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. Cost depends on nationality (from US$30 to US$42). 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 get it sent to a post office and 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 fascinating for 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, though, 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 is also ethnic minorities, too, which lends a certain 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 influence. 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 the time to appreciate the scenic beauty of this stunning country - and 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. Under no circumstances is motorbike travel sanctioned or 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 lowest temperatures - usually around December - can dip to 15C. Average temperatures throughout Laos are usually between 25C and 30C. Mountainous areas or places with higher elevation tend to have slightly lower temperatures overall.
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 usually used to sprinkle over Buddha images in temples rather than for dousing other people.
Another of Laos' most important Buddhist holidays occurs in mid-July called Boun Khao Phansa, or Buddhist Lent. During this period of three months, monks throughout Laos are required to stay within their wat 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 a leisurely stroll 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 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 perhaps one of Indochina's most alluring towns. Humming with an uncommonly peace and spirituality that reaches well beyond its over three-dozen Buddhist temples, it is a supremely walkable town. And since its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, Luang Prabang's wats and temples are getting the renovations they need to stand the test of time. 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 Kuang Si Waterfall.
Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)
A spectacular archipelago in southern Laos that seems to exist in entirely different era, life in Si Phan Don is governed by the ebb and flow of the mighty Mekong River in which it rests. The islands and smaller islets here are uncommonly quiet, and the web of sandbanks and rocks here are unique. Though the Mekong surrounding Si Phan Don will surge to an incredible 14 kilometers wide during rainy season, the archipelago is landlocked, making it a truly unique experience on a tour through Laos' mountainous terrain. 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 these jar-like stone structures scattered across hundreds of kilometres in north-eastern Laos. Some locals believe they were left by giants who once roamed the area - and archaeologists estimate the date from the Southeast Asian iron age. Though only about 90 remain accessible, this bizarre and fascinating mystery is a favourite experience for history buffs visiting Laos, and should be on the top of any first-timers list.
Though especially famous for backpackers’ en-route to its river tubing, 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 paddy fields, Vang Vieng is a stunning location for kayaking and caving for 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
With over three-dozen Buddhist temples recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, temple-hopping in Luang Prabang is a cultural experience as much 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, and they offer a rare glimpse into the lives of Laos' people. Luang Prabang is also the place to witness lines of saffron-robed monks walking the streets to collect alms - or gifts of rice - from locals. As one of Laos' most spiritual processions, 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, and plays a starring role in Buffalo Tours' adventure itineraries 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
Weaving its way through Laos' incredible mountain scenery is the mighty Mekong River, one of the most important rivers in all of Southeast Asia that stretches over 4000 kilometers across five countries. That said, it's no surprise that the river is an integral part of Lao livelihoods and communities that live near it. The best way to experience these fascinating cultures unique to the Mekong region in Laos is to take to the water yourself. Apart from must-see spots like 4000 Islands, sailing the Mekong makes 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 its iridescent blue-green water flowing over step-like stream floors. The best way to explore this natural wonder is with 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, with a low-hanging tree branch a favourite visitors' jumping point!
Discover Ethnic Minority Villages
Home to 43 ethnic minorities, Laos is a fantastic place to discover how ethnic minority communities live in Asia today. Buffalo Tours has lots of options to explore these local villages either with a short visit or a longer home-stay adventure. Explore local ethnic lifestyles and heritage on a full-day Luang Prabang Cuisine and Culture tour, or get an in-depth look at Laos' least-explored communities with a four-day homestay excursion.