Laos – officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic – is one of the great travel frontiers; landlocked and mountainous, swamped by jungles and promising Indian Jones adventures in remote tribal villages and ancient Buddhist caves.
With Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other, you might expect Laos to be commercial and crowded, but this is Asia’s backwater, where life moves as slowly as the churning waters of the Mekong River, which forms the border with three countries – Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia – as it snakes south towards the Gulf of Thailand.
A long-running civil war – during which the USA dropped millions of bombs in Laos – kept the country off the mainstream tourist circuit for many years. Unexploded ordnance and poor infrastructure continue to pose a challenge to tourism, but each year brings a new crop of upmarket accommodation to supplement the existing backpacker hostels – Laos is finally finding its feet. Eco-tourism looks set to be its trump card, taking visitors to remote tribal villages and pristine national parks teeming with weird and wonderful wildlife.
Despite this rugged outlook, the capital city, Vientiane, feels remarkably cosmopolitan, helped by a café culture left behind from when this was part of French Indochina. Dotted around its pleasantly faded, palm-shaded streets are ancient ruins, gleaming stupas and graceful colonial buildings.
The laidback atmosphere and the relative lack of modern development make Laos perhaps the most authentic and unspoiled of the Southeast Asia nations, though it competes for this title with neighbouring Myanmar. Laos is also one of the few communist countries left in the world – which should be obvious from the bureaucratic red tape and the omnipresent red stars on uniforms and state buildings.
Until 1988, tourists were banned from Laos, but now it is possible to travel all over the country. Nevertheless, there are few crowded tourist hotspots, with the possible exception of monastery-studded Luang Prabang and the overblown backpacker resort of Vang Vieng. Wherever you go in Laos, you’ll encounter the delectable Lao cuisine: a little bit French, a little bit Southeast Asian, and perfect washed down with a bottle of Beer Lao.
Weather & climate
Best time to visit:
Throughout the country, the climate is hot and tropical, with the rainy season between May and October when temperatures are at their highest, up to 35°C. The weather is very similar to that of northernVietnam. The dry season runs from November to April, which is the best time to visit as the temperature is at its most comfortable. However, the mountainous areas can be very cold at this time, down to around 5°C.
Across Asia the annual monsoon is becoming ever more difficult to predict, possibly as a result of global warming. This plays havoc with farming and occasionally travel plans too. As a guide, the average rainfall in the capital Vientiane is about 1,700 mm, although in the north of Laos and the highlands it is far wetter, with more than 3,000 mm each year.
Lightweights and rainwear, with warmer layers from October to March and for upland areas. If you come during the monsoon summer months, bring lightweight waterproofs, an umbrella and some leech oil for trekking. Bring a swimming costume for hotel swimming pools too.
Laos is a landlocked country encircled to the north by China, to the south by Cambodia, Vietnam to the east, to the west by Thailand along with a 235km-long (146 miles) Mekong River border with Burma.
Apart from the Mekong River plains, along the border to Thailand, the country is mountainous, particularly in the north, and in places is densely forested. The western border is demarcated by the Mekong River – which along with the tributaries covers about 20% of the land mass.
Laos is mainly mountainous, with steep terrain, tapered river valleys. The mountains stretch across the north, except for around Vientiane and the Plain of Jars in Xiangkhoang Province. These mountains are sparsely populated by tribal minorities who traditionally have not acknowledged the border with Vietnam any more than lowland Lao have been constrained by the 1,754km (1,090 miles) Mekong River border with Thailand.
Thus, ethnic minority populations are found on both the Laotian and Vietnamese sides of the frontier. Because of their relative isolation, contact between these groups and lowland Lao has been mostly confined to trading. Migration and conflict have affected the ethnic structure of the country and to the geographic distribution of its ethnic groups.
To enter Laos, a passport valid for at least six months is required by all nationals referred to in the chart above.
You may not always be required to show a return ticket if you are travelling overland. However, it is wise to procure an itinerary from a travel agent to avoid problems.
Nationals referred to in the table above can obtain a 30-day visa on arrival at road and river border crossings and ports of entry into Laos. Bring two passport-size photographs with you for the visa.
You can also apply for visas in advance from embassies.
Be sure to get an entry stamp on arrival, and an exit stamp upon leaving – double-check the date stamps.
Nationals not referred to in the chart are advised to contact the embassy to check visa requirements for Laos.
Types and cost:
A visa on arrival costs approximately US$35, depending on your nationality. If you obtain a visa in advance, it costs around US$50, but again this varies according to nationality.
Visas are usually valid for 30 days. If you obtain a visa in advance from the embassy, it's generally valid for a 30-day stay within two months of issue.
Things to see and do
Head to the Boloven Plateau in Champassak province for elephant riding and trekking. Pakse, home to many ethnic minority groups, is the region's capital and the ideal base from which to explore the plateau.
Climb Mount Phousi
Ascend Mount Phousi for a panoramic view of Luang Prabang and the surrounding rivers and hills.
Cruise the Mekong
Meandering along the Mekong River from Pakse on a converted teak barge (www.vatphou.com) is an idyllic way to see the country. Spend two nights on board, visiting Wat Phu, temples and traditional villages.
Head south to the supremely laid-back Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), an archipelago on the Mekong River, to see the spectacular Khone Phapheng (the largest waterfall in South-East Asia (by volume)) and the endangered irrawaddy dolphins.
Learn to cook
If you enjoy the flavours and textures of Lao food, spend a day learning to cook traditional Lao dishes. Courses in Vientiane and Luang Prabang include a visit to the local market to purchase meat and vegetables for the dish you are to prepare.
Visit Laos' cultural and religious centre, Luang Prabang. This ancient royal city has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995. Located between the Mekong and Khan River, it boasts 33 large temple complexes and around 1,000 resident monks.
Monks In the early morning pay a visit to the Morning Market in Vientiane where you will see lines of saffron-clad monks silently collecting alms from the local traders.
Pak Ou Caves
Do not miss the fascinating Pak Ou Caves. The two caves, Tham Ting and Tham Phun, are full of Buddha images that have been left there over hundreds of years by worshippers. They are easily reached by speedboat from Luang Prabang.
Plain of Jars
Marvel at the mysterious Plain of Jars, near Phonsavan. Hundreds of stone jars, some weighing up to 6 tonnes, are scattered over the landscape. Legend says they were used to ferment rice wine in the sixth century to celebrate a victory in battle.
Ride an elephant
Trek through the jungle on the back of an elephant to Tad Sae waterfall near Luang Prabang.
Swim in the lower pools of the Kuang Si Waterfalls, situated 30km (19 miles) from Luang Prabang, and bathe in the two hot springs some 52km (32 miles) north of Phonsavan: Bo Noi and Bo Yai.
Check out the old French colonial architecture and numerous Buddhist wats and stupas in Vientiane, one of Asia's most relaxed and quiet capital cities, suitably nestled in fertile plains on the banks of the Mekong River.
Drop in on a traditional community in Ban Phanom, near Luang Prabang. The village is famous for its weavings and offers the opportunity to purchase bargain-priced silk and embroideries.
Head to the hills and trek independently or as part of a locally organised tour. A number of guest houses offer hiking trips starting from Muang Xing, a small town on the river plains in the mountainous Luang Namtha province in the far northwest.
Lazily float along the Nam Song River in a rubber tube in Vang Vieng. The scenery is stunning and enterprising locals will tow the thirsty in to riverside bars for Beer Lao. Many of the bars have zip lines and water slides. Note there is an increasingly dark side to this activity – several backpackers have had severe accidents and a few have been killed - beer, tubing and drugs do not mix. Young local men, in their attempts to make money, have also resorted to dealing drugs to foreigners and have become addicted themselves causing many problems in the local community.
Admire the breathtaking views across the Mekong Valley from the Wat Phu temple, constructed on a mountain top near fresh spring water by the Khmer Hindus, who went on to settle their empire at its former capital - Angkor Wat (Cambodia).
Wat Xieng Thong
Be awed by Wat Xieng Thong, one of Laos' most impressive temples. Decorated with coloured glass and gold, it is testament to the fact that Luang Prabang had been the royal capital until 1975. The royal palace itself contains fine artwork and gifts made for former kings.
For a special experience stay in a tree house in Bokeo Nature Reserve (www.gibbonexperience.org), near Hoay Xai, and travel through the forest canopy on zip wires where you might catch a glimpse of the illusive Black Gibbon.
Dishes are a blend of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese in flavour and presentation but Lao food lacks the variety that many of the cuisines from surrounding countries offer. The cheapest and easiest way to sample Lao food is from the stalls in the markets - as long as the food is fresh and hot it will be safe to eat. Traditionally, Lao food is very spicy – Lao people will often add chillies by the fistful and use heavy seasoning - but this kick is often tempered for the western palate. Fish sauce is often used to flavour dishes.
There are several fairly good French restaurants in Vientiane, catering mainly for the diplomatic community, and Luang Prabang, which has recently seen something of a culinary revival. In touristy areas the usual traveller fare will be available, so expect to see menus offering muesli, chow mien, pizza, burgers, sandwiches, curries, pancakes and fritters. Green tea, is usually served weak and free in most restaurants, water tends to be filtered and providing it is, it will be safe to drink.
• Sticky rice (best eaten with fingers, simply roll it up to the size of a golf ball and pop in your mouth).
• Pho (white rice noodle soup, usually served with beef and/or pork although vegetarian versions are available). This is the typical food of Laos. If it’s a little plain Lao people will add in fish sauce, dried chillies etc to give it a kick.
• Laap (minced meat, fish or vegetables tossed in lime juice, garlic, onions, powdered rice and chillies, accompanied by sticky rice).
• Tam maal hung (Lao-style spicy salad of shredded papaya with lots of chilli, garlic, lime, fish sauce and palm sugar.).
• Khai phaan (weed from the Mekong River - a Luang Prabang speciality).
Things to know:
Lao breakfast is generally rice noodles. If noodles and meaty broth is not your thing for breakfast, French baguettes with sweet Lao coffee and khai (eggs) is possible in most places that cater to tourists, as are the ubiquitous traveller pancakes, cornflakes and takes on western cooked breakfasts. Eating out, unless at the very top restaurants, is very good value. Cappucinos and lattes are increasingly available and are often made with pasteurised milk that has travelled from Thailand.
Tipping is not typical in South East Asia generally. However, tourism has introduced the practice and now restaurant and café owners are savvy to this. It is not so much expected in Laos but anything you do leave for the staff, who’s salaries are likely to be very low, will be appreciated. If you’d like to leave a tip for good food or service, 10-12% would be a good guideline.
Lao lao (rice whisky) is popular and there are two brands available.
Beer Lao is very popular.