Introduction

Laos, land of a million elephants

The Lao People's Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR, is a country that moves to its own measure of time. Life flows along at a languid pace which mirrors the waters of the Mekong River that flows through the country. Towns are less hectic than elsewhere in Asia and the countryside is a rare combination of beauty and tranquillity.

Compared to the rest of Indochina, Laos remained largely hidden to the rest of the world for much for the 20th Century. Visitors today encounter an unfussed society with a strong spiritual tradition where the cacophonies of the modern world seem irrelevant.
Despite increased international interest, Laos remains the undiscovered gem of Asia. This landlocked nation of six million people exudes a delightful, almost other-worldly, charm and reminds visitors of a simpler, less harried past.

Destinations
Travel tips
  • Traditional culture in Laos has been heavily influenced by various strains of Khmer, Vietnamese and Thai cultures. The lowland Lao share the same ancestry as many Thai tribes, so the similarities between Lao and Thai culture are especially strong. This can be seen in Lao sculpture, classical music, dance-dramas and cuisine. Lao folk music is more indigenous, based around the khaen (a double row of bamboo reeds fitted into a hardwood sound box). Folk music is often accompanied by dancing or bawdy theatre. The focus of most traditional art has been primarily religious and includes wats (temples), stupas and several distinctively Lao representations of Buddha. The Lao remain skilful carvers and weavers, but traditional arts such as silversmiths and goldsmiths are in decline.

  • JANUARY / FEBRUARY

    BOUN PHA VET

    Boun Pha Vet is an important religious festival in which the ‘jataka’ or birth story of Prince Vestsantara, the Buddha’s penultimate life, is recited in temples throughout the country. It is considered a particularly auspicious time (second only to Khao Phansaa) for ordination as a monk. The festival falls on a number of different dates throughout the month so that people can exchange invitations with friends and families in different villages to join in their celebrations.

    MARHA PUHA (MAKKA BUSA)

    This festival, held on the night of the full moon, commemorates a speech given by Buddha to 1,250 enlightened monks who came to hear him without prior summons. In his sermon, the Buddha laid down the first monastic regulations and predicted his own death. Chanting and offerings mark the festival, culminating in the candlelit circumambulation of wats (temples) throughout the country. The festival is celebrated most fervently in Vientiane and at the Khmer ruins of Wat Phu, near Champasak and is marked by grand parades of candle-bearing worshippers circling their local temples, merit-making and much religious music and chanting.

    VIETNAMESE/CHINESE NEW YEAR

    Vietnamese Tet and the Chinese Lunar New Year are predominantly celebrated in Vientiane, Pakse and Savannakhet with parties and strings of non-stop firecrackers, as well as general merriment, boisterous parties and visits to Vietnamese and Chinese temples by the Lao, Vietnamese and Chinese communities. In addition, these communities close their businesses for several days during this period.

    WAT PHU FESTIVAL

    Originally built at the base of a sacred mountain, Wat Phu is one of Laos’ most ancient and important archeological wonders. Its grand processional causeway, which leads to a steep ascent to mountain temples, may have inspired the entrance to Angkor Wat. The wat or temple is located near Champassak in southern Laos and dates back to the 8th century. Each February, pilgrims from all over Laos come here to leave offerings and engage in various competitions including elephant racing and bull fighting as well as performances of traditional Lao music and dance. A trade fair showcasing products from southern Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam is also held. At the same time, both Vientiane and Wat Phu host the Makka Busao Festival which commemorates a speech given by the Buddha to 1,250 enlightened monks who came to hear him without prior summons. Chanting and offerings mark the festival, culminating in grand parades of candle-bearing worshippers circling the temples, accompanied by much religious music and chanting.

    APRIL / MAY

    PIMAI LAO (LAO NEW YEAR)

    Boun Pimai or Pimai Lao is one of the most important annual festivals, particularly in Luang Prabang, and is a celebration to welcome the Lao New Year. The first month of the Lao New Year is actually December but festivities are delayed until April when the days are longer and the weather warmer. This is particularly advantageous when hoses are leveled at you and buckets of water dumped upon you! Pimai Lao is a combination of merriment and meditation. Similar to other regional festivals at this time of year, especially in Thailand, Pimai Lao is celebrated with parades, circle dances (ramwong), traditional Lao folk singing (mor lam) and enthusiastic water-throwing. The religious aspects of the festival are most apparent in Luang Prabang, where water pouring ceremonies are used to worship Buddha statues. Temple compounds are further decorated with small sand Stupas, offered in the hope of attaining good fortune and good health. The New Year begins in mid-April and practically the entire country comes to a halt and celebrates. Houses are cleaned, people put on new clothes and Buddha images are cleaned. This festival is particularly picturesque in Luang Prabang, where it includes elephant processions.

    BOUN BANG FAI

    Boun Bang Fai is a rocket festival with ancient origins and pre-dating Buddhism itself. The aim of the festival is to invoke rain. Large bamboo rockets are built and decorated by monks and carried in a procession before being blasted skywards to invite the rains. The higher a rocket goes, the larger its builder’s ego. Designers of failed rockets are unceremoniously thrown into puddles of mud! Parades, songs, dances and partying take place everywhere. This dramatic festival lasts 2 days and is also celebrated in northeast Thailand.

    JUNE / JULY

    KHAO PHANSA (Commencement of Buddhist lent)

    Khao Phansa, also known as Khao Watsa marks the beginning of the traditional 3 month "rain retreat" during which Buddhist monks are expected to station themselves in a single monastery. At other times of year they are allowed to travel from wat to wat or simply to wander in the countryside, but during the rainy season they forego the wandering so as not to damage rice fields or other crops. Khao Phansa begins with the July full moon and ends with the full moon in October with the Kathin ceremony where monks receive gifts. These are the most normally the most common months for ordination and for men to enter the monasteries for short periods before they marry and is marked by numerous ordination ceremonies.

    AUGUST / SEPTEMBER

    BOUN HAW KHAO PADAP DIN

    Haw Khao Padap Din is devoted to remembering and paying respect to the dead. It is marked by the macabre ceremony of exhuming previously buried bodies, cleaning the remains, and then cremating them on the night of the full moon. Relatives then present gifts to the monks who have chanted on behalf of those who have passed away.

    BOAT RACING FESTIVAL (LUANG PRABANG)

    This festival is organized in Luang Prabang and includes boat racing on the Nam Khane River and a trade fair in Luang Prabang. On the Khao Salak ceremony day, people visit local temples to make offerings to the dead as well to participate in merit making activities.

    OCTOBER

    BOUN AWK PHANSA (AWK WATSA) (End of Buddhist lent)

    This celebrates the end of the three-month rain retreat on the day of the full moon. Monks are at last permitted to leave the temple and are presented with robes, alms bowls and other requisites of the renunciative life. One particularly beautiful aspect is Lai Hua Fai. On the eve of Awk Phansaa, people gather at the nearest body of water to release dozens of small banana-leaf boats decorated with candles, incense and small flowers in a celebration similar to the Thai Loy Krathong.

    BOAT RACING FESTIVAL (VIENTIANE)

    The water festival held during awk Pansa is spectacular, on the first day at dawn, donations and offerings are made at temples around the city. In the evening, candlelight processions are held around the temples and hundreds of colorful floats are decorated with flowers. Incense and candles are set adrift down the Mekong River to give thanks to the river spirit. The next day, a popular and exciting boat racing competition is held on the Mekong.

    NOVEMBER / DECEMBER

    BOUN THAT LUANG

    Though celebrated at many temples and stupas (wats in Laos) around the country, this festival is traditionally centered and most enthusiastic and colorful at That Luang in Vientiane. Fairs, beauty contests, music and fireworks take place throughout the week of the full moon. The festivities draw to a close with a candlelight procession (Wien thien) around the temple of That Luang.

  • MEDICAL FACILITIES

    It is recommended that visitors bring a basic travel first-aid kit with band-aids, anti-infection creams, mosquito repellant, anti-diarrhea tablets, and the like. Guests should also bring any prescription or over-the-counter drugs they may need. There are internationally-run emergency medical clinics in Vientiane.

    HOSPITAL CONTACTS 

    An International medical clinic is operated by Mahosot Hospital, situated on the Bank of the Mekong River on Fa Ngum Road. It is open 24 hours and has the following emergency numbers:

    Australian clinic emergency contact

    Tel: +856 (0)21 413 603

    International clinic emergency contact

    Tel: +856 (0)21 214 022

    The Australian and Swedish Embassies each operate up-to-date medical clinics, primarily for embassy staff. However, consultation, and/or treatment of non-embassy staff is undertaken, with payment as prescribed. However, if the circumstances warrant, treatment may be refused.

  • The unit of currency in Laos is the Kip (LAK) which is available in 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, 500, 100 and 50 Kip notes. U.S. Dollars, Thai Baht and the local currency are all accepted currencies. The exchange rate for US$ 1 is approximately 8,000. Travelers’ cheques and credit cards are accepted in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. If you are traveling to other places please ensure you have enough hard currency. Most major hotels and restaurants accept Visa and MasterCard (but not American Express) credit cards.

    ATMs are now available in Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Pakse.

  • The General Post Office (GPO) is beside the Morning Market in Vientiane. Normal mail service is inexpensive and generally reliable, however for urgent or valuable mail (either to or from Laos) EMS or courier service is recommended.

    International telephone calls, fax and e-mail access are all available in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

    Internet service is easy to find in most cities. Visitors are able to access the internet at hotels, internet cafes and other access points. Get useful information from these popular and reliable websites: www.vientianetimes.org.la (Vientiane Times), www.lerenovateur.org.la (French language Newspaper) www.vientianemai.net (Vientiane Mai), www.laocustoms.lapdr.net (Laos Customs), www.lnmcmekong.org (Lao National Mekong Committee), www.laoembassy.com (Lao Embassy).

  • Laos is a relatively safe destination. In almost all cases the Laotian people regard tourists with the highest level of respect as guests in their country. However petty theft and pick pockets do exist. It is certainly not something to be concerned about but you should be aware of your surroundings.

    You should therefore ensure that all bags have sturdy locks. Place all valuables, including passport and air tickets in the in-room safe at hotels or at the front desk. It is best not to bring expensive jewelry or watches to Laos. Do not carry unnecessarily large amounts of cash with you at any time.

    Emergency Contacts

    + Emergency Tel: 41-2536 (Police of Prefecture)
    + Tourist Police: 021-251-128 (only for incidents involving tourists).

  • VISA & CUSTOMS

    A visa is required for entry into Lao PDR. A regular tourist visa is valid for up to 30 days, and may be issued upon arrival at Vientiane's Wattay Airport for $18.00-42.00 US (depending on the passport holder’s nationality. Visas can be obtained on arrival at the airport immigration counter without asking for an approval letter in advance. Please provide 2 color photos the same size in your passport photo and your passport must be valid at least 6 months in order to obtain a Lao visa.

    For those wishing to extend their stay, it is possible to extend your visa at the Immigration Office in Vientiane or through travel agencies.

    It is also possible to obtain a Visa-on-Arrival at the following international checkpoints for tourist visa validity for 14-30 days in Laos: The following are border entry gates to Laos.

    CUSTOMS

    If you have purchased silver or antiques in neighboring countries, it is recommended you declare them at customs to avoid problems on departure. Importing firearms and drugs is strictly forbidden.

    Antiques such as Buddha images and other old cultural artifacts are prohibited to be taken out of Laos. If you have already traveled in neighboring countries, you are advised to declare your valuable items at customs to prevent any inconvenience upon departure. If you buy silver or copper items in Laos it is required to pay custom duties according to weight at the airport.

    CUSTOMS REGULATIONS

    Entry: Visitors should make sure that they complete immigration and customs formalities when they enter Laos. Visitors are authorized to bring the following items: 500 cigarettes, 100 cigars or 500g of tobacco, 1 liter of alcohol or two bottles of wine and an unlimited amount of cash, all for personal use, into Laos without taxation or penalty.

    Laos does not allow visitors import drugs, weapons, explosives or pornography.

    Important note: Drug smuggling carries severe penalties in Laos. Most convictions lead to life in prison or the death sentence.

    Exit: If visitors purchase silver or copper items during their stay, they might be required to pay duty upon exiting Laos, according to the weight of the items. Antiques, especially Buddha images or parts thereof, are not permitted to leave the country. Please declare your items to customs prior to departure.

    VISA APPLICATION FORM

    The passenger hands the completed application form with a photo and the passport to an officer. Once approved, the passport will be stamped and the passenger pays the visa fee.

    IMMIGRATION

    At immigration, the passenger presents their passport and immigration card. From there, passengers proceed to the luggage belt then continue on towards customs.

    CUSTOMS (ARRIVAL)

    The customs officer will check the completed customs form and the passport. Once he has stamped the form, the passenger will proceed towards the x-ray machine. After passing the entire luggage (including hand luggage, handbags, etc.) through the machine the passenger will be picked up by our guide.

    CUSTOMS (DEPARTURE)

    If you have purchased silver or antiques in neighboring countries, it is recommended you declare them at customs to avoid problems on departure. Importing firearms and drugs is strictly forbidden.

    It is prohibited to remove antique items such as Buddha images and other ancient cultural artifacts from Laos. If you have already traveled in neighboring countries, you are advised to declare your valuable items to the customs to prevent any inconvenience upon departure. Anyone purchasing silver or copper items in Laos is also required to pay customs duty according to the weight of the item at the airport.

    DISEMBARKATION

    On the plane, the passenger will be given two forms to complete. The first is an Arrival / Departure Card. This card has two parts - the immigration officer will take one part, the other must be retained for use when the passenger departs. The second form is the Customs Declaration Form. This card should be filled out before arrival at the airport.

    In the airport, the passenger will get a visa application form.

    AIRPORT TAX

    Airport departure tax is all included in passenger’s airfare

    BORDER CROSSING

    Laos is sharing borders with Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand as below:

    Laos Vietnam
    Sobhoun
    (Muang Khoua, Phongsaly)
    Tay Trang
    (Dien Bien)
    Banleui
    (Sam Nua, Houa Phan)
    Na Meo
    (Thanh Hoa)
    Nam Kanh
    (Xieng Khouang)
    Nam Can
    (Nghe An)
    Nam Pao
    (Laksao, Bolikhamsay)
    Cau Treo,
    (Vinh, Ha Tinh)
    Na Pao
    (Khammouane)
    Cha Lo
    (Quang Binh)
    Densavanh
    (Savannakhet)
    Lao Bao
    (Quang Tri)
    Pu Khua
    (Ban Pakha, Attapeu)
    Bo Y
    (Ngoc Hoi, Kontum)
    Laos Cambodia
    Voeung Kam
    (Champasak) by river
    Dong Kralor
    (Stung Treng) by river
    Norng Nak Khien (Champasak) by land Trapeang Kreal
    (Stung Treng) by land
    Laos Thailand
    Huay Sai
    (Bo Keo)
    Chiang Khong
    (Chiang Rai)
    Kaenthao
    (Sayabouly)
    Nakaxeng
    (Loei)
    Friendship Bridge
    (Vientiane)
    Nong Khai
    (Nong Khai)
    Pakxan
    (Bolikhamxay)
    Bungkan
    (Nong Khai)
    Friendship Bridge II
    (Savannakhet)
    Mukdahan
    Tha Khek
    (Khammouane)
    Nakhon Phanom
    (Nakhon Phanom)
    Vang Tao
    (Champasak)
    Chong Mek
    (Ubon)
    Laos China
    Boten
    (Luang Namtha)
    Mohan
    (Yunnan)


    Details of update check points can be found: http://www.immigration.gov.la/

  • PHOTOGRAPHY

    Obtain permission before photographing monks or the interiors of pagodas and temples.

    CLOTHING

    Light cotton and linen clothing is best in tropical climates. Long trousers are recommended for visits to temples and pagodas. Long sleeved shirts and socks should be worn at dusk for protection against mosquitoes. Sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen are recommended for protection against the strong tropical sun. Bring a few items of warm clothing for trips to mountainous or highland areas where the temperature can be markedly cooler than in the lowlands.

    GENERAL ADVICE

    The Lao people are friendly and hospitable. A minimum of effort will make your trip smooth and memorable. Try to learn the traditional Lao "nop" greeting, a gentle raise of the hand, and the phrase "sabai dee".

    Please respect local dress standards, particularly at religious sites (avoid wearing shorts or sleeveless tops). In general, Lao dress standards are conservative, especially in the countryside.

    Like the Chinese and Japanese, the Lao are obsessed with clean floors and it's usual to remove shoes when entering somebody's home. Shoes must be removed inside most Buddhist temples. If a bunch of shoes are piled up near the doorway, you should pay heed.

    The generally accepted form of greeting among Lao people is the Nop, placing one's palms together in a position of praying, at chest level, but not touching the body. The higher the hands are held the greater the sign of respect. This is accompanied by a slight bow to show respect to persons of higher status or age. The Nop is not only an expression of greeting, but also of thanks, of regret or saying goodbye. However, it is appropriate to shake hands with Westerners.

    As in many Asian cultures, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body, and the soles of the feet are the lowliest. One should not touch a person's head nor use one's foot to point at a person or any object. Men and women rarely show affection in public. It is forbidden for a woman to touch a Buddhist monk.

    It is customary to remove one's shoes or sandals when entering a Buddhist temple or private home. In Laos, homes are raised off the ground, shoes or sandals are left at the stairs. In a traditional home, one sits on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men may sits with legs crossed or folded to one side. Women sits with legs gracefully folded to the side. Guests may be served tea or fruit, which should not be refused. One should at least take a taste.

    SHOPPING & DINING 

    The central markets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang both offer a wide range of souvenirs, as do many of the cities' shops. However, while the majority of private shops have fixed prices, in the markets the art of bargaining still rules.

    WEAVING

    The art of weaving is still very much a cottage industry in Laos, where some of the finest silk and cotton weavers in the world can be found in the smallest of communities. Traditional designs and patterns vary from province to province, and the intricate work can be purchased much cheaper at the source than from many handicraft stores, markets and hotel shops. Antique woven pieces are still available but are becoming increasingly rare, often fetching very high prices.

    CARVING

    From the simple and mundane, to the aesthetic and highly spiritual, Lao craftsmen can carve a wide variety of attractive pieces from wood, bone and stone.

    JEWELLRY

    The crafting of gold and silver jewellery is another skill at which the Lao people excel. Many of the best examples of silver jewellery to be found in the country are the work of several of the hill tribes. However, it should be noted that some silver and copper items exported from Laos are subject to tax according to weight. Gemstones, such as sapphires, can also be found at reasonable prices.

    ARTIFACTS

    The export of antiques, such as Buddha images and other artifacts, is prohibited. Any antique items that have been purchased in another country must be declared to customs on arrival in Laos.

    FABRICS

    Laos is famous for its woven silk and cotton which are found in varying designs throughout the country. Each area has its own specific design. Most products eventually find their way to Vientiane and can be found in the Morning Market - a rainbow of colours of silks and cotton. If you do not find what you like when travelling around the country, make sure that you visit the morning market in Vientiane before you leave.

    Lao women wear the traditional phaa sin - a wraparound skirt, worn by all government and office workers and school and university students. The sin is worn with a silver belt. A huge choice of phaa sin, shawls, bags and wall hangings can be found in the morning market and around Vientiane. As well as traditional Lao weavings, you will find hill tribe embroidery and quilts that can be used as wall hangings.

    CUISINE

    Lao cuisine shares many similarities with that of its neighbor Thailand. It is dry, spicy and delicious. Lao food is traditionally eaten with sticky rice and with the fingers. In the countryside, people will eat on a communal basis, sitting on the floor and sharing the dishes. The food eaten in Laos is influenced by its neighbors and the colonial French. Here are some favorites:

    LAAP

    A traditional Lao food is made from chopped meat, chicken or duck is a favorite. The finely chopped meat, spices and broth are mixed with uncooked rice grains that have been dry fried, and crushed. Laap is eaten with a plate of raw vegetables and sticky rice.

    TAM MAK HOUNG

    A salad made from sliced raw papaya, garlic, chili, peanuts, sugar, fermented fish sauce and lime juice - it can be extremely spicy, so be careful!

    SOM MOO

    Som Moo is fermented pork sausage, found in many forms. The sausage is made from raw pork - sometimes lean, sometimes pork skin. Som moo may be eaten raw or cooked. A mixture of som moo, tam mak koung and laap make a popular Lao lunchtime meal. Barbequed som moo, served Vietnamese style is popular in Laos. Known as Naem Nuang, it is served with transparent rice paper, thin noodles and lots of herbs, vegetables, lettuce and a sauce. You take all the ingredients, and build your own spring roll - watch the locals to see how it is done.

    FOE

    Pronounced 'fur' is the name for noodle soup, which can be found everywhere in Laos. It is similar in style to the Chinese noodle soup found all over Asia. Usually it is accompanied with lettuce, slices of lime, mint and coriander for additional flavour.

    BREAD

    French Baguettes are found in the larger towns, served for breakfast, filled as a sandwich with pate, moo yor (a pork lunchmeat), vegetables and chili sauce. Baguettes are also dunked into coffee for breakfast.

    SALAD

    As well as French bread, you will find a lot of salad in Laos. The traditional Lao diet includes a lot of raw vegetables - but the French left the tossed salad behind. In Luang Prabang, they make a delicious salad made from watercress.