LAOS - Info & Facts
Suggested length of stay
For a good overview Laos is best visited over a minimum of 6 days. This will allow time to take in the highlights of the capital city Vientiane and the cultural centre, Luang Prabang. Tours can be extended to include the hill tribes in the remote Northern regions and the temples and waterfalls in the south.
Vientiane 2 nights, Luang Prabang 3 or 4 nights, Far North 3 nights, Vang Vieng 1 or 2 nights, Plain of Jars 1 night, Wat Phou & 4000 islands 3 or 4 nights, Khammouane Province 2 or 3 nights.
Modes of transport
Road travel in Laos is rewarding and gives visitors a great feel for the country. However, the road infrastructure is underdeveloped. In rural areas roads tend to be of variable quality. The major road is “Route 13” linking the north to the south. The southern section, from Vientiane to Pakse, is in reasonable condition but the road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and northbound to China is quite rundown. Away from Route 13, roads tend to be a mix of asphalt, potholes, gravel and sand. During the rainy season (May to October), rock and mud crumbling is common and can interrupt the traffic, particularly in remote and mountainous areas.
Generally Oasis recommends that you fly between destinations Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse. If you definitely want to include a road trip Oasis recommend the scenic 2 day journey between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, stopping mid way and spending the night in Vang Vieng.
Self drive is not possible in Laos. Oasis will always supply you with a driver and guide for road journeys as drivers rarely speak any English.
There is currently only one airline operating domestic flights in Laos: Lao Airlines. Laos Airlines operates French-Italian made ATR aircrafts and Y-12 aircrafts. For some of the remote regions of Laos, the only viable links with the main centres are by air. Mountainous locations are served only by short landing strips. For these operations, Lao Airlines operates a fleet of Y-12 aircraft which can seat up to 17 passengers.
Please note that it is advisable to check-in all pieces of luggage and keep only a small bag in the cabin due to limited storage space. Please be aware that flight schedules are often subject to change without prior notice, but don’t worry your guide will always be available to help you out if needed!
There are no rail roads in Laos. However, it is possible to travel from Bangkok by train to Nong Khai in north-eastern Thailand (Issarn) and transfer by road across the friendship bridge to Vientiane (25 km’s), although there is talk that the rail link will extend directly to Vientiane by the end of 2008.
Various cycling tours can be arranged beginning in Luang Prabang and taking in remote hill tribe villages. Tours in this area are rewarding but tough and only really suitable for experienced cyclists. As with all other countries Oasis feature we can tailor make most feasible cycling itineraries to you specific requirements.
A favourite way of seeing Laos is by boat. The Mekong River is vital to the Lao people. More than half of the Mekong River runs through this rugged country. In the north, you can take a 2 day cruise from Luang Prabang to Houey Xay and then onto Thailand, in the Golden Triangle or visa versa. Around Pakse in the south, you can take a wonderful 3 day cruise to the World Heritage site of Wat Phou in the Champassak region and the “4,000 Islands” area on the Cambodian border.
The optimum time to visit Laos is between mid October and the end of February when the weather is time is generally very pleasant although it can get a little chilly in the mountainous north. (If entering Luang Prabang by boat from Northern Thailand or plan to undertake any river journeys in the North, remember to pack a warm fleece as the mornings on the river can be particularly cold). The hot dry season begins in February when temperatures can reach up to 40c and generally lasts through to April/May. Increasing humidity and temperatures bring on the wet season which lasts from June to October. During this time the Mekong River rises, and flooding of the surrounding area is not uncommon.
Laos is the only nation in Southeast Asia without access to the sea. It is surrounded by Vietnam in the East and North, Thailand in the West and South, as well as by China and Burma in the North and Cambodia in the South. The Mekong River flows through Laos and forms much of its border with Thailand. This river is a main transportation artery. The terrain of Laos is mostly mountainous with some inland plains and plateaus. The region has thick forest cover and has abundant water from rivers, lakes and rains.
Lao food is traditionally eaten with sticky rice, with the fingers. In the countryside, people will all eat family style, sitting on the floor, sharing a few dishes. Traditional Lao food is dry, spicy and very delicious. The food eaten in Laos is influenced by its neighbours and the colonial French.
Some favourites include:
Laap, a traditional Lao food is made from chopped meat, chicken or duck is a favourite. The finely chopped meat, spices and broth is mixed with uncooked rice grains that have been dry fried, and crushed. Laap is eaten with a plate of raw vegetables and sticky rice.
Tam Mak Houng is a salad made from sliced raw papaya, garlic, chili, peanuts, sugar, fermented fish sauce and lime juice - it can be extremely spicy, so be careful. Som moo is fermented pork sausage, found in many forms. The sausage is made from raw pork - sometimes lean, sometimes pork skin. Som moo may be eaten raw or cooked. A mixture of som moo, tam mak koung and laap make a popular Lao lunchtime meal.
Barbequed som moo, served Vietnamese style is popular in Laos. Known as Naem Nuang, it is served with transparent rice paper, thin noodles and lots of herbs, vegetables, lettuce and a sauce. You take all the ingredients, and build your own spring roll - watch the locals to see how it is done.
Foe (pronounced like the British English 'fur') is the name for noodle soup, which can be found everywhere in Laos. It is similar in style to the Chinese noodle soup found allover Asia.
French Baguettes are found in the larger towns, served for breakfast, filled as a sandwich with pate, moo yor (a pork lunchmeat), vegetables, and chili sauce. Baguettes are also dunked into coffee for breakfast. As well as French bread, you will find a lot of salad in Laos. The traditional Lao diet includes a lot of raw vegetables - but the French left the tossed salad behind. In Luang Prabang, they make a delicious salad made from watercress.
Never drink tap water or even brush you teeth with tap water. Bottled water is very cheap and widely available in all areas of the country.
A brief history
Laos is an ancient state, thought to be peopled by the Ti tribe driven southward from Yunnan, in southern China. They gradually peopled the banks of the Mekong and founded several principalities. The Royal House claims descent from Khoun Borom, the first King of Laos. According to legend, he descended to earth near Muang Then (the place of heavenly spirits) in southern China. Khun Lo, his son and successor, led his people and settled at Rajadharani Sri Sudhana (Sawa or Sva), the site of present day Luang Prabang. A long list of successors reigned after him no exact records have been kept. The traditional male line may have ended with the death of King Praya Langa. His successor, King Souvanna Kamphong, founded a new dynasty in 1316.
His grandson, Chao Fa Ngun, ascended the throne after a war of succession. He continued his military victories throughout his reign, extending his territories and absorbing lesser principalities. A new kingdom known as Lan Xang, came into being, incorporating large parts of present day Thailand in the west and as far as Champa (Central Vietnam) in the East. His Cambodian wife introduced Theravada Buddhism from Ceylon. Although the kingdom prospered, particularly during the sixteenth century, the long elongated geography of the state made unity difficult. Although the capital was frequently moved between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the outlying provinces remained prey to aggressive neighbours.
The murder of King Tian Thala in 1695 signalled the beginning of a succession dispute that erupted into a severe armed struggle. Three kingdoms emerged after the fray. One centred on Luang Prabang, another on Vientiane, and a third at Champasak. Siam (modern day Thailand) intervened in these disputes several times during the eighteenth century, eventually annexing all three kingdoms in 1787-1788. The rulers became "vassal kings", as termed by the Siamese. Their succession to power controlled and decided by the Siamese King.
Expecting an Anglo-Siamese War in 1824, the King of Vientiane rebelled with the help of the Vietnamese. He was defeated and expelled to Bangkok, dying horribly with most of his family after being held in public cages, prey to tortures inflicted by the common people. His kingdom was extinguished and Siamese Governors appointed in his stead. The two remaining Lao states of Luang Prabang and Champasak were dismembered, but continued as semi-autonomous entities until the late nineteenth century.
French penetration into the country increased after 1885, especially after they had taken control of Vietnam. Parts of Laos were claimed as Vietnamese territory. Between 1898 and 1907 various agreements between France and Siam resulted in the detachment of most of the Lao provinces and their attachment to a French protectorate. Although the kingdom of Luang Prabang continued as an autonomous protectorate, all other regions, including Champasak came under the direct control of a résident supérieur at Vientiane.
After the fall of France, the Matsuoka-Henry Pact between France and Japan returned all Lao territories west of the Mekong to Thailand in August 1940. Japanese troops occupied Luang Prabang in March 1945, forcing a reluctant King Sisavang Vong to declare "independence". The impending defeat of Japan forced the King to reconfirm the status of Luang Prabang as a French Protectorate. In the meantime, the events of the time had also spurned a very active independence movement under the Lao Issara. They seized power in Vientiane, Savannakhet and several other towns. They then established a provisional parliament, which declared the unification of the country and deposed the King in October 1945.
French troops began reoccupying the country in March 1946, prompting the Lao Issara to make a bid for unity by restoring Sisavang Vong as King of a united Laos. Vientiane and other centres fell and the Lao Issara fled to Thailand, where they established a government in exile. Nevertheless, France accepted a unified kingdom, a constitution and national parliament. The country was recognised as a self-governing unit within the French Union in 1949. In the meantime the Lao Issara dissolved itself and returned to Laos, some participants joining the Royal government and others joining the emergent Pathet Lao, agents of the Vietnamese communist movement. Further French concessions towards independence were established under the Franco-Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in October 1953, but full independence had to wait until the following year.
The next twenty years saw the country in the grip of a three-way bloody contest between the Royal government, the communists and a centre-neutralist faction. Two princes from the reigning Royal family led the Communist faction. Events throughout this period were subject to the vagaries of the war in neighbouring Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Laos was effectively partitioned into four spheres of influence: the Chinese in the north, the Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the east, the Thais in western areas controlled by the US-backed Royal Lao Government, and the Khmer Rouge operating from parts of the south. Because of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos was subjected to saturation bombing by aerial raids launched from Thailand and from within Laos. In this undeclared dirty war, the tonnage of bombs dropped by US bombers on the northern Lao provinces of Xieng Khuang, Sam Neua, the Phong Saly between 1964 and 1973 exceeded the entire tonnage dropped over Europe by all sides during WWII.
It is estimated that US forces flew almost 600,000 sorties – the equivalent of one bombing run every eight minutes around the clock for nine years. This air assault was shrouded in secrecy, since under the terms of the Geneva Accord of 1962 no foreign personnel were supposed to operate on Laotian territory. The Vietminh and the Chinese also violated Laos’ neutrality with infantry divisions deployed in the north. In the early days of the bombing, American pilots dressed in civilian clothing flew old planes with Royal Lao markings; Thai and Hmong pilots were also trained to fly missions.
The withdrawal of the US from South Vietnam prompted the Pathet Lao to increase their fight for power. Between August 1974 and November 1975, they took control of the administrative capital at Vientiane, expelled or assassinated officials of the Royal government, established a "revolutionary administration" and opened their notorious "education camps". The King's forced abdication on 29 November 1975 completed their advent to power. Prince Souphanouvong assumed office as President, four days later.
King Sisavang Vong, together with the Queen, the Crown Prince and several other members of the Royal family were removed to "re-education camps" in the north-eastern province of Houaphan on 11th March 1977. Forced into hard labour, and have never been heard of again. Some reports indicate that they have all died. However, the Communist government has never revealed the exact details, dates or the circumstances of their deaths.
A passport and visa are required. Visas are issued upon arrival in Laos to foreign tourists and business persons at most border crossings. You need two passport size photographs and $30 cash at Vientiane-Friendship Bridge, Vientiane and Luang Prabang Airport. Foreign tourists are generally admitted to Laos on a SINGLE entry basis valid for 15 days with a visa on arrival or for 30 days with a visa issued at a Lao embassy. Visa extensions are difficult to obtain. Oasis accepts no responsibility regarding the issue of visas.
The Kip is the official currency of Laos, notes are in denominations of 500, 100, 50, 20, 10; coins are not in common use. US$ cash can be exchanged into Kip at your hotel or at a licensed Foreign Money Exchange shop, which are sited at main markets in Vientiane, major cities and at border crossings. We do not recommend you travel with AU$ as it is not widely accepted. Likewise do not depend entirely on your credit card but Visa & Mastercard are frequently accepted at hotels, restaurants and some shops.
American Express and Travellers Cheques are less frequently accepted but are OK with some commercial banks in Vientiane. Generally speaking added fees will apply when using credit cards. ATM cash withdrawal services are becoming more widely available in Luang Prabang and Vientiane but are still an unreliable source of obtaining cash; please check with your bank before leaving.
When shopping Thai Baht, US$ and Kip are all acceptable, however, if you do use Baht and US$ for purchases it is most unlikely you will receive change in any currency other than Kip.
Tipping is not wide spread in Laos other than loose change in hotels and western restaurants. If you feel your guide has gone the extra mile for you (and we certainly hope they would do so) a cash tip would be very much appreciated. No more than US$7-10 per day between your guide and driver (the guide will share this with your driver where applicable).
Health care in Laos is not at a very advanced stage. Any essential medicines should be taken with you as they may not be available locally. Western standard medical services are only available in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Visitors are advised to consult their personal physician as to what vaccinations are necessary before travelling to Laos. Always take sensible precautions such as thoroughly washing your hands before eating and not eating in places where hygiene standards are suspect or from street stalls serving pre-prepared food.
Ensure you have good medical insurance before you travel.
Australian Embassy, Laos
In Laos, you can obtain consular assistance from the:
J. Nehru Street
Ban Phone Xay
Vientiane, Lao PRD
Telephone +856 21 413 600
Facsimile +856 21 413 601
20 volt. Take an Australian adaptor with you as they are not always available locally. In some of the more budget oriented hotels you may well see exposed wiring and whilst not ideal, is completely normal. Blackouts are common place outside the bigger cities, especially in the wet season, it is recommended you bring along a small torch.
Vientiane is serviced with daily flights from Bangkok. Flights from other Asian hubs are available on certain days of the week including Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Kunming
There are daily flights with Bangkok Airways (from Bangkok), Lao Airlines (from Chiang Mai) and Vietnam Airways (from Hanoi) to Luang Prabang.
Non-stop flight time Sydney – Vientiane. There are currently no non-stop flights between Australia and Laos.
Time difference GMT + 7