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Known since ancient times as Lan Xang (Land of the Million Elephants), Laos offers the modern world a glimpse of old Indochina. Visitors will encounter a country that is less developed than its neighbours China, Thailand and Vietnam, and perhaps more reserved than any other stop in the region. They will also find an intoxicating mix of natural beauty, original Buddhist culture and French influences.
Laos' lifeline is the Mekong River, which flows the length of the mountainous, landlocked country and provides water for agricultural lands. It's also a major means of transportation. The unassuming capital, Vientiane, sits on its banks, giving travellers a comfortable introduction to Laos' charms. But most visitors would regard Luang Prabang as the destination's highlight. Among other things, they delight in the district's architectural blend of whitewashed houses and splendid golden temples.
Regarding its history, Laos has suffered French colonisation, internal conflicts and assertive communism, all of which isolated it from the outside world. Today, visitors can enjoy the country's old-fashioned ways. Tourists willing to brave the lack of infrastructure will discover charming towns and rural villages, splendid scenery and a slow, relaxed pace of life.
Laos' lush landscape and serene temples are a feast for the senses and a balm for restlessness. Visitors can expect to press pause, reset and dissolve their cares in the company of solemn monks and friendly lay-people.
Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the most popular stops for tourists, though the entire country has retained a gentle grace within Southeast Asia's frenzy of development. Pristine waterfalls, caves of Buddhist statues and ornate stupas, along with a meadow full of ancient, mysterious stone jars are all part of the experience.
That Luang Stupa is a symbol of Buddhism and Lao rule, and is the country's most important religious building. The golden temple and its spire are visible from afar, proving an unforgettable welcoming sight for travellers. King Setthathirath built the shrine in 1566 and his statue stands in front of the temple, where the setting sun enhances the beauty of its already stunning golden surface. The central stupa is deeply symbolic: resembling a curved lotus bud, its three tiers represent different aspects of Buddhism. More specifically, the base deals with hell, the middle revolves around 30 Buddhist teachings and the top tier is about heaven. Visitors should explore the area with a local guide, who can explain the site's significance. They will also need to dress modestly, covering their knees and shoulders. Women can borrow traditional Lao skirts at the entrance.
The former Royal Palace is a mixture of French and Lao architecture. It preserves the monarchy's possessions and has an extremely opulent interior, with the Throne Room being the most impressive. A three-headed elephant sheltered by the sacred white parasol sits above the entrance, and is the symbol of Laos' monarchy. The dazzling interior comprises mirrors, mosaics and displays of royal regalia that include glittering swords and the former King's elephant saddle. The Pha Bang (delicate Buddha) is the museum's most prized item, housed in a small, barred shrine that was the King's personal sanctum. Believed to have been crafted in the heavens, it is the country's most sacred image and spiritual protector.
Situated at the tip of Luang Prabang's peninsula, the Golden City Temple (Wat Xieng Thong) is the country's most enchanting monastery and perhaps its most talked-about tourist attraction. Its grandest feature may be the graceful, sweeping tiled roof of its main temple, though the stencilled gold designs on its walls are marvellous too. At the rear, visitors will find a splendid coloured-glass mosaic illustrating the 'tree of life'. The compound garden's peaceful atmosphere features several shelters, which house rare Buddha images and the gilded royal funerary carriage. If tourists can only explore one of the country's monasteries, it should be Wat Xieng Thong. Evenings see the light reflect beautifully off the glass and gold of the walls, while the monks are called into prayer by drums.
Phou Si is a hill near the confluence of the Khan and Mekong rivers, home to several caves, Buddha images and spectacular views of Luang Prabang. Visitors will find the city's oldest temples on the lower slopes, but the area's most prized structure is the golden stupa of That Chomsi. It has become a symbol of Luang Prabang's spiritual significance to Laos. Travellers reach the stupa by climbing 300 steps and passing various temples and shady trees along the way. Some of the most interesting Buddha statues can be found via the back entrance. Climbing up one way and down the other would allow visitors to appreciate all the hill's sights and views, with some travellers visiting the night market, which they'll find in front of the Old Palace at the foot of Phou Si.
Modelled to mirror the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Laos' Victory Gate is definitely a sight to behold. Indeed, Laotians decided to one-up their former colonial masters by building theirs slightly higher and with four gates instead of two. Patuxai also has a number of decorative Buddhist ornamentations. As a matter of fact, the Royal Laotian Government constructed the monument with American funds and cement that were intended to build an airport, earning it the nickname, 'vertical runway'. Seven flights of stairs or a lift lead to the top, which offers great views of downtown Vientiane. The area is also home to the World Peace Gong presented to Laos by Indonesia, and a musical fountain.
The COPE Visitor Centre can be a sobering reality-check for many tourists. Statistically, Laos is the world's most bombed country: the US military considered it unsafe for planes to land with unused ordinance so they dropped their bombs over Laos. Many are unaware of this tragic and embarrassing aspect of the Vietnam War. Laos still has a significant amount of unexploded ordnance (UXOs), particularly in rural areas along the border with Vietnam. The COPE Visitor Centre does vital work in educating the public and tourists. It also provides help for those who have lost limbs or loved ones to bombs. Anybody planning to travel off the beaten track in Laos should know how to recognise and react to UXOs.
Ho Phra Kaew is one of Vientiane's oldest and most grandiose temples, with its interesting history shedding light on Laos' past relations with Thailand. More specifically, King Setthathirath built the temple in 1565 for the express purpose of housing the Emerald Buddha, which he had pilfered from Chiang Mai City in Northern Thailand. Made of gold and green jadeite, the statue was recaptured by the Siamese army in 1778 and returned to Bangkok. Even without the Emerald Buddha, Ho Phra Kaew should easily make the bucket list of anyone interested in the region. This national monument exposes visitors to Laos' varied cultural heritage, its displays including a heavily lacquered 16th-century door carved with Hindu images and a collection of stonecut figures representing Khmer deities.
Vientiane's Talat Sao (Morning Market) has two decidedly different sections. Depending on their budget and the type of experience they're looking for, visitors can choose between the shopping mall and the original Morning Market. The mall has a range of shops and services over five floors, and its air-conditioning provides a much appreciated break from the country's tropical heat. Shoppers will find a food court, a cinema, a supermarket and a children's play area in the complex. The bustling market operates from early morning to mid-afternoon, and is a labyrinth of clean, tiled alleyways. Hand-woven fabrics, silver jewellery and other local handicrafts are favourite purchases. Bargaining is expected and generally good-natured, so tourists should remember to smile while trying to beat down a price.
The morning Alms Ceremony is one of the main attractions in Luang Prabang. Male Laotians study Buddhism in the district for at least a year of their lives, keeping the city full of boys and men dressed in saffron-coloured robes. Visitors will not soon forget the ancient and ritualised ceremony. It takes place every morning and sees monks proceed through the village along the main street, where they collect alms to consume during the day ahead. Otherwise, visitors should remember that the ceremony is a serious event. Onlookers should be respectful at all times, particularly if taking pictures. It's also extremely rude to touch a monk, more so for women than men.
Laos has a tropical climate, with year-round high temperatures and two distinct seasons. The wet season runs from May to October, and the dry season lasts from November to April. During the wet season, the topography of mountainous Laos means there is the risk of landslides. Temperatures are lower during the wet season, averaging 73°F (23°C), with August being the wettest month. The dry season has two distinct periods: the cool dry period from November to February and the hot dry season from March to April. Dry season temperatures average at 82°F (28°C), and the hottest month is April. Between March and May, Laos experiences a very hot season, with day-time temperatures reaching 104°F (40°C).
The best time to visit Laos is between November and March, when it is dry and temperatures are pleasant. However, this is high tourist season and accommodation prices may be higher than they are at other times of the year. For visitors travelling on a budget, it may actually be better to brave the wet season.
The Lao Kip (LAK) is the legal currency unit. US Dollars, Euros and Thai Baht are also accepted in many places and are more convenient to carry than large stacks of the local currency. Banks, hotels, and jewellery shops all offer currency exchange services. For everyday expenses, visitors should carry a mix of US Dollars and Kip. For larger items, or when the exchange rate is favourable, travellers should use US dollars. For local transport, street-food stalls and minor purchases, Kip will serve visitors better. When in rural areas, travellers should carry a supply of small notes as change can be hard to come by.
Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most international hotels, many shops and restaurants, and a few tourist-orientated establishments in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. In other parts of the country, visitors should assume that only cash is accepted.
Banks are generally open Monday to Friday from 8am to 12pm, and then again from 2pm to 3pm. ATMs are available in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and other major towns. Travellers should note that ATMs distribute only Lao Kip, with a maximum of around 1,000,000 Kip per transaction.
Lao is the official language, but some English and French are spoken.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. A variety of plugs are used, including the European-style two-pin, the UK-style three-pin, and the flat two-pin type.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Laos. A visa is required, and can be obtained for a maximum stay of 30 days if possessing a confirmed hotel reservation in Laos, one passport photo, two unused visa pages, and all required documents for the next destination.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Laos. A visa is required, and can be obtained for a maximum stay of 30 days on arrival if holding a confirmed hotel reservation in Laos, one passport photo, and all required documents for the next destination.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Laos. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival for a maximum stay of 30 days if holding a hotel reservation in Laos, one passport photo, two unused visa pages, and all required documents for the next destination.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Laos. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival for a maximum stay of 30 days if holding an address in Laos, one passport photo, two unused visa pages, and all required documents for the next destination.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Laos. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival for a maximum stay of up to 30 days if holding a confirmed hotel reservation in Laos, one passport photo, and all required documents for the next destination.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Laos. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival for a maximum stay of up to 30 days if holding a hotel reservation in Laos, one passport photo, and all required documents for the next destination.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Laos. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival for a maximum stay of up to 30 days if holding a hotel reservation in Laos, one passport photo, two unused visa pages, and all required documents for the next destination.
Most foreign passengers to Laos can obtain a visa on arrival, provided that: (i) they are arriving at one of the following airports: Vientiane International, Luang Prabang, Pakse, Warray; (ii) they are holding a return/onward ticket and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination; (iii) they have a confirmed hotel reservation in Laos; and (iv) they are in possession of one photograph, size 3 x 4 cm (however, it is always recommened to travel with more than one) (v) their passport contains at least two unused visa pages. These tourist visas are valid for 30 days. Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Laos, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Travellers planning to visit Laos should seek medical advice about vaccinations and endemic diseases at least three weeks prior to departure. With the exception of Vientiane, malaria exists throughout the country while typhoid and cholera occur in some areas. A typhoid vaccine is recommended for all travellers, except short-term visitors who will restrict their meals to hotels and major restaurants.
Other risks include hepatitis E, plague, dengue fever and Schistosomiasis if swimming in the Mekong River. Travellers' diarrhoea is a problem for many visitors. The best policy would be to only drink bottled water and avoid dairy products, uncooked meat and fish, salads and unpeeled fruit.
Medical care in Vientiane is extremely basic, and even then there are no reliable facilities to deal with medical emergencies outside the capital. As medical evacuation is difficult to organise and very expensive, travellers are advised to take out comprehensive medical insurance. Visitors who have an unstable medical condition should consider avoiding Laos. A yellow fever certificate is required from anyone entering from an infected area.
Tipping is becoming more widely practiced in tourist hotels and restaurants, where 10 percent is expected. Elsewhere, there is no need to tip. Many of the more up-market restaurants tend to include a 10 to 15 percent service charge in their bill.
Most visits to Laos are trouble-free, though crimes such as robbery are on the increase. Passport theft is a problem and travellers are advised to take care, avoid carrying large sums of money and keep valuables and documents in a safe place.
Making copies of important travel documents is also a good idea. Travel in some rural parts of Laos is dangerous because of banditry and unexploded ordnance, and visitors should never stray from well-worn footpaths. Visitors should also note that an ID document or passport should be carried at all times and should be presented on demand or else a heavy fine could be imposed.
Visitors to Vang Vieng are advised to be particularly vigilant of their belongings, and aware of their personal security as there have been reports of petty theft in the area. Staying at a trustworthy and secure hotel or guesthouse while in Vang Vieng is recommended.
Although Laos is known for its laid-back and friendly atmosphere, the travel risk is somewhat increased by the lack of travel infrastructure and medical facilities.
Skimpy or revealing clothes are generally not acceptable, especially in places of worship. Public displays of affection are taboo in Lao society. The Laos government prohibits any sexual contact or relationships between Lao nationals and foreigners, unless married under Lao law; penalties may involve heavy fines or imprisonment. It's illegal not to carry an identity document. Photographing military sites is prohibited.
Laos' hot, tropical climate demands that business people typically wear lightweight suits, usually with a tie. Visitors should also bear in mind that the country is generally rather conservative and should act accordingly. Business cards should be given and received using both hands and should be treated with respect.
Handshakes are common, though the traditional greeting is the nop. It is similar to the Indian namaste, where palms are placed together as if in prayer and held in front of the chest or face. Surnames usually come before first names, which can be confusing for visitors. French is more widely spoken and understood than English, though translators are available. Business hours are usually from 8am to 12pm and 1pm to 4pm, Monday to Friday.
The international access code for Laos is +856. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 001 for the United States). City/area codes are in use, e.g. (0)21 for Vientiane and (0)71 for Luang Prabang. International Direct Dial is available in the major towns, but the service is expensive and inefficient. Hotels sometimes add a hefty surcharge to their telephone bills, so guests should check before making long-distance calls. As mobile phones will only work in the major cities, and local mobile phone companies have few active roaming agreements with other network operators, travellers are advised to check their coverage with their service provider before visiting Laos.
Travellers to Laos do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco; 2 litres of wine and 1 litre of spirits; and 50ml of perfume and 250ml of eau de toilette.
National Tourism Authority of Laos: www.tourismlaos.org
Laos Embassy, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Canada): +1 202 332 6416.
Laos Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7402 3770.
Laos Embassy, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 2 6286 4595.
American Embassy, Vientiane: +856 21 487 000.
British Embassy, Vientiane, Laos: +856 30 77 00 000.
Canadian Embassy, Vientiane, Laos: +856 21 35 38 34.
Australian Embassy, Vientiane: +856 21 353 800.
South African Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Laos): +66 2 092 2900.
Irish Embassy, Hanoi, Vietnam (also responsible for Laos): +84 24 3974 3291.
New Zealand Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Laos): +66 2 254 2530.
The site known as Buddha Park is an otherworldly collection of Buddhist and Hindu statues scattered around a riverside meadow. Priest, myth-maker and sculptor, Luang Pu designed and built the park in 1958, fusing philosophy with mythology and iconography. Visitors will discover that the detail on many of the statues is decidedly atypical of Laos. Indeed, much of it is quite unique. Visitors are sure to enjoy climbing and exploring the structures and should look out for tourist pleasers such as the beautiful Tree of Life sculpture and a pumpkin-like statue. The latter's steps lie inside its gaping mouth and lead to a viewing platform.
Located in the Xieng Khouang Plateau of Northern Laos, the mysterious Plain of Jars is an unusual sight and a must-see attraction. Visitors will find hundreds of huge stone jars scattered about the landscape, some weighing as much as six tonnes and measuring around six feet in length. They're believed to be over 2,000 years old, though their origin and original function remain unknown. One story claims they were made to ferment rice wine to celebrate a victorious battle against a wicked chieftain in the 6th century. Others see them as sarcophagi or funerary urns. The jars are clustered into 90 groups, with Thong Hai Hin being the largest and most easily accessible site. Only Sites 1, 2 and 3 are open to visitors, as unexploded mines from the war lie around the other locations.
The Pak Ou Caves lie about two hours from Luang Prabang and are only accessible via a scenic boat trip. The lower and upper caves contain an impressive collection of mostly wooden Buddha statues, which locals and pilgrims have assembled over the centuries. Hundreds of pilgrims journey to the caves every year, adding new statues to the gallery. The collection contains some unusual specimens, many of which are hard to reach. Visitors will need a flashlight to climb the stairs leading to the upper cave. The lower cave is visible from the river. Photos are permitted and visitors often light candles as tributes.
Tourists frequently rate the multi-tiered Kuang Si Falls as the top attraction in Luang Prabang. The serene location sees turquoise-green water tumble over a series of limestone terraces and collect in lovely pools, all of which are surrounded by lush greenery. Walkways lead around the base and to the summit, and visitors will find many places to picnic. The swimming is glorious, with rocks, branches and rope swings providing fun ways to enter the water. Given their natural splendour, it's no surprise that the falls get crowded. Travellers should visit as early as possible to fully appreciate the location and take good photographs. The falls are about 18 miles (29km) south of Luang Prabang.
The famous 4,000 Islands region of Laos unfolds at the Mekong River's tail end. Situated in the far south and lapping over into Cambodia, the area is renowned for its tranquil village life, spectacular waterfalls and unspoiled natural beauty. It's also home to the rare pink Irrawaddy Dolphin. The two most popular islands are Don Khong, which is the largest and most developed in the region, and backpacker magnet Don Det. Prices for food and accommodation are some of the cheapest in Asia. Many tourists use the area as an entry point into Cambodia, with buses frequently making the one-hour journey to the border. Action lovers can look forward to plenty of hiking, biking and swimming opportunities, while relaxation seekers can enjoy bungalows with waterside balconies. Water safaris are a great way to see the dolphins, though travellers should ask guides not to go too far.
The Houey Hong Vocational Training Center for Woman has been among the most popular tourist attractions in Laos. The centre provides training and education to Lao women from disadvantaged backgrounds, teaching them skills such as natural dyeing, traditional Lao weaving, tailoring and small business administration. Visitors are not just casual observers and instead partake in half-day or full-day courses of their choice, and are taught skills ranging from tie-dyeing silks to traditional Lao weaving with a loom.
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