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Laos Travel Guide
Laos has been known since ancient times as Lan Xang, or Land of the Million Elephants, and offers visitors a glimpse of old Indochina. It is less developed than its neighbours China, Thailand and Vietnam, and traditionally the most reserved, but offers natural beauty and shy hospitality combined with a mix of original Buddhist culture and French influences. It also shares its borders with Burma and Cambodia.
A mountainous, landlocked country, situated at the heart of South East Asia, Laos' lifeline is the Mekong River that flows the length of the country, providing water for agricultural lands and a major means of transportation. Vientiane, the unassuming capital, is situated on its banks, and the city provides a comfortable introduction to the charms of the country. Tourists to Laos will find its most enticing destination is the city of Luang Prabang, the former royal kingdom, with a legacy of splendid golden temples and whitewashed houses. While it might be true that sights and attractions in Laos are few, they are nonetheless extremely special.
A troubled history of French colonisation, internal conflicts and assertive communism chased much of Laos' population away in the 1970s, and isolated the country from the outside world. Today though, the doors stand open, and services for travellers are gradually being instituted so that visitors can enjoy an unrivalled look at the old-fashioned way of life predominating in a country still largely unscathed by the harsh effects of mass tourism. Tourists willing to brave the lack of infrastructure will discover charming towns and rural villages, smiling, endearing people, splendid scenery, and a slow, relaxed pace of life.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. A variety of plugs are used, including the European-style two-pin, the UK-style three-pin and the flat two-pin type.
The Lao Kip (LAK) is the legal currency unit, currently available in denominations of 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 kip. US Dollars, Euros and Thai Baht are also accepted in many places and are more convenient to carry than large stacks of the local currency. Banks, hotels, and jewellery shops all offer currency exchange services. For everyday expenses, carry a mix of US dollars and kip. For larger items, or when the exchange rate works in your favour, use US dollars. For local transport, street food stalls and minor purchases, it is best to use kip. When in rural areas, ensure you carry a supply of small notes as change can be hard to come by.
Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most international hotels, many shops and restaurants, and a few tourist-orientated establishments in Luang Prabang and Vientiane - but in other parts of the country assume that only cash is accepted. Travellers cheques can be cashed at most banks in Vientiane and other major towns.
Banks are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 12pm, and then again from 2pm to 3pm. In Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and other major towns, ATMs are available from which money can be withdrawn. Note that ATMs distribute only Lao kip, with a maximum of around 1,000,000 kip per transaction.
Lao is the official language, but some English and French are spoken.
Tipping is becoming more widely practiced in tourist hotels and restaurants, where 10 percent is expected; elsewhere, there is no need to tip. Many of the more up-market restaurants tend to include a 10 to 15 percent service charge in their bill.
Those planning to travel to Laos should seek medical advice about vaccinations and endemic diseases at least three weeks prior to departure. Malaria exists throughout the country except in Vientiane, and typhoid and cholera occur in some areas. A typhoid vaccine is recommended for all travellers, except short-term business travellers who will restrict their meals to major restaurants and hotels. Other risks include hepatitis E, plague, dengue fever, and Schistosomiasis if swimming in the Mekong River. Travellers' diarrhoea is a problem for many visitors; only drink bottled water and avoid dairy products, uncooked meat and fish, salads and unpeeled fruit.
Medical care in Vientiane is extremely basic and outside the capital there are no reliable facilities to deal with medical emergencies. Medical evacuation is difficult to organise and very expensive. Travellers are advised to take out comprehensive medical insurance, and those who have an unstable medical condition should consider avoiding Laos. A yellow fever certificate is required by all entering from an infected area.
Most visits to Laos are trouble-free, but violent crimes such as robbery are on the increase. Foreigners have been assaulted after having their drinks or food drugged. You should be careful about taking drinks from strangers, and do not leave food or drinks unattended. Theft of passports is a problem and travellers are advised to take care, avoid carrying large sums of money and keep valuables and documents in a safe place. Making copies of important travel documents is also a good idea. Travel in some rural parts of Laos is dangerous because of banditry and unexploded ordnance, and visitors should never stray from well-worn footpaths. Visitors should also note that an ID document or passport should be carried at all times and should be presented on demand or else a heavy fine could be imposed. Visitors to Vang Vieng are advised to be particularly vigilant of their belongings, and aware of their personal security as there have been reports of petty theft in the area. Staying at a trustworthy and secure hotel or guesthouse while in Vang Vieng is recommended.
Although Laos is known for its laid-back and friendly atmosphere, the travel risk is somewhat increased by the lack of travel infrastructure and medical facilities.
Most foreign passengers to Laos can obtain a visa on arrival, provided that: (i) they are arriving at one of the following airports: Vientiane International, Luang Prabang, Pakse, Warray; (ii) they are holding a return/onward ticket and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination; (iii) they have a confirmed hotel reservation in Laos; and (iv) they are in possession of three photographs, size 3 x 4 cm. These tourist visas are valid for 30 days (with one extension possible), and cost USD 30. Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Laos, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Skimpy or revealing clothes are generally not acceptable. Public displays of affection are taboo in Lao society. Avoid touching anyone on the head or using your feet to point at anything. Appropriate dress and behaviour when entering places of worship is essential. The Laos government prohibits any sexual contact or relationships between Lao nationals and foreigners, unless married under Lao law; penalties may involve heavy fines or imprisonment. It is illegal not to carry an identity document. Photographing military sites is prohibited.
National Tourism Authority of Laos, Vientiane: +856 (0)21 222
Laos Embassy, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Canada): +1 202 332 6416.
Laos Embassy, Paris, France (also responsible for United Kingdom): +33 (0)1 4553 0298.
Laos Embassy, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 (0)2 6286 4595.
American Embassy, Vientiane: +856 (0)21 267 000.
British Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Laos): +66 (0)2 305 8333.
Canadian Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Laos): +66 (0)2 646 4300.
Australian Embassy, Vientiane: +856 (0)21 353 800.
South African Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Laos): +66 (0)2 254 2530.
Irish Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Laos): +66 (0)2 632 6720.
New Zealand Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Laos): +66 (0)2 254 2530.
191 (police), 190 (ambulance).