Laos Quick Guide
- Population: 6.5 million
- Language: Lao (official), French, English, various ethnic languages
- Government: Communist state
- Capital: Vientiane
- Currency: Kip
- GDP: $7.9 billion (2011), ranked 135th in the world
- GDP Growth Rate: 8.3% (2011 est.)
- Size compared to US: Slightly larger than Utah
- Religions: Buddhist 67%, Christian 1.5%, other and unspecified 31.5%
- Ethnic Groups: Lao 55%, Khmou 11%, Hmong 8%, other (over 100 minor ethnic groups) 26%
- Median Age: 21.4 years
- Visa Information: US citizens are granted a single entry 30 day visa-on-arrival upon entering Laos. The fee for US Citizens is $35 USD, and I think it varies slightly for other nationalities. (There may also be an “overtime” fee so have a couple of extra dollars on hand just in case. We had to pay an extra dollar because we showed up to the border near closing time). Just fill out the customs form and hand them your passport and they process it very quickly (less than 5 minutes at the Chiang Kong/Huay Xai border crossing). It’s important to note that the Laos visa take up an entire page in your passport, so if you’re low on pages consider getting an addendum before you leave your home country. More information about entry/exit requirements can be found on the State Dept’s website.
- Transportation: I think one word sums up the transportation in Laos: SLOW. The road network in Laos is very poor and there are large portions that are unpaved. We took an overnight bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang (170,000 kip/person), which ended up taking over 15 hours because we were going approximately 30 mph most of the way. Although I can’t blame the driver because at least he was driving cautiously on poor roads at night. The only thing I remember about that bus ride was that it was extremely cold. They give you heavy blankets when you get onboard, which I thought was crazy since it was so hot outside, but a few hours into the trip you’ll be happy you have it! Most people opt to take the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, but we decided against it because it takes 2 full days to get there and you have to spend the night somewhere along the way. We heard from other travelers that it used to be a great experience, but now they pack the boats with people so its really uncomfortable and rowdy. There is a speed boat service, which I think gets you to LP in 6-8 hours, but it wasn’t operating when we were in Huay Xai. Apparently it’s also much more expensive and kind of dangerous, plus the engine is really loud. From Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng we took a mini-van. This is a very windy and bumpy route so if you are susceptible to motion sickness make sure you sit in the front! I think the mini-van ride was about 6 hours from LP to VV, but the scenery is really beautiful as you’re going through karst-like mountains. From Vang Vieng we did a kayaking trip to Vientiane, which I would highly recommend. You still have to take a songthaew on unpaved roads for most of the way, but at least you get to kayak down the river for a portion of it. And then from Vientiane to Bangkok we took an overnight bus that took about 12 hours. It was very easy to clear customs at the border and the whole process took less than 30 minutes. However, this bus ride was a nightmare due to a fellow passenger on board, which I will go into greater detail later!
- Weather: We were in Laos in mid-late April, which is one of the hottest times of the year. It was really warm during the day in Luang Prabang and Vientiene with temperatures in the high 90s, low 100s every day. It was hard to be out in the middle of the day in that kind of heat, so we often hung out in a cafe for a couple of hours. However, it was cooler in the forest of the Bokeo Nature Preserve (Gibbon Experience) and I didn’t notice the heat as much in Vang Vieng either.
- Food: Laotion food is surprisingly really good! Luang Prabang has lots of great little restaurants, which was an unexpected treat! They use a lot of lemongrass and tamarind in their cooking, both of which are interesting flavors. And the staple of every meal is sticky rice, which can be found on almost every menu. We also found a lot of good bakeries in Laos, which I think could be a lasting legacy of French culinary influence from colonial days.
- People: We thought the Laotion people are a little more reserved than Thais, but they are still very friendly and welcoming. Many people speak english, particularly on the backpacker trail from Huay Xai-Luang Prabang-Vang Vieng-Vientiane.
- Dress: There are no restrictions on what you should wear while in Laos. Because of the heat we wore tank-tops and shorts with flip-flops most days. It’s also fine to wear bikinis if you’re going swimming.