Sandwiched by Thailand and Vietnam, this landlocked country is yet an undiscovered destination in Southeast Asia. Boasting with wild nature, scenic waterfalls, and a peaceful environment, Laos lacks the attention of many travelers. It is a country a lot of people fall in love with, but I didn’t have a good experience there. I wish I did better research but based on my experience you don’t have to. Here are some of the important travel tips you need to know before you visit Laos.
Essential Laos travel tips
Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a socialist state bordered by Myanmar, China, and Cambodia apart from Thailand and Vietnam. During the 14th-18th centuries, Laos was one of the largest kingdoms in the region and because of its convenient geographical location, it was a hub for overland trade.
Despite the fact that Laos is landlocked, it has the so-called 4,000 islands or Si Phan Don in the Mekong River nestled in the south of the country. It’s a cluster of islets with lots of soft sandy shores.
Unfortunately, internal conflict rose and the Lan Xang Kingdom was divided into three separate kingdoms – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Champasak. Afterward, at the near end of the 19th century, these territories came under a French protectorate; hence the French influence in many cultural and historical landmarks all around the country. This protectorate united the kingdoms to form what today is Laos.
In the middle of the 20th century, Laos was an independent country with constitutional monarchy. Soon, a post-independence civil war began with communist resistance supported by the Soviet Union, fighting against the monarchy that later was supported by the United States. When the Vietnam War ended, the communist party came into power and ended the civil war. This time the country depended on economic and military aid from the Soviets until 1991.
The capital: Vientiane
Population: 7 million (estimate)
Official language: Lao (French is a recognized language)
Writing system: Lao script
Currency: Kip (LAK)
Do you need a visa?
Getting a visa to Laos is a very convenient and easy process. The country offers visas on arrival for most of the countries; some African and Middle Eastern countries do need to apply for the visa beforehand. Otherwise, show up at the border, fill out an application, pay, and wait for around 10 minutes to receive your 30-day tourist visa.
The visa costs between $30-45 and depends on where you are from. Here are the documents you’ll need to have with you at the border:
- 1 passport photo (4 x 6 cm) – if you don’t have one, you can make it on the spot for an extra $1-2 charge.
- Additional $1 as a service charge
- Reservation of accommodation
- Filled application of arrival and departure. Keep the latter safe, the immigration will ask you for the departure form when leaving.
!!! Important info !!!
The government has made changes in 2020 on where to issue a 30-day visa on arrival. If you are flying in any of the Lao airports, you are good. However, the majority change comes on land borders. This is the list where you can get a visa on arrival when crossing the land border:
- Mohan – Boten, Yunnan to Luang Namtha Province (China)
- Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge I, Nong Khai-Vientiane Capital (Thailand)
- Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge II, Moukdahan-Savannakhet Province (Thailand)
- Thanaleng Railway Station (Thailand)
- Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge III, Nakom Phanom-Thakhek (Thailand)
- Chongmek – Vangtao, Ubol Ratchathani to Champasack Province (Thailand)
- Chiangkhong – Houixay, Chiang Rai to Bokeo Province (Thailand)
- Trapaingkriel – Veun Kham, Stung Treng Province to Champasack Province (Cambodia)
- Lao Bao – Dansavanh, Quang tri to Savannakhet Province (Vietnam)
If these changes make a bit of a headache, you can apply for an e-visa which will be issued at five international spots. See the list of the countries and get all the relevant information.
Is Laos safe to travel to?
Laos is a safe country to visit. Vigorous crime against travelers is very rare. The most common thread to travelers is petty crime such as pickpocketing. It often happens in busy market areas, so as a general rule be cautious and always keep an eye on your belongings when walking and traveling with public transport.
Even though Lao people are friendly and kind, don’t leave your valuable things unattentive or leave money visible in your hotel’s room.
Several wars in Laos had left unexploded bombs in the country. Despite the fact that they are mostly in rural areas, make sure to always be on the marked trail and don’t go for a solo hike in the wilderness. Especially be cautious around the Plain of Jars and pay attention to markers and signs.
The most frequent trouble foreigners get in Laos is connected with drugs and sex industries. The country has very strict rules for whoever disrespects the law, so don’t get tangled up in them.
Make copies of your documents, passports, and ID and carry them with you. And most importantly make sure to get proper travel insurance when traveling around Southeast Asian countries. No one knows when this might come in handy. I recommend SafetyWing for its flexibility and affordable prices.
Best time to visit Laos
Laos is an all-year-round destination. Nevertheless, the most common time to visit Laos is when the weather is coolest, between November and January. North Laos gets quite breezy during the evenings at this time of the year, so be prepared if you plan on exploring that part of the country.
March and April see the hottest days in Laos, sometimes even resulting burnt fields, smoky and humid air. The rainy season starts from May and lasts till June, however afternoon showers might last till September, thus, pack a raincoat.
Lao festivals to attend:
- Pi Mai Lao or the Lao New Year celebrated in a water fight as in Thailand – April
- Rocket Festival – May
- Boun Awk Pansa, or end of the monks’ three-month fast – October
- Boat racing festival – October
How to get to Laos
Visit Laos by air
Depending on where you plan on traveling from, flying into the country might be the most convenient option to visit Laos. The country has a total of three airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Pakse.
Thus, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the prices could be quite high. Read my tips on how to find cheap airline tickets, you might be able to save some money.
Visit Laos by land
As Laos doesn’t have access to water, the other way to visit Laos is by crossing the border from one of its neighboring countries such as China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Here is your guide to traveling from Cambodia to Laos with a bus, for instance.
However, as the government changed checkpoints issuing visa on arrival, please take a look at the Do You Need a Visa section above!
Laos travel tips: Know before you go
Is Laos expensive?
Similar to other Southeast Asian countries, Laos is affordable with relevant prices on food and accommodation. However, compared to Thailand or Cambodia, for instance, I found Laos a bit expensive. It’s fairly possible to get by with $15-20 a day but to feel more comfortable aim for up to $30 per day. The daily budget increases if you’ll do lots of guided tours.
Do Laotians speak English?
English is not very widespread in Laos. Except for Vientiane, we had a hard time finding people who spoke English. So, we got by gestures and naming the city names at bus stations or to the drivers. Those who work in the tourism sector are more likely to speak the language. Once there, buy Laos sim card to ease the communication with locals with various apps or get directions while wandering through the streets of various cities.
Learn basic words in the Lao
Lao is closely related to Thai, so if you know some basics of Thai, you can manage to make your way. make some sense of the words. However, unlike Thai, you don’t need to add polite gender adding.
- Saibaidee – Hello
- Khop Jai or Khop Chai – Thank you
- Khaw Toot – Excuse Me
- Doi – Yes
- Baw – No
- La Gon – Goodbye
Where to go in Laos
As Laos is still an undiscovered country, the tourist infrastructure is limited. However, it is home to beautiful nature, ancient architecture, and gorgeous waterfalls. While there are plenty of places to visit in Laos, these are the must-sees:
Laos travel tips on getting around the country
Laos has various means of public transportation, however, most of them are quite slow, while the roads may be unpaved or even flooded.
We found the transportation system in Laos very chaotic, especially local buses when traveling through the country. Additionally, we noticed that ticket prices for various destinations in bus stations were a bit more expensive than at the travel agency’s advertising stands you see in the streets.
Moreover, there were several occasions when the cashier at the bus station told us that in order to get to my destination, we need to go back to the capital and then take the direct bus from there as the station was serving buses to that particular region. Therefore, the only option was to stand at the road and wave to the first bus that would drive by.
Also, in such cases, the driver wouldn’t tell you that there were no seats and the bus was packed. Once you get on and the bus drives, you notice that you need to either sit on a plastic chair placed on the aisle or whatever extra space you can find.
The best way to get within cities of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, or Pakse, is to rent a bicycle. Always ask for the helmet and lock. There are no bike racks in Laos and it’s very rare it will be stolen, but to be on the safe side put the lock through the frame and back wheel.
Tuk-tuks are the best alternative for smaller groups as its cheaper than taxis. If you are going for sightseeing outside, ask them to wait for you if needed and only pay after returning to the city. Also, agree on the price upfront, otherwise, they might rip you off.
Songthaews follow a set of the route but at irregular intervals, they are like minibusses for locals and one of the cheapest ways to get around the city or a village. However, do note that sometimes you might be riding with school kids, or farmers bringing rice bags, or buckets of fish.
To get on the songthaew, wave at the driver as you would for a taxi. And to ask to stop either call out ‘Yout’ (Lao for stop) or knock on the back window.
VIP overnight buses
There are overnight double-decker VIP buses running between the major cities. The ticket costs around 150,000 LAK and it’s a great alternative to wake up in another city the next day, while sleeping in an air-conditioned bus, with toilet on board and blankets, and pillows provided. If you plan on using these buses, pack your own snacks, eye mask, sleeping meds, or earplugs; the conductor will pass out water. Take off your shoes the moment you board and put them in a bag.
Minivans are a great choice for a smoother and faster ride for around 50,000 LAK. Show up at the bus station and look for the minivan to your destination. Bulky bags and backpacks go on top of the van. They will be safe but might be treated a bit vigorously. Don’t leave your valuables in those bags. One downside of these minivans is that it leaves only when the van is full, VERY FULL. And similar to songthaews, locals might be bringing small animals, produce, or children on board and overpacking the vehicle. One tip I can give you about minivans is that take the very first one that leaves at 7 or 7:30 a.m. At this time it’s almost never packed and leaves on time to avoid rush hours.
Other practical things to know before you visit Laos
One of the Laos travel tips to note is that tap water isn’t safe to drink. It’s better to buy bottled water or pack a reusable bottle and fill it up at the hotel or designated spots. In the main cities, it is okay to brush your teeth with tap water, but be careful not to swallow.
Outlets in Laos have flat or two-prong round sockets and uses 230V AC electricity. If you are coming from Europe or North American, no adapter is needed. However, to be on the safe side pack a travel adaptor to charge all your electronic gear.
Money and ATMs
One of the important Laos travel tips to know is that cash is the main method for paying goods. ATMs are available but scarcely, even in the larger and popular cities. And even then, you need to be careful when using ATMs in Laos, my card almost got swallowed. So either withdraw enough cash at once or bring the cash with when entering the country. You can pay with cards at restaurants, hotels, and shops catering to the tourists.
Another thing that confuses many is the extra zeroes on the banknotes. Laos currency uses thousands, so you’ll easily feel like a LAK millionaire when withdrawing or exchanging $100-111 depending on the rate. As elsewhere count your money when exchanging at kiosks, you might be fulled and given less.
The maximum amount you can withdraw per transaction is from 700,000 to 2 million LAK, with a withdrawal fee charged to your card. The fee amount and withdrawal limit depends on the provider and sometimes it’s not even shown on the screen of the ATM. The fee may be anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 LAK.
One of the scams to avoid a super high withdrawal fee is to let the machine charge you in the local currency and not of your home currency.
Laos travel tips on what to eat
Lao cuisine is very related to Thai meals as they share many similar authentic meals. If you want to learn more about traditional meals, opt for one of the cooking classes.
Meals to try:
- Khao Niam – sticky rice as a side dish
- Laab – minced meat salad with lime, garlic, and herbs
- Papaya salad – made from fish sauce and unripe papaya
- Mok Pa – steamed fish in banana leaves
Drinks to try:
- Lao Lao – rice whiskey
- Berrlao – local beer
- Nam saa – local tea
- Grilled coconut – one of the unique drinks to try in Laos
Do’s and don’ts in Laos
Women don’t touch monks
As monks are very respected people in Lao culture because of their spirituality, women are not allowed to touch them. It’s very disrespectful and not something I agree with, but it’s part of the Lao culture.
Limit your PDA
Lao people are conservative and showing affection and touching in the public is considered rude. Also, touching a Laotian that you don’t know is also rude.
Use your feet only for walking
What I mean by this is that in Laos, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, feet are the dirtiest part of the body, therefore pointing with it towards a Buddha statue is absolutely unacceptable. Also, stepping over people in parks to find the spot for you is also considered rude and impolite.
Don’t criticize the government
Freedom of expression almost doesn’t exist in Laos, criticizing the local government, the party, communism, or the unlimited layers of the bureaucracy is not tolerated here.
Prepare for the trip
To ease your travel planning, check out all the posts about Laos travel. Additionally, here are some of the websites and services I use when preparing for my next adventure anywhere in the world.
– Book affordable flights on Kiwi.com, a platform that shows the best routes and flight deals to your destination. There’s a money-back guarantee if you miss the flight!
– Check iVisa to see if you need a tourist visa to visit Laos, how to apply online if applicable, or where’s the nearest embassy or consulate
– Find budget-friendly deals on all sorts of accommodation types on Booking and Agoda, or find a cool apartment on Airbnb and get $34 off on your first stay (my invite expires in 30 days after you sign up!
– Buy the most flexible and budget-friendly travel insurance, SafetyWing, to cover all sorts of health problems on the road
– Book in advance some of the best city walks, cultural experiences, and day tours to maximize your stay and experience here