Defined by the mighty Mekong River, awe-inspiring mountainous regions, 16th-century Buddhist temples and colonial architectures, Laos promises a fascinating allure of both natural and human-made wonders.
Cut off from the sea, the hidden country of Laos is often forgotten by travelers, not by lack of beauty but by the lack of self-promotion. Relatively untouched by tourism, Laos has maintained its laid-back way of living and pristine attractions. Get ready for an adventure of a lifetime from the highland tribes in the far North, historical temples and French colonial buildings at Luang Prabang and Vientiane, to Southern Laos where the Mekong River awakens into mighty rapids.
Most nationalities could enter Laos with a visa on arrival. People from other ASEAN nations, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Switzerland could get in without a visa. You can fly into Laos from other ASEAN countries at the two main international airports in the capital city, Vientiane, and further North at Luang Prabang. Southern Laos is accessible by plane at Pakse Airport from Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Most overland borders are open for crossing and you can take a train from Thailand to Tha Naleng near Vientiane.
The local currency is the Laotian Kip (LAK) and though you may sometimes use Thai Baht, US Dollars or Euros to make purchases in touristy areas, they are quite often at an unfavourable rate. Currency exchanges can be done in banks and money exchange booths but only within the main cities.
Many ATMs in Vientiane accept foreign credit cards and merchants in touristy areas welcome the use of credit cards for purchases. However, it will be almost impossible to pay with anything other than in Kip outside of large cities. Cash withdrawal at ATMs and the use of credit cards are also limited by network problems, power outages and the skills of the service provider. Therefore, it is always recommended to have enough Kip with you while traveling within Laos.
The official language, Lao, is widely spoken across the entire nation. Thanks to its similarities to the Thai language, most locals can understand Thai fairly well. Although not very proficient, local youngsters can generally speak a basic level of English and may even attempt to strike up a conversation in English for their school assignment. However, if you intend to travel to remote areas of the country, it might be handy to pick up a few expressions in Lao.
As a tropical country, the year is divided into the wet and dry season in Laos. The wet season runs from May to October and sometimes, heavy rainfall may cause the Mekong River to flood. Unlike other parts of Southeast Asia, the weather in the landlocked Laos, particularly up North, can be rather temperamental. You may experience scorching heat one day (up to 40°C) while cold and wet (as low as 15 °C or 0°C in the mountains) the next.
With heavy influences from Thailand, Lao cuisines tend to be spiced with fresh herbs and fiery hot chillies. Rice is the staple food and is often charmingly served inside a basket. Apart from local eats, it is very common to encounter other types of cuisine like French baguettes stuffed with pâté and Chinese noodles. One of the very few good beers from Southeast Asia, Beer Lao is cheap and flavourful, providing a refreshing break during a hot day and snakes, not for the faint of heart.
Traveling in Laos
Relatively underdeveloped in tourism, getting around Laos can be challenging. Domestic flights are prone to delays, cancellations, and highly dependent on the weather. Asphalt roads connect the major cities which allow transfers by buses and converted lorries, but most other roads are unpaved. Traveling by boat on the Mekong River is only possible during the wet season but not when it is flooded.
For short distances, there are many quirky transportation options available. Carts pulled by bicycles or motorcycles, lorries with bench seating in the back and tuk-tuks are often adorned in vibrant colours.
Although tourism in Laos has been gaining traction the past years, this charming destination has preserved its traditional cultures in many ways. Easy going, pleasant and beautiful, Laos will easily win over the hearts of its visitors.