Over the past couple of years Laos has gone from a poor, unvisited, off the beaten path country to one that is very quickly catching up behind the likes of Thailand and Malaysia. Whilst Laos is still classed as a developing country, its average of 4 million foreign visitors every year are helping put Laos firmly on the tourist trail!
There is an established tourism industry within Laos and foreigners are not just accepted but welcomed with very open arms by the Laos people, however very much like Cambodia I feel like there are some areas that are being worked on and overtime Laos will be on par with some of the other SE asian countries.
In this post I will be going into some of the more practical details that may find yourself needing to know if you plan on visiting Laos to make your trip run smoothly!
- The official name of the country is ‘Lao People’s Democratic Republic’ often shortened to just ‘Laos PDR’
- The country has been a socialist state since 1975, one of just five countries left in the world, still be under this a communist regime.
- Laos is in the GMT+7 time zone so its 7 hours or London, or 12 hours ahead of New York! There is no daylight savings time observed in the country, so it stays that time all year round.
- The countries dialling code is +856.
- Theravada Buddhism is the most common religion of the state.
Getting into Laos
Laos is a landlocked country, located dead centre in the middle of main land South East Asia, so is assessable from all its surrounding neighbours. Laos has big borders with Thailand and Vietnam and small borders with China, Myanmar and Cambodia.
There are just 3 international airports in Laos; Wattay Int, which is in the capital Vientaine, Luang Prabang Int. which is location in the north of the country and Attapeu which is in the far south. There are also a dozen smaller, domestic only airports located throughout the country that connect people in this difficult to travel country much faster.
All 3 international airports run daily flights to neighbouring countries, with carriers such as China Eastern, Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines operating daily routes. In addition there are also many daily domestic routes that are flown with the flag carrier Lao Airline.
Whilst in Laos I was able to experience a domestic flight with Lao Airline, my route took me from Pakse in the south of the country all the way up to Luang Prabang in the north. The journey I made would have easily have taken 12 hours or more by road, however the flight instead took just 90 minutes.
Above: Lao Airlines typically operate turbo props for their shorter domestic routes, such as the ATR-72, they also have a couple of 737’s in their fleet. This ATR was the ride I hitched to get up to Luang Prabang! – © Lewis Pickthall 2020.
Overall I had a really positive experience with Lao Airlines, the service was on time and departed without any delay. Onboard the crew were great even handing out a couple in flight snacks. The cabin was very quiet with just 30 or so passengers on the entire flight.
There are several overland borders that as a foreigner you can use to cross in and out of the country.
I actually crossed at the Dong Calor – Veun Kham crossing and arrived into the Champasak Province, right at the bottom of the country. Along with the group that I was with, we crossed over in the early afternoon and apart from a handful of other tourists we were the only people at the border crossing. It also only took about 20 minutes to organise everyones visa that we needed to get in, which were prepared right in front of us.
Its important to know that not at very border can you obtain a visa on arrival if you need one and some you require one in advance!
Although I didn’t have any experience of travelling by river, I found out that you can actually take a slow boat from somewhere near the Thai border all the way to Luang Prabang, right down the Mekong River!. The slow boat is an option that many tourists favour over the more conventional road journey.
Although I haven’t done it myself and therefore don’t really know the full detail of it, this article from Nomadasauras details the journey very well!
Whats The Visa Situation?
Unless you are a national of one of Laos neighbours or one of a very small handful of other countries that are granted visa free access, you will have to get a visa to enter Laos!
You can obtain a visa to get into the country through a couple of ways, you can get an electronic visa (eVisa) online prior to travel by going to this link, you can go to a Laos consulate and get a physical sticker visa from there, or if you are already on the road and entering Laos through a border or airport, you can get a visa on arrival.
If like me you go for the visa on arrival method, then at the border you are required to fill out visa application form and give the border guard your visa fee in US dollars along with a passport size photo of yourself! The visa fee depends on your nationality but won’t be anymore than $42.
Above: Here is that Laos visa that was stuck in my passport, its a pretty smart looking visa, whoever Souphaphet Keobandidth is did a good job! – © Lewis Pickthall 2020
The visa for me as a British citizen cost $35 with a $2 ‘admin’ fee on top of that (that was basically $2 that went in the border guards back pocket!). Be sure to have a couple of empty pages in your passport for the visa and stamps!
For more information on visa fees for your nationality and whether you can get a visa on arrival at your planned crossing or if you need a visa in advance click here.
Getting around Laos
As I mentioned further up in the post, it pretty much takes a long time to get anywhere in Laos! There is an extensive road network throughout the country, however much of it has to go over huge mountain passes and also areas that are just dirt roads!
At the time of visiting it was clear that Laos was getting some pretty hefty investment from the likes of Japan and China. China alone have invested millions of dollars into the design and construction of a cross country high speed train line, making it possible to slash journey times massively, but the project was nowhere near completion at the time of myself visiting!
Above: I entered southern Laos first at the Dong Calor – Veun Kham crossing, then following a very short drive arrived at a place called Don Det island for a night before heading to Pakse the next day, where I flew to the north – © Apple Maps 2020
Above: I flew from Pakse to Luang Prabang in the north and was there a couple of nights, I also headed out to the Kuang Si waterfalls one of the days. From Luang Prabang I headed to Vang Vieng and then Vientiane before leaving Laos at the Vientiane-Nong Khai border crossing! – © Apple Maps 2020
As also mentioned up above, many people make use of the countries national carrier Lao Airlines in order to fly domestically and avoid the long journeys! Having experienced flying with the carrier myself, I can vouch that is it a much nicer and quicker travelling experience!
From my own personal experience of travelling in Laos by multiple methods of transport, I can tell you that if you were to undertake the following journeys, you can expect the rough travel times of the following duration..
- Dong Calor – Veun Kham crossing to Pakse: 3 hours by road nonstop
- Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng: 5 hours by road
- Luang Prabang to Suang Si waterfalls: 45 mins each way by tuk tuk
- Vang Vieng to Vientaine: 4.5 hours by road
- Vientaine to Laos-Thailand crossing: 45 mins by road, then 5 minutes by train
- Pakse to Luang Prabang flight: 1.5 hours by plane
Its important to know that these road journey times were all early departures and on small mini-busses that were good for the very winding roads, doing this journey on a big bus would take much longer!
The flight was also on time, being one of only a couple of flights to depart Pakse airport that day!
As you may of sussed out already, the people in Laos speak Lao! They also use the Laos writing script throughout the country. Much like the Khmer script of Cambodia, as a foreigner the Laos writing script looks pretty alien and it looks like something that you have no chance understanding.. and this is pretty much the case! Luckily, on the main tourist trail you will see most signs wrote in english as well as Laos.
Above: This is what the Lao script looks like, it doesn’t really match anything that you have ever seen in English before! – © Omniglot 2020
Throughout my visit to Laos, I found that more locals that I thought actually understood English really well. Having been a former French colony I would have expected people more likely to know French, but this wasn’t the case at all!
Although you can get by in the country with English and a LOT of pointing/making shapes with your hands in the air! It also doesn’t help to learn a few Lao one word phrases…
- Hello – ‘Sabaidi’ (pronounced ‘sa-ba-dee’)
- Thank you – ‘Khob Chai’ (pronounced ‘khab chai’)
- Yes – ‘Doi’ (pronounced ‘doy’)
- No – ‘Bo’ (pronounced ‘bow’)
- Restroom – ‘Hongn Am’ (pronounced ‘hong-um yam’)
- Doctor – ‘Than Mo’ (pronounced ‘fan mow’)
Its worth mentioning that you generally put your hands together in a praying position, close to your chest and bow you head slightly when you say hello or thank you too!
To learn a bit more about the Laos language from Omniglot, click here
What currency do I need?
The ‘Kip’ is the currency of Laos and this is the favoured currency to pay with, US dollars may also be accepted by some places. Much like the Cambodian Riel it’s a closed currency and therefore cannot be exchanged outside of the country. When you get into Laos, get to a bank or a reliable ATM and withdraw some money, as you can’t exchange it once you leave you don’t really want to be stuck with a load of money, unless you visit a currency exchange and get ‘legally robbed’ by the commission!
Rates do fluctuate slightly from time to time, but £1 is worth roughly 11000 Kip. I just generally rounded it to £1=10000 Kip when I visited, more for simplicity when trying to work things out.
Above: Here a couple of Kip notes that I kept hold of from my trip to Laos, the notes come in denominations of thousands, when you have some in your hand just think of every 10000 as a £1! – © Lewis Pickthall 2020
Prices for goods will be displayed with either ‘Kip’, ‘LAK’ (the international recognised code for the currency.. a bit like GBP, USD etc.) or ‘ກີບ’ (Kip in Laotian) at the end of the number. As with other countries in the region, some places like markets won’t even have price tags so its more likely the owner will just throw a number at you, ‘10000’, ‘20000’ and so on.
Like the other countries in the South East Asian region the US dollar is also accepted in many places as means of payment, if you decide to pay in US dollars you will have to use new, un-torn and un-defaced notes otherwise they will not be accepted! I only had to pay in US dollars once during my visit and this was simply due to not having enough local currency left. After paying I received my change back in Laos Kip.
Another alternative to cash completely is using a card, which I found to be very common in Vientiane, as well as some nicer bars and restaurants in Luang Prabang.
How much do things cost?
South East Asia as a whole (excluding Singapore of course!) is cheap and Laos is just about the cheapest out of the countries in the region I’ve visited!
Meals and drinks were the equivalent of a couple of dollars pretty much everywhere I went, even in the capital where like every country in the world are usually the most expensive places in a country. The only place I noticed an slight exception to this was some of the bars in Luang Prabang that were on the side of the river and these were a bit more expensive, but nothing to get hung up on!
If you are interested in getting a full list of typical prices for things in the capital city, click here.
How can I stay in touch?
As long as you have unlocked your phone beforehand, it is very easy to acquire a local SIM card once you are in the country. The network I had recommenced to me by Lao locals and the one that I went with was called Unitel, I later found out that it is also one of the more popular networks in the country.
Above: This is the logo you need to look out for to find a SIM card in Laos! It may also be on a bright orange background too! – © Unitel 2020
The way the SIM cards work in the country is, you buy the card which you put into your phone like any other SIM card. Once you have the card in your phone you then need to top up the phone with little top up cards. These cards are basically little slips of card that have a scratch-able surface on them, you scratch the surface off and then it has a code on it that you put into your phone. You can find these top up cards as well as the actual SIM cards pretty much everywhere, just look for the logo above!
Unfortunately all the instructions for how to put the top up onto your phone are in Laos, so what I recommend doing (and also what I ended up doing!) is just going down into the reception of where you are staying and asking them if they can help you top your phone up.
I found that once topped up with $3 of credit, I could use my phone up to 4G speeds for a couple of days worth of normal usage. My usage involved Whatsapp calls, video streaming and a pretty heavy amount of social media usage too!
A few other details from my experience…
Drugs: Also drugs are prevalent pretty much anywhere you go in the world, I usually don’t notice it as much when I am in the South East Asian region (usually due to the really serious consequences if you are caught with them in these countries!)
Unfortunately I saw a hell of a lot of drug use when out and about throughout Laos, that bad people were even taking ‘things’ out in the open in bars and clubs etc. Without trying to sound like someones nagging parent, just don’t do them.. definitely not worth the risk out in Loas where the death penalty is legal for drug trafficking and possession!
Corruption: Noticed this a lot in Cambodia too, but there is a lot of corruption within Laos. If you are prompted to pay for some arbitrary fine, refuse to pay it unless you get a receipt. By getting proof of payment for the fine, it means that the official can’t just pocket the money for themselves!
Lao Time: I heard this saying quite a lot in Laos, very much like Thai time.. but, well.. for Laos! It basically means that things in Laos go off their own time, that means things are either slow, or late! Regardless you’ve just got to go with the flow when you are in Laos, the advice in this post will help you understand little things, but once you are in the country you have to accept that things will sometimes not quite go to exact plan!
I hope this post has been of some use to anyone who is planning on visiting Laos in the future!
As one of the less visited countries in the South East Asian region and also one of the poorest I really hope that in the future that more people visit this very interest and unique country and see what it has to offer.
Have you been to Laos in the past? If so let know in the comments what your experience was, good or bad!