Laos is a land-locked country, porous but well connected to its neighbours: China, Vietnam, Cambodia,Thailand, and Burma. Visas can easily be obtained upon arrival though one of its many points of access. As a country that still heavily relies on foreign aid, tourism accounts for a small percentage of its GDP, which is among the lowest in the region.
Amidst the Buddhist temples, an imprint of French colonization remains in its architecture and cuisine. French bread can be easily found in larger cities, like Vientiane, its capital. The most spectacular example of heritage is at its former capital, Luang Prabang. Known as the best-preserved ancient city in Southeast Asia—and the Mecca for Theravada Buddhism. It is an old town that exquisitely fuses colonial influences with local built traditions. Laos is also known to possess the healthiest ecosystems in South East Asia. Its main attractions are, not surprisingly, nature-based, wildlife and ecotourism. Trekking mountainous limestone caves, elephants and paddling down the Mekong are all part of the tourist experience.
Prospective visitors should note the country is categorized as “high risk”. While wildlife attacks are not likely, a bigger concern is landmines. Remnants of the war kills hundreds of people every year. Limited medical services means Thailand is your next best choice. A way to stay safe is to find a local guide — they are cheap and well worth hiring. Visitors are also advised to have insurance.
Laos remains an undiscovered wonderland largely untouched by modernisation and is genuinely wild. It remain unaffected by modernity, mass tourism and supermarkets. Agriculture is its mainstay—rice, coffee and sugar as its main crops. Lack of infrastructure means staying at homestays, especially in rural areas, is sometimes the only choice. Getting around the country is a journey in itself. Motorbikes and 4WD are common means of conveyance as is hiring a full-day taxi service in urban areas. Given what Laos has to offer, the country is most suitable for a small group of hardy, adventurous backpackers seeking to get an authentic “off the beaten track” experience of South East Asia.
Because locals are inviting
When Laotians are true to their character, they are generous, gentle and hospitable. You will find them mostly laid back or the laziest people you've ever meet. If you venture into hill-tribe villages, natives may even offer food and drinks without expectation of payment, they are happy to share what they have with you. Unfortunately, those in tourism have somehow adopted unfriendly and dishonest attitudes that leave tourists displeased or confused.
Because you deserve to unwind
Avoid the stress and hustle and bustle of Asia, and head to Laos! Isolated from the outside world, or so it seems, the country is famous for its laid-back lifestyle and fun-loving people—a stark contrast to their hard-working neighbours in Vietnam. As one of the poorest and least developed areas in the world, you will find smiling and carefree children everywhere! Seeing them will make you happier too!
Because it’s cheap,NOT cheap!
As a "poor country", tourists assume Laos is a like its neighbours in Cambodia and Vietnam, but the reality suggests otherwise. Somehow tourists pay more for everything--except beer. Prices are at par or even more expensive than Thailand, which is surprising as for the quality, one expects to pay much less!
Despite the mishaps of war, Laos is a country that has manged to cling on to its history. Colonial structures remain a testimony of French legacy. In more remote stretches, the war-torn landscape has become a magnet for heritage enthusiasts. The hidden caves recall an untold experience of perseverance, struggle and the humble origins of the nation. While local traditions and festivals colour life and give energy to the country and its people. A remnant French capital
The built environment is a reference to our past. It helps us make sense of place, local customs and history. Imagine a world without the Parthenon, Notre Dame, Petra or Taj Mal? In South East Asia, Luang Prabang is considered the finest example of French colonialism (1893-1953). The once royal capital, has been renamed a world heritage city. The laid back atmosphere, night markets and friendly locals adds to the vibe. Visitors can also appreciate the fusion of Laotian traditional style with French architectural features. Balconies, verandahs and internal corridors have been added to cope with the tropical climate. Royal Palace Museum, formerly the royal family residence, and the ornate Haw Pha Bang royal temple are both highlights To make the most of your experience, visitors are encouraged to do a little reading into the town's rich history before arriving.
A landscape of hidden memories
The Hidden Cave City at Vieng Xai, on the Vietnamese border, is a must do for those interested in the "secret" American (Vietnam) War or haven't heard about it and want to learn more. This potential UNESCO site has a grand history. During years of constant bombing, limestone karsts caves sheltered over 20,000 inhabitants who lived their lives in complete darkness. This underground hidden city featured "the works"---hospital, school, supermarket, temple, theater, and even government offices! And if the walls can speak, we can only wonder how much interesting stories it has to tell. A survivor remembers, "They fell both day and night. Air-raids made farming impossible. It interrupted life in a way that no organized life was possible." The scale of bombing was so intense, it has been calculated that planeloads of bombs were dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years!
When it was safe to do so, the caves were abandoned. The dawn of new life begun. Then the caves were only to be rediscovered and subsequently open as a revolutionary memorial site (where the nation's founding fathers first convened) then a tourism spot. Sadly, today, a remnant of war remains as 30% did not detonate and have become active landmines that continue to scar the landscape and its people. Yet, since the hidden caves are off the beaten track, the only way to see the hideout, and absorb its history is to join a guided tour. Do yourself a favour and get an audio tour and also bring a strong torch. The museum at the base is worth visiting before and indeed after your cave visit.
Lhai Heua Fai or the fireboat festival is the most celebrated event in Laos. The most impressive celebrations of Theravada Buddhism are held in Luang Prabang. Present are ethnic groups wearing traditional clothes, chanting, dancing, fireworks displays. Candles are lit, prayers recited, with banana leaf boats floated in the river, transforming it into a glitter of lights, aimed at sending offerings to the dead, pacifying negativity and paying homage to the Mekong River. Everybody participates, building the most impressive banana leaf boat they could. Occurring in an autumn evening on an auspicious full-moon evening between October or November a large crowd of devotees and tourists from near and far is not unusual.
The best way to de-stress is to come to Laos for a holistic package. Soak up the atmosphere and benefit from a purification ritual. Various therapies are available combining both traditional and modern Western techniques—spa or traditional therapeutic treatment, such as herbal sauna. Traditional massage and haircuts are also available as well as manicures and pedicures.
Spa, sauna and more
Spa treatments based on traditional Laotian herbal remedies are available at a range of prices. Different natural products and packages, such as plants and local herbs or coconut oil are used to alleviate tense muscles and enhance blood circulation as well as clean and smoothen one’s skin. Laos’ masseuses provide among the best service for the best prices offered.
Herbal Sauna (Vientiane) is an experience worth trying. While tourists will find some facilities rudimentary andit may not be the cleanest nor most accessible, nonetheless, it is a taste of a traditional steam sauna. Before entering the sauna, visitors are expected to change into a sarong.
Laos is a premier eco-tourism destination, from limestone caves to natural habitats and wildlife—similar but more abundant than Thailand. Mountain trekking offers amazing scenic views and a cruise along one of the most beautiful rivers—the Mekong “river of life”. What’s more, a visit is incomplete without visiting the wildlife sanctuary or seeing an elephant.
Laos makes a most interesting destination for those seeking an adventure. The best way to enjoy it is trekking through national protected areas, or through a largely mountainous topography of ethnic villages, where impressive scenery, caves and waterfalls are in arm’s length. Adventurists should come with a good pair of hiking boots and book a guide. A guide will not only be indispensable to finding your way but also impart local knowledge about culture, plants and wildlife that cannot be otherwise gained. Some tours can last 5 days, the most popular routes start at Luang Prabang.
If you like waterfalls, come to Laos. The country features two major waterfalls. Near the Cambodian border, at almost 10 kms in length, Khone Phapheng is the longest waterfall in Asia and one of Laos’ most beautiful attractions, dubbed the “Niagara of Asia”. It is a series of cascading waterfalls and rapids in the Mekong River. The best time to come is before the rainy season (Admission start at 10,000 Kip / per person, if you are approaching the site from Don Det Island or the mainland). The most frequented waterfall is Kuang Si Falls, located in the old capital and eco-tourism center of Luang Prabang. Here, water trickles down 60m into a picturesque turquoise pool.
Not far from Kuang Si Falls are more nature-based diversions, such as a butterfly garden and elephant camp. The Butterfly Park is well maintained with walkways and bridges, pretty garden with orchids and a pond. It is suitable for family visits.
Elephants remain a revered symbol of the country. While the number are decline, Laos once named, “the kingdom of a million elephants”, still has the most prolific number of elephants in the region (more than Thailand). A trip is not complete without at least, visiting them.
More about the elephant camps can be found under voluntourism.
Coming from a first world to a third world will make us all realize how privileged we are—and there is nothing wrong with that. In Laos, a country that still relies heavily on foreign aid, donations or volunteer work can do a great deal to benefit the community as a whole.
Donations Giving away disused books or old digital equipment or even money to places like Luang Prabang Library may increase learning opportunities for less privileged and fund community development initiatives.
If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, the best and the most direct way is to get involved is to contribute to the community. Why not live on a farm? The Living LandProject invites international visitors to stay on the farm and take part in the local way of life—organic farming and rice planting.
In Laos, a man’s best friend is the elephant. Unfortunately, due to logging and habitat destruction, as well as hunting or mistreatment, these great creatures are under threat. Elephant camps were established as recuse missions. These later turned into wildlife conservation and sustainability education centers. Why not take the initiative and join the taskforce of experienced vets and elephant specialists to look after our gentle giants?
Thai Airways International, Vietnam Airways and Laos Airlies connecting regionally. Other than these, generally, the country is generally not well served by international airlines. For information on fares and routes with other major carriers, check their individual websites:
Some checkpoints provide 15-day visas upon arrivals—others require holding a visa in advance. Yet immigration policies changes from time to time. It is best to check the most updated information online, click here.
The bus service can be found at the capital of Vientiane, but most are of little use to tourists.
Songthaew (ສອງແຖວ) look like a pick-up truck, open and aligned with two rows of seats at the back. These operate as a hop on and hop of’ service, some go as far as in-between cities. If you are the only passenger, check the price and routing before hoping on.
Jumbo are similar, like buses, they operate along a fixed route at a fixed price. The cost is no more than 20,000k for a short 1-5 km journey.
Three wheelers, also known as Săhm-Lór or “taxi” offer a point-to-point service. Fare is negotiable, but the laminated card will be a mark-up of what they expect tourists to pay. Variations of these include jumbos, and Sakai-làep (pronounced “sky labs”), motorized four-wheelers formed from a motorbike.
Available for rental at 10,000-20,000K per day. Slow traffic makes the country suitable for cycling. Hiring a professional guide may make it easier to get around.
Most of the time getting around on public transport is insufficient. Although highways have improved in recent years, yet the visitor must be warned, roads remain largely unpaved.
To drive in Laos, you will be expected to hold an international license, but the rental company usually won’t check. If you are caught by the police, a friendly smile and a bit of bartering may do the trick.
The GT Rider is the best road map and it is recommended for bikers. It can be purchased online, click details online:
Taxis are available only in the capital, vehicles can be hired per-day at a negotiated price.
Mekong River is a major thoroughfare. Boat access is available all year round.
Passenger River Ferries
The most popular “floating backpacker” route is a slow 2-day trip between Huay Xai (Bokeo) and Luang Prabang. The fare is 200,000₭. Passengers sit, eat and sleep on deck. Remember to bring a your own food, something to sit on (a pillow) and a book to keep to keep you entertained.
In addition to the slow boat, there are also speedboats. While these save time, overcrowding is a big problem. Usually more than the permissible capacity is on board at any one time. If you are taller than the average Laos person, you may feel crammed and that legroom is insufficient, plus engine noise can be damaging on the ears. High speed may endanger, spoil or scare wildlife, plus there is the risk of colliding or capsizing. Consider wearing life jackets and safety helmets and have your earplugs ready, as well as protect any water-sensitive equipment (camera, phone) before embarking.
First humans arrive in South East Asia
THE KINGDOM OF LAN XANG
Division into “Three Kingdoms”—Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champasack
Hmong immigration into Laos
French explorer Henri Mouhot arrives in Luand Phrabang.
FRENCH LAOS (1893-1945)
French seized Laos territories east of Mekong
Franco-Siamese Treaty defined present borders
Franco-Thai war leads to loss of Lao territories on west of Mekong
INDEPENDENCE AND UNITY (1945-1957)
French re-occupy Laos
PEOPLE’S DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC (since 1957)
Formation of the first coalition
Monarchy ends after 650 years. Country declared Democratic Republic
Luang Prabang listed as UNESCO World Heritage
Economic crisis and political unrest
Nam Theun II hydropower dam fully operational
Work on Xayaboury Dam commences
A basic estimate of daily spending (per person) is illustrated below.*
Staying at a village house, breakfast and dinner provided
Food & Drink
Local meals, noodles with beef or pork, street food and local beer
Rental bicycles, jumbos, local buses
Staying at hotel with air-con, hot water, TV and fridge.
Food & Drink
Fine vintage French dining, croissants with wine, etc
Add-day rental taxi service
Total basic daily spending 100,000₭(US$ 12.5)
Total basic daily spending 1,720,000₭(US$ 210)
*This excludes sightseeing, shopping and other personal tourism activities, such as beauty care and hiring eco-guides.