Laos travel advice
Our unrivaled knowledge of Laos comes from many years of organizing tailor-made and group travel to the country, as well as our own extensive personal travels in one of our favorite Southeast Asian countries.
The guides we use are individually chosen, some being former monks and many of whom are now our close friends. In order to truly experience this peaceful nation, it is important to build in enough time to explore at a leisurely pace, wandering through the backstreets of serene Luang Prabang or taking time to relax by one of the picturesque waterfalls of the rural south. River travel fits naturally into the calm pace of life and we always try to incorporate a sedate boat journey into our Laos itineraries.
For a country still emerging as a tourism destination, there are a surprising range of accommodations options in Laos, much of it family-run and full of character. In Luang Prabang and Vientiane, French colonial villas have now been converted into small, stylish guesthouses with all the required comforts and a warm welcome, with a few grander options also offering swimming pools and even spas. In the mountains of the north, eco-lodges have opened for those who wish to stay in remote locations to explore the surrounding hill tribe villages. In the south, however, the accommodations are much more basic with only simple guesthouses available.
The Lao people speak a tonal dialect which is very similar to that in Northern Thailand. French is still recognized as the official second language of the government but English is now spoken more widely throughout the country, especially by the younger generation. You will often be greeted by shouts of "Sabaidee" which means hello. Laotians often greet each other by pressing together their palms, an action known as 'nop', although it is considered acceptable for men to shake hands.
Food and drink
Rice, especially sticky rice, is the staple food and dishes will be Indo-Chinese in flavor and presentation. Lao food can be found on the stalls in the markets and in the many local restaurants. The food in Luang Prabang is similar to that in Northern Thailand. There are several fairly good restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, catering mainly for tourists and the diplomatic community. Baguettes and croissants are normally eaten for breakfast. Drink: Rice whisky or lao lao is popular and there are two brands available. The local beer (Beer Lao) is also good. Try eating delicious Lao food whenever you can, it helps local businesses and Lao farmers.
Tipping is now commonplace in Laos especially in the service industry and you should be prepared to tip guides, drivers and porters who assist you during your stay. As a guideline if you are traveling alone we would recommend that you tip your guide between $7-8 per day, if traveling in a couple then allow $8-10 per couple per day.
When traveling in a group of 3-4 then tipping in the region of $10-15 per group per day is appropriate, when traveling in groups larger than four then allow an increase roughly equating to 10% more for each additional person in the group. For your driver please tip around half of the total tip given to your guide. If your itinerary is more intensive and incorporates more specialized elements such as trekking or overland journeys then increase these guidelines by 20% or more depending on your satisfaction level. For porters a tip of $1 per person per bag is appropriate and it is useful to have several dollar bill notes to hand for your convenience, alternatively an equivalent amount in local currency will suffice.
We use the best guides and drivers available in Laos but if for any reason you are not satisfied with the service you receive then please speak to our agents who will be able to provide a different guide or driver to accompany you.
Money and expenses
The Laos currency is the Laotian New Kip. One Kip (Kp) is equal to 100 cents. Thai and US currency is widely accepted in shops, markets and hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. There are no restrictions on the import or export of foreign currency, although banks will only accept Thai Bahts, GB Sterling or US Dollars.
The import and export of local currency is prohibited. There is a money exchange facility at the airport, and several licensed bureau in major towns. A few businesses and restaurants will accept travelers' checks. Major banks in town will also cash travelers' checks. It is best to always use cash - that way you also get the best bargains!
Credit cards, are accepted in most hotels, gift shops and more up market restaurants, and can be used in major banks for a cash advance. There is an ATM at the BECL bank in Vientiane. The withdrawal will be in local currency.
Social, ethical and environmental issues
The majority of Laotians are Buddhists and it is particularly advisable to dress modestly in Luang Prabang, one of Southeast Asia's most spiritual destinations. If entering a temple, you will be expected to leave your shoes outside and have shoulders and knees covered. It is also forbidden to point your feet toward a Buddha image and women cannot touch a monk. There are many sacred sites and artifacts throughout Laos, please do not enter or touch these without permission. In Laos your head is considered 'high' and your feet 'low', it is generally considered rude to use your feet for anything other than walking and sport. Please respect Lao culture by removing footwear before entering a private home and avoid touching a person's head as this is extremely impolite.
Please take the normal environmentally friendly steps you should take anywhere in the world, but especially in the third world - use water and electricity supplies carefully, re-use towels in hotels, try to use recyclable goods such as water carriers rather than plastic bottles, protect Laos' wildlife by refusing to buy wildlife products, etc. Try to set an example to Laos' impressionable youth by taking litter away for disposal and not dropping it in the street. Laos loses a little bit of its heritage every time an antique is taken out of the country, avoid buying antique Buddha images and other sacred items, instead try to support local craftsmen by purchasing new, quality handicrafts. Please try not to distribute gifts to children as it encourages begging, instead try to give to an established organization, or village elders.
Our certified country specialists can advise on any safety concerns you may have. For current information, please refer to the State Department website.
When to go to Laos
You'll find temperature and rainfall information, together with a month-by-month guide on visiting, on our guide for when to go to Laos.
15¼ hours (New York to Vientiane)