Laos at a Glance
Population: 6.5 million
Capital City: Vientiane (750,000)
People: Over 48 ethnic minorities
Currency: Kip (KIP)
Time Zone: GMT +7 Hours
International Dialing Code: +856
Passport and visa
Passports should be valid for six months from the date of entry into Laos. We recommend you make a photocopy of your passport and keep it somewhere separate, or scan it and keep it in an accessible email account.
Visas valid for 30 days can be easily obtained on arrival. Costs range from US$30-42, depending on nationality. One passport-sized photograph is required.
Phones and Internet Service
Postal services are available in Laos. The best way to receive any mail is to have it sent to a post office or collect it yourself. Telephone connections to the rest of the world are widely available, however they aren’t cheap. Internet access is available in most major tourist places such as hotels, restaurants and cafes.
People, History & Culture
As one of the most sparsely-populated countries in Asia, Laos has a serene and uncharted allure distinct from many of its neighbouring nations. Of the former French Indochinese nations, Laos is also the least developed, which lends the country an untainted, enigmatic charm that's nothing short of magical for most visitors. Dominated by majestic mountains, verdant valleys and broad snaking rivers, Laos is a spectacular destination for nature lovers. Beyond its vast and untamed wilderness, Laos is also home to a handful of culture-rich towns and cities brimming with spiritual intrigue. For the culturally-curious, these fascinating places are the perfect gateway to discovering the heritage of this awe-inspiring nation.
Thanks to its mountainous, often little-developed communities, much of Laos' locals are farmers or fishermen who live off of the land. A significant portion of Laos’ population are also ethnic minorities, too, which lends a noticeable distinctiveness to each community you're likely to stumble upon. It's not hard to explore a sleepy H'mong village just a stone's throw from the country's capital city, or cross over the river from Luang Prabang to arrive in a rustic Khmu village. Laos' ethnic minorities are also the reason why the country is rich with traditional handicrafts and expert local artisans, who create beautiful silver jewellery and intricate Batik painting the same way they have for centuries.
The most significant cultural element of Laos is its spiritual and religious influences. Morning chanting is often heard ringing from Buddhist temples, and saffron-robed monks collecting morning alms is a common sight in Laos' cities and towns. A large portion of locals here are practicing Buddhists, and this has a deep influence on lifestyles and culture. The best place to soak in Laos' spiritual allure is in the historic, UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang, home to three dozen Buddhist temples - some dating back hundreds of years. Regardless of whether the magnificent scenery of enchanting towns are the focus of a journey in Laos, the magic of its local culture is sure to stand out as truly inspiring.
The transportation infrastructure in Laos is less developed than many of its neighbouring countries. While this lends a certain excitement to travelling here, it also means that getting around takes more time and creativity than other destinations in Asia.
When travelling between cities in Laos, land travel is often preferred to air travel, since many destinations in Laos are not easily reached by plane. While slower, this allows you time to appreciate the scenic beauty of this stunning country - which is part of the excitement of travelling through Laos. Many of Buffalo Tours' itineraries include travel by riverboat, which is one of the most relaxing and in-depth ways to explore the country. In Laos' cities, taxis and tuk-tuks are certainly the easiest way to get around, and negotiating prices with a taxi driver is part of the experience. Many travellers often opt to rent motorbikes to get around, but motorbikes anywhere in Southeast Asia are risky. Motorbike travel isn't recommended by Buffalo Tours.
When to visit Laos
Like many of its neighbouring nations, Laos has a tropical monsoon climate with two distinct seasons: a rainy season and a dry season. Rainy season usually occurs between May and October, while dry season is most commonly between November and April.
Most of Laos is hottest in March and April, when temperatures can reach as high as 38C. During the "coldest" time, usually around December, temperatures can dip to a brisk 15C. Average temperatures throughout Laos are usually between 25C and 30C. Mountainous areas or places with higher elevation tend to have lower temperatures.
However, the weather can be unpredictable, so it may be a good idea to carry an umbrella or raincoat with you. You can purchase these from most supermarkets and general stores.
Festivals and National Holidays
Since Laos is predominantly Buddhist, many of its national holidays revolve around the Buddhist calendar. The most significant of these celebrations is Laos' New Year, also known as Laos Pee Mai, which is similar to Thailand's Songkran in its connection to water and cleansing. Celebrated from the 14th to 16th of April, water is used more for sprinkling over Buddha images in temples than for dousing other people.
Another of Laos' most important Buddhist holidays occurs in mid-July during a holiday called Boun Khao Phansa, or Buddhist Lent. During this period of three months, monks throughout the country are required to stay within their wats for meditation and dharma studies. Since much of Laos is Buddhist, this is a significant time for pious believers.
In certain parts of Laos, the Boun Bang Fai Festival, also called the Rocket Festival, is a popular and decidedly more extravagant celebration in mid-May. Originally held as a festival honouring fertility and rain, the celebration is held just before the onset of the rainy season and includes enormous homemade rocket launches along with music, dancing and processions to bring luck for the upcoming rice-growing season.
Other major holidays in Laos include:
Lao National Day - December 2
H'mong New Year - Late November to Early December
Boun Song Hua (Dragon Boat Races) - Mid-October
That Luang Festival - Full moon in early November in Vientiane
Top places to visit in Laos
In what in possibly Asia's most laid-back capital city, it's hard not to be enchanted by Vientiane's beautiful French colonial architecture and glittering Buddhist temples. Wide, tree-lined boulevards perfect for leisurely strolls and uncommonly friendly locals in sleepy street-side cafes are highlights of Vientiane. Beyond its charming aura, Vientiane is also home to ornate yet rustic architecture, a tasty blend of French flavour infused in its local cuisine and the wonderfully bizarre Buddha Park just outside of the city centre. While Vientiane's beauty and allure is less readily apparent than other historic cities in Indochina, Vientiane has a few enchanting secrets up its sleeve that are well-worth exploring.
A kaleidoscope of culture, religion and natural beauty, Luang Prabang is one of Indochina's most alluring towns. A palpable heir of serenity and spirituality eminates from over three-dozen Buddhist temples and extends well into the streets and alleys of surrounding neighborhoods, making it an incredibly rewarding place for leisurly strolls by foot. Since the city's recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, Luang Prabang's wats and temples have undergone a series of renovations making it a truly world-class tourism destination. Make time to explore its most famous sites, including Wat Xieng Thong and the Royal Palace Museum before heading down the river to see the fascinating Pak Ou Caves and unforgettable Kuang Si Waterfall.
Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)
Si Phan Don is a remarkable archipelago consisting of dozens of islands nestled on a roiling stretch of the mighty Mekong River. Seemingly frozen in time, life on the islands is governed by the great river's ebb and flow. In combination with the incredibly unique physical setting of Si Phan Don, the serenity of the local culture and the boundless natural beauty of the surroundings makes a visit to these islands truly magical. Its proximity to remote mountains make it a perfect launching point for incredible trekking experiences as well. Si Phan Don is also a great place to spot some of the Mekong's most famous wildlife - including Irrawaddy dolphins!
Plain of Jars
No one is entirely certain of the story behind the mysterious jar-like stone structures scattered across hundreds of kilometres in north-eastern Laos. Archaeologists estimate that the jars were created some time during the Iron Age of Southeast Asia. Many locals believe they were left by giants who once roamed the area. Though only about 90 remain accessible, this bizarre and fascinating archaeological site is a favourite experience for history buffs visiting Laos, and should be near the top of any first-timers list.
Though especially famous among backpackers’ for the fantastic and historically raucuas river tubing experiences to be had there, Vang Vieng is a top-tier destination for adventurous travellers looking for a rustic destination in the heart of Laos' famously untamed wilderness. Boasting a stunning backdrop of cliffs and vivid emerald rice paddies,Vang Vieng is a stunning location for kayaking and caving novices and veterans alike. Even if adventure isn't in the cards on a visit to Vang Vieng, a lounge on the banks of the Song River or a stroll through the sleepy nearby town is a charming respite from reality.
Top things to do in Laos
Explore Luang Prabang's Temples
Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang boasts more than three-dozen Buddhist temples and uniquely pious local population. Temple-hopping in this incredible city that is as much a cultural experience as it is sightseeing. Unlike many temples-turned-tourist spots in Asia, temples in Luang Prabang are still used by monks and pious locals for prayer and meditation. They offer a rare glimpse into the lives of local Laotians and the fascinating culture they're a part of. Luang Prabang is also the best place to witness processions of saffron-robed monks walking the streets to collect morning alms -a unique and magical sight for outsiders. As one of Laos' most spiritually important practices, you'll need to follow the lead of your guide to avoid any cultural faux pas.
Cycle through the Countryside
Thanks to its incredible natural scenery and little-explored paths, Laos makes for an incredible cycling destination. The best part about cycling in Laos is its propensity for getting you closer to local communities. These local communities are a starring role in Buffalo Tours' adventure itineraries, which make for great adventures with a cultural twist. Set off on a shorter journey with a Luang Prabang countryside cycling journey, or test your limits with an adventurous cycle of the Laos Grand Loop.
Sail the Mekong River
The mighty Mekong River extends through five countries over 4,000 kilometres. Arguably, the most dramatic stretches of the this colossal river flow through Laos and its incredible mountain scenery. For communities living near it, the river forms an integral part local life and is a vital artery connecting them to the rest of Laos. One of the best ways to explore this incredible country is to take explore the Mekong by boat. Apart from being able to experience must-see spots like 4000 Islands and visit hard-to-reach communities, sailing the Mekong can also make for a scenic alternative to air travel to neighbouring countries like Thailand.
Swim and Trek at Kuang Si Waterfall
Only a short drive outside of historic Luang Prabang, Kuang Si Waterfall is one of Laos' best-known destinations for good reason. This three-tier waterfall is famous not just for its size, but for the iridescent blue-green water flowing over its step-like stream floors. The best way to explore this natural wonder is on a trek to it summit, with paths leading up either side of the falls. It would be a shame to leave Kuang Si without a swim here, too.
Discover Ethnic Minority Villages
Home to 43 officially recognised ethnic minorities, Laos is one of the best places to discover unique cultures and a traditional way of life that has all but vanished elsewhere in Asia. One of the best ways to do this is by taking part in a unique homestay experience. While enjoying the hospitality of a local family, learn about traditional culture in Laos by engaging with locals. By integrating yourself into their way of life rather than simply passing by it as an outsider, you'll be offered unique and intimate perspectives of their way of life that would be impossible to see otherwise.