While Thailand, Bali and Vietnam are on everyones Southeast Asia bucket list, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – better known as Laos – still often escapes traveler’s notice. Unjustly! Laos is such a multifaceted country with astonishing mountains and waterfalls, the best baguettes outside France, interesting and smart locals, a fondness for our beloved TV-series “Friends” and the smell of adventure everywhere you go. You just should never get into a situation where you need medical treatment…
If you are interested in traveling through Laos, you can read all over my journey here in detail:
Pt. 1: The Slowboat Experience
Pt. 2: Luang Prabang – Buddhism meets Colonialism
Pt. 3: The Vang Vieng Vortex
Pt. 4: Relaxation on 4000 Islands
But here are – as promised – 10 interesting facts about Laos and some more travel advice on the bottom of the page:
1 | Tubing
Probably one of the most famous activities in Laos and a ‘must-do’ for every backpacker: You rent a rubber tube and get dropped off by a Tuk Tuk further up the river at a bar, where you drink a bit before you jump on your float. After just some minutes floating you reach the next bar where you can pull yourself out the water along a rope. You drink again, dance a bit, chat, whatever. Then it’s time to tube again. And this time really: about 2 hours down the river, along the scenic moutain range. Whether you drift all by yourself or stick together with a group – up to you.
Here are some helpful tipps:
– Don’t drink too much (or do other mind-altering things)! Actually people died while Tubing because they were too drunk or on drugs and did stupid things or didn’t pay attention. That’s why the bars are also limited to 2 (there were about 20 once!) and they write a big fat number on your hand to identify people who are unconcious… so don’t get carried away – it’s much more fun if you know what you do!
– Don’t stay too long at the second bar! The sun disappears pretty early behind the mountains and from that on, it’s really freezing in the water. And you also might not get your deposit back if you don’t make it back into town until 6pm.
– Watch out the rocks! Especially when it’s dry season the river is very shallow and you can easily hit the rocks on the ground with your feet or your bum… I had a huge scratch and bruise on my back afterwards – ouch!
– Bring cloths in a drybag! When you arrive back in the city you crawl out of the river and walk back to the rental station to get back the deposit for the tube. Don’t walk in bikini or without a shirt – it’s offending to the local people and travelers should absolutely respect that.
2 | Whisky
The typical Lao-Lao whisky is cheaper than softdrinks! A normal bottle of this rice spirit costs about 0.50$ to 1$… so if you order a Whisky longdrink in a bar, it is usually pretty strong or nearly neat! There are even bars and hostels who give out Whisky for free to attract more visitors. That’s definitely one reason, why Laos is also known as a party destination… people go wild after drinking too much of the Lao-Lao.
A fancy version of Lao-Lao (which just means ‘Laotian alcohol’) also contains dead snakes or scorpions in it.
3 | Drugs
There is a big mismatch between the large selection of drugs and punishing the possession of such! Especially in Vang Vieng you find lots of bars and restaurants that advertise with their ‘happy menus‘ which contain weed omelettes, magic mushroom pizzas, methamphetamine shakes, opium joints and so forth… But apart from that there are severe penalties and the police (often in civilian clothes) thereby doesn’t really makes a difference between personal use and trafficking… convictions may include fines but also imprisonment or – worst case – even execution. So, if you really want to do drugs there, at least NEVER do it on the street or buy it from people on the street (including tuk-tuk-drivers)!
4 | Baguettes
The baguettes in Laos were a treat after eating lots and lots of rice in Thailand. In Luang Prabang you even have a breakfast market with dozens of booths next to each other – all selling fruit shakes Lao coffee and fresh baguettes. They even have avocado! That’s how I start my day right. Yum.
5 | 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don)
Laos has no sea access but it has 4000 islands… weird, huh?! That place with the four thousand islands called ‘Si Phan Don’ is in the south of Laos, next to the Cambodian border, where the Mekong river is about 14 kilometers wide. In dry season it happens that thousands of little islands appear and that’s what gave this place its name. There are some larger islands that are also inhabited, and the 3 most popular ones for travelers are Don Khong, Don Det (for Backpackers) and Don Khon. It’s an idyllic peace of land – the perfect place to relax.
9 | “Friends”-Bars
Yes, Laos is the place to be if you like the US-sitcom Friends! Mainly in Vang Vieng, but also on Don Det they have bars / restaurants, where all seats are facing a screen showing the popular sitcom 24/7. It’s so nice just to go there for breakfast, lunch or dinner – order food, sit back and watch one episode of ‘Friends’ – or two…
7 | Bowling
Bowling was something I really didn’t think to do in Laos… but this country is full of surprises! After the main backpacker-meetingpoint-bar “Utopia” in Luang Prabang closes, plenty of Tuk-Tuks take all people who don’t wanna go to bed yet to the only place that sell drinks after midnight: the bowling hall just some kilometers outside town. It takes getting used to that bright light during the night but it’s actually really fun and you get to know (and see) a lot of people – mostly travelers of course.
8 | Dolphins
Just as little I expected a bowling alley in Laos, I did not expect dolphins in Laos either – but yes there are wild freshwater dolphins in the Mekong. When we were on Don Khong (4000 islands in the south of the country) we asked some fishermen if they could take us there around sunset when the dolphins come up for finding food. We could only catch a glimpse of them every now and then (no movie-like dolphin jumps unfortunately) but it was a great little trip in this old rusty fisher boat far away from other tourists and I got rewarded with a stunning sunset!
6 | Bombs
What few people now: Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history!
During the Secret War in the 1960s the United States dropped 260 million cluster bombs on Laos, a country a bit smaller the size of the UK – that’s more than all bombs dropped on Europe during WW2 together! Of those 260 million bombs about 30% failed to detonate… that means there are millions of blind shells and unexploded landmines still scattered all over the country and about 300 people are killed every year, more than half of them are children.
For visitors that means two things: Firstly, take care and stay on paved roads or well-trodden paths (especially in the north-east near the Vietnam border). Ask locals if you’re not sure. And never enter areas that are marked as minefields! And secondly, get involved. On local markets you can buy spoons or bracelets made out of war relicts – a small step but I find that astonishing how the locals there still try to make the best out of that horrible past, that still threatens them every day. And if you want to do more you can support organizations like the Mines Advisory Group, who want to find and remove unexploded landmines before children do.
10 | Medical treatment
Laos has one of the worst medical supply in the world. You hear from everyone: if you have something serious, try to make it to Thailand to get an appropriate treatment. Presumably there are no ambulances – so if you have an accident you have to hope that someone stops and takes you to a doctor in his private car… I’m not 100% sure if that story is true, but what I can definitely say is, that I haven’t seen ONE ambulance while I was there. What’s pretty easy in contrast, is to get antibiotics or other basic pharmacy stuff… they sell that nearly everywhere in small booths on the side of the street – if you know what you need you go there and point a finger at it in the counter and they give it to you. Worked pretty well when I had a UTI in Luang Prabang…
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Basic Lao Vocabulary
Thank you [Kop-Chai]
Yes [Maen Leeo]
I don’t understand [Khoy Bor Khao Chai]
I’m sick [Khoy Bor Sabai]
One (1) [neung]
Two (2) [song]
Three (3) [saam]
Visa on Arrival
Visa on Arrival is no problem and handed out on every border crossing – it just can take a while. Prices range from USD30 to USD42 depending on nationality plus small extra fees of 1 or 2 American dollars, that are obviously a scam but you can’t really avoid if you are looking forward to get the visa and more importantly your passport back. The visa on arrival has to be paid in US-Dollars and in most cases a passport photo is required as well.
They drive on the right side of the road… if you can call any of those paths actually ‘roads’. Most ways are just bumpy dirty gravel tracks – not really a pleasure to drive around. And it wouldn’t be Southeast Asia without people driving on scooters like lunatics, so if you consider renting a scooter yourself: be careful. Maybe better rent a bicycle instead.
Currency & ATMs
The Lao currency is the kip.
10.000 kip = 1,10 € / 1,23 US$ / 0,95 GBP (status: October 2016)
Laos is more expensive than Thailand and Cambodia and Lao people know how to make business… they charge tourists for everything. Going to the toilet? 5.000 KIP. Accessing a temple? 10.000 kip. Crossing a bridge? 20.000 KIP. That needs getting used to – especially when you just came from Thailand where everything is so cheap and you can visit temples for free. But you always have the choice of not going over that bridge or not going inside the temple if you find that unjustified. Otherwise: deal with it – it’s market economy.
ATMs are nowadays available in every slightly bigger town and they widely accept Visa and Mastercard. But as they are not always reliably working bring cash – just in case. Furthermore every withdrawal at the ATM is charged with an 1- 2US$ extra fee. We also got the tip from a hostel, that red ATMs are more reliable that blue ATMs, because they tend to retract cards – but I couldn’t find more information about this. I just can say that in my experience the red ATMs always worked well and I always got my credit card back.
Wifi & Mobile Internet
Many accommodations and bars/restaurants now offer free Wi-Fi, but in most, if not all cases, the connection will be painfully slow and very unreliable, plus internet security is not guaranteed. Let me tell you from own experience: don’t try to do any bank transferrals online from Laos – my connection broke down several time so my account got completely blocked – thanks to the crappy wifi in Vang Vieng.
You can buy a sim card to have mobile internet on your phone, which works most of the time – even if its not fast. One common operator is for example Beeline.
Tap Water is not drinkable, but bottled water is cheap and widely available.
ICT – Incochina Time (7 hours ahead of UCT)