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Laos travel guide, including map of Laos, travel tips, culture, recommended experiences in Laos, health and safety and weather in Laos

Sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos offers visitors all the romantic visions associated with South-East Asia: saffron-robed monks, gilded temples and rusty bicycles.

The draw of Luang Prabang – Laos’s ancient capital – is particularly strong. This charming, tranquil place, with its mix of ancient and French colonial architecture, is regularly voted Wanderlust readers’ favourite city.

Some tourists tag a stopover in Luang Prabang to a general tour of South-East Asia. But it’s well-worth sticking around and exploring the rest of the Laos.

The striking mountainous scenery of Laos’s north is perfect for trekking, rafting and mountain-biking. Here you’ll find the Nam Ha National Protected Area, which is home to elephants, tigers, leopards and nearly 300 species of bird.

For those who prefer more chilled-out holidays, the south is inhabited by coconut palms and easy-going, sarong-clad villagers.  

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Spot wild elephants, tigers and clouded leopards in Nam Ha National Park
  2. Go kayaking, caving and rock-climbing amid verdant rice paddies and karst rock formations
  3. Relax at a traditional Lao sauna, where the herb-infused steam is the perfect cure for long day on the road.
  4. Puzzle over the Plain of Jars: in Laos’s northeast you’ll find fields of giant stone urns – remnants of a lost civilization.
  5. Eat things on sticks – street stalls serve virtually anything impaled and grilled, however unlikely: frogs, snakes, tripe even eggs.
  6. Chill out on one of the ‘Four Thousand Islands’ at Si Phan Don – a landlocked archipelago in the middle of the Mekong, in the south of Laos.

Wanderlust tips

Wat Phu Champsak in southern Laos is the most the evocative Khmer ruin outside of Cambodia and is mercifully free of the crowds that can dog Angkor Wat.

The best way to experience these litchen-blushed pavilions and the rural communities that surround them is by bicycle.

Further Reading

Travel in Laos: vital statistics

  • Capital of Laos: Vientiane
  • Population of Laos: 6.6 million
  • Languages in Laos: Lao plus French, English and various indigenous tongues.
  • Time in Laos: GMT + 7
  • International dialling code in Laos: +856
  • Voltage in Laos: 230 AC 50 Hz
  • Visas for Laos: Required by UK nationals. Visas can be obtained on arrival at Luang Prabang and Vientiane airports, and some border posts. You'll need US$35 and two passport photos. Find out more about Lao visas here
  • Money in Laos: Kip. The US dollar and Thai baht are very handy. There is limited acceptance of credit cards and traveller’s cheques and few ATMs.
  • Laos travel advice: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • Laos tourist board: Laos tourism

    When to go to Laos

    Climate and weather in Laos: November to January is the best time to travel to Laos, when daytime temperatures in the lowlands are warm and the evenings can be slightly chilly.

    The mercury rises in February and hits a high point in April, at an average of around 35°. The rainy season begins in May and lasts until November.

    Festivals in Laos: Young Lao celebrate Bun Pi Mai (Lao New Year) in mid-April by ambushing the unsuspecting with pails of water and squirt guns.

    The end of the rainy season is feted in November with boat races. Another festival worth catching at this time of year is Lai Heua Fai, when parade floats and the banks of the Mekong are festooned with lights.

    International airports

    Vientiane – Wattay (VTE) 4km from the city. There are no direct flights from the UK. It’s best to fly into Bangkok then take an overnight train to Vientine.

    Getting around in Laos

    If you’re taking domestic flights, check safety standards before flying.

    With 4,600km of navigable waterways, rivers were long the highways of Laos and are a scenic way to get around. However, departures may be limited during the dry season.

    The roads in Laos have dramatically improved in recent years to become the main mode of transport.

    Buses in Laos range from air-conditioned coaches to  sawngthaews -  converted pick up trucks serving the provinces, which depart from regular bus stations but wont leave until the driver feels he has enough passengers to make it worth their while.

    In large towns motorised three-wheelers known as jumbos or tuk-tuks serve as taxis. Agree the price before getting on board and it is worth flagging down moving tuk-tuks rather than selecting the ones that shark around tourist spots.

    Bicycles are available to hire from most major tourist centres and guesthouses.   

    Laos accommodation

    Accommodation in Laos is dirt cheap, starting from as little as £3 a night for very basic but comfortable rooms.

    Restored French colonial villas provide charming accommodation in small provincial towns and first-class hotels are found in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

    In recent years several superb eco lodges have opened up and many tour companies now offer homestays in ethnic minority villages. Beyond the tourist trail though choice and luxury is often limited.

    Laos food & drink

    Lao food is fiery and fragrant. Much of Lao cuisine is roasted on an open fire and served with khao niaw (sticky rice), fresh herbs and noodles.

    One of the most common street vendor foods is tam mak hung – a spicy papaya salad with garlic, chillies, fish sauce, lime juice and sometimes dried shrimp.

    Vegetarians who can live with a drop of fish sauce will find Lao food less problematic.

    Many foreign beers, including Heineken, are sold in Laos but the king of drinks here is Beerlao, with its distinctive, light taste.  Those who prefer liquor of the knock-out variety should try lao-lao.   

    Health and safety in Laos

    Laos’s remotest regions, especially those in the east of the country, have not been completely cleared of landmines and UXO (unexploded ordinance), so it’s essential to seek local advice and stick to well-worn paths in more rural areas.

    Consult a travel- health specialist before setting off. Malaria prophylactics and hepatitis A and B, diphtheria and typhoid vaccinations are recommended.

    The country’s hospitals and clinics are among the worst in South-East Asia – for anything serious head across the border to Thailand.

    Stick to bottled water.

    The crime rate is very low, and the country is generally safe.

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