Laos Travel Essentials

What You Need to Know Before Traveling to Laos

An aerial view of river and mountains near Vang Vieng, Laos

Peerapas Mahamongkolsawas / Getty Images

 

Slightly larger than the U.S. state of Utah, Laos is a mountainous, landlocked country in Southeast Asia sandwiched between Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam. Traveling to Laos is easier than ever before, and yes, it's safe!

Laos was a French protectorate until 1953, however, as few as 600 French citizens lived in Laos by 1950. Even still, remnants of colonization remain in major towns. And similar to Vietnam, you'll still find French food, wine, and cute cafes.

The major stops along Laos' infamously winding Route 13 are solidly a part of the Banana Pancake Trail for backpacking travelers. Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang are especially popular, and for good reason.

Country Profile

  • Official Name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
  • Time: UTC + 7 (12 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time)
  • Country Phone Code: +856
  • Capital City: Vientiane (population 820,940 per 2015 census)
  • Population: 6.8 million (per 2015 estimate)
  • Primary Religion: Buddhism
  • Languages: Lao; French is still used and recognized in some places
  • Drives on the: Right

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 major land-border crossings. Prices for a visa are determined by your nationality and are listed in U.S. dollars. Although paying for the visa in Thai baht or other currencies is possible, you'll only receive a fair exchange rate if paying with U.S. dollars.

An ongoing scam at the Thai-Lao border is to insist that tourists need to use a visa agency. If you're crossing overland from Thailand, drivers may even take you directly to an "official office" just short of the actual crossing to process paperwork for a fee. You can avoid the hassle by completing the visa form, providing one passport photo, and paying the fee at the border yourself.

Safety in Laos

Laos is a single-party, socialist state. Although the young officers armed with shotguns and assault rifles patrolling the streets of Vientiane can be disconcerting, violent crime is pleasantly low in Laos. Like most countries in Southeast Asia, it's actually a very safe place to travel, provided you use the usual, basic diligence.

The biggest threats to safety during your time in Laos are vehicle accidents (especially if you drive scooters) and dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness that is epidemic in Southeast Asia.

Landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordinance) left over from different wars are sadly still a problem in Laos. As a traveler, you won't necessarily be at risk unless visiting off-the-beaten-path places. The area around the mysterious Plain of Jars, Laos' answer to Stonehenge, is one example of a tourist site still in the process of being cleared.

Note: The tap water is unsafe to drink in Laos.

Currency in Laos

The official currency in Laos is 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, so pay attention! When paying with U.S. dollars, you'll probably receive Lao kip back as change. Spend it before you leave; the currency is difficult to use or exchange outside of Laos.

You'll find ATM machines in major tourist areas throughout Laos. As in other countries in Southeast Asia, you should horde small change whenever possible. Use smaller denominations to pay for street food and services when someone is less likely to have change on hand.

You're going to need cash. Don't expect to use your credit card much outside of the hotel.

Tips for Laos Travel

  • The debate of how to correctly pronounce Laos rages on. Officially, the s should be pronounced with referring to the name of the country. Saying "Lao" is only technically correct when using the full name of the country or "Lao PDR."
  • Although exceptionally kind to visitors, the people in Laos are still recovering from decades of war and violence. Avoid bringing up issues that could cause uncomfortable conversation or evoke unhappy memories.
  • The water in Laos is considered unsafe to drink. Bottled water is available everywhere.

Crossing Overland

Laos can be entered overland from Thailand via the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge; trains run between Bangkok and Nong Khai, the border town.

Alternatively, you can cross into Laos overland through many other border points with Vietnam, Cambodia, and Yunnan, China. The border between Laos and Burma is typically closed to foreigners.

Flights to Laos

Most travelers 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 connections throughout Southeast Asia. Choosing which airport to use depends on your itinerary while in Laos.

The Best Times to Visit Laos

Laos receives the most rain during monsoon season between May and November. You can still enjoy Laos during the rainy season, however, many of the outdoor activities will be more difficult. Peak months for visitors are January and February. Heat and humidity build to suffocating levels between March and May.

Laos' national holiday, Republic Day, is on December 2; transportation and travel during the holiday are affected. In mid April, Songkran (the traditional New Year and water festival) is celebrated in parts of Laos. Be ready to get wet!

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