WHEN TO GO
The dry season is December to February, with November being the best month to visit. Avoid March and April, when temperatures soar and the skies turn hazy as hill tribes burn fields and forest to clear land for farming. However, Pi Mai Lao, a three-day Lao New Year celebration in mid-April, usually segues into a water-soaked street party. Muggy weather is common during the monsoon season, from May to September. The monsoon begins later in up-country Luang Prabang, where a boat-racing festival is held on the rain-swollen Nam Khan River in late summer.
HOW TO GET THERE
You can enter Laos by bus, boat, or plane, but air travel is easiest. Most travelers arrive via Thailand on either Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com) or Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) into Vientiane's Wattay International Airport or Luang Prabang International Airport, respectively. From Wattay International, the country's main entry point, a taxi into Vientiane costs less than $5.
Tourist visas for Laos are issued upon arrival. The fee varies: U.S. passport holders pay $35. If you arrive on weekends or holidays, the government tacks on an extra $1 "to pay for overtime.'' Bring a passport-size photo to avoid another $1 photo-scan charge. There is also a $10 airport departure tax.
Laos has no railroads, and less than half of the country's highway system is paved. In other words, ground transport can be a hassle. Lao Airlines, the country's chief domestic airline, connects Laos's main destinations with frequent flights (www.laoairlines.com). Still, its turboprop fleet has yet to pass international safety standards. For more information about the U.S. State Department's stance on Lao Airlines, go to www.travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_946.html.
Buses travel between major destinations, although they can be unpredictable, uncomfortable, and overcrowded (but a great way to meet locals). To hire a car, contact Asia Vehicle Rental (856-21-217-493; www.avr.laopdr.com). You can also take tour boats along the Mekong River. Contact Asian Oasis (856-71-252-553; www.asian-oasis.com). Within cities, you take a taxi or "jumbo,'' a motorcycle-drawn cart that is the Lao version of the tuk-tuk. And in major urban areas, you can also rent a bicycle or motorcycle.
Tap water in Laos is not safe to drink: Drink bottled water. Certain areas of the country are laden with unexploded bombs (especially in the north around the Plain of Jars, and the mountains of the southern panhandle, which hid the Ho Chi Minh Trail), but you're unlikely to detonate one unless you wander through unexplored jungle. In at-risk areas, stick to designated paths and do not pick up anything suspicious.
Because it's hard to find people who speak English in Laos, it's a good idea to make your travel plans using a U.S.- or Europe-based travel agent. Check out Concierge's Travel Agent Finder for more information.
Lao National Tourism Administration
08/02 Lane Xang Avenue
Tel: 856 21 212 248
NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Vientiane
Population: 6.2 million
Area: 92,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 856
Electricity: 230V, 50 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Laos Kips = $0.00 US Calculate Other Amounts
Laos requires visas for citizens of the United States. Fifteen-day visas are available at the airport and border crossings.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
Take away the academic publications, and there's not a huge body of literature about Laos. One book to try is Louis de Carne's Travels on the Mekong, an 1872 account of an epic French river expedition. Also check out Christopher Robbins' engaging military histories Air America and The Ravens. Although filmed in northern Thailand, the Hollywood adaptation of Air America starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr., still soars with flyboy attitude.
One popular Lao saying about food goes, "Sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy." So don't come expecting Thai or Vietnamese cuisine. A typical Lao meal is served family-style at room temperature, and might include several dishes of grilled, marinated meats or steamed freshwater fish; a wide assortment of raw, undressed vegetables; and fresh, fragrant herbs such as cilantro, mint, and even dill. Luang Prabang has its own delicacies, including jaew bawng, a jelly made of dried buffalo skin and chilies, and khai paen, a stir-fried river moss. Glutinous—or "sticky"—rice is a staple.
In Vientiane, tribal crafts, fabrics, and carvings can be found at the Morning Market on Lane Xang Avenue. Prices may seem steep at first, but respectful haggling is expected.
In Luang Prabang, the Hmong Market at the base of Mount Phousi offers a range of handmade textiles. In the evening, hundreds of vendors lay out similar wares along adjacent Sisavangvong Road. Boutique shops are as plentiful as pigeons; two of the best are Kopnoi, which also has an art gallery (856-71-260-248; www.kopnoi.com), and Ockpoptock, which specializes in silk (856-71-254-406; www.ockpoptok.com).
For better prices, shop the nearby weaving villages. Ban Phanom, two miles outside town, has a national reputation. In the Ban Aphay neighborhood just east of Mount Phousi, silk weavers at the Ban Vongmai atelier use traditional looms and vegetable dyes (near Wat Visoun Temple, Phommathat Rd.; 856-20-577-3263; www.banvongmai.com).
For old silver, avoid the Night Market knockoffs and hit the jewelry stores on Chao Sisuphon Road east of Mount Phousi. Hill-tribe women sell their handwrought silver necklaces and bracelets at Nang Kui Jewelry Shop (856-71-212-798).
You won't need much of the local currency, as the U.S. dollar is accepted widely. The Lao kip is usually given as change or used for minor expenses, such as short jumbo rides.
Tipping has finally reached Laos, though it is still not expected. Small tips for tour guides and bellhops—and no more than ten percent in restaurants—will do the trick nicely.
Lao Airlines has not passed the international safety standards to date. A word of caution to ground travelers: If possible, avoid Route 13 between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. In 2003, this stretch saw numerous rebel bus attacks. And again, don't drink the tap water.
Though Westernization is creeping in, the Lao people still hang on to their slower, more peaceful way of life. About 70 percent of the locals are practicing Theravada Buddhists, so an emphasis on compassion pervades daily living. As in other Asian countries, particular respect should be taken when visiting a Buddhist temple. Women should never touch a monk, or his robes. In Luang Prabang, maintain a discreet distance while watching or photographing monks as they make their morning rounds for alms.
January: 1, New Year's Day; 6, Pathet Lao Day; 20, Army Day
March: 8, Women's Day; 22, Day of the People's Party
May: 1, Labor Day
June: 1, Children's Day; 21, Khao Pansa
August: 13, Lao Issara (Day of the Free Laos)
September: 11, Bouk ok Pansa
October: 12, Day of Liberation from France
December: 2, National Day
Spring: mid-April, Lao New Year
Winter: Chinese New Year
Summer: Vesak (Buddha Day), Khao Pansa (beginning of Buddhist Fast), Bouk ok Pansa (ending of Buddhist Fast)