Our Laos Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Laos or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
"In the wind I could smell the pungent scent of the khio grass. I heard the stalks of bamboo creaking against one another... From afar, the sound of cicadas fiddling with their wings made a beautiful music that echoed in my ears. All of these sounds conjured up the familiar atmosphere of my birthplace."
Outhine Bounyavong, "Mother's Beloved"
The second poorest country in Southeast Asia after East Timor and the least visited in Indochina, Laos (officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic) has emerged from decades of war damage, austerity and neglect to become a select destination offering an enchanting mix of ancient culture and tradition, stunning landscapes and serene mysticism.
The tree-lined boulevards, labyrinthine markets and tranquil riverfront of Vientiane are a charming introduction to the country. Rebuilt by the French at the end of the 19th century and dominated by the golden Pha That Luang (Great Stupa), it's a cosmopolitan yet distinctly Asian city that rates as one of the world's friendliest capitals.
Vang Vieng, 160km north of Vientiane is a picturesque adventure centre, where you can go hiking, rock climbing, kayaking or ballooning against a backdrop of craggy karst limestone cliffs riddled with vast caves, crystal-clear pools and waterfalls.
Luang Prabang boasts a spellbinding array of golden temples attended by saffron-robed monks, sophisticated boutique hotels in restored Indochine villas, affordable spas and river cruises around one of the best-preserved traditional cities of Southeast Asia, the remote upper northern regions of Bokeo, Oudomoxay, Luang Namtha and Phongsaly offer eco-tours among rugged mountains and diverse ethnic cultures of Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer, Yao-Mien and Tai-Lao origin, while sleepy Pakse in southwestern Champasak is the gateway to the ancient Khmer temple of Wat Phu and traveller mecca Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) on the widest stretch of the Mekong. The undulating plateau of the Plain of Jars contains over 3,000 large iron-age funerary urns spread over 50km. The area was extensively bombed in the Second Indochina War and three sites with the highest concentrations of jars have been cleared of unexploded ordnance.
Wherever you go in Laos, you will be touched by the infectious outlook of curiosity and contentment among the friendly locals and impressed by the precipitous mountains, high plateaux and pristine forests that characterise the landscape.
Culture & etiquette
"When you are alone, be careful of your thoughts; when you are with friends, be careful of your speech."
Lao people are open and friendly, with a strong sense of courtesy and respect. Everyone who acts politely will receive a warm welcome.
Theravada Buddhism teaches that life and death are intertwined through the concepts of reincarnation and karma: depending on their behaviour in this life, each person will come back in their next life as a higher or lower being; if you act well, you will have good karma. Theravada Buddhism has the following principles:
Understand the cosmos.
Have the right intentions.
Speak the right words.
Perform the right deeds.
Earn a living in the right way.
Make the right effort.
Be intellectually alert.
Buddhism also reinforces a sense of hierarchy within society. Parents are superior to children, teachers to students, managers to subordinates, and even monks will walk in rank order with the most junior at the rear.
Laos is also a collective society - individuals take second place to the group - and subtle communication styles are employed in order to minimise the chances of causing offense and to maintain harmony.
The concept of ‘face' ties in with this collective outlook. Protecting both one's own and other people's honour, dignity and public reputation is extremely important.
As in other eastern cultures, the feet are regarded as the inferior part of the body, so never indicate or touch a person or object with your foot.
Chinese tea accompanies most meals. However, the local beer in Laos is excellent and well suited to the fragrant cuisine, though a chilled bottle of Beerlao is welcome at any time of day. Rice wine and distilled wine spirits are also produced - the latter is reminiscent of schnapps in both taste and the punch it packs. The former is also strong, but on the sweet side, but decent wine is available in many restaurants, especially of course, the many French restaurants. The French also left the Laotians with a taste for strong coffee, served here as it is in Vietnam, with a steel filter over the cup. The local water is best avoided, as is ice made from unpurified water.
The Lao year follows the Buddhist lunar calendar and many religious, cultural and harvest festivals are moveable, so check the dates when you confirm your travel. Most are de facto national or regional public holidays.
February - Elephant Festival and Trade Fairs, Sayabouly. Elephant processions and bathing, ‘Elephant of the Year' competition, mahout demonstrations, Buddhist blessings, fun fairs, night markets, and live music and dance performances.
February - Wat Phu Festival, Champasack. Elephant racing, buffalo and cock fights, and performances of traditional Lao music and dance at the pre-Angkorian remains of Wat Phu.
February - Sikhottabong Festival, Khammouane. Religious festival and trade fair at Sikhottabong stupa, 8km south of Thakhek.
Boun Khao Chi (Makhaboucha), nationwide. ‘Bread made of sticky rice' ceremonies and candle-lit parades around local temples.
March - Boun Khoun Khao or Khoun Lan, nationwide. Rice harvest festival.
March - Boun Pha Vet, nationwide. Three-day festival celebrating Buddha's previous incarnation before being born as Prince Siddhartha.
April - Boun Pi Mai (Lao New Year), nationwide. Attractions include a colourful parade in traditional Lao dress with music and dance, procession of the sacred Prabang Buddha, and Miss New Year beauty contest.
May - Boun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival), nationwide. A call for rain and a celebration of fertility in which villagers compete for the best decorated and the highest flying rocket, and men disguised as women perform lewd acts to anger the gods and send thunderstorms.
May - Boun Visakhaboucha, nationwide. Ceremonies and processions to mark the birth date of the Buddha.
July - Asalahaboucha Day and Boun Khao Pansa (Buddhist Lent), nationwide. The beginning of a three-month period of prayer and meditation for Buddhist monks.
September/October - Boun Haw Khao Padap Din and Haw Khao Salak, nationwide. On the 15th day of the waning moon in the 9th month, and 15 days afterwards, offerings are made at temples to honour dead ancestors, followed by a candlelit procession.
October - Boun Ok Pansa, nationwide. The end of Buddhist Lent is marked by candlelit processions and floats decorated with flower, incense and candles are set adrift in thanksgiving to the river spirits, followed by a day of boat racing.
November - That Luang Festival, Vientiane. Three-day festival gathering tens of thousands of pilgrims from Laos and Thailand to the Luang stupa to listen to prayers and sermons and ending with a huge fireworks display.
December - Hmong New Year, nationwide. The celebrations feature traditional costumes and jewellery, music, ox fighting, spinning-top races and crossbow demonstrations.
December - That Inhang Festival, Savannakhet. International trade fair at the Inhang stupa featuring products from Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, Lao music and dance and sports competitions.
Food & drink
Laos has an almost perfectly preserved culinary tradition, which remains something of a mystery to travellers and visitors, particularly as there has been no large scale diaspora taking the cuisine abroad. Commonly described as being similar to Thai food, or Vietnamese food (geographically it is tucked in between the two), it does share several elements, for instance rice paper spring rolls, steamed dumplings, noodle soups, and green papaya salad, but also has distinctive differences and a distinctive character all of its own.
Perhaps the most significant, staple difference is the sticky rice that forms the basis for each meal. The Lao eat more of this than any other people in the world - some Lao even refer to themselves as Luk Khao Niaow, or ‘children of sticky rice'. It is used every which way, ground into flour from which a variety of noodles and wraps are made. However, it is most often served steamed, and as it is generally eaten with the hands, the accompanying dishes are generally far dryer and less soupy than in Thailand, though the galangal and lemongrass that figure large in Thailand are also essential ingredients here, and fish sauce, used for almost everything in Vietnam, is also fundamental. In landlocked Laos, it's based on fermented freshwater fish, seriously punchy and known as padaek.
The former royal seat of Luang Prabang is considered the country's culinary heart. Sited as it is by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it was a point of intra-continental trade and an important part of French Indochina. So as in Vietnam, baguettes are a daily part of life, except here they are often fiery, stuffed with chicken and watercress and jaew bong, a common condiment in Laos, a blend of chillies, garlic, ginger, fried shallots and fish sauce. This is also popular for dipping balls of sticky rice in as a snack, as are other jaews, such as jaew mak len, which is tomato and coriander based.
There's a variation on the Vietnamese pho too, (pronounced fér) which while retaining the basics - noodles, meat and a rich, intense broth - has acquired its own style and flavour here - served with a massive serving of fresh vegetables on the side - a heap of fresh greens, beans and bean sprouts, mint and basil, lettuce, perhaps tomatoes too.
Platters of fresh greens come with many Lao dishes, the national preference is to eat herbs and exotic wild greens fresh, so they act as a cool counterpoint to the heat of the spices, and as a palate cleanser. Many are foraged or picked minutes before being served, and an abundant variety is available by the long riversides, but coriander, dill, mint, and sweet basil are most common. They provide a wonderful contrast to barbequed or grilled dishes in particular, which are widespread and well-loved in Laos, served up in ‘ping' places and featuring everything from chicken, duck, pork, and goat to buffalo, flavoursome as a result of the marinades used, if sometimes a little tough.
Laotians prefer offal to meat, and are firm believers in using every part of an animal - buffalo skin is favourite snack and condiment. Dried buffalo meat and skin are an intrinsic part of Or Lam, a Luang Prabang speciality, stewed with spices, including sakam, a woody stem foraged from nearby forests, and eggplants. Eggplants too - and there are several varieties in every shape and size - are particularly popular in Lao cooking. Fish, especially perch and tilapia, figures prominently too, as you'd expect in a land criss-crossed by rivers. Grilled, minced, eaten raw, the basis of fish sauce, it's the main source of protein for many. One of the most popular dishes - mok pa - pounded white fish with aromatic spicing including lemongrass and lime leaves, steamed in banana leaves is delicious and well worth ordering.
Perhaps the most famous of all Lao dishes however is larb, sometimes spelled laap. Piled on to or served alongside fresh greens, this savoury mince of either duck, pork, chicken, beef, fish or mushrooms, flavoured with lime, fish sauce, garlic, chilli and fresh herbs is at once invigorating and refreshing. The meat can be cooked, or raw, or prepared ceviche-style, marinated in lime juice, but however it's prepared, larb is considered to be the national dish of Laos.
"Rivers are magnetic. I can sit and watch the water move past for hours. They are places of contemplation - contemplation about the river itself to be sure, but also a place to reflect on the passage of time, of life, of experience."
Edward A. Gargan, The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong
Laos is a mountainous landlocked country northeast of Thailand and west of Vietnam, also bordering Cambodia to the south and Burma (Myanmar) and China to the north. Most of the western border with Thailand is demarcated by the Mekong River, an important transport artery reaching a width of 20km at Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) in the south. The eastern border with Vietnam extends for 2,130km along the crest of the Annamite range, which serves as a physical barrier between Chinese-influenced Vietnam and Indianised Laos and Thailand. Ancient Khmer ruins at Wat Pho and other locations in the south attest to a long history of contact between the Lao and the people of present-day Cambodia.
Both the Annamites and the Luang Prabang range in the northwest are characterised by steep terrain, with elevations typically above 500 metres and narrow river valleys. The mountainous landscape extends across the north of the country, with the exceptions of the plain of Vientiane and the Plain of Jars in Xiang Khoang. The southern tip of the country contains large level areas in Savannakhet and Champasak that are used for rice cultivation and raising livestock.
The alluvial plains and terraces of the Mekong and its tributaries cover about 20% of the land area, and just 4% of the land is arable. About 10% of the country consists of original-growth forest, including some of the best-preserved ecosystems in Southeast Asia. A hundred years ago, this figure was closer to 75%, and forest cover has declined significantly since the 1970s as a result of commercial logging and slash-and-burn farming.
Laos has some of the most extensive limestone cave systems in Asia, including the spectacular Konglor Cave in central Khammouane and the remote, fortress-like caves in Houaphan's Vieng Xay district, which served as a base for the Lao Revolutionary Forces during the Second Indochina War.
Lao Airlines has a regular low-cost service to domestic destinations including a number of regional capitals. Roads have improved in recent years and public buses are a still cheaper option. Tuk-tuks are a cheap and easy way of getting around the main cities, and bicycle hire is also an appealing option. The most popular entry point by land is across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong, linking Vientiane to Nong Khai in Thailand. A rail link has been in place between the same cities since 2009, though the train station is 13km short of the centre of Vientiane.
River cruises along the Mekong are a fabulous way of touring the country in comfort and style, and kayaking is possible on many stretches. Guided cycling tours are also a great way to explore the countryside between and around Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
"Sometimes one wonders why one bothers to travel, to come eight thousand miles to find only Vientiane at the end of the road... it is a century away from Saigon."
Graham Greene (1954)
Southeast Asia's oldest modern human fossil, dated to 44000 BC, was found in a cave in the northern Annamite mountains of Laos in 2009. Archaeological evidence suggests an agricultural society developed in present-day Laos around 4000 BC. The burial urns and other sepulchres found on the Plain of Jars show that bronze objects appeared around 1500 BC and iron tools were known from 700 BC. From the 4th to the 8th century, communities along the Mekong formed townships, and cultural artefacts show that contact was made with Chinese and Indian civilisations.
Official histories of Laos are traced to the Tai migration and the establishment of the kingdom of Lan Xang (‘land of a million elephants') by the Lao prince Fa Ngum in 1353. In the preceding century, Tai people constructed their first states, drawing together different tribal communities under rulers claiming quasi-divine authority.
The earliest evidence of the existence of the Lao people is a document known as ‘the laws of Khun Borom' (or Khun Bulom), which describes a 9th-century agrarian society in which life revolves around subsistence agriculture. It also sets down strict punishments for stealing or killing a neighbour's elephant (evidently an important possession of the time).
It was long assumed that King Photisarath helped establish Theravada Buddhism as the predominant religion in the country during the 16th century, but recent archaeological discoveries in Cambodia and Vietnam show that Pali inscriptions existed in the region as early as the 9th century. Animism and Shiva-worship were popular in ancient Laos, and it is more likely that the rise to ascendancy of Buddhism was a gradual process.
In the 17th century Lan Xang entered a period of decline and the late 18th century saw Siam establish control over the lands of present-day Laos. Following its occupation of Vietnam, France absorbed Laos into French Indochina via treaties with Siam in 1893 and 1904 that established the present boundaries of the country.
The Japanese occupied French Indochina during World War II, taking Laos as late as March 1945. When Japan surrendered the following August, nationalists declared Laos independent, but by early 1946 French troops had reoccupied the country, conferring limited autonomy on its inhabitants. During the First Indochina War (1946-54), the Indochinese Communist Party formed the Pathet Lao resistance organisation and after a long period of military and political upheaval the 1954 Geneva Agreement on Indochina recognised the independence of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
A second Geneva conference, in 1961-62, provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos, but the growing North Vietnamese military presence in the country drew Laos into the Second Indochina War (1954-1975). For nearly a decade, eastern Laos was subjected to the heaviest bombing in the history of warfare, as the US sought to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail and defeat the Communist forces. The country was in chaos and the Lao revolutionary writer Bo Saengkham Vongdala described the society of Vientiane during these years as a "bastardised version of American culture" with its "whore-houses and dance halls".
Soon after the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 led to the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam, a ceasefire between the Pathet Lao and the government produced a new coalition. But North Vietnam never withdrew from Laos and the Pathet Lao generally served as a proxy army for Vietnamese interests. After the fall of South Vietnam to Communist forces in April 1975, the Pathet Lao with the backing of North Vietnam was able to take power with little resistance. On 2 December 1975, the king was forced to abdicate and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was established.
The new Communist government led by Kaysone Phomvihane introduced centralised economic decision-making and incarcerated many members of the previous administration and its military in re-education camps, where up to 40,000 reactionaries were interned.
Still the capital was riddled with CIA agents, rogue US pilots, Soviet spies and sex workers. In 1975 Paul Theroux remarked that "Vientiane is exceptional, but inconvenient. The brothels are cleaner than hotels, marijuana is cheaper than a cold glass of beer... I shopped for presents, imagining Laotian treasures, but discovered traditional handicrafts there to include aprons, memo pads, potholders and neckties. Neckties! I tried to take a pleasure cruise on the Mekong, but was told the river was only used by smugglers. The food was unusual. One bowl of soup I had contained whiskers, feathers, gristle, and bits of intestine cut to look like macaroni."
"Laos was one of America's expensive practical jokes, a motiveless place where nothing was made, everything was imported; a kingdom with baffling pretensions to Frenchness. What was surprising was that it existed at all."
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975)
While nominally independent, the Communist government was essentially a puppet regime run from Vietnam, and its policies prompted 10% of the Lao population to leave the country. The educated and wealthy royalists fled to France and the US, while others left in their thousands for crowded refugee camps over the Thai border. Laos relied heavily on Soviet aid channelled through Vietnam until the Soviet collapse in 1991. The Communist Party gave up centralised management of the economy in the 1990s but retains a monopoly of political power. The current president Choummaly Sayasone was appointed by the National Assembly in 2006 and reappointed in June 2011. A former defence minister and vice president, he was the only candidate nominated by the all-powerful politburo of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party.
Economic growth over the last two decades has helped reduce poverty levels, but average annual incomes hover just above US$1,100 and Laos still relies heavily on foreign aid and investment, notably from Japan, China and Vietnam.
Outside Vientiane and Luang Prabang, many people live without electricity or access to basic facilities, but the US$1.3bn Nam Theun 2 dam scheme, inaugurated in 2010 to generate electricity for domestic use and for export to Thailand, will improve living standards and raise much-needed funds.
The country's first railway line opened in early 2009, and high-speed lines connecting Thailand, Laos and China are in development. New regional trade agreements and the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 are also set to lift the economy.
"As the war dragged on, so the myth grew... Apparently there was another war even nastier than the one in Vietnam, and so secret that the location of the country in which it was being fought was classified. The cognoscenti simply referred to it as ‘the Other Theater'. The men who chose to fight in it were handpicked volunteers, and anyone accepted for a tour seemed to disappear as if from the face of the earth."
Christopher Robbins, The Ravens
Laos offers a wide range of elaborate handicrafts including hill-tribe silks, wood carvings, home furnishings and jewellery. A vast choice of phaa sin (traditional wraparound skirts), shawls, bags and jewellery can be found at Vientiane's morning market and the main shopping streets of Samsenthai and Setthathirat around the Nam Phu Fountain area. In Luang Prabang the night market on Sisavangvong Road, shops in the old Chinese quarter and numerous gift shops around the town are good for couture-style textiles and household souvenirs. Champasak's morning market is mostly food-oriented (don't miss the local Lao Arabica coffee), while stalls selling silks, jewellery and other artefacts surround all the main attractions. Savannakhet's Special Economic Zone on the Thai border is a lively junction where ethnic minorities from both countries trade.
Tipping is rare, even in hotels, but in more expensive restaurants a tip of around 10% is the norm if no service charge has been included. Tipping a tour guide is appropriate.
Where to eat
It's possible to experience extremes of dining in Laos, in the literal sense due to some of the ingredients, but also in terms of eateries. There are formal restaurants with flawless service in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, there are countless of informal local restaurants, there are French bakeries, cafés and restaurants, there are roadside vendors and market stalls and ping places for barbequed meat, and each are enjoyable in their own right, but a combination will give a truer representation of the full spectrum of this intriguing cuisine, which is as much about river moss and buffalo meat as it is about baguettes and croissants. In local restaurants, the style is generally to bring all the dishes at once, including soup, which is enjoyed throughout the meal and not necessarily as a prelude. Western fast-food chains have started to arrive in Laos, but a sizzling skewer of satay style meat from a vendor is probably more to the point, and as long as visitors choose busy stalls with a high turnover, generally perfectly safe to eat. And more fun.