How to go to Laos ?

 

You will find here most of the practical information you need to prepare your trip :

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Getting there and away ?

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Visa ?

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When to visit ?

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How long ?

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Money ?

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How much ?

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Health ?

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Danger & annoyances ?

   

Getting there & away ?

Air :

It is possible to fly to Vientiane or Luang Prabang International Airports and get a 15 days visa on arrival for US$15. Departure tax is US$10. 

Land :

The following countries offer land crossing with Laos :

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Thailand : There are 4 different entry points to choose from. Nong Khai with the Friendship bridge is the only one so far with the 15 days visa facility on arrival (US$30) and the nearest from Vientiane. Chiang Khong with its 2mn ferry ride to Huay Xai is a popular entry point for those who wishes to reach North Laos.  Chong Mek near Ubon Ratchathani is the easiest way to reach Pakse and South Laos.  Across the Mekong, Mukdahan (opp. Savannakhet) and Nakhon Phanom (opp. Tha Khaek) are not recommended except if you wish to reach Vietnam as soon as possible without visiting Laos.  See each locality for more details on each crossing.  The best place to get a Laos visa is Bangkok.

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Vietnam : Two entries points.  Quand Tri, opposite Lao Bao, is the main border crossing and therefore the less adventurous one with one bus a day from Danang (or Dong Ha) to Savannakhet (see the locality for more details) plus less reliable local buses.  The crossing at Cau Treo (opp. Kaew Neua) near Vinh would be the fastest way to reach Vientiane and skip South Laos but transportation is more tricky and bribery requests more frequent. The border crossing near Dien Bien Phu is unfortunately still closed to foreign travelers. You can get a Laos visa in Saigon, Hanoi or Danang. 

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China : One convenient crossing point to reach North Laos. Mohan near Mengla in Xishuangbanna area is opposite Boten  in Luang Nam Tha Province. Plenty of Chinese tourists are using this route nowadays (actually to Udomxai) so transport should not be a problem, if you can stand the cigarette...   

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Cambodia : the border between Stung Treng Province and Champasak Province in South Laos is now open, the road from Si Phon Don to Vientiane has been upgraded and plenty of new guesthouses have opened to accommodate the new flow of travelers. Bad news for the charm of the islands... If going this way, you need the visa in advance and plenty of US$ cash to bribe the guards. It cost only a few dollars to exit Laos but as much as US$30 to enter Cambodia. Bargaining may bring it down to around US$15 ! For more info, check how go Cambodia and the bordering localities of each country. Considering the cost and the fact that traveling in North Cambodia remains a bit adventurous (but not that dangerous nowadays), Thailand remains an attractive alternative between the two countries. (updated April 03)

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Myanmar : No border crossing is allowed so far.

Boat : 

Three of the border crossing with Thailand actually involve a short ferry trip across the Mekong. 


Backpacker's Tips : Oren, Israel (Dec 04)
«There is, starting a month ago, a direct bus from Menga (China), to Nam Tha (Laos). the bus lives at 9:00, but be sure to be there about an hour ahead to buy tickets (which apparentaly are being sold only at the same day you want to departure, as weird as it sounds..) »

Backpacker's Tips : Spunky, Dutch (April 03)
« We crossed (march 2003) the border between Laos and Cambodia without any problem. The only thing was that it cost some money. To leave Laos we paid 3 dollar each, to enter Cambodia they asked again 3 dollar each. We just said that we had only one 5 dollar bill left and they accepted immediately. So I guess when you say you´ve got only 1 dollar to give, they will accept that too. Then we had to take a boat down to Stung Treng. This was pretty expensive. They asked 20 dollar each for the slow boat. We couldn't get the price lower than 25 dollars for the both of us and then not for the slow boat but for the speed boat (which was maybe not the safest but just a great experience!). Visa for Cambodia in Vientiane ? USD 20,- 1 working day. Passport and 2 photos required. Very important: you can only pay in US dollars!!!»

 

Visa ?

It is possible to obtain a 15 days visa upon arrival at the following places for US$30 : International Wattay Airport in Vientiane, Luang Prabang International Airport or Mittaphab bridge (Thailand's Nong Khai border). But if you plan to spend more than 15 days, get a one month visa before arrival. The best place to get one is Bangkok. See the table in Thailand's Travel Tips

Visa Extension ? 

Those are in theory obtainable in Vientiane only and the rules have changed again... Without too many effort, you should be able to get up to 3 days extensions for $1 per day. You won't go far...

For more days, you will need a sponsorship. Who could sponsor you was not too clear (except travel agencies for an additional cost of $1 per day) but apparently guesthouses are also OK. The only important thing the immigration seem to require from you is a physical evidence of where you stay during the 2 working days processing (when I was there on Thursday afternoon, people where asked to come back the next Monday). It is therefore important to arrive in Vientiane early enough to have your application processed before your visa expires. The form to be filled by your sponsor (you also need a photo) cost K1000.

Immigration offices are open Mond to Frid 8-12 & 13-16. 

Note that it could be more problematic to extend your 1 month "non-immigrant" visa obtained in Bangkok, at least without paying the additional $1 fee (some travel agencies just say that those visa are not extendable but the immigration office send you to an agency next to the Tourism Office where it is apparently OK).

Overstaying a visa cost $5 per day, "painlessly payable upon exit" as the tourist info says. So there is no need to panic if you are delayed. 

    Official Visa info

Backpacker's Tips : Eva, Australia (May 08)
« I crossed from Thailand to Laos overland and was granted a visa at the border. It took about 45 minutes. However, beware: the man infront of me paid about 5 times as much for his visa as he was charged 'overtime tax' (even though we were crossing in the middle of a week day). I think he just looked like a sucker... »

Backpacker's Tips : Julian Wright, Mut Mee GH in Nong Khai (June 04)
« The price in Baht and Dollars is quite different and has been so for quite a while. It is either 30 US dollars or 1500 Baht. So as the current exchange is in the 39/41 range it means that it is a really bad idea to pay in Baht as this will cost you nearly 300 Baht more. »

Backpacker's Tips : Anonymous (Oct 01)
« You can extend your visa easily for US$2 per day at the National Tourist Authority in Vientiane »
 

 

When to visit ?

Considering the state of the roads, those without a powerful 4x4 would rather visit outside the rainy season which last from July to October. November to March is the best time : not too hot and little rain. It can however get cold in the mountainous area of the north (when I was there in March, temperatures dropped below 10C for a few days but it was apparently a powerful winter). In this area, April to July are therefore an acceptable option as well. 

    Weather in Laos



How long ?

Most travelers find their one month visa too short and choose to concentrate either in the North of the South. Truly, the interesting northest parts or the intriguing plain of jars do require some time to reach if you choose not to fly. If you choose to follow the touristy itinerary described in Passplanet, then one month is enough. 

 

Money ?

Although the Laos currency is the Kip, the Bahts and the US$ are also in use and accepted everywhere. See the banknotes

As getting change on a US$50 bill will be problematic, it is best to store on Bahts and keep some kips for the small transactions (pay in Baht, get the change in Kips). At the time of writing, the exchange rate was K200 per Baht. Considering the volatility of the Kip, prices in Passplanet were often quoted in Bahts or US$. 

Banks are usually the best places to change money and Vientiane offers the best rate. Changing Travelers Cheques denominated in US$ is now possible in the most touristy places but usually against a $1 commission per cheque (free in Vientiane). Cashing on Visa is possible only in Vientiane and this operation is expensive (2.5% commission to get Kips, 3.5% to get $). There are no ATM Machines so far. 

  Currency Converter

Backpacker's Tips : Spunky, Dutch (April 03)
« In Laos you can pay with dollars but dollar notes must be very, very, very whole! If one note has the slightest crack it will not be accepted!»

Backpacker's Tips : Anne-Mieke Binnendijk, The Netherlands (Oct 02)
« Since mid October 2002, the k5000 banknote is no longer the biggest banknote. (Thank God!). There are now also notes with the value of 10.000 kip and 20.000 kip. It's still not too much, but better than those k5000 notes....

Backpacker's Tips : Paco Panconcelli, Germany (Feb 01)
« Parallel Market Rates : The official bank rate is about 4300 Kip to the Dollar. You get 5500 Kip from unlicensed moneychangers. They are everywhere on Thanon Phothisalat in Luang Prabang and on Talaat Sao and around the GPO in Vientiane.»

 

How much ?

If you use a two years old guide book quoting prices in kips, be prepared for a big surprise : you can basically multiply prices by 4 ! The depreciation of the kip to the US$ is not the only cause as the government is apparently trying to cash on tourism and some Lao people are trying their luck by quoting ridiculous prices : the Luang Prabang Museum entrance was K1100 in 98, K5000 in 99 and K10000 today. That's a 800% increase within 3 years, 10 times more than the depreciation of the kip to the US$ ! In a few localities (fortunately easy to avoid), the cheapest very basic GH cost K40000 or B200 while in Vientiane, a dorm bed will set you back K15000 (B75) and a room around K50000 (B250). In fact, travel in Laos is now nearly as "expensive" as in Thailand, while the quality delivery (for transport, food or guesthouses) remains usually much lower... 

This being said, Laos remains one of the cheapest place to visit in Asia and you can survive acceptably well with US$7 per day (room).  Beer lovers will also save some money if compared to Thailand... 

See Passplanet's Cost Table for more details.

 

Health ?

Being so underdeveloped, there are some health hazard in Laos and it is recommended to get some information before traveling. 

Malaria is endemic all year round except in Vientiane so prophylaxis is recommended. Larium is to be avoided as resistance was reported. The stuff to take when I was there was doxycycline. Pills could easily be found in Thailand.

Dengue fever outbreak also do occur from time to time so avoiding mosquito bites by day is also a good idea. It is usually non-fatal. 

Even more than in most countries of Asia, water straight from the tap is to be avoided.  Distilled or boiled water are readily available everywhere.

Raw or undercooked fish are a bad idea as you could catch liver flukes. Raw or undercooked anything else aren't too good either. Avoid salad as well. 

Medical facilities are very limited and any emergency should send you to Bangkok. 

    Latest Health Recommendations

 

Danger & Annoyances ?

The short time visa at the border : 15 days only

Some prices difference between foreigners & locals :
This basically happen with plane or speed boat tickets, considered luxury ways of transportations. For example the air trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang cost $46 for foreigners but $8 for locals and the speed boat trip to Xieng Kok B800 vs. B125.

The wait at the bus station : It is not rare to spend more time waiting for a bus or a boat than actually traveling on it. Indeed, most transports will leave when packed only but you are usually told to show up at 7 or 8am.

The bad roads with bad "buses" : To travel in Laos remains an adventure but it is sometimes one without a view. Indeed, some vehicles are converted trucks in which windows have been placed so low that you need to bent to catch a bit of the scenery. And that is if you are lucky to be sitting near a window. If you are in the middle of the alley and the bus is full (and it is always full), you may very well spend hours looking at the back of your neighbor... Men (and men only !), are sometimes allowed to travel on the roof. It is strictly forbidden by the police but it is sometimes the only solution to pack more people... What is more, the roads are far from safe !

The tourism boom : Things went real fast for Laos and the pioneer time is definitively over. As it is a small country, you might see nearly as many westerners than in Thailand and, in some places (Vang Vieng or Muang Xing), the village seem to exist only to accommodate the travelers. As for transport, half the bus is now packed with sweating falang. Fortunately, the above is true only on the tourist track : go a bit off track and undisturbed Laos appears. But for how long ?

The "sabaidy money !" kids : Is Laos already spoiled ? In all the villages, kids still welcome you with a loud "sabaidy", waving at you at your passage. But when approaching you, quite a few now add commercialism to their smile : some give you flower to ask you for money or pen a second later. Some would prefer that you give them your gold ring or your watch. Some do not bother asking and go straight into your bag... 

The somehow indifferent people on the tourist path : If you have experienced the warmth welcome of the Philippines, the conversations of the Myanmar people or the smile of Thailand, then you could find the Laos people a bit cold. Indeed, in quite a few situations, you have the feeling that beside getting your money, Lao people are not so much interested by your presence : few in the tourist business have made the effort to learn basic English and quite a lot will make no effort whatsoever to understand and answer your queries. As for service, it usually do not come with too much smile attached, with some notable exceptions of course. Laos tourism industry is looking for itself, plenty of places have opened up and, hopefully, the inhospitable ones will disappear after a while... As for Laos people not involved with the tourism business, you somehow feel that your presence make them feel uncomfortable or even disturb them : except from the kids, do not expect too much burst of joy at your passage. If you greet them, you should get a reply. Add a smile and you will get a smile back. But you usually have to make the first move. Again, there are notable exceptions and again, the more off the track, the nicer the people...

Those damn alarm clock-roosters : Laos is a natural sounding country so be prepared to be waken up real early. Not really a problem considering there aren't much to do at night...

The gender segregation : basically girls are working while boys are drinking (Lao-Lao of course). This is certainly exaggerated but it is a caricature that should comes to your mind soon.


Notwithstanding the above, let's remind you that 97% of the backpackers we asked said they liked Laos, that 89% would happily come back and that 92% would recommend it around ! See Why Go for more details...

 


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