Laos Holiday Planning Guide
Long overlooked by travelers due to its reputation as one of the world's poorest nations, Laos is drawing a growing number of visitors with its laid-back charm, natural beauty, and numerous archaeological sites and historic temples. Many visitors make the trip to Laos from nearby Thailand, combining the two neighboring countries into one memorable experience of Southeast Asia. Others focus their Laos vacation on the Mekong River, which serves as a major source of irrigation for local farms and represents a popular alternative for sightseeing by car. On top of the rich cultural heritage and impressive natural landscapes, its major treasure remains its people--friendly and devout Buddhists welcoming visitors with a genuine hospitality rarely felt in other parts of the world.
Places to Visit in Laos
Regions of LaosVientiane Province
: Since the year 2000, the capital province has greatly contributed to propelling Laos tourism thanks to its numerous caves, ancient sanctuaries, 16th- and 17th-century Buddhist temples, traditional markets, and rivers suited for kayaking. Champasak Province
: Rich in ancient temples and French colonial structures, the province that’s situated near Cambodia and Thailand played a central role in the turbulent Siamese and Lao history. Savannakhet Province
: Regarded as one of the nation’s main tobacco producing areas, Savannakhet boasts many national protected areas which shelter sacred lakes, tall dense forests, and endangered animals. Luang Prabang Province
: Known for its protected evergreen forests and biodiversity within conservation areas--as well as historic Buddhist wats and French colonial structures--Luang Prabang Province remains one of most popular destinations on a Laos holiday.Luang Namtha Province
: Considered one of main rubber and sugarcane production areas, the monsoon forest-enveloped Luang Namtha Province has grown as a prominent cultural and ecotourism destination. Oudomxay Province
: This mountainous province relies mostly on mahogany, teak, and bamboo exports, but diverse ethnic minorities, trekking tours, cave networks, and Theravada Buddhist pilgrimages also have brought tourism to life here.
Cities in LaosVientiane
: Home to the nation’s most significant Buddhist stupa, travelers love to include this historic capital city in their Laos itinerary because it is known for its bustling morning markets, lavishly ornamented religious parks, museums, galleries, and old temples. Pakse
: Surrounded by attractive cultural, natural, and historical tourist sites at its proximity, this second-largest city boasts well-preserved French colonial-style buildings and temples which blend traditional and new style constructions.Savannakhet
: Resting near the border of Thailand along the forest-covered Mekong River, this city represents a cultural and architectural mixture of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, and French-colonial influences.Luang Prabang
: Due to its remarkable architectural, cultural, and historic values, as well as its harmonious relationship between nature and urban development, tourists consider this World Heritage-listed city to be an imperative on their Laos itinerary. Thakhek
: Situated near three nationally protected areas, this agricultural town became a prominent tourist destination because of its nearby limestone escarpments and caves, some of which shelter Buddhist treasures and newly discovered species of mammals.Vang Vieng
: Bisected by the Song River, the small town of Vang Vieng rests surrounded by a dreamlike landscape of peculiar limestone cliffs and mountain tops, which hide a network of caves popular among explorers and rock climbers. Luang Namtha
: Besides being known for its handmade silk textiles and legendary basket-weaving communities, this town also draws many adventurers and explorers because of various ecotourism and trekking/climbing opportunities.
Popular Laos Tourist AttractionsKuang Si Falls
: At this site, a remarkable 60 m (200 ft) three-tiered cascades of water surrounded by a tropical jungle drop into a natural azure pool suitable for swimming and relaxation.Alms Giving Ceremony
: While in Luang Prabang
, take part in a sacred religious ceremony, locally known as Binthabat, where locals and visitors respectfully offer alms to monks passing through the crowded streets and gain merit. Mount Phou Si
: A popular hill above the Luang Prabang
skyline offers a spectacular 360 degree outlook across the World Heritage city and all of its ancient Buddhist temples. Patuxai
: This ornate, traditional-style monument embodies the Lao resilience against its occupants throughout history and pays homage to its national culture and rich religious traditions. Buddha Park
: A lavish sculpture park with over 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues, as well as an imposing 40 m (130 ft) reclining Buddha, this site remains one of the most popular places to visit in Laos. Royal Palace Museum
: Originally designed for the royal family in the French Beaux-Arts style with traditional Lao accents, the museum compound thoroughly introduces its visitors to the nation’s history, culture, customs, and heritage.Golden City Temple (Wat Xieng Thong)
: Hailed as a historic site for crowning kings and a gathering place for significant yearly festivities, the intricately carved and decorated temple represents one of the most important national symbols to date. Luang Prabang Night Market
: All along the well-lit pedestrian Sisavangvong Road toward the town center, you can examine colorful stalls held by hill-tribe traders who sell various textiles, handicrafts, ceramics, and exotic ingredients.Great Sacred Stupa (Pha That Luang)
: Standing 45 m (148 ft) tall, the remarkable Lao-style structure influenced by Buddhist beliefs and aesthetics represents a national symbol, whose image is emblazoned upon the nation’s official seal. Tham Phu Kham Cave and Blue Lagoon
: No tour of Laos would be complete without visiting these sacred cave chambers with branching galleries which shelter Buddhist relics; while here, take a dip in the blue-green cave lagoon.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Laos
Cuisine of Laos
Almost every dish in Indochina, including Laos, contains sticky rice as a main ingredient, but due to the nation’s multiculturality you can easily stumble upon various dishes with French, Thai, Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese culinary influences.Vientiane
and Luang Prabang
contain several restaurants that cater mainly to tourists and the diplomatic community, however, don’t be afraid to be adventurous on your Laos vacation to support local businesses and farmers by trying their prepared food.
Rice is also used to produce whiskey or lao lao, but you can also quench your thirst by purchasing local beer (Beer Lao) and fresh fruit shakes from street vendors.
While on holiday in Laos, try signature dishes like laap (spicy salad with minced meat), ping kai (fried chicken), tam mak-hung (spicy salad with green papaya), bitter bamboo-shoot soup, khao soi (rice noodles), and rattan-heart salad.
Shopping in Laos
You may be able to find globally popular fashion marks or high-tech gadgets in Laos, but the country is really known for being an excellent place to purchase elaborate handicrafts and souvenirs. There are a lot of city markets open both day and night that offer a wide array of quality textiles, hill-tribe silks, food ingredients, jewelery, and arts and crafts.
The nation’s fragile economy is at the beginning of its development, so the best thing tourists can do is purchase local Laos wares and produce instead of international brands.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Laos
Interesting Facts About Laos
* Laotian New Year festivities last three days, running from April 13-15.
* Laos has the title as the “world’s most-bombed country,” with more than 2 million tons of bombs dropped on the region by the U.S. army during the Vietnam War (this is more than all of the bombs dropped in World War II).
* One of the biggest exports in Laos is coffee, and the country is known for making some of the best lattes in Southeast Asia.
* Despite its poverty-stricken status, Laos is the world’s second-biggest solar energy consumer after Luxemburg.
* Laos is also the world’s third-largest producer of opium.
* Buddhism is the main reason why Laotians are known as a laid-back culture.
Things You Should NOT Do in Laos
Do not go off the beaten track. Because Laos is the most-bombed country in the world, you’re safer on a designated trail, as there are still many active bombs and landmines scattered about. Stick to touristed, thoroughly cleared areas.
When touring Laos, leave expensive jewelry and accessories at home. Money is king here. Keep in mind that only bigger cities possess ATM machines; also make doubly sure to count all notes if you’re changing currency at kiosks.
Moderate dress is appropriate; do not reveal your shoulders and knees, especially when visiting temples and sacred sites. Sunbathing is best done in hotel compounds.
Public displays of affection are not acceptable in Laos. For instance, holding hands with your loved one makes most Laotians feel uncomfortable, but above all things, do not touch a Lao person on their head--no matter if they’re an adult or child. It is considered very rude and offensive.
If you have disagreements and issues with a Lao person, do not raise your voice. Anger and loss of temper are very off-putting, and they may lose their will to cooperate. By remaining calm you’re much more likely to work everything out.
Holidays & Festivals in Laos
The traditional solar-lunar mixed Lao calendar is mostly linked to agricultural seasons and historical Buddhist events and national holidays. The general word for festival is “boun” and most of them are held during a full moon; people love to party and enjoy themselves during festive times.
The New Year, or Pi Mai Festival, is the best time to visit Laos. During those three solemn days, Laotians wear their new clothes, clean households, wash Buddha images with holy water, and decorate streets in lively colors.
In May, during the Visakha Bu Saar Festival, you can attend beautiful candlelight processions where people sermonize and chant while celebrating the life, enlightenment, and death (parinibbana) of Buddha.
The Haw Khao Salaak Festival in September is about giving offerings to the dead and respecting the ancestors. Once merits have been obtained, exciting longboat racing competitions are held on the Sebangfai River.
Another festival that should be on your Laos itinerary is That Luang, held at Great Sacred Stupa (Pha That Luang)
in November, when hundreds of monks gather to receive alms and a grand fireworks display explodes. During the day an international trade fair is held in Vientiane, showcasing tourism in Laos and countries from the Greater Mekong Sub-region.
In February, a Ma Kha Bu Saar Festival commemorates a speech made by Buddha where he laid the first monastic laws and predicted his own death. The biggest celebrations take place at World Heritage-listed Champasak Town
Useful Laos Travel Tips
Common Greetings in Laos
When meeting people for the first time on your Laos vacation, avoid making physical contact. The greeting standard gesture, called “the Nop,” is done by touching your palms together below your chin (similar to praying) and giving a slight nod downwards, followed by saying “Sah-bai-dee,” which means “hello” in Lao.
Only men will occasionally greet other men with a handshake. Hugging and kissing are publically not acceptable, and touching someone’s head is considered downright rude.
Climate of Laos
Laos has no seaside borders and is mainly surrounded by mountain ranges, especially on the eastern and northwestern border, however, the country still experiences tropical temperatures and the monsoon pattern inland.
Local tradition climatologically defines three seasons--rainy, cold, and hot. Summer (from May to November) brings temperatures averaging between 20-30 C (68-86 F), but that period also brings a lot of precipitation and heavy humidity.
If you are touring Laos in March and April, bring extra sunscreen and light clothing with you, since that period is considered the warmest, with average temperatures ranging between 25-33 C (77-91 F).
The cold season (from November to February) is climatologically the most comfortable period to visit Laos, since temperatures drop between 15-25 C (59-77 F) and precipitation is minimal.
Transportation in LaosVientiane
, and Luang Prabang
all have airports that offer international flights, making these cities the best places to start and end your Laos holiday.
Much of Laos lacks adequate transportation infrastructure, and there are no railways in the country except a short connection between Vientiane and Thailand. The Thanaleng Station is the country’s only railway station.
Major roads, such as the Route 13, connect only urban centers, while smaller towns and villages can only be reached via unpaved roads, which may not be accessible year-round.
Most provincial capitals have various pick-ups and three-wheeled taxis (each city names them differently), which can be hired by the trip, hour, or day. Vientiane is the only city with a network of local buses, but almost every route is of no use to tourists.
Tipping in Laos
In the service industry, tipping is commonplace. Guides, porters, and drivers who assist you during your stay will expect a modest reward for their efforts.
A recommended tip for guides ranges from $7-15 per day, depending if you are travelling alone or with someone. A driver can be tipped half of the total tip given to your guide, but if your Laos itinerary is intensive and includes specialized elements, increase that tip to 20 percent of the initial price, considering your requirements are professionally met, of course. Porters are satisfied with a $1 tip per bag.
The only place where you can bargain a bit is at the markets. The price is a bit flexible there, however not as much as in neighboring countries.