Laos

OVERVIEW
Laos is located in the centre of Indochina, sharing borders with China to the North, Myanmar to Northwest, Thailand to the West, Cambodia to the South and Vietnam to the East. Mekong River is the main geographical feature in the west and, in fact, forms a natural border with Thailand in some areas. The Mekong flows through nearly 1,900 kilometres of Lao territory and shapes much of the lifestyle of the people of Laos.

Laos, the Jewel of the Mekong, is rapidly becoming a new and exciting tourism destination. The country offers a diversity of unspoiled ethnic lifestyles and traditions, as well as some of the richest and most extensive ecosystems of the Indochina Region.

This land-locked mountainous country is gaining a reputation as an ecotourist destination. Its many rivers criss-crossing the country and unspoilt national parks are ideal for activities such as trekking, kayaking and caving. The capital, Vientiane, and the other major towns have been spared major modern developments with traditional and colonial architecture still dominant.

Laos has one of the most pristine natural landscapes in Southeast Asia. An estimated half of its woodlands consist of primary forest, in particular the tropical rainforest. In addition to its fascinating vegetation, Laos plays host to a diverse animal kingdom. Several exotic mammals are endemic such as leopard cats, Javan mongoose, goat antelopes as well as rare species of gibbons and linger, Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear and gaur.

A shopper’s paradise from high-end boutiques to humble market stalls, Laos is a haven for souvenir hunters. . Silk and cotton fabrics, objects made from wood (sculptures, cut-out figures), pottery and traditional instruments are part of the rich tapestry of Laotian craftsmanship. Both Luang Prabang and Vientiane are teeming with gorgeous boutiques showcasing high quality hand-woven textiles.

In Laos, wellness – both physical and mental – is holistic. The concept of a stress-free and contented life is nothing new. After all, this is a place many travellers have described as somewhere you can’t help but relax. Laos is where you will find a tranquillity rarely found elsewhere. Even better, this internal peace can be complemented with a physical well-being – why not try a traditional Lao massage. Thai massage is also readily available in many cities and with a wide range of spas, especially in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, you won’t have to travel far to pamper yourself.

 

DESTINATION INFO
This information has been compiled for your reference in good faith but please use this only as a general guide. We advise you to check with relevant authorities with regard to the latest requirement for passport, visa, travel advisory, entry restrictions, health requirements, local currency etc. as these are subjected to change with without prior notice and our information given below may not be as updated.


Best time to go: 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. The best time to visit Laos is between November and April. Though it’s warm and humid round the year, season from March to May is very dry and certain river trips are not possible. 

Visa: New Zealand passport holders can get a Tourist Visa on arrival at the Airport in Laos or at one of its specified border checkpoints. Visa can also be requested in advance from Laos Consulate in Canberra. Passport must be valid for at least 6 months from the expected date of departure from Laos. 

Currency: The Kip is the official currency of the Lao PDR and the following bank notes are currently in circulation: 500; 1,000; 2,000; 5,000; 10,000; 20,000 and 50,000 Kip. The best currencies to use when exchanging money are: US Dollars, Euros and Thai Baht. You can exchange your currency at the bank, airport or at a foreign currency exchange office. Visa is the most common credit card accepted. Master Card and American Express are accepted at most banks in the larger towns (such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang) and in the big hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops but it’s advisable to keep some amount of cash handy for petty expenses. 

Health: All water should be regarded as being potentially contaminated. Water used for drinking, brushing teeth or making ice should have first been boiled or otherwise sterilised. Milk is unpasteurised and should be boiled. Powdered or tinned milk is available and is advised. Avoid dairy products that are likely to have been made from unboiled milk. Only eat well-cooked meat and fish. Vegetables should be cooked and fruit peeled.

Bug repellent is highly recommended as dengue and few mosquito-related illnesses are quite prevalent in Laos. Health insurance is essential and should include cover for air evacuation. 

Food and drinks: Laotian food is based on fish, buffalo meat, pork, poultry and especially herbs. It is always being freshly prepared and not being preserved. Laotian food is very rich in vegetables and is often browned in coconut oil. Rice, sweet or sour or fermented, is the staple of Laotian food. Lap is a traditional dish. It consists of minced meat accompanied by citronella, onions, and spices and mixed with a fish sauce and roasted rice. Lap means “happiness and luck”. The sticky rice is always served with the hot sauce or a spicy fish or shrimp based sauce. Laotian cooking not only uses cultivated vegetables, but often wild fruit or vegetables picked from the forests are used. Laotian food has a unique flavour and some dishes can be a bit spicy. 

Safety & security: Like in any other part of the world, a few precautions need to be taken to avoid any problems. Please do not leave your bags unattended at any times. Please use safe deposit in your hotel room or Reception to keep your money or valuables including passport. When you leave the room, it is recommended that you lock your suitcase. It is also recommended to carry a copy of your passport including the visa page. 

Clothing: Casual and light clothes are recommended. Expect a tropical weather most of the times and therefore, shorts, t-shirts are advisable. Weather can be a bit cold during November and December and it is recommended to carry light woollens. In the evening, you can wear smart casuals for dinner. Please take good walking shoes with non-slip sole as you will be required to walk frequently during your sightseeing programs and sometimes on uneven surface.

When visiting temples (call “Wat”) you must be dressed decently and remove your shoes before you enter the religious buildings. Avoid wearing short and sleeveless shirts. When entering a Wat or a private home, it is customary to remove one’s shoes. In Lao homes raised off the ground, the shoes are left at the stairs. In traditional homes, one sits on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men usually sit with their legs crossed or folded to one side, women prefer solely the latter. Upon entering, guests may be served fruit or tea. These gestures of hospitality should not be refused. 

Language: The official language is Lao. English is fast becoming popular among local people but in smaller cities, you may not have a clear communication while shopping on road sides.

Gratuities: Most of the restaurants include service charge in the bills, hence you do not need to tip the waiters. Hotel Bell Boys, guides and your driver would expect some gratuities. Tipping is not mandatory but it is highly appreciated by the people who serve you. 

Airport tax: Generally your international air ticket should include airport tax on international departure. 

Internet: Internet access is available in Hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang only and work is in progress to connect other cities as well. 

Telephone: Dialling code for Laos is +856 and if you are calling New Zealand from Laos, the code is +64. Telephone numbers of Hotels arranged by us will be supplied to you in your itinerary.

Time Difference: Laos is 6 hours behind New Zealand from April to September and 5 hours from October to March. 

Photography: Taking photos of airports, government buildings and military establishments are prohibited. Please avoid taking photos of local ladies in traditional dresses as some of them can take an offence to it, which may have serious consequences. 

Electricity: Voltage supply in Laos is 220 volts and 2-pin or 3-pin (round pins) are used. Few Hotels have adapters available which you could borrow free of charge during your stay but it might be a good idea to carry one from home. Please visit this website for more information on plugs: http://kropla.com/electric2.htm

 

CITIES OF INTEREST

Luang Prabang
The ancient town of Luang Prabang is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site describing it as “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.” Considered as being the heart of Laotian culture, the tiny town is encircled by mountains and is at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. It’s Laos’ premier tourist destination and one of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful spot. Its palm-lined riverbanks, ochre daubed houses, terracotta roofs and saffron-robed monks all come together to form a picture postcard increasingly difficult to find in Southeast Asia.

Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom until administration was moved to Vientiane in 1545. It showcases its amalgamation of crumbling French architecture, glistening temples, extensive natural beauty and imparts on visitors an especially unique vibe. The city centre has most of the attractions with everything from former royal palaces to over 33 Wats (temples) in the vicinity. This former Royal capital still remains the main centre for Buddhist learning in Laos and is the perfect location for spiritual contemplation.

Littered with dozens of wats, colonial buildings and trading houses, its tree-lined banks, dotted with temple roofs and the rising peak of Mt Phousi, Luang Prabang has enchanted those who arrive by boat for centuries. Its peaceful feel masks its fascinating history of conquest and recapture, and only hints at the intricate culture and complex traditions that take place here every day.

With an outstanding range of restaurants, guesthouses and hotels, a gorgeous location and super-friendly people, it does have a frequent habit of wrecking tightly planned itineraries – be sure to allow at least a few days to really take this wonderful town in. 
 

Vientianne
With a population of just over half a million, Vientiane is the centre of Laos culture, commerce and administration and is considered as being “mad busy” in comparison with the other Laotian towns. Hugging a bend of the Mekong River, the low-rise capital of Laos is a quaint and easy-going place compared to Southeast Asia’s other frenetic capitals, looking more like a rambling collection of villages than a city. However, in the mere decade since Laos reopened its doors to foreign visitors, Vientiane has changed with dizzying rapidity; new businesses are popping up all over the place, and scores of old shade trees have been cut down to accommodate an ever-multiplying number of cars and motorbikes. The city’s history has been a turbulent one, frequently seen invasions and occupation by various forces.

The central boulevard is reminiscent of the Champ Elysees, another telling sign of the city’s French heritage. Vientiane is relatively small so moving around can de done with ease. Accessing sights such as Wat Sisaket, That Luang and Buddha Park, can be done by hiring a song-teow, a pushbike or even going on foot. As for dining out; fringing the Mekong River there are an abundance of inexpensive food choices with everything from Indian, Thai, French, and Mediterranean readily available.

Rice and vegetable fields are well hidden behind tree-lined pathways, where French-style buildings stand next to Buddhist monasteries and monuments, each telling a story of the country’s rich, cultural and somewhat troubled past. The city was rebuilt by the French after the Siamese army left it in virtual ruins in 1828. The local penchant for producing stomach-filling baguettes and fragrant coffee clearly shows that the influence of the French still lingers on.

 

Champassak
About 1400 years ago, Champasak was the centre of power in the lower Mekong basin, later a revered outpost of the Khmer Angkor empire and still later one of the three kingdoms to rule over the remains of Lane Xang. The city carries an interesting story about a queen who ruled over this region in mid-17th century.

Southern Champasak Province features the Four Thousand Islands, which are considered to be the largest complex of waterfalls and rapids in the world. Vat Phou temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which predates Angkor Vat in Cambodia, is one of Champasak’s main attractions and is considered one of the finest Angkor-inspired edifices outside of Cambodia.

The Mekong River north of Pakse (capital of Champasak province) opens the door to interesting cultural attractions, most notably silk weaving on Don Ko Island, a former French colonial administrative centre.

Rafting and kayaking through this amazing stretch of Mekong waterfalls, up to 14 km wide. Also not to be missed are the Irawaddy fresh water dolphins which can be seen from Don Kone island.

In northern Champasak Province, the Pu Xieng Thong National Protected Area recently opened a one-day trek led by village guides. The trek covers some of the major natural and cultural sites of Pu Khong Mountain, located inside the protected area, which is best known for its diversity of orchid and mushrooms species.

 

Xien Khouang (Plain of Jars)
In the northeast of Laos, is the province of Xieng-Khouang, which is becoming more and more famous among tourists to Southeast Asia, as it is the place to view the mysterious Plains of Jars. From the early 19th century until 1975, central Xieng-Khouang and the plain of jars was a recurring battle zone. It’s estimated that more bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, than in the Second World War. For much of its history, Xieng Khouang has been something of a battleground, the reason mostly due to its location, between the capitals of Laos and Vietnam. As it is a highland plain, the weather here is pleasantly cool, and during the end of the year, can get quite chilly at night.

The hundreds of giant stone jars, some as large as 3.25 metres high are strewn all over the plateau – carved out of solid hunks of rock from surrounding mountains, no one really knows why they are there. Theories range from the view that they were made to store wine for a huge party to celebrate the conquest of Pakhanh City (Xieng Khouang). Other archaeologists believe they were made to store dead human bodies, as was the practice of ancient believers. They are estimated to be 2,500 to 3,000 years old.

The countryside in Xieng Khouang is breathtakingly beautiful, untouched, and as of now, still not fully exploited by tourism. It offers the awesome beauty of high green mountains and rugged karst formations. Its distance off the main tourist paths is a main reason why Xieng Khouang has been kept so pristine. However, the number of visitors to the Plain of Jars – which Unesco is working to establish as a World Heritage Site – has been on the increase year after year.

The hot springs at Meuang Kham district are worth visiting, and Tham Piu cave is a sobering historical site, used as a bomb shelter by the villages during the Vietnam War. Because of the altitude (average 1200m) in Xieng Khouang, the climate is not too hot in the cool season and not too wet in the rainy season. Consisting of elevated green mountains and luxuriant valleys, the beautiful landscape is somewhat marred by the bomb craters. The war debris and unexploded bombs that are spread across the central and eastern areas of the province are the deadly legacy of the Vietnam War.

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