When people think of Asia, they often overlook the country of Laos. This landlocked country remains one of Southeast Asia’s most charming yet elusive destinations. In Laos, Buddhism permeates every facet of life, change comes slowly, and folks bed down early. It makes the perfect getaway to break from office politics or put a pause in a super-packed travel itinerary. Open your heart and allow Lao’s mountains, raw natural beauty and warm hospitality of the Laotians bring you unrivalled peace and serenity. To help you with your trip, we have put together what you need to know to plan your Laos holiday.
Getting To Know Laos
Laos, the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia has its capital in Vientiane. With more than 236,000 square kilometres in area, the country has a population of just under 7 million. After the constitutional monarchy in 1976, Laos is one of the world’s last communist states and also one of the poorest countries in the world, relying heavily on aid.
Lowland Lao (Lao Loum) comprise approximately 70% of the population while upland Lao (Lao Theung) and highland Lao (Lao Soung) make up roughly 20% and 10% respectively. Chinese and Vietnamese are a small but economically significant portion of the population.
The national language used is Lao. It is a tonal language that is closely related to the Thai language, although the written scripts differ. English is the most spoken foreign language in the country.
Similar to its neighbours Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, Laos is a predominately a Buddhist country. However, a significant 30% of the population, especially those in the highlands, follow animist beliefs.
People & Culture
Lao people are generally frank and friendly. They treat everyone with kindness and respect and all who reciprocates in return will receive a warm welcome.
The generally accepted form of greeting among Lao people is the Nop. You can do it by placing your palms together in a praying position at your chest level. Note that your palms should not be touching your body. The higher the position of your hands, the greater the sign of respect for the recipient. However, your hands should not be held above the level of the nose. The nop is accompanied by a slight bow to show respect to persons of higher status and age. The nop is also used as an expression of thanks, regrets or simply saying goodbye. With foreigners, Laotians are generally ok to just shake hands.
The feet is considered the inferior part of the body (spiritually as well as physically). Hence, you must never touch or point to another person or object with your foot.
Best Time To Visit
For the most part of the year, you should be expecting hot and humid weather. Laos enjoys a tropical climate with two distinct seasons. The rainy season starts from May and ends off during September while the dry season takes over from October to April.
If you are thinking of heading to Lowland Laos, November to January would be your best time to visit. This period is when the daytime temperatures are comfortably warm, evenings are slightly chilly and the countryside is green and lush after the rains. However, you should also note that at higher elevations temperatures are significantly cooler and can sometimes dropping to freezing point. In February, the temperatures start to climb. By April and May, the temperature will peak at a maximum of 38 degrees Celsius making the lowlands unbearably hot and humid.
The highlands are, for the most part as hot as the lowlands. There are however spots such as Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau that enjoy a temperate climate year-round. Due to slash-and-burn agriculture, much of the north, including Luang Prabang, gets shrouded in smoke from March until the beginning of the monsoon, which is bad for your health and seriously affects your photography if that is your main focus.
The rainy season (May – September) have the tendency to make Laos’s unpaved roads almost impassable after the rains begin. However, they also allow rivers to rise to a level that makes boat transportation possible.
In its Capital – Vientiane, a minimum temperature of 19 degrees celsius is to be expected during January. In mountainous areas, however, the temperature drops to as low as 14-15 degrees celsius during the winter months, and during cold nights, it can easily reach the freezing point.
Entry Into The Country
Unless you hold a passport from Japan or one of the ASEAN member states, you’ll need a visa to enter Laos. The good news is that you probably won’t need to arrange it in advance; thirty-day visas are now available on arrival at most international borders. Note that all visitors must hold a passport that is valid for at least six months from the time of entry into Laos.
Visas on arrival take just a few minutes to process, cost around $35, and are available to passengers flying into Luang Prabang Airport, Pakse Airport and Wattay Airport in Vientiane.
Extending Your Stay
Visa extensions are fairly easy to obtain. However, you will need to plan ahead to avoid overstaying your visa as there is currently a $10 penalty for each extra day you spend in the country. The cheapest option is to visit the immigration office on Hatsady Road in Vientiane before your visa expires. Here, visa extensions are issued at the cost of $2 per day and the maximum length of an extension is fifteen days.
Alternatively, you can also choose to leave the country and enter again (which might work out cheaper if you’re planning to extend by twenty days or more) or pay a local travel agent to arrange the visa extension for you. Generally, this is more expensive, with most vendors charging around $4 per extra day required. Thirty-day business visas that have the potential to be extended can also be arranged in advance at the Lao embassies and consulates listed below.
Currency & Exchange
The Kip is the official currency of the Lao PDR and the following banknotes are currently in circulation: 500; 1,000; 2,000; 5,000; 10,000; 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000 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.
We hope you will enjoy your stay in this wonderful country! Do share with us your experience in the comments section below too!