Laos – officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic – is one of the great travel frontiers; landlocked and mountainous, swamped by jungles and promising Indian Jones adventures in remote tribal villages and ancient Buddhist caves.
With Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other, you might expect Laos to be commercial and crowded, but this is Asia’s backwater, where life moves as slowly as the churning waters of the Mekong River, which forms the border with three countries – Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia – as it snakes south towards the Gulf of Thailand.
A long-running civil war – during which the USA dropped millions of bombs in Laos – kept the country off the mainstream tourist circuit for many years. Unexploded ordnance and poor infrastructure continue to pose a challenge to tourism, but each year brings a new crop of upmarket accommodation to supplement the existing backpacker hostels – Laos is finally finding its feet. Eco-tourism looks set to be its trump card, taking visitors to remote tribal villages and pristine national parks teeming with weird and wonderful wildlife.
Despite this rugged outlook, the capital city, Vientiane, feels remarkably cosmopolitan, helped by a café culture left behind from when this was part of French Indochina. Dotted around its pleasantly faded, palm-shaded streets are ancient ruins, gleaming stupas and graceful colonial buildings.
The laidback atmosphere and the relative lack of modern development make Laos perhaps the most authentic and unspoiled of the Southeast Asia nations, though it competes for this title with neighbouring Myanmar. Laos is also one of the few communist countries left in the world – which should be obvious from the bureaucratic red tape and the omnipresent red stars on uniforms and state buildings.
Until 1988, tourists were banned from Laos, but now it is possible to travel all over the country. Nevertheless, there are few crowded tourist hotspots, with the possible exception of monastery-studded Luang Prabang and the overblown backpacker resort of Vang Vieng. Wherever you go in Laos, you’ll encounter the delectable Lao cuisine: a little bit French, a little bit Southeast Asian, and perfect washed down with a bottle of Beer Lao.
The local equivalent to the UK ‘999’ emergency lines are: 1190 for fire, 1195 for ambulance and for police: 1191, 241162, 241163, 241164, and 212703. The Tourist Police can be contacted in Vientiane on 021-251-128.
Petty crime, including bag snatching occurs frequently and is becoming increasingly violent, especially in tourist areas. Avoid placing bags in the front basket of bicycles. In the lead up to local festivals and major events like Lao New Year in April and the end of Buddhist lent in October, and the boat racing festivals which happen during September and October, there is a significant increase in theft and violent crime.
There have been confirmed reports of armed robberies of foreigners’ homes in Vientiane, some of which have occurred in broad daylight. You should review any security measures you have in place and be vigilant.
Be particularly vigilant travelling at night by bicycle or motorcycle, especially if you’re alone. Stick to well-used, well lit roads and carry a personal alarm if possible. There has been an increase in reports of violent muggings with guns and knives in Vientiane, especially at night. Be aware of your surroundings and avoid unlit roads, especially if you’re alone
Local law enforcement responses to crimes, even violent crimes, are often limited. Foreigners attempting to report crimes have reported finding police stations closed, emergency telephone numbers unanswered, or police lacking transportation or authorisation to investigate crimes that occur at night.
The theft of passports is a particular problem. Never leave food or drink unattended. There have been incidents of drug related rapes reported by foreigners. Be careful about taking drinks from strangers and be wary at bars, clubs, restaurants and parties.
Specific events or political disputes may trigger violent protests. You should avoid any demonstrations or large gatherings of people. Keep yourself informed of local developments.
Unexploded mines and ordinances are a hazard throughout Laos, and kill about 300 people each year. The risk is particularly high in Xieng Khouang Province (Plain of Jars), Luang Prabang Province and areas of the Lao-Vietnamese border, formerly the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Mined areas are often unmarked. Don’t stray off main routes in rural areas, and don’t pick up metal objects.
Take care near the border with Burma. This is a well-known drugs trade-route where armed groups operate.
There are regular reports of clashes in the Xaisomboun district in Vientiane involving the Lao army. Travel is not permitted without a permit. If you do visit, you should be accompanied by the authorities. Most recently, shootings took place in Xaisomboun town on 15, 17 and 18 November. One person was killed on 17 November, and another hospitalised on 18 November.
There have been small-scale skirmishes between anti-government groups and government troops in isolated areas along the Lao-Thai border. The local law enforcement agencies have limited capability to counter these threats.
You should get permission from the village chief, district head, provincial governor or national tourism authority for any travel perceived as out of the ordinary, including business, extensive photography, or scientific research of any kind.
You may be stopped by the police at any time, particularly in the evening, and asked to show identification papers before being allowed to travel on. You should comply with requests to stop at checkpoints and roadblocks.
There have been several deaths from drug abuse among foreign nationals visiting Laos. Some tourists have had drinks or food spiked with drugs. Some restaurants in popular tourist destinations offer drug-laced food and drink which has led to victims being assaulted. Consuming these products can result in serious injury or even death.
A list of recent incidents and accidents can be found on the website of theAviation Safety network.
In 2010 the International Civil Aviation Organisation carried out an audit of the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in Laos.
We can’t offer advice on the safety of individual airlines. However, the International Air Transport Association publishes a list of registered airlinesthat have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list does not necessarily mean that it’s unsafe.
A departure tax is now included in the price of the air ticket and is no longer paid separately in cash.
Roads in Laos are in poor condition. Travel after dark significantly increases the risk of an accident as vehicles often do not have lights. Livestock also stray on to the roads causing accidents.
Road accidents and fatalities have risen sharply in recent years, particularly in towns and cities. Most accidents are caused by drunk driving, reckless driving and a general violation of traffic rules Take care, especially if you’re riding a motorbike.
You can report road accidents to a dedicated police number +856 20 5666 9090.
Take extra care on overnight bus trips, particularly on buses travelling to/from Vietnam. There have been reports of scams and thefts of personal belongings, including passports on these trips.
If you are involved in a road accident you will have to pay compensation for third party property damage and injury, even if you are not at fault. As a general rule, the Lao authorities will overwhelmingly find in favour of Lao citizens, regardless of the situation. Lao insurers only meet a small proportion of the costs of an accident and will not cover this compensation.
When hiring a car, motorcycle, or bicycle, do not give your original British passport to the owner of the vehicle as surety against loss, theft, or damage to the vehicle. There have been reports of foreign nationals having to make an additional payment for any loss, theft or damage caused, even if you are not at fault, before your passport will be returned.
Travel on the Mekong River by speedboat and slow-boat can be dangerous, especially when water levels are low. Make sure you travel with a company that provides lifejackets.
White water rafting, kayaking, tubing and other water-based activities, including swimming in the Mekong, are dangerous and incidents of drowning and serious injuries have been reported. Laos does not have the same health and safety expectations as in the UK. Please be aware that safety advice will be minimal and there may not be warning signs at tourist sites. Take great care, including in Vang Vieng, and check your travel insurance policy to ensure that you are covered for these activities.
Things to do in Laos