Tourism / Transport
The tourism sector has grown rapidly, from 80,000 international visitors in 1990, to 1.876 million in 2010. Tourism is expected to contribute US$679.1 million to the gross national product in 2010, rising to US$1.5857 billion by 2020. In 2010, one in every 10.9 jobs was in the tourism sector. Export earnings from international visitors and tourism goods are expected to generate 15.5 percent of total exports or US$270.3 million in 2010, growing in nominal terms to US$484.2 million (12.5 percent of the total) in 2020.
The official language of Laos is Lao, a tonal language closely related to Thai. Thanks to ubiquitous Thai broadcast media most Lao understand Thai fairly well, and some have adopted certain Thai words for tourist use, including farang ("Westerner". Does not apply to foreign Asians).
But it's worth learning a few basic expressions in Lao. The Lao people obviously appreciate that you make an effort even if it is quite limited. French, a legacy of the colonial days, still features on a few signs and is understood by a few people as it used to be a compulsory subject at school. However, the presence of English has also grown in recent years, with many younger people learning it. As a result, youth will generally know some basic English, though proficiency is generally poor.
The key attraction of Laos is its undoubted status as the least westernised, the most relaxed and thereby the most authentic of all Indochinese nations. How much longer this will last is open to much speculation, but while it does this is a truly special and unique country to visit.
Northern Laos (Ban Nalan Trail, Bokeo Nature Reserve, Houay Xai, Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Muang Ngoi Neua, Muang Long, Muang Ngeun, Muang Xay, Nong Khiaw, Pakbeng, Vieng Phoukha) Hilltribe villages, mountains, and the remarkably charming former capital.
Central Laos (Plain of Jars, Paksan, Phonsavan, Tha Khaek, Vang Vieng, Vieng Xai, Vientiane) Southeast Asia's sleepiest capital city and rural countryside.
Southern Laos Champasak, Pakse, Savannakhet, Si Phan Don. The Mekong flatlands, more mountains, and the area least-visited by tourists.
- Ban Nalan Trail — a two-day ecotourism trek in the north of Laos
- Champasak — Wat Phu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with Angkor-style Khmer temples
- Nong Khiaw — beautiful karst cliffs where you can discover hilltribe villages, kayak, bike ride or just hang out
- Plain of Jars — Iron Age cemetery sites located near Phonsavan; also one of the main locations to learn about the "Secret War".
- Si Phan Don — the "four thousand islands" are nestled within the Mekong near the Cambodian border
- Vang Vieng — backpacker hangout for exploring limestone caves and tubing on the Nam Song river
- Vieng Xai — remote cultural oasis and symbolic cradle of Marxism; see the caves where the Pathet Lao leaders ran their operations in defiance of the West
The term wilderness is much misused, but it can truly be applied to much of Laos. The mighty Mekong river and its tributaries together create perhaps the single most important geographic feature of the country. Its meandering path in the North has created some of the most stunning limestone karsts anywhere on earth. The backpacker-central town of Vang Vieng is a commonly used base for exploring the karsts. Further north, the terrain becomes more hilly, and the jungle less explored. Luang Namtha is the far-northern town which makes the best base for those visitors who really want to see the truly remote Lao wilderness, and directly experience the lifestyles of the various hill tribes in this region.
In direct contrast to Northern Laos, the Mekong delta lowlands in the South are perfectly flat. Si Phan Don (four thousand islands) is a great base for experiencing what is surely the most chilled and relaxed region anywhere in Asia. Experiencing local village life, taking it all in and doing absolutely nothing should be the aim here. There are though some wonderful river-based sights, including the largest falls anywhere in Southeast Asia. If you are lucky you might get a close-up view of a Mekong pink dolphin.
In this most Buddhist of nations, it is no surprise that temples are a key attraction. In the capital city of Vientiane, the three-layered gilded stupa of Pha That Luang is the national symbol and most important religious monument in the country, dating from the 16th century. There are numerous other beautiful temples which on their own make a stay in the capital city vital for any visitor to Laos.
The whole of the ancient capital of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Befitting that status, this is a truly unique city. Beautifully preserved gilded temples with their attendant orange-robed monks mold almost seamlessly with traditional wooden Lao houses and grand properties from the French colonial era. Spotlessly clean streets with a thriving café culture on the banks of the Mekong and the Nam Khan, complete the picture of a city which is almost too pleasant to be true.
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape dating from the Iron Age. Thousands of stone jars are scattered over a large area of the low foothills near Phonsavan. The main archaeological theory is that the jars formed part of Iron Age burial rituals in the area, but this is by no means proven, and a great deal of mystery remains. The area suffered tragic damage from American bombing during the Secret War of the 1960s, and much UXO remains uncleared. When that process is complete it is very likely this will be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Wat Phu is a ruined Hindu Khmer temple complex in Champasak province. It dates from the 12th century and visitors who have been to Angkor Wat will notice the similarities.
- Herbal Sauna. One Laotian experience definitely worth trying is the herbal sauna. Often (but not always) run by temples, these are simple-looking affairs, often just a rickety bamboo shack with a stove and a pipe of water on one side, usually open only in the evenings.
- Hiking in mountainous Northern Laos is popular, and this often includes homestays in minority tribe villages. The main hub for this is Luang Namtha where the two day Ban Nalan Trail is especially notable. The route goes through the Nam Ha National Protected Area, and involves staying in Khmu villages. Other hiking hubs include Oudomxay, south of Luang Namtha, and Pakse in southern Laos
- Kayaking. Can be arranged in a wide number of locations. The ambitious traveller could kayak the Mekong between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
- Rock Climbing. The limestone karst formations in Northern Laos are ideal for rock climbing. Vang Vieng is the main rock-climbing centre but climbs are also possible further north at Nong Khiaw and Mung Ngoi.
- Tubing. Floating down the river on a large inflatable tube is one of the attractions of the SE Asia backpacker circuit. The hugely popular stretch of the Nam Song at Vang Vieng is lined with bars that lure you and your tube in with ziplines, water slides, loud music, buckets of terrible local whiskey, and unlimited Beerlao. After numerous tourist deaths, crackdowns on Vang Vieng tubing were announced in Aug 2012. Since then, many river bars have been closed down along with their flying foxes and rope swings. Tubing is still possible, but it's now a lot quieter. Whether this is a long or short-term result is still to be seen. Tubing can also be found in other locations around Laos including Si Phan Don, Nong Khiaw and Mung Ngoi.
The basic Lao approach towards tourists is the "milking cow" approach. They will take whatever tourists are willing to pay. Lately, prices have exceeded those of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, though the standards are lower. Hotels are of lower quality, and priced higher compared to Thailand or Cambodia, the dishes in restaurants are smaller, and the tuk-tuks more of a rip-off. It's worse in the tourist centers of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng than in the smaller towns and villages.
Unlike in Thailand, access to temples in Luang Prabang is not free.
What to buy
Typical Lao dresses in cheap machine-made fabric can be made to order. Handmade Lao silk is one of the most attractive things to buy. The talat sao (Morning Market) in Vientiane has dozens of small shops selling 100% handmade silk scarves or wall hangings from USD5 upwards depending on quality, intricacy of design and size. Beware cheap synthetic fabrics sold as silk imported from China and Vietnam. Be careful also of "antique silk". There is very little available, but new fabric can be made to look old and worn. In markets, always bargain: it is expected, but keep smiling…
food is very similar to that eaten in the northeastern Isaan region of Thailand: very spicy, more often bitter than sweet, and using lots of fresh herbs and vegetables served raw. Some of the raw vegetables can be used to cool your mouth when the chilis are overwhelming.
Rice is the staple carbohydrate. The standard kind is sticky rice (ເຂົ້າໜຽວkhao niaow), eaten by hand from small baskets called tip khao. Using your right hand, never your left, pinch off a bit, roll into a ball, dip and munch away.
The national dish is laap (ລາບ, also larb), a "salad" of minced meat mixed with herbs, spices, lime juice and, more often than not, blistering amounts of chili. Unlike Thai larb, the Lao version can use raw meat (dip) instead of cooked meat (suk), and if prepared with seafood makes a tasty, if spicy, carpaccio.
Another Lao invention is tam maak hung (ຕໍາຫມາກຫຸ່ງ), the spicy green papaya salad known as som tam in Thailand, but which the Lao like to dress with fermented crab (ປູດອງ pudem) and a chunky, intense fish sauce called pa daek (ປາແດກ), resulting in a stronger flavour than the milder, sweeter Thai style. Other popular dishes include ping kai, spicy grilled chicken, and mok pa, fish steamed in a banana leaf.
Laos also boasts a range of local desserts. Kanom kok is a small, spherical pudding made from coconut milk, tapioca and ground rice. Sang kaya mayru is a pumpkin filled with sweet custard and then steamed.
The national drink of Laos is the ubiquitous and tasty Beerlao, made with Laotian jasmine rice and one of the few Lao exports. It maintains an almost mythical status among travellers and beer aficionados. The yellow logo with its tiger-head silhouette can be seen everywhere.
Accommodation options outside the Mekong Valley's main tourist spots are limited to basic hotels and guesthouses, but there are many budget and mid-priced hotels and guesthouses and quite a few fancy hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Pakse has the Champasak Palace.
Lao work permits are difficult to obtain, unless you can secure employment with one of the numerous NGOs. English teaching is possible but poorly paid (USD5-8/hour).
One of the most interesting ways to get to know a country, and which has become increasingly popular, is to volunteer.
- FruitFriends, Baan Phonpeng, Unit 10, House 151, Vang Vieng. A social enterprise working with agricultural products. Profits are used to establish community-based project in the direction of education. Their main focus is children, teenagers, and young adults. 2 weeks, USD400; 24 weeks, USD2,370.
- Travel to Teach, 184 Moo 5, Ban San Aum, Cheung Doi, Doi Saket, Chiang Mai, Thailand, ☎ +66 88 1423556. An international volunteer organization that links volunteers from all over the world with grass-roots community projects in Southeast Asia and Central America.
- Identification When traveling in Laos, it is important to travel with a copy of your passport at all times. You may be asked to show ID at any time, and a fine (100,000 kip) will be imposed if you do not produce documentation on request.
- Crime levels are low in Laos, though petty theft (bag snatching) is not unknown and keeps rising with the inability of authorities to prevent it. Reports of robbery at gunpoint surface in the big cities. Though unlikely to affect most tourists, Laos is one of the world's most corrupt countries and the corruption is a big factor in many citizens' lives.
- Judicial process remains arbitrary and, while you are unlikely to be hassled, your legal rights can be slim or non-existent if you are accused.
- Criticism of the Lao government or the Communist Party in any way, shape or form is unwise; you never know who might be listening.
- Landmines or unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War maims or kills hundreds of people every year as Laos is the most bombed country in history. Almost all of these occur in the eastern and northern parts of the country, especially near the border with Vietnam. Never enter areas marked as minefields and travel only on paved roads and well-worn paths. If you are unsure of which areas are safe, ask the locals.
- Fake products are very common. Laos is one place where Chinese or Thai companies dump sub-standard products. Similar to Myanmar, there are few if any laws preventing such trade.
Parts of Laos have a good deal of malaria so anti-malarials are recommended if visiting those areas for an extended period, but check with health professionals: there are many high incidence of drug-resistant parasites around Laos. Other mosquito-born diseases, such as dengue, can be life-threatening, so make sure you bring at least 25% DEET insect repellent and ensure that you sleep with mosquito protection like nets or at least a fan. Vientiane seems to be malaria-free but not dengue fever-free. The mosquitoes that are active during the day carry dengue and those that are active in the evening carry malaria. Note that 25% DEET insect repellents are almost impossible to find in Laos, so be sure to bring some from your country.
The usual precautions regarding food and water are needed. Bottled water is widely available but almost all of them are less-filtered.
The Lao currency is the kip, which is now newly convertible at banks in neighbouring countries due to the establishment of the Lao stock market in 2011. It is possible to exchange to and from kip at Vientiane airport (Opens at 09:00) and there is a Lao bank that exchanges at the Nong Khai-Vientiane land border (straight and right of the Visa on Arrival desk).
The largest note is 100,000 kip and rather uncommon (although you may get some from the ATM). Notes in common circulation are 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 kip. Withdrawing the maximum of 1,000,000 kip from an ATM could result in 20 50,000 kip notes. This makes carrying large quantities of kip quite inconvenient. Although less common than in the past, USD will sometimes be accepted, although usually at about 5-10% less than the official rate. Thai baht may be accepted in many areas near the border, notably Vientiane. Beware though, that in remote places only kip is accepted and no ATMs will be available, so plan ahead.
More touristy places and banks are also accepting the euro. So if you're from one of the euro countries, just bring some just in case. This could be cheaper than changing your Euros into baht or USD and then into kip.
There are many ATMs in Vientiane, and they have also appeared in other major cities including Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Savannakhet, Tha Khaek, Pakse and Luang Namtha. BCEL, the largest bank, accepts both Visa/Cirrus and MasterCard/Maestro, but surcharges of USD1-2 often apply.
Visas are not required by citizens of: Brunei and Myanmar (14 days), Japan, Luxembourg, Russia, South Korea and Switzerland (15 days), Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. (30 days)
A visa on arrival is also available to most (but not all) nationalities entering at the airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, as well as the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge between Nong Khai in Thailand and Vientiane and on the Lao/Vietnam-Border. It is also available when entering via Stung Treng (Cambodia), although guesthouses in Cambodia and the Lao embassy in Phnom Phen will pretend that it is not in order to make money with visa services. When applying for a tourist visa or to obtain a visa on arrival, one (maybe two at Lao embassies) passport photo is required although you may be able to pay a USD1 fee for your passport photo to be scanned upon arrival.
Prices range from USD35-42 depending on nationality - Americans USD35, Canadians USD42, Australians USD45, Chileans USD30. As of June 2013, EU countries should pay USD30, with no extra payment for processing except maybe if you forgot to bring a passport picture. Paying in Vietnamese dong, Lao kip, or Thai baht is possible too, but the mark-up means that travellers should try to bring US dollars.
Visas can be obtained in advance from Lao embassies/consulates. The fee varies by nationality/embassy; Processing times also vary; 2-3 days is typical, though you may be able to pay an extra small amount (around USD5) to receive the visa in as little as one hour. In Phnom Penh the travel agencies can arrange the visa the same day (but may charge as much as USD58) while getting it from the embassy takes a few days. Getting a visa from the embassy in Bangkok costs around 1,400 baht for most nationalities, plus 200 baht more for "same day" processing. It's cheaper and quicker to get one at the border.
Visas are also available at the Lao PDR consulate in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Thai and English (limited) are spoken by consular staff. Hours are Monday-Friday, 08:00-12:00 and 13:00-16:00. Several changes took place in Feb 2012, with prices have increased and are now similar to those charged by the Laotian Embassy in Bangkok.
Officially, visas can be picked up the next day, or pay an additional 200 baht to have the visa issued within 1 hour. Officially, only baht is accepted although if you don't have baht, they may take US dollars. Given that a visa for many countries can cost USD20-42 at the border, getting a visa at the border is cheaper and quicker. Note: If you are taking the direct Khon Kaen to Vientiane bus and you require a visa for Laos, the bus company will not sell you a ticket unless you have a visa already issued.
There are Visa-on-Arrival facilities at the international airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, and at all border crossings (see below), including now overland from Cambodia. Visa on arrival facilities opened at Voen Kham -north of Stung Treng, Cambodia- in February 2010. The cost varies if paid with US dollars, considerably more if paying with Thai baht and border officials will not accept Lao kip. An "out of office hours/overtime" surcharge at the Friendship Bridge in Vientiane, and a small entry stamp fee, might also be charged.
Entry permit extensions (sometimes referred to as "visa extensions") are available from the Immigration Department in Vientiane, the Immigration Department in Luang Prabang, the Police Station in Pakse, and possibly other cities. Extensions are not possible in Lao's second city, Savannakhet, although you can do a border run from there to Thailand to get a new 30 day visa. The process is very easy; turn up in the morning with your passport and one photo; fill in a form (in Luang Prabang they do this for you) and come back in the afternoon for your extension.
If you want to extend for longer than two weeks and are near the Thai border, it can be more cost effective to nip over the border (entry to Thailand is free for most western nationalities) and return immediately to get a new 30 day Lao visa.
Extensions are also possible via agencies elsewhere in Laos. They will courier your passport to Vientiane and back again, around USD3 per day minimum of 7 days.
Being in transit by air, road or river in Laos can be as rewarding as the destination itself - but allow plenty of leeway in your schedule for the near-inevitable delays, cancellations and breakdowns.
The highways in Laos have improved in the past ten years, but the fact that 80% remain unpaved is a telling statistic. Still, the main routes connecting Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet are now sealed, and the transport options on these roads include bus, minibus, and converted truck.
The international airports at Vientiane (VTE) and Luang Prabang (LPQ) are served by national carrier Lao Airlines, Lao Central Airlines, and a few others, including Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways (Luang Prabang only) and Vietnam Airlines. Some seats on flights of Vietnam Airlines are reserved for Lao Airlines (codesharing / better price). Pakse is the third international airport, with flights to/from Siem Reap (Vientiane - Pakse - Siem Reap by Lao Airlines) and from/to Ho Chi Minh City.
Laos used to be off-limits to low-cost carriers; however AirAsia now flies to Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur three times a week. Another cheap option for getting to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani in Thailand with discount airlines Nok Air or Air Asia and connect to Nong Khai and the Friendship Bridge via shuttle service directly from the airport (40 minutes); from here Vientiane is just 17 km away.
The long-awaited first link across the Mekong from the Thai town of Nong Khai to Tha Naleng near Vientiane finally opened in 2009. There are two shuttle services per direction per day, with one timed to connect to the night trains to/from Bangkok. Visa on arrival is available when crossing the border by train. The train is not a very attractive option because the railway station is in the middle of nowhere.
Cycling is a great option with quiet roads. Laos offers wonderful remote areas to discover, little traveled roads, friendly people and even some companies providing cycling tours with the help of professional guides all over the country.
Boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are useful shortcuts for the horrible roads, although as the road network improves river services are slowly drying up, and many of the remaining services only run in the wet season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable. Huay Xai (on the border with Thailand) to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are the main routes still in use.
There are so-called slow boats and speedboats - the latter being tiny lightweight craft equipped with powerful motors that literally skid across the water at high speeds.
Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos