a lengthy roadside wait as the driver repairs the bus on a lonely stretch of road. Typical fares are of the order of 100,000K for Vientiane to Luang Prabang or Pakse, though fares could rise rapidly if fuel prices increase.

Operating out of Vientiane, a fleet of blue, government-owned buses caters mostly to the capital’s outlying districts, although it does provide a service to towns as far north as Vang Vieng and as far south as Pakse. While newer than most vehicles in Laos, these Japanese- and Korean-built buses are not air-conditioned and have cramped seats, a situation that worsens as rural passengers pile in. Buses plying remote routes tend to be in worse shape: aged jalopies cast off from Thailand or left behind by the Russians, which reach new lows in terms of discomfort and are even more prone to breakdowns. These vehicles range in style from buses in the classic sense of the word to souped-up tourist vans. Converted Russian flat-bed trucks, once the mainstay of travel in Laos, still operate in remote areas.

In most instances, tickets should be bought from the town’s bus station – it’s best to arrive with plenty of time in order to buy your ticket and grab a seat, especially in towns that are busy transport hubs, such as Oudomxai. In larger towns with an established tourist infrastructure, you’ll often be able to buy your tickets from a travel agent; this will usually be a little more expensive, but will include transport to the bus station. In more rural areas, you’ll pay for your ticket once on board.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find air-conditioned VIP buses, such as the daily $15 coach service from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. These services leave from their own private “stations”, and reservations, which can be made through guesthouses and travellers’ cafés, are recommended.

Additionally, you’ll find a number of van and minibus services in the more touristy towns, connecting to other popular tourist destinations, such as Vang Vieng and Si Phan Don. Prices for these services are higher than for the local bus alternative and the journey time will usually be a fair bit quicker, though you may find yourself just as crammed in as on a regular bus, and of course you miss out on the opportunity to meet local people. The situation changes rapidly at this end of the market, so check with travel agents for the latest information on routes and bookings. It’s also worth shopping around if booking minibus tickets – regardless of how much you pay for your ticket, and where you buy it, you’re likely to end up on the same minibus.

Reliable timetables only exist in regional hubs like Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet; elsewhere it’s best to go to the bus station the night before you plan to travel to find out the schedule for the next day. Most departures are usually around 8 or 9am, and very few buses leave after midday. Many drivers will sit in the bus station long after their stated departure time, revving their engines in an attempt to lure enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile.

Sawngthaews

In rural areas, away from the Mekong Valley, the bus network is often replaced by sawngthaews – converted pick-up trucks – into which drivers stuff as many passengers as they possibly can. Passengers are crammed onto two facing benches in the back (“sawngthaew” means “two rows”); latecomers are left to dangle off the back, with their feet on a running board, an experience that, on a bumpy road, is akin to inland windsurfing.

Sawngthaews also ply routes between larger towns and their satellite villages, a service for which they charge roughly the same amount as buses. They usually depart from the regular bus station, but will only leave when a driver feels he has enough passengers to make the trip worth his while. Some drivers try to sweat extra kip out of passengers by delaying departure. Your fellow passengers may agree to this, but most often they grudgingly wait. In some situations, you can save yourself a lot of trouble and waiting by getting a few fellow travellers together and flat-out hiring the driver to take you where you want to go; the fares being so ridiculously low as to make this quite affordable. To catch a sawngthaew in between stops, simply flag it down from the side of the road and tell the driver where you’re headed so he knows when to let you off. The fare is usually paid when you get off. If the driver is working without a fare collector, he will tend to stop on the outskirts of his final destination to collect fares.

City and town transport

With even the capital too small to support a local bus system, transport within Lao towns and cities is left to squadrons of motorized samlaw (literally, “three wheels”) vehicles, more commonly known as jumbos and tuk-tuks. Painted in primary reds, blues and yellows, the two types of samlaw look alike and both function as shared taxis, with facing benches in the rear to accommodate four or five passengers. Jumbos are the original Lao vehicle, a home-made three-wheeler consisting of a two-wheeled carriage soldered to the front half of a motorcycle, a process best summed up by the name for the vehicle used in the southern town of Savannakhet – Skylab (pronounced “sakai-laeb”), after the doomed space station that fell to earth, piece by piece, in the late 1980s. Tuk-tuks, offspring of the three-wheeled taxis known for striking terror in Bangkok pedestrians, are really just bigger, sturdier jumbos, the unlikely product of some Thai factory, which take their name from their incessantly sputtering engines. Lao tend to refer to these vehicles interchangeably.

Although most northern towns are more than manageable on foot, the Mekong towns tend to sprawl, so you’ll find tuk-tuks particularly useful for getting from a bus station into the centre of town. To flag down a tuk-tuk, wave your hand, palm face down and parallel to the ground. Tell the driver where you’re going, bargain the price and pay at the end.

Tuk-tuks are also on hand for inner-city journeys. Payment is usually per person, according to the distance travelled and your bargaining skills. Rates vary from town to town and are prone to fluctuate in step with rising petrol prices, but figure on paying around 5000K per kilometre. In some towns, tuk-tuks run set routes to the surrounding villages and leave from a stand, usually near the market, once full. Chartering tuk-tuks is also a good way to get to sites within 10 to 15km of a city.

Boats

With the country possessing roughly 4600km of navigable waterways, including stretches of the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nam Ngum, Xe Kong and seven other arteries, it’s no surprise to learn that rivers are the ancient highways of mountainous Laos. Road improvements in recent years, however, have led to the decline of river travel between many towns, with buses and sawngthaews replacing the armada of boats that once plied regular routes.

The main Mekong route that remains links Houayxai to Luang Prabang. Since the upgrading of Route 13, boats very rarely ply the stretches of river between Luang Prabang, Pakse and Si Phan Don. Aside from the larger, so-called “slow boats” on the Mekong routes, smaller passenger boats still cruise up the wide Nam Ou River (Muang Khoua–Hat Sa), the Nam Tha (Luang Namtha to Pak Tha), and a few others, provided water levels are high enough.

Slow boats and passenger boats

The diesel-chugging cargo boats that lumber up and down the Mekong routes are known as “slow boats” (heua sa). Originally hammered together from ill-fitting pieces of wood, and powered by a jury-rigged engine that needs to be coaxed along by an on-board mechanic, these boats once offered one of Asia’s last great travel adventures, but you’ll need to speak Lao to arrange a trip. Much easier is to take advantage of the passenger boats with seating for a couple of dozen people, which have been introduced on the river journey most popular with Western visitors, namely Houayxai to Luang Prabang.

On smaller rivers, river travel is by long, narrow boats powered by a small outboard engine. Confusingly, these are also known as “slow boats”, although, unlike the big Mekong cargo boats, they only hold eight people and never attempt major Mekong routes. They never have a fixed schedule and only leave if and when there are enough passengers.

Due to the casual nature of river travel in Laos, the best way to deal with uncertain departures is to simply show up early in the morning and head down to the landing and ask around. Be prepared for contradictory answers to questions regarding price, departure and arrival time, and even destination. Given variations in currents and water levels and the possibility of breakdowns and lengthy stops to load passengers and cargo, no one really knows how long a trip will take. On occasion, boats don’t make their final destination during the daytime. If you’re counting on finding a guesthouse and a fruit shake at the end of the journey, such unannounced stopovers can take you out of your comfort zone, as passengers are forced to sleep in the nearest village or aboard the boat. It’s also a good idea to bring extra water and food just in case.

The northern Mekong and Nam Ou services (Houayxai–Pakbeng–Luang Prabang, and Luang Prabang–Nong Khia–Muang Ngoi–Muang Khoua–Hat Sa) are somewhat better managed, with tickets sold from a wooden booth or office near the landing (buy tickets on the day of departure). Fares are generally posted, but foreigners pay significantly more than locals. Always arrive early in the morning to get a seat. Southern Mekong services (Pakse–Champasak–Don Khong) have now all but stopped thanks to the improved state of Route 13, and most trips south now combine a bus journey along this road with a quick ferry ride across the water.

Travelling by river in Laos can be dangerous and reports of boats sinking are not uncommon. The Mekong has some particularly tricky stretches, with narrow channels threading through rapids and past churning whirlpools. The river can be particularly rough late in the rainy season, when the Mekong swells and uprooted trees and other debris are swept into the river.

Speedboats

On both the Mekong and its tributaries, speedboats (heua wai) are a faster but more expensive alternative to slow boats. Connecting towns along the Nam Ou and the Mekong from Vientiane to the Chinese border, these five-metre-long terrors are usually powered by a 1200cc Toyota car engine and can accommodate up to eight passengers.

Donning a crash helmet and being catapulted up the Mekong River at 50km an hour may not sound like most people’s idea of relaxed holiday travel, but if you’re up for it, speedboats can shave hours or days off a river journey and give you a thrilling spin at the same time. It’s by no means safe, of course, although captains swear by their navigational skills. The boats skim the surface of churning whirlpools and slalom through rapids sharp enough to turn the wooden hull into toothpicks.

Speedboats have their own landings in Vientiane, Thadua, Paklai, Luang Prabang, Pakbeng and Houayxai, and depart when full. Seating is incredibly cramped, so you may want to consider paying for the price of two seats. Crash helmets are handed out before journeys – to spare your hearing from the overpowering screech of the engine. Although the roar of the engine is less annoying on board than it is from the banks, consider bringing along ear plugs. For safety’s sake, insist on being given a life jacket to wear before paying.

Tickets cost as much as two to three times what you might pay to take a slow boat: the journey from Luang Prabang to Pakbeng, for example, is around $12. Speedboats can also be chartered for around $50 per hour – Luang Prabang to Phongsali, for example, costs around $200, Luang Prabang to Houayxai $100.

Cross-river ferries

Clunky metal car ferries and pirogues – dug-out wooden skiffs propelled by poles, paddles or tiny engines – are both useful means of fording rivers in the absence of a bridge. Both leave when they have a sufficient number of passengers and usually charge 3000–5000K, unless you’re taking a vehicle across, in which case you can expect to pay 7000–10,000K. If you don’t want to wait, pirogues are always open for hire. In the outback, fishermen can usually be persuaded to ferry you across to the opposite bank for a small sum.

Planes

The government-owned Lao Airlines (wwww.laoairlines.com), the country’s only domestic carrier, once had a dubious safety record. These days, however, standards are up and the airline is on a par with other regional carriers. Domestic routes have diversified in recent years, with destinations like Oudomxay and Luang Namtha now well connected with Vientiane.

You’ll need to remain flexible, though reliability increases on key routes: Vientiane–Luang Prabang, Vientiane–Pakse and Vientiane–Savannkhet. Given the popularity of such routes in the peak season it’s even wise to book ahead. On other routes, you may find it better to reconfirm the departure of your flight by stopping by the Lao Airlines office.

Sample one-way fares are Vientiane to Luang Prabang $82; Vientiane to Savannakhet $104; Vientiane to Oudomxay $140; Vientiane to Luang Namtha $150.

Vehicle and bike rental

Renting a private vehicle is expensive, but is sometimes the only way you’ll be able to get to certain spots. Self-drive is an option, and cars can be rented from a couple of agencies in Vientiane only. However, it’s usually easier and cheaper to hire a car and driver. Tour agencies will rent out air-conditioned vans and 4WD pick-up trucks as well as provide drivers. Prices are inflated by the rates paid by UN organizations, and can be as high as $80–100 per day, sometimes more if you’re hiring a car to head upcountry from Vientiane. When settling on a price, it’s important to clarify who is responsible for what: check who pays for the driver’s food and lodging, fuel and repairs, and be sure to ask what happens in case of a major breakdown or accident.

Motorbikes

One of the best ways to explore the countryside is to rent a motorbike. Unfortunately, this is only an option in tourist-friendly places like Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Thakhek and Pakse, and even then you’re often limited to smaller bikes, usually 100cc step-throughs such as the Honda Dream. Rental prices for the day are generally $8–10, depending on the age and condition of the bike. More powerful 125cc dirt bikes suitable for cross-country driving are available only in Vientiane and cost $20 a day.

A licence is not needed, but you’ll be asked to leave your passport as a deposit and may be required to return the bike by dark. Insurance is not available, so it’s a good idea to make sure your travel insurance covers you for any potential accidents.

Before zooming off, be sure to check the bike thoroughly for any scratches and damaged parts and take it for a test run to make sure the vehicle is running properly. As far as equipment goes, a helmet offers essential protection, although few rental places will have one to offer you; bear in mind it’s illegal to ride without a helmet. Sunglasses are essential in order to fend off the glare of the tropical sun and keep dust and bugs out of your eyes. Proper shoes, long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt are all worthwhile additions to your biking outfit and will provide a thin layer of protection if you take a spill.

Bicycles

Bicycles are available in most major tourist centres; guesthouses, souvenir shops and a few tourist-oriented restaurants may keep a small stable of Thai- or Chinese-made bikes (though rarely mountain bikes) to rent out for $1–2 per day.

Organized tours

Although less spontaneous and considerably more expensive than independent travel, organized tours are worth looking into if you have limited time or prefer to have someone smooth over the many logistical difficulties of travelling in Laos. Although the government encourages travellers to visit Laos through an authorized tour company, the tours aren’t bogged down in political rhetoric and guides tend to be easy-going and informative.

About a dozen tour companies have sprung up in Vientiane, all offering similar tours in roughly the same price range, although it never hurts to shop around and bargain. A typical multi-day package might include a private cruise down the Mekong River on a slow boat operated by the tour company, with guided day-tours around Luang Prabang and other towns. While some tours include accommodation, meals and entry fees, others don’t, so check what you’re getting before paying.

Organized adventure tours are rapidly gaining popularity in Laos. These can be single- or multi-day programmes and usually involve hill-tribe trekking or river kayaking, or a combination of both. Rafting tours are also available and organized rock climbing is just starting to take off. The main centres for adventure tours are Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha and Muang Sing.

All Laos’s tour companies are authorized by the Lao National Tourism Administration, which ensures that you won’t be dealing with a fly-by-night organization.

Guides are generally flexible about adjusting the itinerary, but if you want more freedom, an alternative is to set up your own custom-made tour by gathering a group of people and renting your own vehicle plus driver.

Addresses and street names

Lao addresses can be terribly confusing, firstly because property is usually numbered twice – when numbered at all – to show which lot it stands in, and then to signify where it is on that lot. To add to the confusion, some cities have several conflicting address systems – Vientiane, for example, has three, although no one seems to use any of them.

Only five cities in Laos actually have street names – and that’s just the start of the problem. Signs are few and far between and many roads have several entirely different names, sometimes changing name from block to block. If you ask for directions, locals most likely won’t know the name of a street with the exception of the three or four largest avenues in Vientiane. Use street names to find a hotel on a map in the Guide, but when asking directions or telling a tuk-tuk driver where to go you’ll have better luck mentioning a landmark, monastery or prominent hotel. Fortunately, Lao cities, even Vientiane, are relatively small, making it more of a challenge to get lost than it is to figure out where you’re going.

As with the rest of Southeast Asia, merchandise often has no price tag and the buyer is expected to make a spirited attempt at haggling the quoted price down. Even if an item is sporting a price tag, it’s still perfectly acceptable to ask for a discount. Bargaining takes patience and tact, and knowing what an item is really worth is half the battle. The first price quoted will usually be inflated. If you feel the price is way out of line, it is better to just smile and walk away than to squawk in disbelief and argue that the price is unfair – no matter how loud or valid your protestations, nobody will believe that you cannot afford to buy.

On the whole, Luang Prabang is better for shopping than Vientiane, as much of what is for sale in Luang Prabang is produced locally, meaning you get a better selection of goods and at better prices.

Textiles

A surprisingly large number of the ethnic groups that make up the population of Laos produce cloth of their own design, which is turned into men’s and women’s sarongs, shoulder bags, headscarves and shawls. Traditionally, most textiles stayed within the village where they were woven, but the increasing popularity of Lao textiles with visitors has led urban textile merchants to employ buyers to comb isolated villages for old textiles that might be resold at a profit. The result is that many merchants have only a vague idea of where their old textiles are from or which group made them. This doesn’t seem to deter foreign buyers, however, and sales are brisk, which has given rise to the practice of boiling new textiles to artificially age them. Some of these so-called antique textiles sell for hundreds of dollars.

To some shopkeepers “old” can mean ten years or so and most will have little idea what the age of a certain piece is, but if you persist in asking, they will often claim an item has been around for a couple of centuries. As textiles are difficult to date, it’s best to take such claims with a pinch of salt. All in all, though, it is rare for the local merchants to go to great lengths to deceive customers.

These days, though, the vast majority of the textiles for sale are new textiles specifically made for the tourist market. These may have the same patterns and motifs as the traditional sarongs and so forth, but are cut and sewn into items such as pillowcases. If you’re after antique textiles you have to ask; unless you are an expert or have money to burn, it is a good idea to stick to new textiles, which can be had for as little as $5 and are just as pleasing to the eye as the older pieces.

Lao weavers have a long tradition of combining cotton and silk: a typical piece may have a cotton base with silk details woven into it. Modern pieces of inferior quality substitute synthetic fibres for silk, and some vendors have been known to try to pass off hundred-percent synthetic cloth as silk. Lastly, the synthetic dyes used by most weavers are not colourfast, something to bear in mind when laundering newly purchased textiles.

Silver

Although Thai antique dealers have made off with quite a bit of old Lao silver (and marketed it in Thailand as old Thai silver) there is still a fair amount of the stuff floating around. Items to look out for are paraphernalia for betel chewing: egg-sized round or oval boxes for storing white lime, cone-shaped containers for holding betel leaves and miniature mortars used to pound areca nuts. Larger silver boxes or bowls with human or animal figures hammered into them were once used in religious ceremonies. C-shaped bracelets and anklets are found in a variety of styles. Bracelets and anklets of traditional Lao style, as opposed to hill-tribe design, have a stylized lotus bud on each end.

Hill-tribe silver jewellery (traditionally made by melting down and hammering silver French piastres) is usually bold and heavy – the better to show off one’s wealth. With few exceptions, the hill-tribe jewellery being peddled in Laos is the handiwork of the Hmong tribe. In Luang Prabang, the old silversmith families that once supplied the monarchy with ceremonial objects are again practising their trade, and their silver creations represent some of the best-value souvenirs to be found in Laos.

Antiques

Thai merchants regularly scour Laos for antiques so there are probably more authentic Lao antiques for sale in the malls of Bangkok and Chiang Mai than anywhere in Laos. Conversely, many of the “antiques” for sale in Laos are actually reproductions made in Thailand or Cambodia. This is particularly true in the case of metal Buddhist or Hindu figurines.

Wooden Buddha images are often genuine antiques, but were most likely pilfered from some temple or shrine. Refraining from buying them will help discourage this practice. Prospective buyers should also be aware that there is an official ban on the export of Buddha images from Laos. Although this is aimed primarily at curbing the theft of large Lao bronze Buddhas from rural monasteries, small images are also included in the ban. That said, it is highly unlikely that Lao officials will confiscate new Buddhas from foreign visitors. The Lao, when acquiring a Buddha image, pay particular attention to the expression on the Buddha’s face. Does the Buddha look serene? If so, the image is considered auspicious.

Antique brass weights, sometimes referred to as “opium weights”, come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Those cast in zoomorphic figures (stylized birds, elephants, lions, etc) are an established collectable and command high prices, sometimes selling for hundreds of dollars. Weights of simpler design, such as those shaped like miniature stupas, are much more affordable and can be bought for just a few dollars in provincial towns.

Opium pipes come in sundry forms as well. Although very few are genuine antiques, the workmanship is generally quite good as they are produced by pipemakers who once supplied Vientiane’s now-defunct opium dens. A typical pipe may have a bamboo body, a ceramic bowl and silver or brass ornamentation, and should sell for about $50. During the past few years Laos has been flooded with reproduction opium pipes from Vietnam. These are more colourful and ornate than the Laos-made pipes, but aren’t worth spending more than $10 or so to buy.

Royalist regalia

With the memories of the war that divided Laos fading, paraphernalia associated with the defunct kingdom is less likely to offend officials of the present regime, though wearing such memorabilia in public would be considered poor form. Brass buttons, badges and medals decorated with the Hindu iconography of the Lao monarchy are sometimes found in gold or silver jewellery and antique shops. Royal Lao Army hat devices depicting Shiva’s trident superimposed on Vishnu’s discus and brass buttons decorated with Airavata, the three-headed elephant, are typical finds.

Woodcarving, rattan, wicker and bamboo

Until tourism created a demand for souvenirs, nearly all examples of Lao woodcarving were religious in nature – for example, the small, antique, wooden Buddha images which are finding their way into curio shops. For those who have bought a stunning, hand-woven textile but are unsure of how to display it, there are ornately carved hangers made expressly for this purpose. Workmanship varies, however, so inspect carefully to ensure that there are no splinters or jagged edges which may damage the textile. Keep in mind also that large woodcarvings sometimes crack when transported to less humid climes.

That baskets are an important part of traditional Lao culture is reflected in the language: Lao has dozens upon dozens of words for them, and they’re used in all spheres of everyday life. Many different forms of basket are used as backpacks; those made by the Gie-Trieng tribe in Xekong province are probably the most expertly woven. Baskets are also used for serving food, such as sticky rice. These mini-baskets come with a long loop of string so they can be slung over the shoulder when hiking, as sticky rice is the perfect snack on long treks, road or boat trips. Mats made of woven grass or reeds can be found in sizes for one or two people. The one-person mats are dirt-cheap, easily carried when rolled up and make a lot more sense than foam rubber mattresses. Woven mats are especially handy when taking a slow boat down the Mekong, as the passenger holds are often not the cleanest of places. Ordinary sticky rice baskets and mats can be found at any provincial market and should cost no more than a couple of dollars.

Lao customs regulations limit visitors to 500 cigarettes and one litre of distilled alcohol per person upon entry, but in practice bags are rarely opened unless a suspiciously large amount of luggage is being brought in. A customs declaration form must be filled out along with the arrival form, but typically nobody bothers to check that the information is correct. There is no limit on the amount of foreign currency you can bring into Laos.

 

Laos is one of the world’s poorest nations, and consequently one of the cheapest Asian countries to travel in. Your largest expense is likely to be transport, with journeys usually costing between 60,000 and 120,000K; accommodation and food are very inexpensive.

By eating at noodle stalls and cheap restaurants, opting for basic accommodation and travelling by public transport, you can travel in Laos on a daily budget of less than $20. Staying in more upmarket hotels and resorts, and eating in the best restaurants will push your budget up to a very reasonable $40–60 a day – though you’ll struggle to find upmarket accommodation and restaurants in much of the country. Note, however, that prices are significantly higher in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

While restaurants and some shops have fixed prices, in general merchandise almost never has price tags, and the lack of a fixed pricing scheme can take some getting used to. Prices, unless marked or for food in a market, should usually be negotiated, as should the cost of chartering transport (as opposed to fares on passenger vehicles, which are non-negotiable). Hotel and guesthouse operators are usually open to a little bargaining, particularly during off-peak months.

Bargaining is very much a part of life in Laos, and an art form, requiring a delicate balance of humour, patience and tact. It’s important to remain realistic, as vendors will lose interest if you’ve quoted a price that’s way out of line, and to keep a sense of perspective: cut-throat haggling over 1000K only reflects poorly on both buyer and seller. As the Lao in general – with the exception of drivers of vehicles for hire and souvenir sellers in Vientiane and Luang Prabang – are less out to rip off tourists than their counterparts in Thailand and Vietnam, they start off the haggling by quoting a fairly realistic price and expect to come down only a little. It’s worth bearing in mind that the country’s dependence on imported goods from its neighbours does push prices up – whether for food, toiletries or transport.

Supplied at 220 volts AC. Two-pin sockets taking plugs with flat prongs are the norm. Many smaller towns, including several provincial capitals, have power for only a few hours in the evening or none at all, so it’s worth bringing a torch.

Good, reliable information on Laos is hard to come by and, because everything from visa requirements to transport routes are subject to frequent change, your best bet is often to get the latest advice from internet forums, guesthouses and fellow travellers.

The government-run Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA for short; wwww.tourismlaos.org), which has offices around Laos, including Vientiane and Luang Prabang, should be able to supply decent brochures and maps, including Destination Laos, a free mini-guidebook published annually.

Privately owned travel companies such as Green Discovery and Diethelm Travel can provide reliable tourist information in provincial capitals, as well as some free fold-out maps. For more detailed maps of the country, try one of the bookshops in Vientiane or Vang Vieng.

It is important to purchase a good travel insurance policy before travelling that covers against theft, loss and illness or injury. Good medical coverage is particularly important in Laos where the poor healthcare system means that any serious accident or illness while there would most likely require you to travel to Thailand for treatment.

Internet cafés are increasingly common in Laos, though there are still a fair few towns that don’t have access. Prices range between 6000 and 15,000K per hour; in most places, connections can be excruciatingly slow. Numerous cafés and many hotels and guesthouses in Vientiane and Luang Prabang now offer wi-fi – outside of these places wi-fi is limited to more upmarket accommodation and occasionally cafés in more touristy towns.

For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Laos, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.

Most guesthouses and hotels offer a same-day laundry service, and in larger towns a few shops offer laundry service which can be cheaper than what you’ll be charged at your accommodation. In either situation, the charge is usually per kilogram. Your clothes will take a beating, so it’s best not to entrust prized articles to these services. If you want to wash clothes yourself, you can buy small packets of detergent in many general stores and markets around the country. Hang out your underwear discreetly – women should take particular care, as women’s undergarments are believed to have the power to render Buddhist tattoos and amulets powerless.

Lao currency, the kip, is available in 50,000K, 20,000K, 10,000K, 5000K, 2000K, 1000K and 500K notes; there are no coins in circulation.

Although a law passed in 1990 technically forbids the use of foreign currencies to pay for goods and services in local markets, many tour operators, and upmarket hotels and restaurants quote their prices in dollars (especially common when the price is above 350,000K). Many shops, especially those in more touristy towns, and tourist services will accept Thai baht or US dollars in place of kip, usually at a fairly decent exchange rate, though it makes little sense unless you’re paying for something that would require a large amount of kip.

Due to the high denominations of Lao money, it can be rather cumbersome to carry even relatively small amounts of money in kip. It’s far easier to carry large sums of money in dollars or baht and to change them as you need to – bear in mind though that larger US notes will get you better exchange rates. It’s not possible to convert money to or from kip outside of Laos.

Banking hours are generally Monday to Friday 8.30am to 3.30pm. Exchange rates are fairly uniform throughout the country, though marginally better in larger towns and cities. Most towns have a bank with at least the most basic of exchange facilities – usually dollars and baht – though travellers’ cheques (US dollars) are now accepted at many banks and a wide variety of international currencies can often be changed, including euros and sterling. Moneychangers are common in larger towns, and rates are generally a little lower, though not disproportionately so, than the banks.

The most convenient way to carry money in Laos is to take a good supply of US dollars or Thai baht with you. Travellers’ cheques are the safest way to carry larger amounts of money, and as they are now accepted at banks throughout the country they are a good option if you’re travelling for a few weeks, though cashing them will incur a charge of around $1 per cheque. ATMs are becoming more prevalent, but are still fairly rare, and even so it’s best not to rely on them. In addition, some travellers have had problems with receiving funds from ATMs, with reports that their accounts were debited despite not receiving cash at the end of the transaction. In such a situation, contact your bank as soon as possible.

Major credit cards are accepted at upmarket hotels and restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and in a limited number of other tourist centres. Cash advances on Visa cards, and less frequently Mastercard, are possible in some banks in larger towns, though minimum amounts and commission are likely to be imposed. Bear in mind that electricity supply in much of the country can be somewhat temperamental, so paying by credit card or getting a cash advance on a card is not always possible even when the service is advertised – it’s important not to rely on plastic in Laos and to always have some cash as a fall-back option.

The Lao postal system can be slow and unreliable – mail takes seven to fourteen days in or out of Laos, depending on where you are. Post offices are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm, sometimes with an hour break at lunchtime. When sending parcels, keep the package open for inspection.

Poste restante services are available in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Post offices in both towns charge a small fee for letters (postcards received this way are free) and keep mail behind the counter for two or three months. Bring your passport on the off chance that you’re asked to show identification when picking up your mail. Mail should be addressed: name, GPO, city, Lao PDR.

Hours for government offices are generally Monday to Friday from 8am to noon and from 1 to 5pm. Private businesses usually open and close a bit later, with most opening on Saturday but almost all closed on Sunday. Details of banking and post office hours are given and above respectively.

The posted hours on museums are not always scrupulously followed outside of the major cities and on slow days (almost every day) the curators and staff are often tempted to pack up and head home. Unless a festival is taking place, monasteries should only be visited during daylight hours as monks are very early risers and are usually in bed not long after sunset.

Government offices, banks and post offices close for public holidays – a lot of shops, especially in smaller towns, also close for the day.

The majority of internet cafés now have facilities for international calling, usually through Skype. Alternatively, international calls can be made at the local Telecom Office, though prices are generally quite high.

Regional codes are given throughout the Guide: the “0” must be dialled before all long-distance calls. Some hotels have consecutively numbered phone lines – thus t021/221200–5 means that the last digit can be any number between 0 and 5.

GSM or Triband mobile phones can be used in Laos, though call and text charges will be high, so if you’re planning on using your phone it’s worth buying a local SIM card. These are readily available from shops and markets and cost 20,000–30,000K, which will also give you an initial amount of credit to use. Mobile phone coverage is limited in more remote provinces – at the time of writing, the most comprehensive network was ETL. Top-up cards can be purchased in most towns and villages that have even the most basic shop – just look for the flag displaying the network’s name.

Most hotels and guesthouses in Laos now claim to have hot-water showers – though in reality the water is often disappointingly cold. Traditional Lao showers, sometimes found in accommodation in rural areas, consist of a large, ceramic jar or a cement tub resembling an oversized bathtub without a drain. Standing next to the tub, you use the plastic scoop provided to sluice water over your body. While it may look tempting on a hot day, don’t get into these tubs or try to use them for doing your laundry, as the water has to be used by others. In many towns villagers opt for an even more traditional technique – the river. Men usually bathe in their underwear, women in sarongs.

Hard to find outside Vientiane’s minimarkets, which have a very limited selection. Bring supplies.

Ignoring daylight-saving time abroad, Laos is 7 hours ahead of London, 15 hours ahead of Vancouver, 12 hours ahead of New York, 3 hours behind Sydney and 5 hours behind Auckland.

Squat toilets are the norm throughout Laos, although almost all hotels and guesthouses have Western-style porcelain thrones. Public toilets are not common in Laos though you’ll find them at airports and most bus stations; at the latter a small fee is usually collected. Not all toilets will have toilet paper, so it’s worth carrying some with you. Most squat toilets require manual flushing – you’ll find a bucket of water with a scoop floating on the surface for this purpose. In some small, rural villages people tend to take to the woods because of a lack of plumbing. On long road trips this is also a perfectly acceptable way to relieve yourself, though keep in mind that many parts of Laos have UXO, so it’s not wise to wade too far into the bush when the bus stops for a bathroom break.

For anyone with limited mobility, Laos is a difficult country to explore. Even in the big tourist cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, you’ll be met with uneven pavements, which lack ramps, and small sets of stairs leading into most restaurants and guesthouses. In smaller towns the situation is even worse – there are often no pavements and most of the roads are dirt tracks.

However, a handful of the newer hotels in Laos (especially in cities) have been built with some regard for disabled guests. The best places have ramps at the front of the building, lifts to all floors of the hotel, and wider doorways that at least allow wheelchair users to pass from one part of the building to another. That said, your chances of getting a room that’s been specially adapted for a wheelchair user, complete with grab-rails and a roll-in shower, are close to zero.

Hotels that do make specific allowances for disabled guests include the 3 Nagas by Alila in Luang Prabang and the Lao Plaza in Vientiane.

The best way to alleviate transport difficulties is to take internal flights and hire a private minibus with a driver. You should also consider hiring a local tour guide to accompany you on sightseeing trips – a Lao speaker can facilitate access to temples and museums. Flying an international carrier whose planes are suited to your needs is also helpful. Keep in mind that airline companies can cope better if they are expecting you, with a wheelchair provided at airports and staff primed to help.

When preparing for your trip, it’s a good idea to pack spares of any clothing or equipment that might be hard to find. If you use a wheelchair, you should have it serviced before you go and carry a repair kit. If you do not use a wheelchair all the time but your walking capabilities are limited, remember that you are likely to need to cover greater distances while travelling (often over rougher terrain and in hotter temperatures) than you are used to

Healthcare in Laos is so poor as to be virtually nonexistent; the average life expectancy is just 57. Malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases are rife, and you’ll need to take a number of precautions to avoid contracting these, especially if you plan on spending long periods of time in rural regions. The nearest medical care of any competence is in neighbouring Thailand; if you find yourself afflicted by anything more serious than travellers’ diarrhoea, it’s best to head for the closest Thai border crossing and check into a hospital.

Plan on consulting a doctor at least two months before your travel date to discuss which diseases you should receive immunization against. Some antimalarials must be taken several days before arrival in a malarial area in order to be effective. If you are going to be on the road for some time, a dental check-up is also advisable.

While there are no mandatory vaccinations for Laos (except yellow fever if you are coming from an infected area), a few are recommended. Hepatitis A, typhoid, tetanus and polio are the most important ones, but you should also consider hepatitis B, rabies and Japanese encephalitis. All shots should be recorded on an International Certificate of Vaccination and carried with your passport when travelling abroad.

Hepatitis A is contracted via contaminated food and water and can be prevented by the Havrix vaccine which provides protection for up to ten years. Two injections two to four weeks apart are necessary, followed by a booster a year later. The older one-shot vaccine only provides protection for three months. Hepatitis B is spread via sexual contact, transfusions of tainted blood and dirty needles. Vaccination is recommended for travellers who plan on staying for long periods of time (six months or more). Note that the vaccine can take up to six months before it is fully effective.

Rabies can be prevented by a vaccine that consists of two injections over a two-month period with a third a year later and boosters every two to five years. If you haven’t had shots and are bitten by a potentially rabid animal, you will need to get the jabs immediately.

Japanese encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease, is quite rare, but doctors may recommend a vaccination against it. The course of injections consists of two shots at two-week intervals plus a booster.

The average traveller to Laos has little to worry about as long as they use common sense and exercise a few precautions. The changes in climate and diet experienced during travel collaborate to lower your resistance, so you need to take special care to maintain a healthy intake of food and water and to try to minimize the effects of heat and humidity on the body. Excessive alcohol consumption should be avoided, as the dehydrating effects of alcohol are amplified by the heat and humidity.

Good personal hygiene is essential; hands should be washed before eating, especially given that much of the Lao cuisine is traditionally eaten with the hands. Cuts or scratches, no matter how minor, can become infected very easily and should be thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and bandaged to keep dirt out.

Most health problems experienced by travellers are a direct result of something they’ve eaten. Avoid eating uncooked vegetables and fruits that cannot be peeled. Dishes containing raw meat or fish are considered a delicacy in Laos but people who eat them risk ingesting worms and other parasites. Cooked food that has been sitting out for an undetermined period should be treated with suspicion.

Most travellers experience some form of stomach trouble during their visit to Laos, simply because their digestive system needs time to adapt to the local germs. To deal with travellers’ diarrhoea, it is usually enough to drink lots of liquids and eat lightly, avoiding spicy or greasy foods in favour of bland noodle soups until your system recovers. The use of Lomotil or Imodium should be avoided, as they just prevent your body clearing the cause of the diarrhoea, unless long-distance road travel makes it absolutely necessary. Diarrhoea accompanied by severe stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting is an indication of food poisoning. As with common diarrhoea, it usually ends after a couple of days. In either case, be sure to increase your liquid intake to make up for lost fluids. It’s a good idea to bring oral rehydration salts with you from home. If symptoms persist or become worse after a couple of days, consider seeking medical advice in Thailand.

Blood or mucus in the faeces is an indication of dysentery. There are two types of dysentery and they differ in their symptoms and treatment. Bacillary dysentery has an acute onset, with severe abdominal pain accompanied by the presence of blood in the diarrhoea. Fever and vomiting may also be symptoms. Bacillary dysentery requires immediate medical attention and antibiotics are usually prescribed. Amoebic dysentery is more serious: the onset is gradual with bloody faeces accompanied by abdominal pain. Symptoms may eventually disappear but the amoebas will still be in the body and will continue to feed on internal organs, causing serious health problems in time. If you contract either type of dysentery, seek immediate medical advice in Thailand.

Hepatitis A, a viral infection contracted by consuming contaminated food or water, is quite common in Laos. The infection causes the liver to become inflamed and resulting symptoms include nausea, abdominal pains, dark-brown urine and light-brown faeces that may be followed by jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of eyes). Vaccination is the best precaution; if you do come down with hepatitis A, get plenty of rest and eat light meals of non-fatty foods.

Another scatological horror is giardia, symptoms of which include a bloated stomach, evil-smelling burps and farts, and diarrhoea or floating stools. As with dysentery, treatment by a physician in Thailand should be sought immediately.

Occasional outbreaks of cholera occur in Laos. The initial symptoms are a sudden onset of watery but painless diarrhoea. Later nausea, vomiting and muscle cramps set in. Cholera can be fatal if adequate fluid intake is not maintained. Copious amounts of liquids, including oral rehydration solution, should be consumed and urgent medical treatment in Thailand should be sought.

Like cholera, typhoid is also spread in small, localized epidemics. The disease is sometimes difficult to diagnose, as symptoms can vary widely. Generally, they include headaches, fever and constipation, followed by diarrhoea.

Malaria, caused by the plasmodium parasite, is rife in much of Laos. Symptoms include chills, a high fever and then sweats, during which the fever falls; the cycle repeats every couple of days. These symptoms aren’t so different to those of flu, making diagnosis difficult without a blood test; if you think you’ve contracted malaria, check into a Thai hospital immediately.

Vientiane is said to be malaria-free, but visitors to other parts of Laos should take all possible precautions to avoid contracting this sometimes fatal disease. Night-feeding mosquitoes are the carriers, so you’ll need to take extra care in the evening, particularly at dawn and dusk. High-strength mosquito repellent that contains the chemical compound DEET is a necessity, although bear in mind that prolonged use may be harmful. A natural alternative is citronella oil, found in some repellents. Wearing trousers, long-sleeved shirts and socks gives added protection.

If you plan on travelling in remote areas, bring a mosquito net. Most guesthouses provide nets but some of these have holes; gather up the offending section of net and twist a rubber band around it. Many hotels have replaced nets with screened-in windows, which is fine if the room door remains shut at all times, but doors are usually left wide open when maids are tidying up the rooms between guests. If you can’t get hold of a mosquito net, try pyrethrum coils which can be found in most markets and general stores in Laos.

For added insurance against malaria, it’s advisable to take antimalarial tablets. Though doxycycline and mefloquine are the most commonly prescribed antimalarials for Laos, the plasmodium parasites are showing resistance to the latter drug. While none of the antimalarials guarantees that you will not contract malaria, the risks will be greatly reduced. Note that some antimalarials can have unpleasant side effects. Mefloquine in particular can sometimes cause dizziness, extreme fatigue, nausea and nightmares. Pregnant or lactating women are not advised to take mefloquine.

Day-feeding mosquitoes are the carriers of dengue fever. The disease is common in urban as well as rural areas, and outbreaks occur annually during the rainy season. The symptoms are similar to malaria and include fever, chills, aching joints and a red rash that spreads from the torso to the limbs and face. Dengue can be fatal in small children. There is no preventative vaccination or prophylactic. As with malaria, travellers should use insect repellent, keep skin covered with loose-fitting clothing and wear socks. There is no specific treatment for dengue other than rest, lots of liquids and paracetamol for pain and fever. Aspirin should be avoided as it can aggravate the proneness to internal bleeding which dengue sometimes produces.

The Lao hot season, roughly March to May, can be brutal, especially in the lowlands. To prevent sunburn, fair-skinned people should wear sunblock and consider purchasing a wide-brimmed straw hat. UV protective sunglasses are useful for cutting the sun’s glare, which can be especially harsh during river journeys. The threat of dehydration increases with physical exertion. Even if you don’t feel thirsty, drink plenty of water. Not having to urinate or passing dark-coloured urine are sure signs that your system is not getting enough liquids.

Heat exhaustion, signified by headaches, dizziness and nausea, is treated by resting in a cool place and increasing your liquid intake until the symptoms disappear. Heatstroke, indicated by high body temperature, flushed skin and a lack of perspiration, can be life-threatening if not treated immediately. Reducing the body’s temperature by immersion in tepid water is an initial treatment but no substitute for prompt medical attention. Heat and high humidity sometimes cause prickly heat, an itchy rash that is easily avoided by wearing loose-fitting cotton clothing.

In Laos the bugs are thick, especially during the rainy season when they swarm round light bulbs and pummel bare skin until you feel like the trampoline at a flea circus. Fortunately, most flying insects pose no threat and are simply looking for a place to land and rest up.

Visitors who spend the night in hill-tribe villages where hygiene is poor risk being infected by scabies. These microscopic creatures are just as loathsome as their name suggests, causing severe itching by burrowing under the skin and laying eggs. Scabies is most commonly contracted by sleeping on dirty bedclothes or being in prolonged physical contact with someone who is infected. More common are head lice, especially among children in rural areas. Like scabies, it takes physical contact, such as sleeping next to an infected person, to contract head lice, though it may also be possible to contract head lice by wearing a hat belonging to someone who is infected.

The leeches’ most commonly encountered in Laos are about the size and shape of an inchworm, and travellers are most likely to pick them up while trekking through wooded areas. Take extra care when relieving yourself during breaks on long-distance bus rides. The habit of pushing deep into a bush for privacy gives leeches just enough time to grab hold of your shoes or trousers. Later they will crawl their way beneath clothing and attach themselves to joint areas (ankles, knees, elbows) where veins are near the surface of the skin. An anaesthetic and anticoagulant in the leaches’ saliva allows the little vampires to gorge themselves on blood without the host feeling any pain. Tucking your trouser-legs into your socks is an easy way to foil leeches. Wounds left by sucking leeches should be washed and bandaged as soon as possible to avoid infection.

Laos has several varieties of poisonous snakes, including the king cobra, but the Lao habit of killing every snake they come across, whether venomous or not, keeps areas of human habitation largely snake-free. Travelling in rural areas greatly increases the risk of snakebite, but visitors can lessen the chances of being bitten by not wearing sandals or flip-flops outside urban areas. While hiking between hill-tribe villages especially, take the precaution of wearing boots, socks and long trousers. If you are bitten, the number-one rule is not to panic; remain still to prevent the venom from being quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. Snakebites should be washed and disinfected and immediate medical attention sought – a challenge in most parts of Laos, making avoidance of the problem vital. Huge, black scorpions the size of large prawns lurk under the shade of fallen leaves and sting reflexively when stepped on, another solid reason to restrict flip-flop-wearing to urban areas. While the sting is very painful, it is not fatal and pain and swelling usually disappear after a few hours.

Animals that are infected with rabies can transmit the disease by biting or even by licking an open wound. Dogs are the most common carriers but the disease can also be contracted from the bites of gibbons, bats and other mammals. Travellers should stay clear of all wild animals and resist the urge to pet unfamiliar dogs or cats. If bitten by a suspect animal, wash and disinfect the wound with alcohol or iodine and seek urgent medical help; the disease is fatal if left untreated.

Prostitution is on the rise in Laos, and with it the inevitable scourge of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Gonorrhoea and syphilis are common but easily treated with antibiotics. Symptoms of the former include pain or a pus-like discharge when urinating. An open sore on or around the genitals is a symptom of syphilis. In women symptoms are internal and may not be noticed. The number of cases of AIDS is also rising in Laos, mostly the result of Lao prostitutes contracting HIV in Thailand.

Bring condoms from home; most sold in Laos are imported from Thailand, and are often defective.

The simple rule while travelling in Laos is not to drink river or tap water. Contaminated water is a major cause of sickness due to the presence of pathogenic organisms: bacteria, viruses and microscopic giardia cysts. These microorganisms cause diseases such as diarrhoea, gastroenteritis, typhoid, cholera, dysentery, polio, hepatitis A, giardia and bilharzia, and can be present even when water looks clean.

Safe bottled water is available almost anywhere, though when buying, check that the seal is unbroken as bottles are occasionally refilled from the tap. Water purifying tablets, carried with you from home, are an environmentally friendly alternative as they help to reduce the number of plastic bottles left behind after your travels.

Chinese tea made from boiled water is generally safe, but travellers should shun ice that doesn’t look factory-made. Some of the fanciest hotels have filtration systems that make tap water safe enough to clean your teeth with, but as a general rule, you’re best off using purified or bottled water.

Tightly controlled by the communist party since the Pathet Lao came to power in 1975, Laos’s minuscule media struggles to compete with flashy Thai TV gameshows and the multitude of channels offered by satellite dishes. With only one-tenth of the population of its neighbour, it’s very hard for Laos to compete with Thailand.

Laos has only one English-language newspaper, the Vientiane Times, established in 1994. Despite being somewhat thin, self-censored and nearly impossible to find outside the capital, it is nonetheless a good window on Laos. Published by the Ministry of Information and Culture, the Vientiane Times focuses primarily on business and trade issues, although interesting cultural pieces do slip in from time to time, and the occasional column showcasing people’s opinion on a selected social topic is a worthwhile read. You’ll also find ads for restaurant specials and local teaching jobs.

There are two Lao-language dailies and five weeklies. Of the two dailies, Wieng Mai and Pasason, the latter is more widely read. Both get their international news from KPL, the government news agency, and, for the most part, have their own reporters who file domestic news. Neither is known for independent-minded reportage. In fact it’s fair to say you’ll find much more news about Laos online (a list of recommended websites appears below) than you can in the country.

Foreign publications are extremely difficult to find outside Vientiane, and even in the capital there are scant copies. Newsweek, The Economist, Time and the Bangkok Post are all sold at minimarkets in Vientiane.

Lao television’s two government-run channels broadcast a mix of news, cultural shows and Chinese soaps for several hours a day, with no English programming. Reception is poor, however, in rural areas. One of the oddest sights in Laos is that of rickety bamboo and thatch huts and houses all over the country with huge, modern satellite dishes attached to the roofs. Many mid-range and top-end hotels provide satellite TV – though often these show only a handful of channels – as do a few coffee shops and bakeries in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

Lao radio thrives, helped along by the fact that newspapers and TV stations are not available to many people in the countryside. The main radio station, Lao National Radio, can be picked up in the vicinity of Vientiane or on shortwave in roughly seventy percent of the country. LNR gets its international news from a number of sources, including CNN, BBC, Xinhua and KPL, and broadcasts news in English twice a day. Tuning into LNR will also give you a chance to hear traditional Lao music, which you otherwise may only get to hear at festivals.

During their period of colonization, the French regarded traditional Lao therapies as quaint and amusing, and this attitude was passed on to the Lao elite who studied in France. In an essay about traditional Lao medicine written in the 1950s by a former Minister of Health, the traditional Lao doctor is repeatedly referred to as “the quack”. But renewed interest, partially fuelled by a similar rekindling of enthusiasm in neighbouring China, has seen a resurgence of confidence in traditional techniques.

Tourism has been partially responsible for renewed interest in traditional massage and herbal sauna, though these alternative therapies are generally limited to larger towns and cities. Besides the obvious physical benefits the Lao massage and sauna afford the recipient, administering massage and sauna to others is believed to bring spiritual merit to those who perform the labour, making Lao massage and sauna a win-win proposition for all involved.

Lao massage owes more to Chinese than to Thai schools, utilizing medicated balms and salves which are rubbed into the skin. Muscles are kneaded and joints are flexed while a warm compress of steeped herbs is applied to the area being treated. Besides massage, Lao doctors may utilize other “exotic” treatments that have been borrowed from neighbouring countries. One decidedly Chinese therapy that is sometimes employed in Laos is acupuncture (fang khem), in which long, thin needles are inserted into special points that correspond to specific organs or parts of the body. Another imported practice is the application of suction cups (kaew dut), a remedy popular in neighbouring Cambodia. Small glass jars are briefly heated with a flame and applied to bare skin; air within the cup contracts as it cools, drawing blood under the skin into the mouth of the cup. Theoretically, toxins within the bloodstream are in this way brought to the surface of the skin.

Before getting a massage, many Lao opt for some time in the herbal sauna. This usually consists of a rustic wooden shack divided into separate rooms for men and women; beneath the shack a drum of water sits on a wood fire. Medicinal herbs boiling in the drum release their juices into the water and the resulting steam is carried up into the rooms. The temperature inside is normally quite high and bathers should spend no more than fifteen minutes at a time in the sauna, taking frequent breaks to cool off by lounging outside and sipping herbal tea to replace water that the body so profusely sweats out. The recipes of both the saunas and teas are jealously guarded but are known to contain such herbal additives as carambola, tamarind, eucalyptus and citrus leaves.

While history may have given them ample reason to distrust outsiders, the Lao are a genuinely friendly people and interacting with them is one of the greatest joys of travelling through the country. Always remember, though, that Laos is a Buddhist country and so it’s important to dress and behave in a way that is respectful.

Because of the sheer diversity of ethnic groups in Laos, it is difficult to generalize when speaking of “Lao” attitudes and behaviour. The dominant group, the so-called “Lao Loum”, or lowland Lao, who make up the majority in the valleys of the Mekong and its tributaries, are Theravada Buddhists and this has a strong effect on their attitudes and behaviour. The focus here is on dos and don’ts within that culture; customs among the hill-tribe peoples are often quite different from those of the lowlanders.

Appearance is very important in Lao society. Conservative dress is always recommended, and visitors should keep in mind that the Lao dislike foreigners who come to their country and dress in what they deem a disrespectful manner. This includes men appearing shirtless in public, and women bearing their shoulders and thighs. Be aware also that dreadlocks, tattoos and body-piercing are viewed with disfavour by lowland Lao, although hill-tribe people are usually more accepting. Dressing too casually (or too outrageously) can also be counterproductive in dealings with Lao authorities, such as when applying for visa extensions at immigration.

When in urban areas or visiting Buddhist monasteries or holy sites, visitors should refrain from outfits that would be more suited to the beach. Women especially should avoid wearing anything that reveals too much skin or could be conceived of as provocative – this includes shorts and sleeveless shirts. Sandals or flip-flops can be worn for all but the most formal occasions; in fact, they are much more practical than shoes, since footwear must be removed upon entering private homes, certain Buddhist monastery buildings or any living space. The habit of leaving your footwear outside the threshold is not just a matter of wanting to keep interiors clean, it is a long-standing tradition that will cause offence if flouted.

Lao social taboos are sometimes linked to Buddhist beliefs. Feet are considered low and unclean – be careful not to step over any part of people who are sitting or lying on the floor, as this is also considered rude. If you do accidentally kick or brush someone with your feet, apologize immediately and smile as you do so. Conversely, people’s heads are considered sacred and shouldn’t be touched.

Besides dressing conservatively, there are other conventions that must be followed when visiting Buddhist monasteries. Before entering monastery buildings such as the sim or wihan, or if you are invited into monks’ living quarters, footwear must be removed. Women should never touch Buddhist monks or novices (or their clothes), or hand objects directly to them. When giving something to a monk, the object should be placed on a nearby table or passed to a layman who will then hand it to the monk.

All Buddha images are objects of veneration, so it should go without saying that touching Buddha images disrespectfully is inappropriate. When sitting on the floor of a monastery building that has a Buddha image, never point your feet in the direction of the image. If possible, observe the Lao and imitate the way they sit: in a modified kneeling position with legs pointed away from the image.

The lowland Lao traditionally greet each other with a nop – bringing their hands together at the chin in a prayer-like gesture. After the revolution the nop was discouraged, but it now seems to be making a comeback. This graceful gesture is more difficult to execute properly than it may at first appear, however, as the status of the persons giving and returning the nop determines how they execute it. Most Lao reserve the nop greeting for each other, preferring to shake hands with Westerners, and the only time a Westerner is likely to receive a nop is from the staff of upmarket hotels or fancy restaurants. In any case, if you do receive a nop as a gesture of greeting or thank you, it is best to reply with a smile and nod of the head.

The Lao often feel that many foreign visitors seem to be a bit aloof. They have obviously spent a lot of time and money to get so far from home, but once they get to Laos they walk around briskly, looking at the locals, but rarely bothering to smile or greet those they have come so far to see. Foreign visitors who are not grin-stingy will find that a smile and a sabai di (hello) will break the ice of initial reservation some locals may have upon seeing a foreigner, and will invariably bring a smile in response.

It’s worth bearing in mind that, as in the rest of Asia, showing anger in Laos is rather futile – it’ll more likely be met with amusement or the swift departure of the person you’re talking to, in order to save face.

Lao people are very hospitable and will often go out of their way to help visitors. Especially in rural areas, you may find people inviting you to join them for a meal or to celebrate a birth or marriage. This is a real privilege, and even if you don’t wish to stay for long, it’s polite to join them and to accept at least one drink if it’s offered to you. More than anything, it gives you a chance to experience local life, and gives Lao people a good impression of the tourists that come to their country, and an opportunity to learn more about the world.

Public displays of affection – even just hugging – are considered tasteless by the Lao and is likely to cause offence. Though the gay scene remains very underground in Laos, gay travellers are unlikely to be threatened or hassled. Sexual relations between an unmarried Lao national and a Westerner are officially illegal in Laos – in Vientiane especially, the law prohibiting Lao nationals from sharing hotel rooms with foreigners is sometimes enforced.

Laos is a relatively safe country for travellers, although certain areas remain off-limits because of unexploded ordnance left over from decades of warfare. As a visitor, however, you’re an obvious target for thieves (who may include your fellow travellers), so do take necessary precautions.

Carry your passport, travellers’ cheques and other valuables in a concealed money belt and don’t leave anything important lying about in your room, particularly when staying in rural bungalows. A few hotels have safes which you may want to use, although you should keep in mind that you never know who has access to the safe. A padlock and chain, or a cable lock, is useful for doors and windows at inexpensive guesthouses and budget hotels and for securing your pack on buses, where you’re often separated from your belongings. It’s also a good idea to keep a reserve of cash, photocopies of the relevant pages of your passport, insurance details and travellers’ cheque receipts separate from the rest of your valuables.

As tranquil as Laos can seem, petty theft and serious crimes do happen throughout the country – even on seemingly deserted country roads. Petty crime is more common in Vang Vieng than just about anywhere else in Laos, with drunk (or stoned) tourists often leaving themselves open to theft and robbery. Although crime rates in Vientiane are low, be on your guard in darker streets outside the city centre, and along the river. Motorbike-borne thieves ply the city streets and have been known to snatch bags out of the front basket of other motorbikes that they pass.

If you do have anything stolen, you’ll need to get the police to write up a report in order to claim on your insurance: bring along a Lao speaker to simplify matters if you can. While police generally keep their distance from foreigners, they may try to exact “fines” from visitors for alleged misdemeanours. With a lot of patience, you should be able to resolve most problems, and, if you keep your cool, you may find that you can bargain down such “fines”. It helps to have your passport with you at all times – if you don’t, police have greater incentive to ask for money and may even try to bring you to the station. In some instances police may puzzle over your passport for what seems like an awfully long time. Again, such situations are best handled with an ample dose of patience. If your papers are in order, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

With far more serious consequences than petty theft, banditry is still a possible threat in some parts of Laos. In the past, buses, motorcyclists and private vehicles on certain highways have been held up, their passengers robbed and, in some instances, killed. Because information in Laos is tightly controlled, no one knows exactly if rumoured bandit attacks have actually occurred or if other incidents have happened and gone unreported. Therefore it’s always good to ask at a Western embassy in Vientiane for any travel advisories before heading out into remote regions.

Security has improved greatly in recent years along Route 13 between Kasi and Luang Prabang, though the insurgent/bandit group generally thought to be responsible for the attacks in this area in the mid-1990s, the Chao Fa, is still active in parts of Xieng Khuang province. Back in 2004 two European tourists were killed, along with six Lao, when a shadowy group attacked a bus on Route 13 just north of Vang Vieng. After punitive attacks on nearby Hmong villages by the Lao army in 2004 and 2005, the road fell quiet. Though in February 2007 the US embassy in Vientiane reported small skirmishes just north of Vang Vieng, the situation didn’t escalate, and the road is now considered safe once again – bus drivers in the area have stopped carrying guns.

Although the chances of getting caught up in an incident are very small indeed, it’s a good idea to be aware of the potential risks, especially when travelling on Route 7 or the northern stretch of Route 13. Locally based expats in both Vientiane and Luang Prabang will often have the best idea of whether or not the routes are safe to travel.

The Second Indochina War left Laos with the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare. The areas of the country most affected by aerial bombing are along the border of Vietnam – especially in southern Laos where the border runs parallel to the former Ho Chi Minh Trail; also heavily targeted was Xieng Khuang province in the northeast. Other provinces, far from the border with Vietnam, were the site of land battles in which both sides lobbed artillery and mortar shells at each other. A fair quantity of this ordnance did not explode.

These dangerous relics of the war, known as UXO (unexploded ordnance), have been the focus of disposal teams since the 1980s. According to the Lao government, most areas that tourists are likely to visit have been swept clean of UXO. That said, it always pays to be cautious when in rural areas or when trekking. UXO unearthed during road construction can be pushed onto the shoulder, where it becomes overgrown with weeds and forgotten. Disposal experts say that fast-growing bamboo has been known to unearth UXO, lifting it aloft as the stalk grows and then letting it fall onto a trail that was previously clean. Consequently, it’s best to stay on trails and beware any odd-looking metallic objects that you may come across. Picking something up for closer inspection (or giving it a kick to turn it over) can be suicidal. When taking a toilet break during long-distance bus journeys, it’s not a good idea to penetrate too deeply into the bush looking for privacy.

In some southern towns locals use old bombs, bomb cases, mortar shells etc for a variety of functions, from demarcating plots of land to decorating. These will have been checked by UXO disposal experts, and should pose no threat. Still, it pays to have a healthy respect for all UXO. After all, these are weapons that were designed to kill or maim.

In recent years Laos has seen a steady rise of drug tourism. Ganja (marijuana) is widely available in Laos, although it’s illegal to smoke it. Tourists who buy and use ganja risk substantial “fines” if caught by police, who do not need a warrant to search you or your room. As in Thailand, there have been many instances of locals selling foreigners marijuana and then telling the police. In Vang Vieng, mushrooms and weed are offered at most backpacker bars – either straight up or baked into a dizzying array of “happy” pizzas – but you should bear in mind that plenty of travellers get sick, or robbed, after indulging.

In northern towns, tourists are sometimes approached by opium addicts who, in return for cash, offer to take the visitors to a hut or some other private place, where opium pipes will be prepared and smoked. Many Westerners feel the romanticism of doing this all-but-extinct drug is just as appealing as the promise of intoxication, but the opium prepared for tourists is often not opium at all, but morphine-laden opium ash that has been mixed with painkillers. The resulting “high” is, for many, several hours of nausea and vomiting. While real opium is not as addictive as its derivative, heroin, withdrawal symptoms are similarly painful. Visitors caught smoking opium (or even opium ash) face fines, jail time and deportation.

In addition, it’s important to consider the local implications of using drugs in Laos. There remains a serious problem with drug addiction in some rural communities, which local organizations are working hard to address, and using drugs while in the country can encourage local people to do the same, thus undoing a lot of hard work.

Travelling through Laos with children can be both challenging and fun, but the rewards far outweigh any negatives. The presence of children can help break the ice with locals, especially as the Lao people are so family-focused, but long, bumpy journeys and poor sanitation can make things a struggle at times.

Laos’ s lack of adequate healthcare facilities is a major concern for parents, so sufficient travel insurance is a must for peace of mind. It’s worth taking a first aid set with you, as well as a rehydration solution in case of diarrhoea, which can be quite dangerous in young children. Rabies is a problem in Laos, so explain to your children the dangers of playing with animals and consider a rabies vaccination before departing.

In tourist areas it should be no problem finding food that kids will eat, and dishes like spring rolls, fried rice and fõe, where chilli is added by the diner, are a good choice for those who may not be used to the spiciness of Lao cuisine.

A major consideration will be the long journeys that are sometimes necessary when travelling around the country – these can be bone-numbing at the best of times, and young children may find them excruciatingly boring. That said, bus journeys are a real “local” experience that can make more of an impression than wandering around temples. It is easy, however, to see a fair amount of the country by sticking to journeys of less than six hours.

Most hotels and guesthouses are very accommodating to families, often allowing children to stay for free in their parents’ room, or adding an extra bed or cot to the room for a small charge.

If you’re travelling with babies, you’ll have difficulty finding nappies (diapers) throughout Laos. For short journeys, you could bring a supply of nappies from home; for longer trips, consider switching over to washables.

For more advice on travelling with children, consult The Rough Guide to Travel with Babies and Young Children.

In Laos, expect to see more expensive goods, services and accommodation (generally things that cost over $25) priced in dollars rather than kip. However, unless you’re staying in high-end accommodation, most of your transactions will be in kip.

January 1 New Year’s Day

January 6 Pathet Lao Day

January 20 Army Day

March 8 Women’s Day

March 22 Lao People’s Party Day

April 13–15 Lao New Year

May 1 International Labour Day

June 1 Children’s Day

August 13 Lao Issara

August 23 Liberation Day

October 12 Freedom from France Day

December 2 National Day

You May Interest!

Laos Best Selling Tours

Trekking in Mai Chau & Pu Luong Nature Reserve – 5 Days
Featured

Trekking in Mai Chau & Pu Luong Nature Reserve – 5 Days

Mai Chau - Pu Luong - Vietnam
$200.00
4 days50
The Charm & Natural Beauty of North-Eastern Vietnam 9 days
Featured

The Charm & Natural Beauty of North-Eastern Vietnam 9 days

Mai Chau - Pu Luong - Vietnam
$999.00
4 days50
Cycling Tour Mekong 2 days
Featured

Cycling Tour Mekong 2 days

HCM - Cai Be - Vinh Long - Can Tho
$150.00
4 days50
Vietnam Hidden Charm 14 days 13 nights
Featured

Vietnam Hidden Charm 14 days 13 nights

Hanoi - Halong - Sapa - Hue - Hoi An - HCM - Mekong
$1307.00
Indochina Tour in Style 17 days 16 nights
Featured

Indochina Tour in Style 17 days 16 nights

Vietnam - Laos - Cambodia
$3000.00
Full Day HCMC Tour and Cu Chi Tunnels
Featured
Plan your trip with us

Ready for an unforgetable tour?