Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Pha That Luang
The Pha That Luang is the most important national monument in Laos, a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. The monument looks almost like a gilded missile cluster from a distance. Surrounding it is a high-walled cloister with tiny windows, added by King Anouvong in the early 19th century as a defence against invaders.
The temple is the site of a major festival held in early November.
Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a large area extending around Phonsavan from the southwest to the northeast where huge jars of unknown origin are scattered about in over a dozen groupings. There are three main sites available to visit, with site 1 the closest and containing the most jars.
The purpose of these possibly 2000-year-old jars remains a mystery and without any organic material - such as bones or food remains - there is no reliable way to date them. Archaeological theories and local myth suggest the enigmatic jars were used for burial purposes.
The jars weigh as much as six tonnes (6.6 tons) and have been fashioned from solid stone, which doesn't seem to have come from the area. Many of the smaller jars have been taken away by collectors, but there are still several hundred in the five major groups. Thong Hai Hin, the biggest and most accessible site, has two pavilions and toilets, as well as the largest jar on the plain.
Pak Ou Caves
The spectacular Pak Ou caves are justifiably lauded for their striking setting carved into a limestone cliff facing the river. The caves are crammed with Buddha images of all styles and sizes, but most represent the classic Luang Prabang standing Buddha. Trips can be arranged through guesthouses and tour operators.
Khone Phapheng is considered the largest waterfall (by volume) in Southeast Asia and is therefore a boast-worthy sight to visit. It's located at the southern end of Si Phan Don, an intricate network of islets where the Mekong fans out. Phan Don is also home to the rare Irrawaddy dolphins, which can be seen at the southern tip of Don Khon.
The falls are often included on the itinerary of dolphin-viewing day trips.
Wat Phu Champasak
Spread over the lower slopes of Phu Pasak (also known more colloquially as Phu Khuai), Wat Phu is small compared with the monumental Angkor-era sites in Cambodia or Thailand. But the tumbledown pavilions, ornate shiva-lingam sanctuary, enigmatic crocodile stone and tall trees that shroud much of the site in soothing shade give Wat Phu a mystical atmosphere.
This town cranks it up every year when pilgrims from near and far amass for Bun Wat Phu Champasak. During this three-day Buddhist festival (usually held in February) worshippers wind their way up and around Wat Phu Champasak, praying and leaving offerings; bands play traditional and modern music; young and old dance together; and Thai boxing, comedy shows and cockfights all add to the entertainment. Stands selling food and drink do a roaring trade along the road from town to Wat Phu and accommodation in town is booked out weeks in advance.
Festivals in Laos are generally linked to agricultural seasons or historical Buddhist holidays. A highlight is the Lunar New Year which begins in mid-April; the entire country comes to a halt and celebrates. Houses are cleaned, offerings are made in wats and everyone gets dowsed by water. Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival) takes place in May. It's an irreverent pre-Buddhist celebration with plenty of processions, music and dancing, accompanied by the firing of bamboo rockets to prompt the heavens to send rain. Bun Nam (Water Festival) in October is held in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet and, as well as water fights and general good-natured mayhem, there are highly competitive boat races on the Mekong. The week-long That Luang Festival in Vientiane in November has the whole repertoire of fireworks, candlelit processions and music.
When to go?
The best time to visit is between November and February, when it rains least and isn't too hot. This is also the main season for both national and regional bun (festivals). If you're heading up into the mountains, May and July can also be pleasant. Roads can be washed out during rainy season (July to October), but there are plenty of river travel opportunities. Peak tourist months are December to February and during August, although there are relatively few visitors at any time.
Travel Visa Overview
The Lao government issues 30-day tourist visas on arrival at nearly all of its official international border crossings and at the international airports at Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and most recently, Savannakhet. If you don't want, or aren't eligible for a visa on arrival, Lao embassies and consulates abroad offer 30-day tourist visas.
Japanese-style plug with two parallel flat blades
American-style plug with two parallel flat blades above a circular grounding pin
European plug with two circular metal pins
This mosquito-borne disease is becomingly increasingly problematic throughout Laos, especially in the cities. As there is no vaccine it can only be prevented by avoiding mosquito bites. The mosquito that carries dengue bites day and night, so use insect avoidance measures at all times. Symptoms include high fever, severe headache and body ache (dengue was once known as 'breakbone fever'). Some people develop a rash and diarrhoea. There's no specific treatment, just rest and paracetamol - do not take aspirin as it increases the likelihood of haemorrhaging. See a doctor to be diagnosed and monitored.
All travellers to Southeast Asia should be vaccinated against hepatitis A. This food- and water-borne virus infects the liver, causing jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), nausea and lethargy. There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A, you just need to allow time for the liver to heal.
The only sexually transmitted disease that can be prevented by vaccination, hepatitis B is spread by body fluids, including sexual contact. In some parts of Southeast Asia, up to 20% of the population are carriers of hepatitis B, and usually are unaware of this. The long-term consequences can include liver cancer and cirrhosis.
Hepatitis E is transmitted through contaminated food and water and has similar symptoms to hepatitis A, but is far less common. It is a severe problem in pregnant women and can result in the death of both mother and baby. There is currently no vaccine; prevention is by following safe eating and drinking guidelines.
Japanese B encephalitis
While a rare disease in travellers, at least 50,000 locals are infected with Japanese B Encephalitis each year in Southeast Asia. This viral disease is transmitted by mosquitoes. Most cases occur in rural areas and vaccination is recommended for travellers spending more than one month outside of cities. There is no treatment, and a third of infected people will die while another third will suffer permanent brain damage.
For such a serious and potentially deadly disease, there is an enormous amount of misinformation concerning malaria. You must get expert advice as to whether your trip actually puts you at risk. Many parts of Laos, particularly populated areas, have minimal to no risk of malaria, and the risk of side effects from the antimalaria medication may outweigh the risk of getting the disease. For some rural areas, however, the risk of contracting the disease far outweighs the risk of any tablet side effects. Remember that malaria can be fatal. Before you travel, seek medical advice on the right medication and dosage for you.
Malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito. The most important symptom of malaria is fever, but general symptoms such as headache, diarrhoea, cough, or chills may also occur. Diagnosis can only be made by taking a blood sample.
Two strategies should be combined to prevent malaria - mosquito avoidance, and antimalarial medications. Most people who catch malaria are taking inadequate or no antimalarial medication, and haven't taken effective measures to avoid and repel mosquitos.
Schistosomiasis (also called bilharzia) is a tiny parasite that enters your skin when swimming in contaminated water - travellers usually only get a light, symptomless infection. If you are concerned, you can be tested three months after exposure. On rare occasions, travellers may develop 'Katayama fever'. It can occur some weeks after exposure, as the parasite passes through the lungs and causes an allergic reaction - symptoms are coughing and fever. Schistosomiasis is easily treated with medications.
This is a fatal viral infection. Many animals can be infected (such as dogs, cats, bats and monkeys) and it's their saliva that is infectious. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap and running water, and then apply alcohol or iodine solution. Medical help should be sought promptly to receive a course of injections to prevent the onset of symptoms.
This serious bacterial infection is spread via food and water. It gives a high, slowly progressive fever and headache, and may be accompanied by a dry cough and stomach pain. It is diagnosed by blood tests and treated with antibiotics. Vaccination is recommended for all travellers spending more than a week in Southeast Asia, or travelling outside of the major cities. Be aware that vaccination is not 100% effective so you must still be careful with what you eat and drink.
The annual monsoon cycles that affect all of mainland Southeast Asia produce a 'dry and wet monsoon climate' with three basic seasons for most of Laos. The southwest monsoon arrives in Laos between May and July and lasts into November.
The monsoon is followed by a dry period (November-May), beginning with lower relative temperatures and cool breezes created by Asia's northeast monsoon (which bypasses most of Laos), lasting until mid-February. Exceptions to this general pattern include Xieng Khuang, Hua Phan and Phongsali Provinces, which may receive rainfall coming from Vietnam and China during the months of April and May.
Rainfall varies substantially according to latitude and altitude; the highlands of Vientiane, Bolikhamsai, Khammuan and eastern Champasak Provinces are wettest.
Temperatures also vary according to altitude. In the humid, low-lying Mekong River valley, temperatures range from 15°C (59°F) to 38°C (100.4°F), while in the mountains of Xieng Khuang the temperature can drop to 0°C (32°F) at night.
History and Culture
It's hard to think of any other country with a population as laid back as Laos. Baw pen nyǎng (no problem) could be the national motto. On the surface at least, nothing seems to faze the Lao and, especially if you're arriving from neighbouring China or Vietnam, the national psyche is both enchanting and beguiling. Of course, it's not as simple as 'people just smiling all the time because they're happy', as we heard one traveller describe it. The Lao national character is a complex combination of culture, environment and religion.
To a large degree 'Lao-ness' is defined by Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism, which emphasises the cooling of the human passions. Thus strong emotions are a taboo in Lao society. Kamma (karma), more than devotion, prayer or hard work, is believed to determine one's lot in life, so the Lao tend not to get too worked up over the future. It's a trait often perceived by outsiders as a lack of ambition. Lao commonly express the notion that 'too much work is bad for your brain' and they often say they feel sorry for people who 'think too much'. Education in general isn't highly valued, although this attitude is changing with modernisation and greater access to opportunities beyond Laos' borders. Avoiding any undue psychological stress, however, remains a cultural norm. From the typical Lao perspective, unless an activity - whether work or play - contains an element of múan (fun), it will probably lead to stress.
The contrast between the Lao and the Vietnamese is an example of how the Annamite Chain has served as a cultural fault line dividing Indic and Sinitic zones of influence. The French summed it up as: 'The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.' And while this saying wasn't meant as a compliment, a good number of French colonialists found the Lao way too seductive to resist, and stayed on.
Pre-20th Centure History
The country has long been occupied by migrating Thais (including Shans, Siamese and Lao) and Hmong/Mien hill tribes. The first Lao principalities were consolidated in the 13th century following the invasion of southwest China by Kublai Khan's Mongol hordes. In the mid-14th century, a Khmer-sponsored warlord, Fa Ngum, combined a number of scattered principalities around Luang Prabang to form his own kingdom, Lan Xang ('a million elephants'). The kingdom initially prospered, but internal divisions and pressure from neighbours caused it to split in the 17th century into three warring kingdoms centred on Luang Prabang, Wieng Chan (Vientiane) and Champasak.
By the end of the 18th century, most of Laos came under Siamese (Thai) suzerainty but the territory was also being pressured by Vietnam. Unable or unwilling to serve two masters, the country went to war with Siam in the 1820s. This disastrous ploy led to all three kingdoms falling under Thai control. By the late 19th century, France had established French Indochina in the Vietnamese provinces of Tonkin and Annam. The Thais eventually ceded all of Laos to the French, who were content to use the territory merely as a buffer between its colonial holdings and Siam.
During WWII, the Japanese occupied Indochina and a Lao resistance group, Lao Issara, was formed to prevent the return of the French. Independence was achieved in 1953 but conflict persisted between royalist, neutralist and communist factions. The USA began bombing North Vietnamese troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos in 1964, escalating conflict between the royalist Vientiane government and the communist Pathet Lao, who fought alongside the North Vietnamese. By the time a ceasefire was negotiated in 1973, Laos had the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in the history of warfare.
A coalition government was formed, but when Saigon fell in 1975, most of the royalists left Laos. The Pathet Lao peacefully took control of the country and the Lao People's Democratic Republic came into being in December 1975. Laos remained closely allied with the Vietnamese communists throughout the 1980s. Laos cemented ties with its neighbours when it was welcomed into ASEAN in July 1997.
By the late 1990s, the economy was in such poor shape - having experienced inflation of over 100% and a depreciation of the kip by more than 500% - that the resolutely socialist country did something they'd never done before. They devised a 'Visit Laos' campaign in order to attract the tourist dollar. Although it was not a huge success, the kip was dragged back from its death bed and inflation was reined in a little.
The economic crisis sparked some political unrest. A small student demonstration against the monopoly of political power by the LPRP was ruthlessly crushed and its leaders given long prison sentences. Lao dissidents in Thailand attacked a border customs post, provoking a swift Lao military response. A series of small bombings in Vientiane and southern Laos was also blamed on expatriate dissidents, while Hmong 'brigands' attacked transport in the north. The government responded by increasing security, and by 2004 the Hmong insurgency had all but collapsed.
Meanwhile the Lao tourist industry continued to grow. In 1995 Luang Prabang was placed on the Unesco World Heritage list, and Wat Phu, the ancient Khmer temple near Champasak, followed. Other parts of the country are opening up to ecotourism, including the Bolaven Plateau, the Plain of Jars, and the far north. An added attraction is that many of the country's colourful minority tribes live in these regions. Laos attracted 1.7 million tourists in 2008 (well over half of them Thai), and the figure is likely to rise.
Laos does not suffer severe population pressure, but there is a steady migration into the cities due to increasing disparities between urban and rural living standards. The government has shown little inclination to address this problem, or the abysmally low education standards, or poor health facilities for a rural population faced with diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. Some NGOs and foreign aid programs are trying to help, but human resources remain poorly developed.
© 2007 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.