Formerly one of three French Indo-Chinese states, Laos is slowly becoming a tourist hotspot. With the new and well-equipped Luang Prabang airport now catering to direct flight from Chiang Mai in Thailand this recent trend can only continue. While still not as developed as some of its Asian neighbours there has been a slow but steady build up of tourist related facilities and infrastructure. There are now enough amenities to make travelling to Laos accessible for non-adventure types but equally huge swathes of the country are untouched and visited by relatively few travellers. While there be sure to take advantage of this fact as Laos will not remain immune to the hordes of tacky tourist traps forever. It is no exaggeration to say that there has never been a better time to visit Laos.
There are some security risks to be aware of when travelling in Laos particularly concerning the Xaysombourne Special Zone, travel to and around this area is advised against. There is also a risk of banditry which is most pronounced in the north of the country. It is recommended that you only travel in rural areas during day light and the you exercise caution.
- Currency: Laotian New Kip (Kp) = 100 cents
- Time Zone: GMT + 7
- Language: Laotion although French, English and Vietnamese are also spoken
- Telephone Services: Country code +856, Direct dialling is not available
- Emergency Numbers: Not present
Laos benefits from a relatively predictable and tropical climate, complete with the associated temperatures. There is a monsoon season between May and October and a dry season from November to April. Throughout the year expect hot weather with slightly chillier climates in areas of high altitude. Lightweight cotton clothes are advised with at least one sweater for travel to upland areas.
Things to see and do
The capital of Laos is the city of Vientiane, situated on the banks of the River Mekong the city is home to plenty of temples, shrines, monuments and markets. The biggest tourist attraction is probably the Wat Pha Kaew or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This 16th century former royal temple is now a museum and houses a collection of Buddha statues from throughout Asia. The other must-see temple is the Wat Sisaket which is the oldest temple in Vientiane. It also houses a museum of its own with a very modest entry fee off 1000 Kip, this is under 10p in British money. There is also a magnificent triumphal arch called the Anousavari Monument which was built in 1962 to commemorate the lives of people who died defending Laos. Also of interest is the Lao National Museum, the cultural hall and the forested enclave containing the Wat Sokpaluang temple.
The city of Luand Prabang is often quoted as the jewel of Laos. This tiny city houses just 16,000 inhabitants and has been virtually unaffected by the gradual creep of Western culture across Asia. The main tourist attractions are its literally dozens of historic temples. The Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Wisunlat temples are in particular worth visiting. Within half an hours drive are the Pak Ou caves which contain hundreds of Buddha images and the impressive Kuang Si waterfalls south of the city.
If you are looking for something a little different then you will no doubt be fascinated by the Laos "Plain of Jars". This area is situated in the Xieng Khuang province and is littered with enormous stone jars in five major groupings. These jars are of unknown origin but comparison with local rock indicates that they did not originate in the area. The most accessible site is Thong Hai Hin which is set up to deal with tourists and is also the site of the largest 6 and a half tonne jar.
There are only two methods of travel in Laos, along the river in a variety of boat tours ranging from standard ferries to speedboats or by road. River travel is somewhat expensive and the ferries are notoriously slow so most travellers opt for overland travel. Buses now link all of the provinces and major cities but the standards can vary dramatically from converted pick-ups right through to modern coaches. Services are run by private individuals and as a result there is no real central resource for information on bus routes. The best bet is to ask for advice from your hotel or hostel staff. Many people opt to hire a car in order to get around Laos, it is not recommended to drive yourself since the driving style is somewhat hazardous for those not used to it. However agencies such as Asia Vehicle Rental Co Ltd are able to supply hire vehicles with a local driver.
Tourist accommodation is somewhat sparse in Laos, in the major cities such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng there is a modest number of good hotels available. Elsewhere it can be difficult to find accommodation, there are generally a selection of village hostels and guesthouses but it is advisable to contact a tour operator with experience in Laos to help you arrange accommodation or simply for advice.
Recently the Laos governments has built "ecolodges" in Laopako, Nam Mgum and Luang Namtha in a bid to encourage eco-tourism to the country. These lodges are specially constructed to have as little impact on the environment as possible and are open to visitors all year.
Outside of Vientiane healthcare is practically non-existent. Even in the capital the standard of treatments is basic at best and you will normally have to pay in cash before being treated. Costs of repatriation or air evacuation are extremely high and may be necessary should you require emergency medical treatment. For this reason it is essential that you have adequate travel insurance for the duration of your stay in Laos.
Vaccinations are recommended for typhoid and polio, these can be obtained from your local GP for around £40. Cholera is also present in the country and you should seek advice from your GP regarding relevant vaccinations. Malaria is also present in the country including strains resistant to chloroquine, you should seek your GP's advice on what anti-malaria treatment to carry with you.
The water is unsafe to drink and all water used for consumption or washing should have been boiled or otherwise sterilised before use. Dairy products are un-pasteurised and should be avoided. Fruits and vegetables should be washed, peeled and where possible cooked before consumption. Meat should be thoroughly cooked and where possible eaten hot.
Asia Vehicle Rental Co Ltd are able to supply hire vehicles with a local driver.