Laos only really opened its doors to tourism about 15 years ago and remains one of the least explored and enigmatic countries in the world. While Laos has abundant natural and cultural attractions, it is the people that make this destination so special and spending time in Laos is as much about soaking up the unique atmosphere as sightseeing in the traditional sense. Lovely Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane are the most popular destinations in Laos, but trekking areas in the north and the laid-back south are emerging as areas to keep visitors in the country for longer. Hotels have improved in popular visitor centres, while infrastructure is also improving steadily, making a trip to this hidden kingdom easier than ever before. Visit the land of a million elephants before there are millions of tourists.
Geography & Climate
Landlocked Laos covers 235,000 sq km and shares borders with China to the north, Vietnam to the East, Cambodia to the south and Thailand and Myanmar to the west. The climate in Laos is characterised by three distinct seasons. The rainy season of the south-west monsoon extends from June to November. It is followed by a short, cool dry period from November to January, which develops into a hot dry season from February through May. Average daytime temperatures generally range from 25C to 30C, but can drop to 10C in the mountainous areas of the country in the north. Local Time Local time is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) plus seven hours. Health Precautions No vaccinations are required for entry into Laos. However, it is recommended that all visitors be innoculated against typhoid, tetanus, and hepatitis A and B. It is not wise to drink tap water. Prescription drugs are available in urban areas. Precautions against malaria, such as doxycycline or larium, are are recommended when visiting most parts of the country. Travellers should consult their doctor before leaving for Laos.
Since the revolution of 1975 which overthrew the monarchy, Laos has been called the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and has been governed according to the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. There is no opposition in Laos and the party remains strongly influenced by the Vietnamese. However, economic reforms have been adopted in the last decade or more and it won’t really feel like a communist country to the average visitor.
Laos at a Glance
|Area:||235,000 sq km|
|Local Time:||GMT +7 hrs|
|Int. Tel. Code:||+856|
Population and People
The population of Laos is about six million, which means Laos has one of the lowest population densities in the Southeast Asia region. Lao make up 50 percent of the population, while a huge number of other ethnic groups make up the rest. They include a diversity of groups known as Lao Thai, related to the Thai minorities, Lao Theung, mainly Mon-Khmer peoples thought to have inhabited the area before the other groups, and the Lao Sung, who live at elevations above 1000m and only migrated here in the last century. There are also sizeable Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and Khmer communities.
The national language of Laos is Lao, as spoken and written in the capital Vientiane. Thai and Lao are mutually intelligible, although the script is different. English is the first language among young students, while French is spoken by some of the older generation.
About 60% of the population follows Theravada Buddhism. It is enhanced by traditional animist beliefs and spirit worship that were popular before Buddhism and remain the pre-dominant faith among minority groups in Laos. Buddhism is believed to have arrived in Laos in the late 13th or early 14th centuries and probably arrived through Cambodia which controlled much of Laos at that time. Buddhism became the state religion under the first of the Lan Xang monarchs, the great King Fa Ngum in 1356 AD, who symbolically accepted the Pha Bang Buddha image from his Khmer father-in-law Jayavarman. Buddhism was slow to spread through Laos due to a belief in spirits among many of the Lao highland minorities, but finally began to be regularly taught from the 17th century. Therevada Buddhism, as practised in Laos and much of mainland South-East Asia, is believed by its followers to be a purer form of buddhism than its Mahayana counterpart from Tibet. According to the four noble truths of Therevada Buddhism, all life is suffering and that suffering is caused by desire. The way out of suffering is to eliminate desire by following the eight-fold path. The eight fold path is a code of ethics for life and consists of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. The eventual goal for all Buddhists is nirvana or the elimination of all suffering, extinction and an end to the cycle of reincarnation.
Food & Drink
Most visitors will find Lao cuisine to be similar to that of neighbouring Thailand. Freshwater fish is a popular part of most Lao diets, while in remote areas wild animals are more likely to be part of the diet than domestic animals. Local specialities include laap, a salad of minced meat, lime juice, garlic, green onions, mint and chillies. Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food is also widely available, as is a range of western cuisine in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Beerlao is the national drink and dominates the local market. It has a cult following among backpackers travelling in Southeast Asia. Lao coffee has an excellent reputation among coffee connoisseurs. Grown on the highlands of the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos, it commands some of the world’s highest prices on the global market.
All urban areas have minimum electricity (220 volts). Most sockets found in hotels are French style two-pin. Power cuts are common.
Laos offers a limited range of handicrafts when compared with neighbouring Thailand, but Lao textiles are among the most accomplished in the region. Different minority groups produce different patterns and items can be bought as clothing, tablecloths or bags. Carvings in wood or stone are popular depicting scenes from Hindu or Buddhist mythology, as well a intricately carved opium pipes, although make sure these not of ivory. Some Asian antiquities are available in the visitor centres, , including Buddha images, but officially there is a ban on the export of these items so do not invest too much in any one item.
There are several international gateways to Laos. Wattay International Airport serves the capital of Vientiane and Luang Prabang International Airport acts as a newly popular gateway to the north. In the south, both Pakse and Savannakhet have limited international connections. Airlines currently servicing Laos include flag carrier Lao Airlines, as well as Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Siem Reap Airways, Yunnan Airlines and Vietnam Airlines. Direct flights to Vientiane are available from Bangkok, Chang Mai, Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kunming and Singapore. Luang Prabang is connected to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Siem Reap, but more routes are expected soon.
Domestic flights are available between Vientiane and a number of provincial destinations. Most popular is Luang Prabang, but it is also possible to fly to Xieng Khuang, Oudomxai, Luang Namtha, Huayxai, Samneua, Savannakhet and Pakse. Luang Prabang is connected to Xieng Khuang and Luang Namtha.
US$10 for international flights from Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet.
Passports & Visas
Laos issues 30-day tourist visas on arrival at all international airports and land borders. For land borders, visas are currently available at all border crossings shared with Thailand and Cambodia, but not at all land borders shared with Vietnam. With sufficient notice, Hanuman can arrange a Lao visa to be issued in Vietnam or Cambodia for onward travel into Laos. Visas on arrival cost US$30 to US$47 in US dollars, depending on nationality, plus two passport-sized photographs. However, regulations and prices change regularly, so it’s worth checking online with the nearest Lao embassy before pitching up to some remote border.
The Kip is the used as the official currency of Laos (US $1 = 8000K), but US dollars and Thai Baht are widely accepted. Some hotels and restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang accept international credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard. ATMs are still quite a rarity, although most major towns have at least one. Daily cash withdrawal limits are quite low by international standards.
Festivals & Public Holidays
The Lao calendar is a mix of solar and lunar, the year reckoned by sun and the months by moon, unlike western countries where it is the sun alone.