The country’s officially called the Lao People's Democratic Republic, bordered by Myanmar and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west. Lao PDR is a landlocked country and covered by high mountainous ranges but crises-crossed by many rivers and stream. For centuries, it has been widely known by outsiders as the land of a million Elephants. The capital and largest city of Laos is Vientiane and other major cities include Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Pakse.
Laos is a landlocked nation in Southeast Asia. About seventy percent of its geographic area is made up of mountain ranges, highlands, plateaux, and rivers cut through. Its location has often made it a buffer between more powerful neighboring states, as well as a crossroads for trade and communication.
Laos' isolation from foreign influence offers travellers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional southeast Asian life. The country retains a slow, rather old-fashioned charm, and its people – incredibly laidback and friendly, even by Asian standards. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, Laos is the highlight of southeast Asia.
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One of the most visited provinces of Laos; Champasak has a population of around 50,000 and is formed by Pakse, the Bolaven Plateau, Paksong, Champasak and Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands). Bordering Thailand and Cambodia, Pakse sits at the confluence of the Mekong and is the province's capital, as a result of the Lao-Japanese Bridge spanning the Mekong, the town has quickly grown as an area of trading importance and is a popular tourist destination.
Khong Island or Don Khong is the largest island and the seat of administration in the Si Phan Don riverine archipelago located in the Mekong River, Khong District, Champasak Province, southern Laos.
The island is 18 kilometres (11 mi) long (north-south), and 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) at its widest point. It has a population of approximately 55,000, mainly concentrated in the two villages Muang Saen (west) and Muang Khong (east); the latter is the de facto capital of the island as well as the regional seat of government. The former President of Laos, Khamtai Siphandon has a residence on the island, which is a possible explanation for the high-quality of infrastructure, such as asphalted roads and electricity, on Khong Island. Locals tend to travel on longtail boats.
Khong Island is noted for its natural beauty and is a growing tourist destination. Many tourists combine their visit to the island with a visit to nearby Don Det and Don Khon islands, where it is possible to view the Khone Phapheng Falls.
The capital of the province, Luang Nam Tha is a quiet, ordered town where a grid pattern of streets reveals ever-so-quietly humming businesses and residences. It’s a lovely spot to chill out for a couple of days before or after a trek into the Nam Ha NPA. The town is surrounded by a patchwork of rich rice paddies and ethnically diverse villages, and exploring them would be a highlight of a trip to the area. It’s also a transport hub for buses from all directions, including China, and consequently attracts a transient population of traders and travellers, all of whom add to the melting pot.
The original town, which was always prone to flooding, was virtually destroyed during the Second Indochina War, and the administrative centre was consequently moved 7km north in 1976. The newer town centre sits on higher ground, and is close to where the highways come in from Muang Sing, Boten and Udomxai. Most visitors spend their limited time around the main street of this northern district, but the older southern district is mostly residential and, in general, much more interesting. Locals often refer to the southern centre as meuang (city-state) and to the northern centre as khwǎeng (province).
It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the most amazing places in Laos. Attractions include dozens of historic Buddhist temples (wats), French-era houses and lots of opportunity for active travel. You can hike up Phousi (a steep hill with wonderful views over the town), and visit the wats, many of which are 400-500 years old. Another impressive sight is the former Royal Palace – it’s now a museum. This is where the last kings of Laos lived – and it’s very art deco. Make sure to take a boat to the Pak Ou Caves. They contain about 3,000 wooden and other Buddha images. The boats often stop at hill tribe villages along the way so you can buy handicrafts and sample the local liquor.
This old town is the perfect place to see one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. The idea of the alms giving is for the Buddhist monks to make merit and also to collect food for their one meal of a day. The ceremony takes place daily as the sun rises, beginning on the main street of Luang Prabang before spreading out to all the side streets. You should buy your offerings (usually food) in advance and arrive with plenty of time to spare as it’s considered very offensive to disrupt the ceremony once it has commenced.
Whilst small, this friendly local village is attractive, and has a small local temple as well as a couple of local restaurants to explore. It is also an ideal place to base yourself for a few days to explore the scenic surrounding area.
Pakse is a city in southern Laos, where the Mekong and Xe Don rivers meet. Its central Wat Luang is a lavishly decorated Buddhist temple where monks collect alms at sunrise. The Champasak Historical Heritage Museum explores the region's culture through jewelry, textile and musical instrument displays. The city's past is reflected in its French colonial architecture, especially in the old quarter near Xe Don River.
Phonsavan is the capital town of Xieng Khouang Province, in northeastern Laos. It’s a gateway to the Plain of Jars sites, named for their clusters of giant, millennia-old sandstone jars, which have unclear origins. Muang Khoun, the old provincial capital, has a 16th-century Buddha statue in its Wat Phia Wat temple ruins. The surrounding hilly landscape features the Ka Waterfall and the limestone Tham Xang Cave.
Savannakhet is the capital of Savannakhet Province, Laos. It sits on the Mekong River, bordering Thailand. The city is also known as Kaysone Phomvihane, the name of the 20th-century president who was born here. The riverside Xayaphoum Temple, with its traditional curved roof, has an adjacent monastery. Northeast, the centuries-old That Ing Hang stupa is a carved monument thought to contain Buddhist relics.
Vang Vieng is a small town north of Vientiane, on the Nam Song River in Laos. It's surrounded by striking limestone mountains and caves. Tham Poukham, to the west, is a cave with a blue-green lagoon and a reclining Buddha statue. North is the deep Tham Nam Cave, which has a spring at its entrance. Nearby, Tham Xang Cave has a stalactite resembling an elephant. The town is home to 16th- and 17th-century monasteries.
Vientiane, Laos' national capital, mixes French-colonial architecture with Buddhist temples such as the golden, 16th-century Pha That Luang, which is a national symbol. Along broad boulevards and tree-lined streets are many notable shrines including Wat Si Saket, which features thousands of Buddha images, and Wat Si Muang, built atop a Hindu shrine.
Visitors who are not from the ASEAN member nations or Japan will need a visa to enter Laos, but on-arrival visas are available at most international airports and border checkpoints. A visa costs US$35 for most nationalities and allows a 30-day stay in the country
As many other Southeast Asian countries, Laos has two distinct seasons: dry and wet. November to February is generally more temperate and dry, and things start to heat up around March, when temperatures reach the high 30s Celsius (about 85 degrees Fahrenheit). Luang Prabang and the northern provinces can get cool at night and in the early mornings, so we recommend bringing warmer clothing when visiting these areas during winter. In July the rainy season arrives and lasts until October, although the wet months vary by location. In Vientiane, located in central Laos, the rainy season lasts from May to September, whereas in Luang Prabang, further north, August is the wettest month. Typically the monsoon season produces short bursts of rain and visiting during this time offers luscious green landscapes. It’s also typically a less busy time to travel, and most hotels slash rates and offer promotions during this period.
For those who don’t like humidity, traveling to Laos between March and May is best avoided, as this is the hottest and most humid time of year. Autumn is the best time of year to visit, with the dry season falling between October and March and the That Luang Festival providing a vibrant cultural experience in November. However, hotels are often fully booked during this period, and we recommend booking as far in advance as possible. Alternatively, if you don’t mind the heat, Lao New Year—known as Pii Mai—falls in April and is a fantastic time to travel to Laos and other Asian countries that celebrate the new year at the same period, such as Thailand and Myanmar. During these multi-day long festivals, locals participate in parades and throw the world’s largest water-fights, where entire cities participate. Kids absolutely love this fun experience, and so do the locals!
Vientiane and Luang Prabang are undoubtedly the two Lao cities that see the most tourists, and for good reason. Both are charming destinations with lots to offer in activities, cuisine, culture, and sight-seeing. But Laos abounds with lesser-known areas to discover, such as 4,000 Islands (known to locals as Si Phan Don), a grouping of literally thousands of islands that seem to calmly float in the middle of the Mekong. This is a wonderful place to kayak, meet dolphins, or relax on a giant inner tube and let the river’s current pull you gently downstream. Verdant, off-the-map Muang La will also give you a dose of tranquility in the midst of northern Laos’ rolling mountains, and remote Sam Neua offers quiet rambles in a quaint village and a jumping-off point for cave exploration. Contact our local Lao guide with your specifications and we’d be happy to customize a unique Laos tour off the beaten path.
Although Laos was regarded at one time as a haven for backpackers, the country is rapidly earning a rightful reputation as one of Asia’s most mellow and laid-back countries. With improving infrastructure and increasing amenities, Laos is quickly becoming an easy and enjoyable destination for your family vacation. Sweetening the deal, the locals in Laos love children—babies always get big smiles and extra attention!—and welcome families with open arms. Imagine your family whizzing around Luang Prabang in a tuk-tuk, sampling some of Vientiane’s French cuisine, or taking a lazy Mekong river cruise with water activities and cave exploration thrown in between. The possibilities for exploring nature and playing in the great outdoors—especially on rivers or in the jungle—are dizzying in Laos. From tubing and zip-lining to trekking and meeting an elephant, families will not run out of experiences to share in Laos.
You can purchase a local Lao SIM card and top-up credit almost anywhere, although coverage in rural areas tends to be spotty, and some regions may only be serviced by certain operators. Laos’ main mobile phone operators are ETL, Unitel, Lao Telecom (LTC) and Beeline (ETL and Unitel are the largest). All of these operators offer 3G; however, connectivity often drops in rural areas. SIM cards cost roughly US$5 at any phone shop. You’ll need to register your personal information to activate the SIM. Internet cafes and Wi-Fi access are also available in Laos’ main destinations but are harder to find in more remote areas.
Tipping for good service is not expected but is always appreciated in Laos. It is customary, though not compulsory, to tip tour guides and drivers at the end of a journey or tour. It’s also good form to tip hotel and station porters a small amount for their troubles. As a general rule, 10% of any total is considered a generous tip.
Internet access is available in tourist areas like Vang Vieng and Vientiane, but is far less likely to be found in rural and remote areas.
Major credit cards are generally accepted by large shops, hotels and restaurants in the city and tourist areas. However, they may not be accepted by smaller vendors such as small family restaurants, market stalls or in remote towns and rural areas. Make sure you carry enough cash for purchases, since credit cards aren't always an option everywhere in Laos.
ATMs can be found in the cities of Laos, so withdrawing cash shouldn't be problematic. Smaller villages and rural areas may not have ATM access, so prepare for this before venturing too far from a city or major town.
Absolutely. All passengers travelling with Far East Travel are required to purchase travel insurance before the start of their trip. Your travel insurance details will be recorded by your leader on the first day of the trip. Due to the varying nature, availability and cost of health care around the world, travel insurance is very much an essential and necessary part of every journey.
The small nation of Laos does not have a lot of direct flights. Most travelers fly into either Vientiane, the nation’s capital, or into Luang Prabang, a quaint and historical town in the north. Many also opt to take a boat from the northern Thai border town of Chiang Rai, which makes for a magnificent journey into Laos. Because there are no long-haul flights into Laos, most travelers fly from regional hubs, such as Bangkok, Singapore, and Ho Chi Minh City. During the key travel period of October to January, flights are often fully booked, and we recommend booking as far in advance as possible.
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