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Everything you need to know before you travel to Laos

Most people come to Laos just to visit the UNESCO town of Luang Prabang, one of the most charming cities in South-East Asia, and leave without knowing anything else about this fabulous holiday destination. Each part of the country has hidden secrets and offers you different experiences throughout your Laos Holiday.

Laos is justly famous for its magnificent French colonial buildings, but will soon be renowned for its abundance of natural attractions and beautiful river waterways. The tourist infrastructure in Laos has developed tremendously in recent years, including the opening of quality hotels and restaurants and the upgrading of roads and transport links. Laos is more accessible today than at any time in the past three decades and a journey here is a journey to a land of timeless grace and charm.

Get back to nature and spend time in the enchanted north with the Laotian hill tribes and the mysterious Plain of Jar sites. Take a boat trip and meander around the picturesque 4000 islands taking in the river life as you go. Visit the country’s fascinating caves and beautiful cascading waterfalls. Go elephant riding or simply take time to relax on the river banks and enjoy some fabulous cuisine. Nowhere is this better symbolised than the majestic stupa of Pha That, Laos’s most important national monument that sparkles in the Vientiane sunlight. Beyond the capital and spiritual home Lunag Prabang; Laos offers the adventurer a land of hill tribes, wildlife and bold landscapes, and the south with its numerous islands and waterways as well as the increasable Wat Phou temple. Many of these destinations are unknown to the outside world, helping the visitor feel more of an explorer than a tourist.

The abundance of mountains, forests and rivers make this small land green and special. From the Northern provinces where Laos meets with China, Myanmar and Thailand, the Mighty Mekong river flows throughout the entire country, fed by many pristine tributaries and finally crashing over the vast 14 km wide cataract forming the Khone Falls in the southern province of Champasake. Today Laos is enjoying peace and a stable political and economic structure. It is a safe place to travel and to live. For the last decade the country has seen a steady increase in the number of tourists and many significant advances have taken place. Though its traditional ways are still well preserved, it is changing quite fast.

Lao people are frank, open and friendly, and they possess a strongly developed sense of courtesy and respect. Everyone who adheres to the latter will receive a warm welcome. Laos is an extraordinary country and offers the adventurous visitor a wealth of experiences.

Money, Expenses & Credit Cards

There are several national banks and licensed money exchangers where you can change or withdraw money. Working hours are 8am-3.30pm, Monday to Friday. Most banks will accept traveller’s cheques at 2%-4% commission being the usual charge but beware that they will often only exchange for kip. Most of the provincial and large towns now have ATM’s however you should always double check before you leave for some of the remote areas.

The exchange rate for Cambodia Riel to US dollar is around 4000 Riel = $1 or 5000 Riel = £1.

We recommend you allow around $15 to $30 a day for basic day to day expenses such as drinks and meals. To give an idea a beer will set you back $1, a 2 course lunch $8 and a 2 course dinner $12.

A growing number of hotels, up-market restaurants and gift shops in Vientiane and Luang Prabang accept Visa and MasterCard, and to a much lesser extent Amex and JCB. Outside of these three towns, credit cards are virtually useless.

There are several national banks where you can change or withdraw money and most towns in Cambodia now have ATM’s. Visa, JCB, Master Card and American Express credit cards are accepted in major stores, however you will sometimes need to present identification when using your credit card.

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Country Profile

  • Full name

    Laos People’s Democratic Republic

  • Population

    6.4 million (UN, 2012)

  • Population Make Up

    Laos 95%, Vietnamese 2%, Chinese 1%, Other 2%

  • Capital and largest city

    Vientiane

  • Area

    236,800 sq km (91,400 sq miles)

  • Time Zone

    1GMT + 7 Hours

  • Major language

    Lao

  • Major religion

    Buddhism 67%, Christian 1.5% and other 31.5%

  • Life expectancy

    66 years (men), 69 years (women) (UN)

  • Main exports

    Clothing, timber, coffee, golf, copper and electricity

  • Economy

    Agriculture 75%, Services and Industry 25%

  • GNI per capita

    US $1,130 (World Bank, 2011)

  • Intern. dialling code

    +856

Main Festivals

  • January

    Boun Pavet

  • February

    Magha Puja, Wat Phu Festival & The Elephant Festival

  • March

    Boun Khoun Khao

  • April

    Pi Mai Laos (Laos New Year)

  • May / June

    Rocket Festival (Bong Bang Fai)

  • September

    Boun Haw Khao Padup Din & Luang Prabang Boat Racing Festival

  • November

    That Luang Festival

  • December

    Hmong New Year & Lao National Day

Please note: Dates of some festivals can change slightly from year to year.

Laos – A Brief History

The Lao state dates only from 1945. The idea of a separate Lao nationality was formed during the 19th century, when western ideas of national identity reached South-East Asia, and when the Lao-speaking people were being squeezed between two expansionist powers, Siam (Thailand) and Annam (Vietnam). The current borders of Laos were created by France in 1893 and 1904. Today the official history of Laos is traced back to the Kingdom of Lān Xāng, which was founded in 1353. But in reality the Lao share a common history with the Siamese and other people of the Tai language group, and Lān Xāng was only one of a number of Tai kingdoms in a region which had a broad linguistic and cultural unity before the arrival of outside powers.

Kingdom of Lan Xang (1368 – 1707)
Siamese and Vietnamese dominations (1763 – 1848)
Creation of Laos (1826 AD – 1909)
French Laos (1893 – 1954)
Establishment of a protectorate (1886 – 1896)
Administrative reorganization (1898 – 1907)
Colonialism in Laos (1904 – 1931)
Laos during World War II (1939 – 1945)

The Laos People’s Democratic Republic (1975 to Present Day)
The new communist government led by Kaysone Phomvihane imposed centralized economic decision-making and incarcerated many members of the previous government and military in “re-education camps” which also included the Hmongs. While nominally independent, the communist government was for many years effectively little more than a puppet regime run from Vietnam. The government’s policies prompted about 10 percent of the Lao population to leave the country. Laos depended heavily on Soviet aid channelled through Vietnam up until the Soviet collapse in 1991. In the 1990s the communist party gave up centralised management of the economy but still has a monopoly of political power. Currently tourism is growing fast however corruption is still ever present in day to day life but the country is very safe to travel to.

The period of the Kingdom of Laos (1955 –1975)
Elections were held in 1955, and the first coalition government, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma, was formed in 1957. The coalition government collapsed in 1958 under pressure from the United States. In 1960 Captain Kong Le staged a coup when the cabinet was away at the royal capital of Luang Prabang and demanded reformation of a neutralist government. The second coalition government, once again led by Souvanna Phouma, was not successful in holding power. Rightist forces under General Phoumi Nosavan drove out the neutralist government from power later that same year. A second Geneva conference, held in 1961-62, provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos, but the agreement meant little in reality and the war soon resumed. Growing North Vietnamese military presence in the country increasingly drew Laos into the Second Indochina War (1954-1975). As a result for nearly a decade, eastern Laos was subjected to the heaviest bombing in the history of warfare, as the U.S. sought to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through Laos and defeat the Communist forces. The North Vietnamese also heavily backed the Pathet Lao and repeatedly invaded Laos. The government and army of Laos were backed by the USA during the conflict and the United States formed and trained irregular forces. Shortly after the Paris Peace Accords led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, a ceasefire between the Pathet Lao and the government led to a new coalition government. However, North Vietnam never withdrew from Laos and the Pathet Lao remained little more than a proxy army for Vietnamese interests. After the fall of South Vietnam to communist forces in April 1975, the Pathet Lao with the backing of North Vietnam were able to take total power with little resistance. On December 2, 1975, the king was forced to abdicate his throne and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established.

Towns & Cities in Laos

cities and towns of Laos

Laos has no shortage of captivating destination to visit on your holiday. Refer to our Towns & cities guide to plan the perfect trip.

Our Favourite Hotels in Laos

View our recommended hotels for your next Laos holiday

There are so many beautiful hotels to choose from in Laos. So we have selected a few of our most favourite and characterful hotels; giving you a taste of what you can expect.

Our most popular Laos Holiday Activities

Browse through our Laos Activity suggestions and get some inspiration.
We can then add any activity you want and tailor-make a Laos holiday just for you!

Our most popular Laos Holidays

Browse through our Laos holidays and get some inspiration.
We can then tailor-make your holiday in Laos just for you!

Laos Golf Tour

Laos Golf Tour

8 Days / 7 Nights
Price from: $999 per person

Laos Vietnam Tour | From One Million Elephants to 2000 Islands

Laos Vietnam Tour | From One Million Elephants to 2000 Islands

14 Days / 13 Nights
Price from: $2,699 per person

Following the Nine Tailed Dragon (Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam)

Following the Nine Tailed Dragon (Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam)

18 Days / 17 Nights
Price from: $3,499 per person

Heritage of Indochina (Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia)

Heritage of Indochina (Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia)

15 Days / 14 Nights
Price from: $2,999 per person

Laos & Thailand Boat Cruises

Laos & Thailand Boat Cruises

3 to 11 Day Cruises
Price from: $499 per person

Hill Tribes & Highlands of Laos

Hill Tribes & Highlands of Laos

12 Days / 11 Nights
Price from: $2,399 per person

Cultural Laos and the 4000 Islands

Cultural Laos and the 4000 Islands

10 Days / 9 Nights
Price from: $1,999 per person

Explore Laos Tour

Explore Laos Tour

11 Days / 10 Nights
Price from: $1,999 per person

Laos Heart, Soul & Spirit

Laos Heart, Soul & Spirit

7 Days / 6 Nights
Price from: $1,299 per person

Northern Laos Explorer (Starting in Thailand)

Northern Laos Explorer (Starting in Thailand)

10 Days / 9 Nights
Price from: $2,599 per person

4000 Islands, Elephants, Wild Coffee & Waterfalls

4000 Islands, Elephants, Wild Coffee & Waterfalls

8 Days / 7 Nights
Price from: $1,549 per person

Luang Prabang Uncovered

Luang Prabang Uncovered

5 Days / 4 Nights
Price from: $699 per person