Lao cuisine is very similar to the food eaten in the north-eastern Isaan region of Thailand. The staple here is sticky rice (khao niaow), eaten by hand from small baskets called tip khao. Using your right hand, pinch off a bit, roll into a ball, dip and munch away. The national dish is laap (also larb), a "salad" of minced meat mixed with herbs, spices, lime juice and, more often than not, blistering amounts of chili. Unlike Thai larb, the Lao version can use raw meat (dip) instead of cooked meat (suk), and if prepared with seafood makes a tasty if spicy carpaccio. Other favourites include tam maak hung, the spicy green papaya salad known as som tam in Thailand, and ping kai, spicy grilled chicken.
In addition to purely Lao food, culinary imports from other countries are common. Khao jii pat-te, French baguettes stuffed with pâté, and foe (pho) noodles from Vietnam are both ubiquitous snacks particularly popular at breakfast. Note that foe can refer both to thin rice noodles (Vietnamese pho) as well as the wide flat noodles that would be called kuay tiow in Thailand.
The national drink of Laos is the ubiquitous and tasty Beerlao, one of the few Lao exports. The yellow logo with its tiger-head silhouette can be seen everywhere, and a large 640 ml bottle shouldn't cost more than 10,000 to 12,000 kip in restaurants. The brewery claims they have 99% market share, yet you can get Carlsberg (from the same brewery) and Heineken (imported from Thailand) - but why should you?
Rice whiskey, known as lao-lao, is widely available and at less than US$0.30 per 750 ml bottle is the cheapest way to get hammered.
Lao coffee (kaafeh) is widely reckoned to be among the best in the world. It's grown on the Bolaven Plateau in the south; the best brand is Lao Mountain Coffee. Unlike Thai coffees, Lao coffee is not adulterated with ground tamarind seed. To make sure you aren't fed overpriced Nescafé instead, be sure to ask for kaafeh thung. By default, kaafeh lao comes with sugar and condensed milk; black coffee is kaafeh dam, coffee with milk (often, however, you'll get non-dairy creamer) is kaafeh nom.
Tap water is not drinkable, but bottled water is cheap and widely available.
There is not much nightlife outside of Vientiane and Vang Vieng. To have a beer in some places, simply visit a restaurant.
Also, be warned some clubs are seedy establishments!
The Lao currency is the kip, which is inconvertible (outside Laos), unstable and generally inflationary. As of June 2008, there are around 8600 kip to the dollar and 13,500 kip to the euro. Make sure that you get rid of all your Kip before you leave the country. There will be no possibility to exchange it in other countries. The Vientiane airport for example will exchange your Kip into Dollars.
The largest bill is only 50000 kip, the other notes in common circulation are 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 kip; withdrawing the maximum of 700,000 kip from an ATM (about US$70) could result in 70 notes of 10000 kip each. This makes carrying large quantities of kip quite inconvenient. Fortunately, there is little need to do so, as US$ are generally accepted (although typically at somewhat disadvantageous rates - about 5-10% less than the official rate is common), and Thai baht are also readily accepted in many areas near the border, notably Vientiane. For short visits to the main centers there's little point in exchanging kip, as changing them back is a hassle in Laos and impossible elsewhere. Beware though, that in remote places only kip is accepted and no ATM's will be available, so plan ahead.
More touristy places and banks are also starting to accept euros. So if you're from one of the euro countries, just bring some just in case. This could be cheaper than changing your euros into US$ or baht and then into kip.
There are now quite a few ATMs in Vientiane, and they have also appeared in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Savanneket, Tha Khaek, and Pakse. (There is also an ATM on test run in Luang Nam Tha). ATMs accept MasterCard, Maestro and a few others. Virtually all BCEL machines now claim to work with VISA (April 2008). However, transactions performed on the BCEL (possibly other Laos ATM networks also) network charge a significant surcharge $1-$2 USD for using their ATMs (even when your at-home back does not charge any fees), above the rate received when exchanging cash currency. Relying on them is at this stage risky due to their ludicrous unreliability — but if it doesn't work the first time, keep trying every few hours (they tend to get emptied in the course of the day, due to the huge numbers of notes withdrawn).
Many banks, travel agents and guest houses will allow you to take out cash from a credit card as a cash advance. This usually occurs by withdrawing the money in US$ from the card as a cash advance; the card issuer will usually charge a fee (about 3%), the Lao bank involved will charge about 3%, and then the agent providing the cash advance might (or might not) charge another 3%, and then the amount is converted from US$ to kip at a poor rate to the US$, costing another 5% or so - hence, overall, these transactions are much more expensive than the typical charge for withdrawing cash from ATMs in other countries. However, as for example euros get pretty bad rates compared to US$ when exchanged in Laos, getting a cash advance in US$ and changing it to kips might actually save money compared to bringing euros with you to Laos. Expats living in Vientiane routinely get cash from ATMs in Nong Khai or Udon Thani (Thailand), where the maximum per transaction is mostly 20000 baht, or ten times what you'll get in Laos.
The use of both ATM's and credit cards in banks is subject to computer functionality, staff's computer skills, power cuts, telephone network breakdowns, National Day, etc. etc. A few travellers have been forced out of the country prematurely as they couldn't withdraw funds to further their travels. Always bring cash as well. Changing money can be next to imposible outside major towns.
Banks give good rates, but seem to abide in morbid fear that a tourist might stumble upon them and change money. To avoid this unpleasant eventuality, they ensure that the banking hours are very restricted and that both Laos and European holidays are fully observed, with generous buffer days between the official holiday and resuming work.
Many shops start an hour's lunch break at noon, and some maintain the (now abolished) official French two-hour break. Nearly everything is closed on Sundays, except restaurants and many shops.
US$20 a day is a good rule of thumb, though it's possible to get by on less than US$10. A basic room with shared bathroom can be as little as US$2 in Vang Vieng or as much as US$8 in Vientiane. Meals are usually under US$5 for even the most elaborate lao, thai or vietnamese dishes (western food is more expensive), and plain local dishes can cost less than US$1. A local bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng costs US$2.50; the slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai costs US$20 for both days.
What to buy
Typical Lao dresses in cheap machine-made fabric can be made to order. Expect to pay around US$5 for the fabric and US$2 for labour. Handmade Lao silk is one of the most attractive things to buy. The Talat Sao (Morning Market) in Vientiane has dozens of small shops selling 100% handmade silk scarves or wall hangings from US$5 upwards depending on quality, intricacy of design and size. Beware cheap synthetic fabrics sold as 'silk' imported from China and Vietnam. Be careful also of 'antique' silk. There is very little left but new fabric can be made to look old and worn. Still attractive, but don't pay more than US$30-50. In markets, always bargain: it is expected, but keep smiling...
Laos, formally the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR),
is one of the poorest nations in South-East Asia. A mountainous
and landlocked country, Laos shares borders with Vietnam to
the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar
and China to the north.
Thailand promotes itself as amazing, Vietnam can well be described as bustling, Cambodia's Khmer temples are awe-inspiring, Myanmar's junta is barbaric... but the adjective most often applied to Laos is forgotten. The Lao National Tourism Administration uses the epithet "Jewel of the Mekong". Although there are a few grand (but relatively unheard of) attractions, those visitors who are drawn by the laid-back lifestyle and the opportunity to knock back a few cold Beerlao while watching the sunsets on the Mekong will simply explain the attraction by revealing that the true meaning of "Lao PDR" is Lao - Please Don't Rush.
- Vientiane - the capital on the banks of the Mekong River (rapidly losing much of its "sleepiness")
- Huay Xai - in the north, on the Mekong and the border with Thailand
- Luang Prabang - a UNESCO World Heritage City known for its numerous temples
- Luang Namtha - capital of the north, known for its trekking.
- Muang Xay - also known as Oudomxay, the capital of the multiethnic province of Oudomxay.
- Pakbeng - halfway point on the overnight slow boat between Huay Xai & Luang Prabang
- Pakse - gateway to the Wat Phu ruins and the "four thousand islands" (Si Phan Don)
- Savannakhet - in the south, on the Mekong, connected by bridge to Mukdahan, Thailand
- Tha Khaek - south of Vientianational Park including the famous Konglor Cave
- Ban Nalan trail - a 2 days ecotourism trekking in the north of Laos.
- Plain of Jars - just what the name says, but nobody knows what they are or why they are there
- Si Phan Don - the "four thousand islands" are nestled within the Mekong near the Cambodian border
- Vang Vieng - backpacker hangout for spelunking in limestone caves and tubing on the Nam Song river
- Tham Nong Pafa Cave - a cave discovered in Khammouan Province in 2004; as many as 200 Buddha statues of all sizes have been found inside
- Nong Khiaw- North of Luang Prabang by 4 hour bus ride or 7 hour slow boat ride, this area is between beautiful Karst cliffs where you can discover hilltribe villages, kayak, bike ride, or just hang out in a relaxing town.
Laos is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours. First created as an entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lane Xang ("Million Elephants"), the kingdom was initially a Khmer vassal state. After a succession dispute, the kingdom split in three in 1694 and was eventually devoured piece by piece by the Siamese, the last fragments agreeing to Siamese protection in 1885.
The area east of the Mekong, however, was soon wrenched back from Siam by the French, who wanted a buffer state to protect Vietnam, and set up Laos as a unified territory in 1907. Briefly occupied by Japan in 1945, a three-decade-long conflict was triggered when France wanted to retake its colony. Granted full independence in 1953, the war continued between a bewildering variety of factions, with the Communist and North Vietnam-allied Pathet Lao struggling to overthrow the French-leaning monarchy. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), this alliance led the United States to dump 1.9 million metric tons of bombs on Laos, mostly in the northeast stronghold of the Pathet Lao (for purposes of comparison, 2.2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Europe by all sides in World War II and unexploded ordinance still kills at least 1 person and 4 cows a day up there).
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and admission into ASEAN in 1997.
Despite being just one hour by air from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos has continued in much the same way it has for hundreds of years, although things are now slowly beginning to change. In the mid-90s the government reversed its stance on tourism, and then declared 1998 "Visit Laos Year" - but despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer, monks still outnumbered tourists throughout the country. This is now rapidly changing, with tourist numbers rising every year. Indeed, Vientiane is a laid-back, yet charmingly cosmopolitan village.
Despite its small population, Laos has no less than 68 tribal groups. About half of the population are Lao Loum, "lowland Lao" who live in the river plains. Officially, this group includes the Lao Tai, who are subdivided into numerous subgroups. The Lao Theung (20-30%), or "upland Lao", live on mid-altitude slopes (officially defined as 300-900m), and are by far the poorest group, formerly used as slave labor by the Lao Loum. The label Lao Sung (10-20%) covers mostly Hmong and Mien tribes who live higher up. There are also an estimated 2-5% Chinese and Vietnamese, concentrated in the cities.
Laos is officially Buddhist, and the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang, has replaced the hammer and sickle even on the state seal. Still, there is a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci (also baasi) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participant's body before a long journey, after serious illness, the birth of a baby or other significant events.
Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long, patterned skirt, although tribal groups often have their own clothing. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a common sight. These days men dress Western style and only don the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays women often wear western-style clothing, though the "phaa sin" is still the mandatory attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also for Lao women just visiting).
Laos has three distinct seasons. The hot season is from March to May, when temperatures can soar as high as 40°C. The slightly cooler wet season is from May to October, when temperatures are around 30°C, tropical downpours are frequent, and some years the Mekong floods. The dry season from November to March, which has low rainfall and temperatures as low as 15°C (or even to zero in the mountains at night), is "high season" (when the most tourists are in the country).
Lao or Laos?
The people call themselves Lao and the language is Lao, so where did that "s" come from? The answer seems to be a mistranslation from French: somebody read royaume des Laos ("kingdom of the Lao people") as royaume de Laos ("kingdom of Laos"), and the name stuck. The politically correct form of the name, however, is Lao PDR and, should you have any incoming mail, using it will increase the odds of it passing the censors.
Most ASEAN nationalities as well as a few others like Russians can enter Laos "visa free" ; all other tourists need a visa in the form of a tourist visa (for one or possibly two months) issued by a Lao embassy or consulate, or a visa on arrival now available at all ports of entry with the exception of overland crossings from Cambodia. Virtually all nationalities are issued a 30 day entry permit stamp. When applying for a tourist visa or to obtain a visa on arrival, one passport photo is required.
Prices range from US$30 to US$42 depending on nationality - Australians pay $30, Canadians US$42, Belgians US$30, British, Dutch US$35.
Visas can be obtained in advance from Lao embassies/consulates. The fee varies by nationality/embassy; US$20 is common. Processing times also vary; 2-3 days is typical, though you may be able to pay an extra small amount to receive the visa in as little as one hour. In Phnom Penh the travel agencies can arrange the visa the same day (but may charge as much as US$58) while getting it from the embassy takes a few days. Getting a visa from the embassy in Bangkok costs around 1400B for most nationalities, plus 200B more for "same day" processing. It's cheaper and quicker to get one at the border.
There are Visa-on-Arrival facilities at the international airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, and at all border crossings with the exception when entering overland from Cambodia. The cost varies between US$30 and $42 (if paid with US$ notes; paying with Thai baht will cost considerably more and border officials will not accept Lao kip at all). A US$1 "out of office hours" surcharge, and a small (possibly 10 baht) entry stamp fee, might also be charged.
Entry permit extensions (sometimes referred to as "visa extensions") are available from the Immigration Department in Vientiane (US$2 per day) and via agencies elsewhere in Laos (who will courier your passport to Vientiane and back again, around US$3 per day minimum of 7 days).
The international airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang are served by national carrier Lao Airlines and a few others, including Thai Airways , Bangkok Airways (Luang Prabang only) and Vietnam Airlines . Some seats on flights of Vietnam Airlines are reserved for Lao Airlines (codesharing / better price). Pakse is the third international airport, with flights to/from Siem Reap (Vientiane - Pakse - Siem Reap by Lao Airlines).
Laos used to be off-limits to low-cost carriers, however Air Asia now flies to Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur three times a week. Another cheap option for getting to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani in Thailand with discount airlines Nok Air or Air Asia and connect to Nong Khai and the Friendship Bridge via shuttle service directly from the airport (40 minutes); from here Vientiane is just 17 km away.
At present, Laos has no international train links, but the Thai railhead at Nong Khai is just across the Mekong from Vientiane. However, construction work on the long-awaited extension across the river to Dongphosy is now completed, and trains are scheduled to running across the border in March 2009.
Most border crossings open for foreigners, with an indication where visas on arrival can be issued, are listed on the web site of the National Tourism Administration . This list is unfortunately incomplete.
Visa on arrival for Laos is currently not available when entering from Cambodia overland, however it IS possible to get a Cambodian VOA when travelling in the opposite direction. The nearest Cambodian town is Stung Treng, and the border is a 90-minute speedboat ride away. Note that the border is lightly used and both Customs officers and transport providers have a reputation of gouging foreigners.
The official language of Laos is Lao, a tonal language closely related to Thai. Thanks to ubiquitous Thai broadcast media most Lao understand Thai fairly well, but it's worth learning a few basic expressions in Lao. French, a legacy of the colonial days, still features on signs and is understood by some older people, but these days English is far more popular.