Weather and climate

Most of the year is hot and humid. Laos enjoys a tropical climate with two distinct seasons. The rainy season is from the beginning of May to the end of September, and the dry season is from October through April. The average annual temperature is about 28ºC (86ºF), rising to a maximum of 38ºC (106ºF) during April and May.

In Vientiane a minimum temperature of 19ºC (68ºF) is expected during January. However, in mountainous areas the temperature can drop to as low as 14-15ºC (58-60ºF) during the winter months, and during cold nights can often reach freezing point. The average precipitation is highest in southern Laos, where the Annamite Mountains receive over 3,000mm (9.8f) per annum. In Vientiane the annual rainfall is about 1,500-2,000mm (4.8f-6.4f) and in the Northern provinces only around 1,000-1,500mm (3.2f-4.8f).

The best time to visit Laos is between November and April. The hot season from March to May is very dry and during this period certain river trips are not possible. 

Geography

Laos is a landlocked country located in the centre of Indochina which shares borders with China to the north, Myanmar to northwest, Thailand to the west, Cambodia to the south and Việt Nam to the east.

With a total area of 236,800 square kilometers, around 70% of the country is mountainous, reaching a maximum elevation of 2,820 metres in Xieng Khouang Province. The landscapes of northern Laos and the regions adjacent to Việt Nam, in particular, are dominated by rough mountains.

The Mekong River is the main geographical feature in the west and, in fact, forms a natural border with Thailand in some areas. The Mekong flows through nearly 1,900 kilometres of Lao territory and shapes much of the lifestyle of the people of Laos. In the south the Mekong reaches a breadth of 20 kilometres, creating an area with thousands of islands.

Laos safety

Lao people are kind, gentle and fun-loving people and most visits to Laos are trouble free.

However, in recent years violent crimes such as robbery have been on the increase. Foreigners have been assaulted after having their drinks drugged. Travellers should be careful about taking drinks from strangers.

It is illegal not to carry an ID document, and fines for not having one for presentation are high.

The Lao government prohibits sexual relations between foreign citizens and Lao nationals, except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao family law. Penalties for breaking these regulations can range from fines to imprisonment. 

Visa and passport requirements

Passports

To enter Laos, a passport valid for at least six months is required by all nationalities

Visas

Visas for Laos are required by all nationalities, except citizens of Luxembourg and South East Asian countries.

Tourist visas permit entry for 15 days and the cost varies from US$20 to US$50, depending on your nationality. You can obtain a tourist visa through a Laos Embassy or alternatively get it upon arrival at international arrival gates.

All visas are issued for single-entry and must be used within two months of date of issue.

Healthcare and vaccinations

The healthcare system in Laos is still rather basic. There are no international hospitals in Laos and many local people cross border to Thailand for the treatment of serious illnesses. Any treatment must generally be paid for in cash. Health insurance is essential and should include cover for air evacuation.

Hepatitis E occurs and Hepatitis B is highly endemic. Dengue fever, Tuberculosis and Japanese Encephalitis are also found in rural areas.

Food and drink

All water should be regarded as being potentially contaminated. You should drink only boiled or bottled water because it is cheap and available along alll travel routes. Only eat cooked food.

Some typical Lao drinks:

  • Beer Lao: This excellent and popular beer is on sale everywhere.
  • Lao lao (sticky rice whisky) is popular drink, often made by individuals.

Lao cuisine is a blend of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese in flavour and presentation. The cheapest and easiest way to sample Lao food is from the stalls in the markets. Traditionally, Lao food is very spicy but this kick is often tempered for the western palate. Padaek (Lao fish sauce) is often used to flavour dishes. There are several fairly good French restaurants in Vientiane, catering mainly for the diplomatic community, and also in Luang Prabang, which has recently seen something of a culinary revival.

Some typical Lao food:

  • Sticky rice is very popular food in Laos. It is generally served in rattan baskets and eaten with the fingers. Popular dishes include:
  • Laap: a spicy mixture of marinated minced meat or fish tossed in lime juice, garlic, onions, powdered rice and chillies, served with raw vegetables and sticky rice.
  • Tam maak hung: spicy green papaya salad mixed with chillies, lime juice and dried shrimp, similar to the Thai dish som tam.
  • Khai phaan: Made with sun-dried weed from the Mekong River, mixed with garlic, this goes well with beer.
  • Luang Prabang sausage: a local speciality sausage made in Luang Prabang.

Shopping

Handicraft products are sold at all tourist attractions. Silk and cotton fabrics, objects made from wood (sculptures, cut-out figures), pottery and traditional instruments are part of the rich tapestry of Lao craftsmanship. Besides the regular markets and souvenir shops, the Vientiane and Luang Prabang night markets are popular with souvenir hunters.

Nightlife

Laos is a very quiet country and apart from the night markets (open from dark till 10pm everyday), there are several bars in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Some big hotels also offer live music in their bars. However, most of them close at 11pm.

Tipping

Tipping is only expected in the main tourist areas. Up-market restaurants and hotels may add a 5-10% service charge to the bill.

Electricity

Electric current: 230 volts, 50Hz, two-pin socket system.

Money matters

Currency

The Kip is the official currency of the Lao PDR and the following bank

notes are currently in circulation: 500; 1,000; 2,000; 5,000; 10,000; 20,000 and 50,000 Kip. Usage of foreign money in Laos is not common so you should always have Kip to hand as you travel.

The best currencies to use when exchanging money are US Dollars, Euros and Thai Baht.

Credit Cards

Visa and Master Cards and American Express are accepted at most banks in the larger towns (such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang), and in the major hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

ATMs

ATMs can be found only in major centres of population such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet. These only dispense local currency.

Import and export restrictions

A person can bring into Laos the following items without paying taxes:

  • 500 cigarettes or 100 cigars or 500g of tobacco.
  • One bottle of alcoholic beverage and two bottles of wine.
  • Personal jewellery up to 500g.

Note: The export of antiques such as Buddha images and other artefacts is prohibited. Any antique items purchased in other countries must be declared to customs on arrival in Laos.