Facts for Travelers - Laos

As one of Asia’s best kept secrets this landlocked mountainous country remains relatively untouched by modern day tourism. This ancient ‘kingdom of a million elephants’ is a true experience for travelers, rewarding and captivating from the start, Laos is packed full of breathtaking scenery, rich cultural history, ancient temples and a diverse, warm and wonderful people.

Laos covers some 236,800 km2 with a north-south length of 1000 Km. The Annalistic mountain range crosses the north-west region while the Mekong river divides Laos with Thailand and Myanmar in the west. Navigable all year round, despite numerous reefs, the Mekong is the heart of the country with most of the arable land being along its banks.

Getting around
Air: Lao Airlines is the only domestic airline in Laos. The schedules are reliable but do check before flying as cancellations do occur. During the holiday season it’s best to book ahead.

Roads: Laos has 14,000 km of road, 80% of which are not asphalted this however is greatly improving. The North-South route: Luang Prabang – Vientiane – Pakse - Champasak is well maintained as is the transferral road leading to the Plain of Jars. As far as the rest are concerned...well its Paris to Dakar without TV and camels, an intrepid explorers paradise!!! Presently very few road maps are available whilst city maps are rare and uninformative. But take heart Laos is on the up, and striving to become more accessible for all, for further information, the "Carterie du Laos", is open every day from 8 am to 8 pm.

Rivers: The Mekong runs through the very heart of Laos, this mighty river and it’s many tributaries are the traditional highways and byways of Laos and boat excursions during your stay are a must.

May to October is the rainy season, the rain is not constant but suitable wet weather clothes would be advisable. November to May is the dry season and temperatures can reach the high 30’s and be very very humid. The winter can see temperatures in the North dropping to between 10 and 15C during the months of December, January and February.

Laos is the least populated country in S.E.Asia with only 6,000,000 inhabitants. The Northern regions of Laos claims around 80% of the population leaving the Southern regions relatively sparse.

The republic democratic people party of Laos came to power in 1975. The regime is a people’s democracy. The executive power is controlled by the president (currently Mr Juommaly Xayyasone) and elected by the national assembly for a 5 year period. The president is assisted by the prime minister who, in turn, is in charge of the ministry council. The legislative power, guarantor of the constitution, is held by the national assembly, which consists of 85 representative elected by the people a term of 5 years.

Buddhism: The main religion is Buddhism. Around 60% of the Lao people practice Theravada (of the "Small vehicle") a practice which spread through Laos between the 14th and 17th centuries based on the earliest teachings of Buddha. The ideal is to reach Nirvana without going through reincarnation. Buddhism is inherent in daily life here and a key influence on society and culture, so for the people of Lao doing good deeds rather than bad ensures salvation. The monks are held in very high esteem and treated with great respect. When entering a religious place, please observe the proper rules of dress. Ladies must wear a dress or suitably long skirt and shoulders should be covered. For men, wearing long pants is recommended. Shoes must be removed at the temple entrance. If you have to sit down avoid pointing your feet forward. If your joints allow it, fold your legs beneath you and keep your feet pointing towards your back.

Animist: In Laos Buddhism and animism exist side by side. The Lao people believe in "Phi" which means spirit, soul or ghost. Any Laotian will tell you about "Phi" who visits during your sleep. They are everywhere; good, bad, mischievous, in trees, animals, houses and people, it is the SE Asian version of a "genie". To protect themselves and show respect, people build a "genie house", a small alter which is placed in a precise spot, in front of the house or in the garden. The "house" is always sheltered from the sun and offerings of food and drinks are made to keep the spirit pacified.

Modest dress and behaviour is very important to Lao people, be discreet if you do not want to attract any unwanted attention. Lao people are generally quiet and gentle and shouting is something people find quite shocking and something they do not react well to. In Buddhism and in general Asian society, the head is very important to the soul and its purity and should not be touched by others. The feet walk on the earth and all that is deposited on it so raising your feet to head height or putting your feet on furniture or pointing with them is taken as a deliberate insult.

The official currency in Laos is Kip (symbol KN) 280 Kip for 1 Thai Baht. 9,400 Kip for 1 US Dollar. 12,240 Kip for 1 Euro. Banknotes of 500/ 1,000/ 2,000/ 10,000/ 20,000 and 50,000 are available. Thai Baht and US dollars are freely accepted in big towns, but less so in rural areas. So who will take your Euros? Banks are open from Monday to Friday from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm, as in Europe. Visa withdrawal comes with a charge of around 3% whilst most credit cards are accepted in high class hotels and a few shops and restaurants in Laos.

The national resources of Laos are limited and under exploited. The largest economy is agriculture which provides a living for 80% of the population. The principal crop is rice but corn, tobacco, cotton and coffee are also grown. Livestock is generally concentrated around cattle, buffalo and pigs.

Visa requirements
You can get a visa on arrival at most fo the borders with the exception of the Cambodian border at Voen Kham.

Vientiane and the rest of country is a relatively safe place however a little common sense and caution should be applied. For example, do not leave bags unattended or hotel rooms unlocked. Although minor crimes such as pick pocketing are rare, they can ruin your trip so be vigilante. For motorbikes, always wear a helmet, even if it’s hot.

The health situation has improved significantly over the last few years although there is still a lot to do. Problems can be treated in a number of Vientiane hospitals (Mahosot, Setthathrirat and the international clinic) or in hospitals or dispensaries in the provinces. In serious cases or for practical reasons (insurance coverage for instance) you may prefer to be treated in Thailand at Nong Khai, Udon Thani or Khon Kaen which will save you a trip to Bangkok.

Medical advice
It is recommended you seek medical advice in your own country on any immunisations you may need before you travel to Laos. The medical system in Laos is improving but still very basic compared to Western standards. Travel insurance to cover any medical costs etc is strongly recommended.

Local time
Laos is 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. Thus 12 noon in Vientiane is 1am in New York, 5am in London and 6am in Paris.

Working hours
Government offices and banks are generally open Monday to Friday from 8.00 – 11.00 am and 13.30 – 16.00 pm. Shops and private businesses are usually open longer.