Laos is a stunning land which shows of the unique beauty of nature and people. Since this country is less-visited compared with others in the southeast Asia, its primitive beauty draws many attractions of domestic and foreign tourists...
Often overlooked in favour of its better-known neighbours, landlocked Laos remains one of Southeast Asia’s most beguiling destinations. Caught in the middle of the two Indochina wars and long isolated from the rest of the world, the country retains a slow, rather old-fashioned charm, and its people – incredibly laidback and friendly, even by Asian standards – are undoubtedly one of the highlights of any visit.
Laos’s lifeline is the Mekong River, which runs the length of the country, at times bisecting it and at others serving as a boundary with Thailand; the rugged Annamite Mountains historically have acted as a buffer against Vietnam, with which Laos shares its eastern border. Most people visit the country as part of a wider trip in the region, often entering from Thailand and following the Mekong further south. However, Laos alone rewards further exploration, and with a little more time it’s not hard to feel like you’re visiting places where few Westerners venture. Stretching from the forest-clad mountains of the north to the islands of the far south, there’s enough here to keep you occupied for weeks, and still feel as though you’d barely scratched the surface.
For such a small country, Laos is surprisingly diverse in terms of its people. Colourfully dressed hill tribes populate the higher elevations, while in the lowland river valleys, coconut palms sway over the Buddhist monasteries of the ethnic Lao. The country also retains some of the French influence it absorbed during colonial days: the familiar smell of freshly baked bread and coffee mingles with exotic local aromas in morning markets, and many of the old shophouses of its larger towns now (appropriately) house French restaurants.
November to January are the most pleasant months to travel in lowland Laos, when daytime temperatures are agreeably warm, evenings are slightly chilly and the countryside is green and lush after the rains. However, at higher elevations temperatures are significantly cooler, sometimes dropping to freezing point. In February, temperatures begin to climb, reaching a peak in April, when the lowlands are baking hot and humid. During this time, the highlands are, for the most part, equally hot if a bit less muggy than the lowlands, though there are places, such as Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau, that have a temperate climate year-round.
Due to slash-and-burn agriculture, much of the north, including Luang Prabang, becomes shrouded in smoke from March until the beginning of the monsoon, which can at times be quite uncomfortable, and of course doesn’t do your photographs any favours. The rainy season (generally May to September) affects the condition of Laos’s network of unpaved roads, some of which become impassable after the rains begin. On the other hand, rivers which may be too low to navigate during the dry season become important transport routes after the rains have caused water levels to rise. Note that the climate in some northern areas – notably Phongsali and Hua Phan (Sam Neua) – can be surprisingly temperamental, even in the hot season, so you could have one scorcher of a day, followed by a cold, wet day that’s enough to convince you you’re no longer in Southeast Asia.
The official national currency in Laos is the Lao kip (LAK). Although only kip is legally negotiable in everyday transactions, in reality three currencies are used for commerce: kip, Thai baht (B) and US dollars (US$). In larger cities and towns, baht and US dollars are readily acceptable at most businesses, including hotels, restaurants and shops.
In smaller towns and villages, kip is usually preferred. The rule of thumb is that for everyday small purchases, prices are quoted in kip. More expensive goods and services (eg long-distance boat hire) may be quoted in baht or dollars, while anything costing US$100 or more (eg tours, long-term car hire) is quoted in US dollars.
Despite experiencing relative stability in recent years, the kip cannot yet call itself a stable currency. As such, prices in this guidebook are given in the US dollar equivalent.
The Lao kip is not convertible to any currency outside of the Lao PDR. Because of this, the only reliable sources of foreign exchange information are those inside the country.