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Country Profile: Laos

Laos seems overlooked by the passage of time. Simple, sleepy villages nestle among lush green valleys at the feet of craggy hills. Golden-tiled, steep-roofed temples, or wats, painted in vibrant colors grace the most crowded cityscapes and the most remote hamlets. Dirt roads lead into dense forests, where agrarian hill tribes work the land and create beautiful weavings and jewelry from the natural world.

An early morning stroll through Luang Prabang, once the royal capital of Laos, tells you all you need to know about this peaceful country. With its location at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, the city has a remote, island feel. Roosters roam the dirt backroads and children kick around a soccer ball on their way to school. As the city awakes from its slumber, a pensive parade of orange-robed monks passes a group of residents waiting to offer them rice and fruit. It is, perhaps, one of the most tranquil scenes in Indochina, and it unfolds daily—revealing Laos as a deeply spiritual place where life is simple and acts of kindness are woven into the human fabric.

It’s a way of life evident throughout Laos, shaped by the Lao devotion to Theravada Buddhism, and by a long history of self-sufficiency. Eight out of every ten people here practice some form of subsistence farming, from the fertile banks of the Mekong River to open farmlands of the plains. Yes, time may have forgotten Laos, but you certainly will not.

Read more about Laos

Country Highlights
  • Ascend to the summit of Phousi Hill for sweeping views of Luang Prabang, a cluster of whitewashed French colonial buildings and graceful Buddhist temples.
  • Hike country paths through rice paddies and tiny villages to ancient pagodas.
  • Participate in the early morning alms-giving to Buddhist monks draped in saffron robes.
  • Walk into the modest villages of the Khmer and Hmong hill tribes.
  • Browse the colourful market stalls of Luang Prabang, perhaps sampling o-lam, a meat and vegetable stew.

Why Walk With Us

  • Trust our expertise with 36+ years in active travel.
  • 24/7 support from a local representative.
  • Generous inclusions: all breakfasts, many meals, and luggage transfers.
  • Your departure is always guaranteed.
  • We take care of our solo travelers.
  • Past guests and referrals always save.
  • Bring six friends on a guided tour and enjoy special savings, support, and a gift.

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Country Facts

About Laos:

Tropical Laos, the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, mostly consists of dense forest and rugged mountains. The Mekong River is a significant waterway in Laos, forming a large part of the border with Thailand and serving as a major commercial waterway that has bolstered the development of its cities and villages. About one-fifth of the country’s land is set aside for habitat conservation.

Laos is a multi-ethnic nation comprised mostly of the Lao people. Mon-Khmer and Hmong hill tribes make up about 40% of the population and live in foothills and mountains. Even so, the Lao people as a whole are often considered as three different ethnic groups, based on the altitude in which they live: the Lao Loum (Lowlands), the Lao Theung (Midlands) and the Lao Soung (Highlands). Laos is a single-party socialist republic. The capital is Vientiane.

Laos is a developing country. Infrastructure, including modern roads, is fairly good, but poverty is apparent. The Country Walkers tour has been designed to maximize exposure to the diversity, land, people, and culture of Laos, both on foot and during the travel days.

The most important tools that a traveler can bring are a sense of humor, flexibility, and an open mind to cultural differences. While the itinerary in Laos has been created in collaboration with our local expert guides, each experience is unique and requires patience on the part of the traveler.

Language: The official language of Laos is Lao, which belongs to the Tai language family. This family of languages also includes Thai, Shan, and languages spoken by smaller, related ethnic groups in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, southern China, and northern Vietnam. Lao is spoken not only in Laos but in northeastern Thailand, an area called “Isan.”
While knowledge of the local language is not necessary, you may want to learn some fun and useful phrases to use during your walking tour. The effort seldom goes unappreciated and by trying some greetings and salutations with a smile, your interactions are likely to grow into rewarding exchanges.

Shopping and banking hours: Shops, stores, and open markets are generally open daily between 9:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Banks are open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday to Friday.

Arts & crafts of Laos: Laos has a wonderful tradition of handicrafts—fabrics, wood carving, and jewelry, among others. Weaving in Laos is an especially important part of the culture, with women working on looms in the shade under their houses, which are perched on stilts. Beautiful fabrics in traditional styles and in contemporary fashions can be found in markets, shops, and craft cooperatives.

Meal times: Breakfast is served at hotels from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. In restaurants, lunch is served from noon to 2:00 p.m. and dinner is usually served from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Tipping: Laos does not have a tradition of tipping, therefore while it is greatly appreciated, it is entirely discretionary. As a guideline, in restaurants, 10 percent of the total is appropriate. For taxi drivers, you can round up the fare. For luggage assistance, a small tip of perhaps one dollar total, at your discretion.

Laotian cuisine is based on the fresh tropical fruit, vegetables, and rice that grow in its fertile plains and hillsides. Flavorful salads, such as papaya salad with thinly sliced green papaya, cucumber, and onion, are a mixture of savory and sweet. The national dish of laap is a mixture of ground meat (usually pork), vegetables, and herbs. Many stir-fried dishes with vegetables and/or meat (typically chicken) are also available, as is grilled chicken. Rice is served in a variety of ways, such as steamed, fried, or, characteristically, “sticky” rice, which is rolled in a ball and dipped in the sauces of the main dish. Spring rolls made with thin rice paper are filled with vegetables and meat and flavored by dipping in a savory sauce. Steaming hot soup (pho in Vietnamese) with rice noodles and chicken, duck, or beef is served throughout the day.

Food tips: Country Walkers and our guides take great care to select and work with hotel properties and restaurants that meet our rigorous standards in food safety. Outside of these establishments, it is wise to avoid eating foods sold by local street vendors, peeled fruit or unwashed vegetables. We recommend following the simple rule, “If you can’t peel it, don’t eat it.” Avoid fresh salads, with the exception of those served in fine restaurants, and fruit juices unless they are 100 percent juice.

Water: We advise that you drink only bottled water, including for ice cubes in drinks and brushing your teeth. Bottled water is widely available.

Laos has a tropical climate with a rainy season from May to October. From November to April, the weather is warm, sunny, and humid, although less humid than during the rainy season. Occasional short rain showers can occur year-round, although typically rain falls at night during the drier winter months. The average temperatures (high/low) in Luang Prabang in November are 85/64°F and in March 93/63°F.

For up-to-date forecasts, see qwikcast.com. For historical average temperatures and rainfall, see weatherbase.com.

U.S. citizens: Passports are required and must be valid for at least six months beyond the dates of travel. Visas are required and a 30-day single-entry tourist visa can either be obtained in advance from the Embassy of Laos or upon arrival at Luang Prabang International Airport.

Important

  • If you choose to obtain the visa upon arrival, the cost is $35 (as of September 2014). You must make the payment in cash (USD), and provide two passport-sized photographs.
  • If you apply for a visa before you travel, you must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond your return travel date, as the actual visa will be stamped into your passport. To apply for a visa, complete and send a Visa Application Form (which can be found on the Laos Embassy website: laoembassy.com). If you apply for a visa before you travel, the fee is $50 for U.S. citizens (as of September 2014).

For more information, see travel.state.gov.

Laos uses the Laotian kip (LAK). The current exchange rate is 1 USD = 1 LAK. Exchange rates can vary greatly month to month, so we recommend you visit oanda.com for the latest.

We recommend having a variety of payment options readily available to help you start your trip: ATM card(s), credit card(s) and some U.S. dollars to exchange. If you do want to obtain some Laotian kips, there are two ATMs in the town center of Luang Prabang. Note that USD and Thai baht are widely accepted throughout Laos.

Always contact your bank or your credit-card company for details on fees and card use when traveling.

No immunizations are required to enter Laos. Always consult a travel clinic at a local university, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, and/or your personal physician for the most up-to-date recommendations and routine vaccinations. Malaria medication, hepatitis, tetanus, typhoid, polio, measles, mumps, and rubella vaccinations are generally recommended for all travelers. For the threat of malaria, you should consult the CDC or your physician for the most current information.

Requirements and recommendations change frequently, so always check directly with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC: 877-394-8747), a travel clinic, and/or your personal physician for the most current information. Plan ahead for immunizations, as some require administration several months prior to departure.

Bathroom facilities: While all Country Walkers accommodations have Western-style flush toilets, it is common to find Eastern-style toilets in restaurants and tea houses. These facilities are not much more than a porcelain-lined hole in the ground and one must carry one’s own toilet paper. Please realize that while this type of toilet may seem awkward, it is not unsanitary.

Personal safety: Laos requires the common sense and exercise of above-normal precautions for personal safety that apply in many countries and cities worldwide. In addition to being aware of your surroundings, keep your valuables close and hidden while in public (avoid dangling cameras or other “tourist bait”), and avoid walking alone at night. Please follow accommodation and/or tour representative guidelines about securing valuables.

Electricity: Alternating current of 220V and 50Hz is used in Laos. The most common plugs are the type with two round pins and two flat blades. For a full listing of electrical outlets worldwide, see electricaloutlet.org. If you are bringing your own hair dryer or other electrical device, you will need a travel converter, available at most hardware, travel, or consumer electronic stores. For laptops or an electronic device with a dual voltage switch, you will only need the adapter plug, not the converter.

Phone: Laos’s country code is “+856.” Cell phone coverage throughout Laos is extensive, but we cannot guarantee adequate signals on all American phone models or while on walking trails or in remote areas. For more information regarding international phone use, please refer to this blog post.

Internet: Internet access is generally very good in towns and villages; however, all of the hotels used on our tours do not necessarily provide it, or they provide it at an additional cost. Details regarding Wi-Fi availability in each hotel are available in the Itinerary Overview that you’ll receive once you’ve reserved.

Laos is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. For more information on worldwide time zones, see: worldtimezone.com.

Airports

International flights arrive at both Luang Prabang International Airport and the international airport of the capital, Vientiane. A domestic air network connects to Laos’s smaller cities from both Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

International Airports in Laos

  • Luang Prabang International Airport
  • Pakse International Airportv
  • Vientiane – Wattay International Airport

Other local transportation

Train service is available between Vientiane and Bangkok. Outside of domestic flights, getting around via ground transportation in Laos is improving, although it is still less convenient than flying due to an under-developed road system. Renting a car is not recommended; however, taxis are available at airports and towns, and can be reserved in advance (your hotel can provide assistance); a car and driver can also be reserved for an entire day or part of a day. For more information, see the Laos tourist board website at tourismlaos.org or contact Country Walkers.

For additional hints and guidance about travel to Laos, visit the Laos tourist board’s website at Laos tourist board’s website.

Photos

Baci

There are so many memorable ways to engage with the beguiling cultures of Southeast Asia. One in particular, the baci ceremony (pronounced Bah-see), stands out for its simple charm and kindness and has become a national custom in Laos.

Baci is an important ceremony practiced to celebrate major events and occasions. The ritual has shaman-like origins that are deeply rooted in Satsana Phi, a group of polytheistic religions holding the universe and all non-human entities as divine. As such, baci predates the introduction of Buddhism into Lao culture.

The ceremony involves tying strings around a person’s wrist to preserve good luck or, in spiritual terms, to invoke the kwan—a spiritual essence that will protect the perfect union of our organs. The string must be worn for at least three days and, upon removal, must be untied rather than cut. Any life event might be celebrated or acknowledged with baci, from marriage and birth to a new job or recovery from illness. During our Country Walkers ceremony, baci celebrates our journey and welcomes us as guests.

The typical baci ceremony is performed by a mor phon, a senior person of the community who is currently or has previously been a Buddhist monk. Elder women of the house prepare the pah kwan (or flower trays) and place them in a prominent spot so that participants can gather around them in prayer. Specific flowers might symbolize love, longevity and joy. The ceremony concludes with a feast, wine, dance and music.

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