Slightly larger than the state of Utah, Laos is a mountainous, landlocked country sandwiched between Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam.
Laos was a French protectorate until 1953, however, only 600 French citizens lived in Laos by 1950. Even still, remnants of French colonization can still be seen in major towns. And like Vietnam, you'll still find French food, wine, and excellent cafes -- rare treats when on a long trip through Asia!
Laos is a communist state. While the many police armed with shotguns and assault rifles walking the streets of Vientiane can seem disconcerting, Laos is actually a very safe place to travel.
Travel by bus throughout the mountains of Laos -- particularly along the popular Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang route -- is a lengthy, winding affair but the scenery is stunning.
- Official Name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
- Time: UTC + 7 (12 hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time)
- Country Phone Code: +856
- Capital City: Vientiane (population 754,000 per 2009 census)
- Population: 6.58 million (per 2012 estimate)
- Primary Religion: Buddhism
Laos Visa and Entry Requirements
Most nationalities are required to get a travel visa before entering Laos. This can be done in advance or upon arrival at most border crossings. Prices for a Laos visa are determined by your nationality; prices for the visa are listed in US dollars, however, you can also pay in Thai baht or euros. You will receive the best rate by paying in US dollars.
TIP: An ongoing scam at the Thai-Lao border is to insist that tourists need to use a visa agency. Drivers may even take you directly to an 'official office' to process paperwork where you will be charged an additional fee. You can avoid the hassle by completing the visa form and providing one passport photo at the border yourself.
Money in Laos
The official currency in Laos is the Lao kip (LAK), however, Thai baht or U.S. dollars are often accepted and sometimes preferred; the exchange rate depends upon the whim of the vendor or establishment.
You'll find ATM machines in major tourist areas throughout Laos, but they are often prone to technical problems and dispense the only kip. Lao kip is, for the most part, worthless outside of the country and cannot be easily exchanged -- spend or change your money before you leave the country!
Tips for Laos Travel
- While still extremely kind to visitors, the people in Laos have suffered through war and violence for decades. Avoid bringing up issues that could cause uncomfortable conversation.
- The water in Laos is considered unsafe to drink. Bottled water is available everywhere.
- ATM networks are prone to failure; keep enough cash on hand to avoid being unable to access your travel funds.
- Land mines are still a problem in rural parts of Laos, including around the bizarre Plain of Jars.
- While Vang Vieng is nowhere near as rambunctious as it was before the 2012 crackdown, illegal drugs are still a problem. Read about the tubing in Vang Vieng.
Luang Prabang, Laos
The colonial city of Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos, is often touted as one of the most charming in Southeast Asia. The relaxed vibe along the river, abundance of temples, and old colonial houses converted into guesthouses win over nearly everyone who visits.
UNESCO made the entire city of Luang Prabang a World Heritage site in 1995 and visitors have been pouring in since.
Laos can be entered easily overland via the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge; trains run between Bangkok and Nong Khai, Thailand, on the border. Alternatively, you can cross into Laos overland through many other border crossings with Vietnam, Cambodia, and Yunnan, China. The border between Laos and Burma is closed to foreigners.
Flights to Laos
Most people fly into either Vientiane (airport code: VTE), close to the border with Thailand or directly into Luang Prabang (airport code: LPQ). Both airports have international flights as well as many connections throughout Southeast Asia.
When to Go
Laos receives the most monsoon rain between May and November. See more about the weather in Southeast Asia. You can still enjoy Laos during the rainy season, however, enjoying the many outdoor activities will be more difficult. Laos' national holiday, Republic Day, is on December 2nd; transportation and travel around the holiday are affected.