Laos is a land-locked country located in mainland South-East Asia with a total land area of approximately 237,000 square kilometres, and is bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. Most of the country is very densely forested with rugged mountains, and consequently less than 5% of Laos is considered as arable. The Mekong River is known as the ‘lifeblood’ of the country and it flows almost the entire length of Laos, forming most of the western border with Thailand. The mountains of the Annamite Chain form most of the eastern border with Vietnam.
Laos’ main cities, including Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet, are all located along the mighty Mekong River. Fishing is therefore a very important activity for many Laotians and provides a vital source of protein for local people. Hydropower, mining and timber are the main industries, and more recently the tourism industry has started to become significant. With this recent development the environment has not been forgotten - in 1993 the Lao government allocated about 21% of the nation’s land area for preservation.
Administratively Laos is divided into 16 provinces and 1 capital city district. The total population of Laos is approximately 6 million people, and about 70% of the population lives away from the main towns and cities in the rural areas. With a population density of only about 23 people per square kilometre, it is one of the least densely populated countries in East Asia. An estimated 131 different ethnic groups can be found in Laos, which have been broadly categorized into 3 main groups according to linguistic and ethnic as well as to geographic criteria. The largest of these groups with about two thirds of the population is known as the ‘lowland Lao’, or Lao Loum.
Laos People’s Democratic Republic (PDR)
Population: 6.5 million
Capital City: Vientiane (Pop: 750,000)
People: Over 60 ethnic groups
Currency: Kip (KN)
Time Zone: GMT +7 Hours
International Dialing Code: +856
HistoryThe country of Laos first began to form in 1353 when the Kingdom of Lan Xang took power. The name Lan Xang means ?million elephants?. The ruler was King Fa Ngum and his empire ruled much of Laos as well as Thailand. During this time Buddhism became the primary religion.
In the late 18th century the Lan Xang had collapsed and the Siamese took control of Laos. Then, in the 1800s the French arrived. In 1907 the Franco-Siamese treaty defined the boundaries of current day Laos.
Laos was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. At the end of the war, in 1945, Laos declared independence from France. However, French troops soon reoccupied the country and took control.
In 1954 Laos became an independent country from France. However, war broke out internally. After many years of fighting and intervention from both the United States and the Soviet Union, Laos was ruled by an authoritarian communist party. Many people have fled Laos over the years including the Hmong minority.
WeatherMost of the year is hot and humid. Laos enjoys a tropical climate with two distinct seasons. The rainy season is from the beginning of May to the end of September, and the dry season is from October through April. The yearly average temperature is about 28 degrees Celsius, rising to a maximum of 38 degrees Celsius during April and May.
In Vientiane a minimum temperature of 19 degrees Celsius is to be expected during January. In mountainous areas, however, temperature drops to as low as 14-15 degrees Celsius during the winter months, and during cold nights, can easily reach the freezing point. The average precipitation is highest in Southern Laos, where the Annamite Mountains receive over 3,000 mm. annually. In Vientiane rainfall is about 1,500-2,000 mm., and in the Northern provinces only 1,000-1,500 mm.
The best time for visiting most of Laos is between November and February, when it rains the least and is not too hot. It’s also Laos’s main season for both national and regional bun (festivals).
Passport & VisaEach passenger must be in possession of a valid passport which must be valid for more than 6 months after the return date of travel. Passport number, date and place of issue, and birth date is now required by airlines and trains, and may be required to confirm services. Names on your airline tickets must match the first and last name listed on your passport.
Visas valid for 30 days can be easily obtained on arrival. Cost depends on nationality (from US$30 to US$42). One passport-sized photograph is required.
CurrencyThe local currency is the KIP. Notes come in denominations of 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10.000 and 20.000 Kips.
The rate of exchange as per the time of printing is approximately 10,450 Kip to one US Dollar and 13,340 Kip to one Euro. In Vientiane, notes of most international currencies can be exchanged either at banks or at licensed moneychangers. Outside Vientiane, most provincial banks and licensed moneychangers accept only US Dollars, Thai Bahts and sometimes Euros. Only major banks accept traveler’s cheques. It is best to carry U.S Dollar bills in small denominations. Credit cards are accepted only at major hotels and up-market shops and restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Phones & Internet ServiceIf you want to use your mobile phone in Laos, the simplest and cheapest way is to buy a prepaid phone card from most mini-marts or phone shops for around US$10. The major phone providers are Tango and Laotel. Otherwise check if your phone company has international roaming coverage in Laos. Wireless is available free of charge in most guesthouses, hotels and some cafes in the main tourist centres.
TransportationLaos is a mountainous country with no railway and few good roads. With the Mekong River being such a prominent topographical feature it is not surprising that it plays a significant role in communications and life. There are slow boat services for tourists who want to experience life on the river between some towns. Speedboats are also an option for travelers with a tight schedule, though not always recommended.
Bus: Currently there are no longer travel restrictions for tourists who want to go to the provinces by bus. All areas are safe to travel. The most common long distance bus runs between Vientiane and Luang Prabang and it takes around 10 hours.
Tuk Tuk: The most popular means of transport within cities is the tuk tuk. These 3-wheeled vehicles with two benches placed sideways in the back can be found everywhere. Always negotiate before setting off.
Taxi: Taxis are not normally metered, so your fare is negotiable. Always negotiate before setting off.
Car Hire: Cars may be hired with a driver through hotels or tourist agencies. It is not advisable to hire a car on one’s own, since driving standards are low.
Art and Culture from Laos
“The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice, and the Lao listen to the rice grow…”
The above saying, attributed to the French during colonial times, probably best sums most visitors’ impressions of Lao people and of their differences with their neighbours. Lao people are renowned for their laid-back nature and generally live a much slower paced way of life than those in surrounding countries. In Laos the very relaxed attitude and ‘baw pen nyang’ (no problems - it’ll be ok) approach is enchanting but may also take a little time for some foreigners to adapt to.
Theravada Buddhism has a prevailing influence on most aspects of the dominant Lao culture, including the art, architecture, performing arts and literature. Lao classical music, dance and drama owes its origins to the ceremonial performances for the former Laotian Royal Courts and is often based on the Ramayana, however Lao folk music (lam) and folk dance has traditionally been more popular amongst the general population. The national instrument is a type of pipe made of bamboo known as the khaen which is believed to have pre-historic origins and is still commonly used in folk music and even in Laotian pop music today.
Family and Religion are of utmost importance to Lao people, with social activities traditionally centering on the extended family and the temple. It is said that for most Laotians a difficult occupation or a stressful life are not desired nor sought after. The majority of Lao citizen’s lives in villages or rural areas, and between 70-80% of the population still rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods - predominantly rice cultivation. As a result rice is the staple food and also has religious and cultural significance amongst the different ethnic groups, including some traditions and rituals related to its cultivation and its consumption.
The Lao people are friendly and receptive to foreigners and will usually welcome you very warmly. There is a healthy curiosity towards foreigners and visitors may find themselves frequently engaged in conversation unexpectedly or at the centre of attention!
Religion and Beliefs
Within Laos approximately 60-70% of the population are said to be Theravada Buddhists, with the remaining population largely following Animism in the form of spirit (phii) worship. Less than 2% of the populations are Christians and there are small communities of Moslems mostly in Vientiane.
Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Laos during the 13th or 14th Century, and is believed to be the oldest form of Buddhism that originally developed in India. It is based on the four noble truths that Lord Buddha had realised in order to become enlightened, and this school of Buddhism emphasizes the cooling of human passions (‘cool heart’) and strong emotions, with followers strongly believing in karma.
Traditionally in Laos every Buddhist male is expected to join a temple (Wat) to become a monk for a period in his life, and the entire family earns ‘merit’ for this act. In Laos Buddhism followers also gain merit by making donations and worshipping at the Wats, and by the daily feeding of the monks. The ‘tak bat’ in Luang Prabang - where a multitude of monks walk the streets in a silent line collecting alms from the local people very early each morning, is one of the most enduring memories for visitors to Laos.
Food and DrinkLao cuisine is very similar to the food eaten in the north-eastern Isaan region of Thailand: being very spicy, more often bitter than sweet, and using lots of fresh herbs and vegetables served raw. Some of the raw vegetables can be used to cool your mouth when the chilis are overwhelming.
Rice is the staple carbohydrate. The standard kind 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.
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.
Another favourite is Other popular dishes include, and 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 China 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.
- Laap (also larb), a "salad" of minced meat mixed with herbs, spices, lime juice and, more often than not, blistering amounts of chili.
- Tam Maak Hung: the spicy green papaya salad known as som tam in Thailand, but which the Lao like to dress with fermented crab (pudem) and a chunky, intense fish sauce called pa daek , resulting in a stronger flavor than the milder, sweeter Thai style. • Ping Kai: spicy grilled chicken.
- Mok Pa: fish steamed in a banana leaf.
- 1 Jan: New Year's Day.
- 6 Jan: Pathet Lao Day.
- 20 Jan: Army Day.
- Jan-Feb: Chinese New Year.
- 8 Mar: International Women's Day.
- 22 Mar: Day of the People's Party.
- 13-15* Apr: Lao New Year (Pi Mai).
- 1 May: Labour Day.
- 1 Jun: Children's Day.
- Jul: Khao Pansa (Buddhist Fast begins).
- 13 Aug: Lao Issara (Day of the Free Laos).
- Oct: Bouk Ok Pansa (Buddhist Fast ends).
- 12 Oct: Day of Liberation.
- 2 Dec: National Day.
Pre-departure check list
- Itinerary & tickets
- Copy of your passport
- 2 methods of accessing your money, ie, ATM & credit card
- Bank account details & phone number
- Insurance company number
- Light clothing (summer months and the South )
- Warm clothing (Mountainous regions and the North in winter)
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Sunglasses, swimmers, sunscreen
- Insect repellent
- Personal Medical Kit
- Adaptor - 220V, 50Hz; 2 pin plugs
- Camera with charger/battery
- Camera memory card
- Small daypack