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Vang Vieng at sunset, Laos

Laos Travel Guide

Laos, a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, invites travellers to discover its serene beauty and rich cultural heritage. Step into the charming town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where ancient Buddhist temples, French colonial architecture, and vibrant night markets create a captivating atmosphere. Rise early to witness the peaceful ritual of Tak Bat, where saffron-clad monks collect alms from devout locals, offering a glimpse into the spiritual traditions of Laos. Cruise along the Mekong River, meandering through lush jungles and picturesque villages, and immerse yourself in the tranquil beauty of the countryside.

Venture to the southern region of Laos and explore the 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don), a scenic archipelago in the Mekong River. Relax in hammocks overlooking the idyllic river views, embark on boat trips to spot rare Irrawaddy dolphins, or simply soak up the laid-back atmosphere of island life. For adventure enthusiasts, the rugged landscapes of northern Laos beckon with trekking opportunities, giving you a chance to explore remote hill tribe villages and witness the stunning Kuang Si Waterfalls. With its unspoiled natural beauty, ancient temples, and warm hospitality of the locals, Laos offers a unique travel experience that embraces tranquillity and authenticity.

Key Facts

Time Zone

GMT+7

Money

Laotian Kip (LAK)

Dialing Code

+856

  • With so many tourists and travellers in Thailand, and now increasingly in Cambodia, Laos is seen to offer a more original, rustic Asian experience.
  • There are some interesting places to see, such as Vientiane, the capital, and the historic, colourful city of Luang Prabang.
  • A “rite of passage” for backpackers is to go river tubing at Vang Vieng.
  • There are beautiful landscapes, ancient sites and fun activities galore!
  • It’s great for the budget traveller.

The capital city is Vientiane, which means “the city of sandalwood”. It’s located on the Mekong River, across from Thailand. The population is not huge, with about 250,000 people actually living in the city and about 750,000 in the greater suburban area.

  • Luang Prabang This colourful, vibrant city bursts with beauty and colour and is full of the flavours of Asia. Check out the golden temples, beautiful sunsets, limestone caves, stunning waterfalls, rolling hills, night markets and elephant park.  World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang is a relaxed and laid-back place to hang out. This riverside Mekong city has a warm, tropical climate, stunning architecture, a traditional, Asian feel and thrilling outdoor attractions, as well as tasty food and a wealth of shopping opportunities. 
  • Royal Palace Museum- The Royal Palace Museum was built in 1904 for King Sisavangvong and is now a museum displaying religious objects, ancient artefacts and Pha Bang, the Palace’s gold standing Buddha. If you fancy an evening of cultural entertainment then catch a show at the Royal Theatre, where you can watch local performers traditionally dancing along to folk music. 
  • Climb the Phu Si Hill- This is a great place to watch an amazing sunset and take in the views overlooking the entire city.  You can climb up to the Chomsi temple, built on the hill’s summit, and explore the other temples, ruins and Buddhist shrines. It’s worth arriving an hour or so before sunset so that you have time to look around and get a good seat to watch the sun go down.
  • Wat Xieng Thong- Wat Xieng Thong is considered to be among the most important temples in Laos. This 16th Century temple is located in a beautiful garden on the bank of the Mekong River.
  • Get on your bike- The best way to really explore the city is by bike. You can hire a mountain bike for around 40,000-80,000 kip per day.
  • Take a hike- Luang Prabang’s hilly countryside is a unique, scenic place to go trekking.
  • Shopping opportunities galore- The Hmong Night Market is the place to hone your bargaining skills. There are stalls selling fabulous items such as clothes, arts and crafts, food and souvenirs, etc. As the name suggests, the market is held in the evening and is lit by lanterns, making for a magical atmosphere. 
  • Take a lazy boat ride down the Mekong River- Set off from Luang Prabang and head downriver. The best time to take a cruise is before sunset because it’s cooler, and you’ll get some good snaps as the light goes down and the fishermen return home. The day cruise usually stops at either Pak Ou Caves or the Whiskey Village.  The slow boat method is basic, slow and sometimes uncomfortable, however, the scenery, safety, relaxing vibe and friendly locals more than make up for it.  A leisurely glide down the Mekong River is an unforgettable experience and a great addition to your trip. 
  • Plain of Jars- Deep in the mountains of northern Laos is a mysterious sight called the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of limestone jars in many shapes and sizes are scattered across an area near Phonsavan. Archaeologists continue to debate the history of these jars, and one popular theory is that they are actually 2000-year-old funeral urns after bones, bronze and beads were found in them. This theory has since been strengthened by the discovery of an underground burial chamber. Regardless of why and how these jars came to be here, they are an enigmatic sight and well worth a visit.
  • Pak Ou Caves- These caves are located 25km upstream from Luang Prabang on the Mekong River and have hundreds of images of Buddha on their walls. The two caves have been a place of worship for over a thousand years. 
  • Kuang Si Waterfalls- These beautiful waterfalls are 32km from the city of Luang Prabang and the location is mesmerising! You can cycle to the falls, or get a Tuk Tuk. The clear water cascades over multi-tiered limestone formations and pours into a series of stunning turquoise pools. The water is cool, but on a hot day, it’s great to take a plunge in the heavenly pools.
  • Si Phan Don- A beautiful set of islands in the Mekong River in southern Laos. There are three main areas to visit: Don Khong, Don Det and Don Khon. The islands are quiet, but there are some fun things to do…Visit Khon Phapheng Falls, rent a bike and pedal around the islands, or take a boat tour and spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphins. 
  • Vang Vieng- Is set in incredibly beautiful countryside with a meandering river, stunning mountains and cavernous rock formations. It’s a popular place for travellers to hang out, especially in the TV bars where you can lounge around on cushions and watch your favourite films and programmes. The real attraction to Vang Vieng however is river tubing, which involves hiring a large inflatable tube and jumping into a truck, which drives you a few kilometres upstream. You then hop into the water and float gently down the river whilst lying back and enjoying the scenery. Without making any stops, it takes around two hours. However, please note that in the rainy season, the river speeds up and it can be deep in parts with a current, so only participate if you are a strong swimmer and make sure you wear the life jackets that are available. There is more to Vang Vieng than just tubing! Stunning limestone mountains tower over the town and there are some really interesting caves to explore. The most popular caves to visit are Tham Jang, Tham Phu Kham and Tham Sang (Elephant cave). Another possible activity is to combine caving with a kayaking excursion or a trek. Other popular activities in the area include rock climbing, rafting, cycling, temple visits and boat tours.
  • Vientiane- is the laid-back capital of Laos. For an iconic Vientiane experience, eat dinner by the Mekong Riverfront; the golden temples in the area are a stunning sight. It’s worth spending a couple of days here to take in some of the highlights:
  • Patuxai- Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe replica was built in 1969 with cement donated by the USA for the construction of a new airport - hence its other nickname, ‘the vertical runway’. For a small fee, you can climb to the top of the monument which has great views over Vientiane.
  • Pha That Luang- Pha That Luang is considered to be the most important national monument in Laos. The gold spire reaches 45 metres high and for a small entrance fee, you can visit the inner courtyard to view this impressive monument.
  • The Lao National Museum- Open daily 8am –12pm and 1-4pm.
  • Wat Haw Pha Kaew- This lovely temple used to house the precious Emerald Buddha but today it’s used as a museum and displays an impressive collection of Buddha images and bronze statues. 
  • Buddha Park (Wat Xieng Khuan)- Situated 25km from Vientiane is an outdoor collection of over 200 Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, found in the peaceful park by the Mekong River.
  • Mekong Riverfront- Eating and drinking by the river is a real authentic Vientiane experience. The best time to visit is at sunset when the whole place comes alive!
  • Nam Phou Square- Known as Fountain Square, is a good place to relax, grab a coffee and watch the world go by. In the area, you will find a pretty park and some top restaurants and cafés.
  • Wat Phu- Located in the Champasak region, Wat Phu is one of Laos’ oldest archaeological wonders and the name means ‘temple on the mountain’ – it is a historic and enchanting sight not to be missed!
  • Ba Na Elephant Village- Is an hour from Vientiane. This is a chance to see wild elephants from a unique, purpose-built observation tower and see these majestic creatures in their natural environment.  The village of Ba Na provides an opportunity to observe traditional Laotian village life and buy local woven baskets produced there.   Laos is one of the most unspoilt, laid-back countries in Asia and a hidden gem that many have yet to discover!  Take the opportunity in your gap year to visit this beautiful and fascinating place and head off the well-beaten track.  With temples, cultural sights, stunning natural scenery and a crazy river tubing experience on offer, Laos has the complete package for any gap year traveller. 

Laotian cuisine is similar to some Northeastern Thai dishes and uses many of the same ingredients. Most Laotian dishes contain vegetables and herbs, rice or noodles and fish, chicken, pork or beef.  Food is fresh and delicious and the Lao people like to prepare fresh food from scratch. Herbs such as galangal and lemongrass are frequently used and Laotian food is very rich in vegetables and is often browned in coconut oil. The Lao fish sauce known as ‘Padaek’ is a condiment usually found on every table.   

One of the staples of Laotian food is sticky rice, which naturally sticks together and can be rolled into small balls, dipped in sauce and eaten with your fingers. Noodle soup is another Lao speciality, often served with a side of fresh vegetables. 

A dish unique to Laos and widely available is known as ‘Laap’ (or Larb) which means luck or good fortune. This is a tasty, spicy mix of marinated meat or fish with herbs and spices. Another Lao staple dish is a spicy green papaya salad dish known as Tam Mak Hoong or Tam Som.

The weather in Laos is similar to Vietnam - a single rainy season with maximum rainfall between May and September/October, with the rest of the year being dry and quite sunny. The wet season tends to be a downpour for a few hours each day rather than rain all day long, which is typical for the region. The higher places get the most rain, with Vientiane and the towns along the lower Mekong receiving less. 

April and May are the hottest months with average highs of 34°C and lows of 24°C, but the temperature rarely falls below 17°C, and the highs for most months are around 30°C.

Visa

Visas may be required in order to enter or transit through certain countries depending on your passport nationality, your reason for travel and how long you intend to stay.

Visa, passport and entry rules are subject to change and you should check the most up-to-date information from the relevant embassy or visa specialist.

To make things easier we have teamed up with The Travel Visa Company who are one of the UK’s leading travel visa specialists. You can use their website, alongside embassy websites,  to find out the specific entry requirements for the countries you intend to travel to.

For a fee, their dedicated team of experts can also apply for visas on your behalf, taking away the hassle and streamlining the process for you if you wish. For more details on the services they provide please click here – The Travel Visa Company

Passport

Passports must be kept in good condition. Travellers with damaged passports may be refused entry at immigration. It is the responsibility of the traveller to ensure that all travel documents are in good condition before they travel. Most countries will also require at least 6 months of validity on your passport from the time you finish your trip. 

Further Entry Requirements

Some countries will require proof of certain vaccines, such as yellow fever or covid, in order to gain entry. Please check with the relevant embassy or a visa specialist before travelling.

The official language of Laos is Lao, a language similar to Thai. English is often used for tourism purposes. Other languages in use are Thai, Vietnamese, French and multiple Chinese languages.

220v - Laos uses American-type and French-type plugs, so you certainly need a universal plug adapter for any British electrical appliances.

The traditional greeting in Laos is to press your palms together. 

Touching or showing affection in public is not approved of.

Touching someone’s head is considered impolite as is using your feet for anything other than walking or playing sports.

Dress is modest and public nudity is not accepted. 

Remember to remove your shoes when entering a Lao home. Show respect at sacred sites; in some places taking photographs may not be permitted. 

Queuing is not a familiar concept in Laos! Don’t expect to wait patiently in a British-style queue; you’ll have to learn to push yourself forward if you want to be seen.

Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the following standard vaccinations for travellers to Southeast Asia: Adult diphtheria and tetanus boosters, Hepatitis A and B, MMR, Polio and Typhoid. 

Make sure you visit your GP several weeks before travel to make sure you are up to date with all your vaccinations. 

Malaria and Dengue Fever can be present in some areas so seek advice from your GP before travel and make sure you take all preventative measures against mosquito bites. 

See our general health advice for more information. 

If you are travelling in from a yellow fever zone you will need to have a yellow fever certificate to present on arrival in Laos. 

Medical care in Laos is fairly basic and is only really generally available in the capital city. If you have any ongoing serious health conditions consider them carefully before visiting Laos. 

Hygiene standards are not high so avoid drinking tap water and don’t have ice in drinks. Drink only boiled or bottled water. If you contract diarrhoea seek medical advice. 

There have been some outbreaks of Bird Flu in the past so avoid live birds and poultry.

Safety

Laos is a very friendly country and is considered one of the safest in Asia, but as happens everywhere, there have been some incidents of petty crime, so be alert and follow our general safety advice when travelling. 

There have been a few reports of food or drink being drugged, so don’t leave food or drink unattended. 

If you are thinking of travelling on the Mekong River avoid the speedboats and opt for a slow boat instead – the speedboats pose a risk to travellers. Roads in Laos are also basic and levels of safety are not good so try to travel during the day and take care on public transport. 

The Lao-Thai border sees occasional political skirmishes so avoid getting caught up in any violence. Keep to well-beaten tracks in rural areas as there are a few unexploded mines still present in the country. Avoid all military sites. 

Involvement in drugs is severely punished and illegal in Laos. The government prohibits sexual relations between Lao nationals and foreign nationals and this can impose a heavy penalty.

You should carry your ID when travelling through Laos as you may be spot-checked and if you cannot provide proof of identity you may be fined.

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