Laos visas are required of all visitors coming into the country, with a few exceptions. Tourist visas may be obtained in three ways:
- From a Laos embassy or consulate near you. The address of the Lao Embassy in the US is: 2222 S St. NW, Washington, DC 20008.
- Visa on arrival at one of three points of entry: the airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang, or at the Friendship Bridge bordering Thailand and Vientiane. Visitors must provide passport photographs on arrival.
- Through a tour company under contract with the Lao government.
Visa requirements. Your passport must be valid for at least six months after your arrival, with a blank page for your visa stamp. The visitor must provide two passport-sized photos, US$30 for visa stamp fees, and show a return or onward ticket.
Visa extensions. Extensions of 30 days' duration may be obtained at the Bureau of Immigration on Lane Xang Avenue, Vientiane.
Customs regulations. Visitors may bring these items duty-free: 500 cigarettes, 100 cigars, or 500 grams of tobacco; 2 bottles of wine; 1 bottle of other alcoholic beverages; and personal jewelry up to 500 grams in weight. Currency worth $2,000 or more must be declared on arrival.
Carrying antiques out of Laos is prohibited - any such items found on your person will be confiscated. Antiques purchased outside of Laos must be declared on arrival.
Departure tax. $10. Exemptions for children under 2 years of age and transit passengers.
Health & Immunizations
Laos' health infrastructure is shoddy at best, so visitors need to take all necessary precautions before flying in. A few Vientiane hospitals are adequately equipped to treat non-life-threatening injuries and diseases:
Mother & Child Hospital
Phone: +856-21-351156, +856-21-351158
Metapap (Friendship Hospital)
Phone: +856-21-710006 ext. 141
Note: Metapap is a qualified trauma hospital, best equipped for injuries like fractures
If something really serious happens, you will have to leave the country. The U.S. Embassy in Laos' Medical Information page recommends two hospitals in Thailand, close to the border:
AEK International Hospital
Udorn Thani, Thailand
Nong Khai Wattana Hospital
Nong Khai, Thailand
In the most severe cases, you may be airlifted out of the country. Visitors should get health insurance that covers air evacuation. (More on that in this article: Travel Insurance in Southeast Asia.)
Immunizations. No specific immunizations are required, but you should get a few just in case: a cholera vaccination certificate is encouraged, and malaria is a constant risk throughout the whole country. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from visitors arriving from infected areas.
Other diseases you may want to cover with immunizations are typhoid, tetanus, hepatitis A and B, polio and tuberculosis.
For more specific health issues in Cambodia, you can visit the Center for Disease Control website, or MDTravelHealth.com's page on Laos.
Laos' official currency is the Kip: you'll find it in denominations of 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, and 50,000. The kip is inconvertible outside of Laos - make sure to exchange at the airport before you go!
US dollars and Thai baht are commonly accepted in urban areas, while more remote places will accept only kip.
Laos' banks include Banque pour le Commerce Exterier Lao (BCEL), Sethathirath Bank, Nakornluang Bank, Joint Development Bank, and some Thai banks. BCEL and a few other local banks now have ATMs, mostly concentrated in Vientiane with a few others in Luang Prabang, Savanneket, Pakse, and Tha Khaek. The maximum withdrawable amount is 700,000 kip. ATMs accept MasterCard, Maestro, and Cirrus.
Traveler's checks and credit cards can be used at major banks, hotels, restaurants, and shops, but are rarely accepted outside the regular tourist circuit.
Some travel agents and guest houses will let you take out an advance from your credit card for a fee averaging about $3.
Lao law shares the draconian attitude to drugs common in Southeast Asia.
Crime is relatively rare in Laos, but sneak theft and bag snatching have been known to happen. Mind your belongings in public spaces and tourist areas.
Landmines are common near the border with Vietnam. Visitors must never stray off the known paths, and travel with a local guide.
The judicial system is soft in Laos and weighted against the average tourist. Avoid any drug use (punishable by death), criticism of the government, or sexual relations with a Lao citizen (absolutely illegal, unless you're married to that citizen).
Laos has a rainy season between May and October, with a cool, dry season from November to March and a hot summer from March to May.
November-March: The cool, dry season the best time to visit Laos, as temperatures are cooler (especially up north), humidity is lower, and the roads and rivers are in prime shape for travel. Temperatures in the lowlands can drop to around 59°F (15°C), and highlands can experience temperatures as low as 32°F (0°C).
March-May: The hot, dry summer season is just about the worst time to visit. Rice farmers set fire to their dried-up croplands to set the ground for the next planting, enveloping the land in an ugly smoky haze. Temperatures can go as high as 95°F (35°C) during this time.
May-October: the rainy monsoon season brings daily downpours lasting a few hours. Floods and landslides make many areas impassable this time of year. On the other hand, the Mekong's slow boats come into their own during the rainy season.
What to wear. Bring a light jacket during the peak season, especially if you're headed north or to the highlands. For any other time of year, wear light cotton clothes and a hat to beat the heat. When visiting temples, dress conservatively and wear shoes that can easily be taken off.
Getting to Laos
No direct flights exist between Laos and the USA or Europe. Incoming flights come from Thailand, China, and Cambodia.
Laos has three international airports: Wattay Airport (VTE) in Vientiane, Luang Prabang (LPQ), and Pakse (PKZ). Flag carrier Lao Airlines serves all three airports.
Wattay is now serviced by regional airlines like Thai Airways and Air Asia. Bangkok Airways services Luang Prabang, while Pakse serves flights to and from Siem Reap via Lao Airlines.
Vientiane's location on the Thai-Lao border means you can fly to nearby Udon Thani in Thailand and cross overland to Laos over the Friendship Bridge.
Laos may be entered via several overland crossings:
- Nong Khai to Vientiane, over the First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Visa on arrival available.
- Mukdahan to Savannakhet, over the Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Visa on arrival available.
- Chong Mek to Ban Mai Sing Amphon. No visa on arrival, pre-arranged visa required upon entry.
- Vinh to Kaew Neua. No visa on arrival, pre-arranged visa required upon entry.
- Da Nang to Lao Bao. No visa on arrival, pre-arranged visa required upon entry.
- Mengla in Yunnan province to Boten, Luang Nam Tha. No visa on arrival, pre-arranged visa required upon entry.
There are no official tourist crossings between Cambodia and Laos at this time. Travel into Myanmar is strictly prohibited.
Laos may be entered by ferry from Chiang Kong, Thailand to Huay Xai. A 15-day visa on arrival can be obtained at the crossing.
Getting around Laos
Lao Airlines has daily flights from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Oudomsay in the north, and Pakse and Savannakhet in the south. There are less frequent flights from Vientiane to the northern towns of Luang Namtha, Houayxai, Sayabouli, and Samneua.
It's almost impossible to book a flight from outside Laos unless you've signed up with a tour program. In fact, it's best to let a travel operator deal with Lao Airlines instead of booking your flight yourself.
Westcoast Helicopters operates chartered helicopter flights out of Wattay Airport in Vientiane.
Buses in Laos are a jury-rigged affair, many "buses" being nothing more than converted pickup trucks. Fares can be quite low, but schedules are quite erratic.
This is the best way to see how the ordinary Lao lives - bus routes connect Laos' major cities and towns, meaning you share your seat with all sorts of Lao folk, many carrying their wares to market.
Taxis are abundant in Vientiane, especially at the Friendship Bridge, Wattay Airport, and the Morning Market. You can charter one for a $20 all-day rate, or let your hotel arrange for a taxi charter themselves - the former is cheaper than the latter.
Two main ferry routes travel up and down the Mekong: Vientiane/Luang Prabang, and Luang Prabang/Huay Xai. The length of the trip depends on the season, the direction of the ferry, and your choice between the slow ferries (hot, cramped) and speedboats (noisy, dangerous).
There are several companies that run a jet boat charter service with international safety standards. Boats have hi-frequency radio communications and IDD phones built in, and passengers are given life jackets and sun hats. The boats are available for hire, charter, or long-term lease.
Tuk-tuks are modified motorcycle taxis. (Tuk-tuk - definition, usage) These are very commonplace in Lao urban areas, particularly at bus stations, markets, and border crossings. Tuk-tuks can be chartered for personal use - haggle with your driver for an acceptable fare.
Motorcycles can be rented at Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Like the U.S., Laos' roads are right-handed. Traffic tends to be a lot less organized, though, so get the appropriate insurance (see Travel Insurance in Southeast Asia) and drive with care.
By rented car
There are few established car rental agencies in Laos; the most well-established one is Asia Vehicle Rental. However, it's far safer to have your hotel rent a car with a driver included.
Many hotels and guesthouses in Vientiane rent out bicycles for their guests. Bicycles can also be rented at Luang Prabang.