Laos //

Travel essentials

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Customs

Lao customs regulations limit visitors to 500 cigarettes and one litre of distilled alcohol per person upon entry, but in practice bags are rarely opened unless a suspiciously large amount of luggage is being brought in. A customs declaration form must be filled out along with the arrival form, but typically nobody bothers to check that the information is correct. There is no limit on the amount of foreign currency you can bring into Laos.

Costs

Laos is one of the world’s poorest nations, and consequently one of the cheapest Asian countries to travel in. Your largest expense is likely to be transport, with journeys usually costing between 60,000 and 120,000K; accommodation and food are very inexpensive.

By eating at noodle stalls and cheap restaurants, opting for basic accommodation and travelling by public transport, you can travel in Laos on a daily budget of less than $20. Staying in more upmarket hotels and resorts, and eating in the best restaurants will push your budget up to a very reasonable $40–60 a day – though you’ll struggle to find upmarket accommodation and restaurants in much of the country. Note, however, that prices are significantly higher in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

While restaurants and some shops have fixed prices, in general merchandise almost never has price tags, and the lack of a fixed pricing scheme can take some getting used to. Prices, unless marked or for food in a market, should usually be negotiated, as should the cost of chartering transport (as opposed to fares on passenger vehicles, which are non-negotiable). Hotel and guesthouse operators are usually open to a little bargaining, particularly during off-peak months.

Bargaining is very much a part of life in Laos, and an art form, requiring a delicate balance of humour, patience and tact. It’s important to remain realistic, as vendors will lose interest if you’ve quoted a price that’s way out of line, and to keep a sense of perspective: cut-throat haggling over 1000K only reflects poorly on both buyer and seller. As the Lao in general – with the exception of drivers of vehicles for hire and souvenir sellers in Vientiane and Luang Prabang – are less out to rip off tourists than their counterparts in Thailand and Vietnam, they start off the haggling by quoting a fairly realistic price and expect to come down only a little. It’s worth bearing in mind that the country’s dependence on imported goods from its neighbours does push prices up – whether for food, toiletries or transport.

Electricity

Supplied at 220 volts AC. Two-pin sockets taking plugs with flat prongs are the norm. Many smaller towns, including several provincial capitals, have power for only a few hours in the evening or none at all, so it’s worth bringing a torch.

Information

Good, reliable information on Laos is hard to come by and, because everything from visa requirements to transport routes are subject to frequent change, your best bet is often to get the latest advice from internet forums, guesthouses and fellow travellers.

The government-run Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA for short; whttp://www.tourismlaos.org), which has offices around Laos, including Vientiane and Luang Prabang, should be able to supply decent brochures and maps, including Destination Laos, a free mini-guidebook published annually.

Privately owned travel companies such as Green Discovery and Diethelm Travel can provide reliable tourist information in provincial capitals, as well as some free fold-out maps. For more detailed maps of the country, try one of the bookshops in Vientiane or Vang Vieng.

Online resources

whttp://www.destination-laos.net Attractive province-by-province guide to Laos, featuring maps, pictures and plenty of useful information.

whttp://www.vientianetimes.com Features news, accommodation listings and links to hundreds of other websites on Laos.

whttp://www.mekongexpress.com Huge general info site.

whttp://www.laoembassy.com Website of the Lao embassy to the United States features tourist info and updated visa regulations.

whttp://www.ecotourismlaos.com A slick, award-winning website by the Lao National Tourism Administration that features helpful tips on exploring Laos’s national parks.

whttp://www.laos-travel.itgo.com Useful site (if a little dated) with province-by-province info.

whttp://www.laosglobe.com Laos-related news from around the world is collated on this regularly updated site.

whttp://www.tripadvisor.com User-generated reviews of hotels, guesthouses and tourist attractions in Laos.

whttp://www.muonglao.com This locally run website includes travel tips and a list of tourist highlights.

whttp://www.theboatlanding.laopdr.com An excellent site on travel in Northern Laos. Features information on independent trekking and eco-tourism.

Insurance

It is important to purchase a good travel insurance policy before travelling that covers against theft, loss and illness or injury. Good medical coverage is particularly important in Laos where the poor healthcare system means that any serious accident or illness while there would most likely require you to travel to Thailand for treatment.

Internet access

Internet cafés are increasingly common in Laos, though there are still a fair few towns that don’t have access. Prices range between 6000 and 15,000K per hour; in most places, connections can be excruciatingly slow. Numerous cafés and many hotels and guesthouses in Vientiane and Luang Prabang now offer wi-fi – outside of these places wi-fi is limited to more upmarket accommodation and occasionally cafés in more touristy towns.

Laundry

Most guesthouses and hotels offer a same-day laundry service, and in larger towns a few shops offer laundry service which can be cheaper than what you’ll be charged at your accommodation. In either situation, the charge is usually per kilogram. Your clothes will take a beating, so it’s best not to entrust prized articles to these services. If you want to wash clothes yourself, you can buy small packets of detergent in many general stores and markets around the country. Hang out your underwear discreetly – women should take particular care, as women’s undergarments are believed to have the power to render Buddhist tattoos and amulets powerless.

Money

Lao currency, the kip, is available in 50,000K, 20,000K, 10,000K, 5000K, 2000K, 1000K and 500K notes; there are no coins in circulation.

Although a law passed in 1990 technically forbids the use of foreign currencies to pay for goods and services in local markets, many tour operators, and upmarket hotels and restaurants quote their prices in dollars (especially common when the price is above 350,000K). Many shops, especially those in more touristy towns, and tourist services will accept Thai baht or US dollars in place of kip, usually at a fairly decent exchange rate, though it makes little sense unless you’re paying for something that would require a large amount of kip.

Due to the high denominations of Lao money, it can be rather cumbersome to carry even relatively small amounts of money in kip. It’s far easier to carry large sums of money in dollars or baht and to change them as you need to – bear in mind though that larger US notes will get you better exchange rates. It’s not possible to convert money to or from kip outside of Laos.

Banks and exchange

Banking hours are generally Monday to Friday 8.30am to 3.30pm. Exchange rates are fairly uniform throughout the country, though marginally better in larger towns and cities. Most towns have a bank with at least the most basic of exchange facilities – usually dollars and baht – though travellers’ cheques (US dollars) are now accepted at many banks and a wide variety of international currencies can often be changed, including euros and sterling. Moneychangers are common in larger towns, and rates are generally a little lower, though not disproportionately so, than the banks.

Travellers’ cheques, cash and cards

The most convenient way to carry money in Laos is to take a good supply of US dollars or Thai baht with you. Travellers’ cheques are the safest way to carry larger amounts of money, and as they are now accepted at banks throughout the country they are a good option if you’re travelling for a few weeks, though cashing them will incur a charge of around $1 per cheque. ATMs are becoming more prevalent, but are still fairly rare, and even so it’s best not to rely on them. In addition, some travellers have had problems with receiving funds from ATMs, with reports that their accounts were debited despite not receiving cash at the end of the transaction. In such a situation, contact your bank as soon as possible.

Major credit cards are accepted at upmarket hotels and restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and in a limited number of other tourist centres. Cash advances on Visa cards, and less frequently Mastercard, are possible in some banks in larger towns, though minimum amounts and commission are likely to be imposed. Bear in mind that electricity supply in much of the country can be somewhat temperamental, so paying by credit card or getting a cash advance on a card is not always possible even when the service is advertised – it’s important not to rely on plastic in Laos and to always have some cash as a fall-back option.

Mail

The Lao postal system can be slow and unreliable – mail takes seven to fourteen days in or out of Laos, depending on where you are. Post offices are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm, sometimes with an hour break at lunchtime. When sending parcels, keep the package open for inspection.

Poste restante services are available in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Post offices in both towns charge a small fee for letters (postcards received this way are free) and keep mail behind the counter for two or three months. Bring your passport on the off chance that you’re asked to show identification when picking up your mail. Mail should be addressed: name, GPO, city, Lao PDR.

Opening hours and public holidays

Hours for government offices are generally Monday to Friday from 8am to noon and from 1 to 5pm. Private businesses usually open and close a bit later, with most opening on Saturday but almost all closed on Sunday. Details of banking and post office hours are given and above respectively.

The posted hours on museums are not always scrupulously followed outside of the major cities and on slow days (almost every day) the curators and staff are often tempted to pack up and head home. Unless a festival is taking place, monasteries should only be visited during daylight hours as monks are very early risers and are usually in bed not long after sunset.

Government offices, banks and post offices close for public holidays – a lot of shops, especially in smaller towns, also close for the day.

Phones

The majority of internet cafés now have facilities for international calling, usually through Skype. Alternatively, international calls can be made at the local Telecom Office, though prices are generally quite high.

Regional codes are given throughout the Guide: the “0” must be dialled before all long-distance calls. Some hotels have consecutively numbered phone lines – thus t021/221200–5 means that the last digit can be any number between 0 and 5.

GSM or Triband mobile phones can be used in Laos, though call and text charges will be high, so if you’re planning on using your phone it’s worth buying a local SIM card. These are readily available from shops and markets and cost 20,000–30,000K, which will also give you an initial amount of credit to use. Mobile phone coverage is limited in more remote provinces – at the time of writing, the most comprehensive network was ETL. Top-up cards can be purchased in most towns and villages that have even the most basic shop – just look for the flag displaying the network’s name.

Showers

Most hotels and guesthouses in Laos now claim to have hot-water showers – though in reality the water is often disappointingly cold. Traditional Lao showers, sometimes found in accommodation in rural areas, consist of a large, ceramic jar or a cement tub resembling an oversized bathtub without a drain. Standing next to the tub, you use the plastic scoop provided to sluice water over your body. While it may look tempting on a hot day, don’t get into these tubs or try to use them for doing your laundry, as the water has to be used by others. In many towns villagers opt for an even more traditional technique – the river. Men usually bathe in their underwear, women in sarongs.

Tampons

Hard to find outside Vientiane’s minimarkets, which have a very limited selection. Bring supplies.

Time zone

Ignoring daylight-saving time abroad, Laos is 7 hours ahead of London, 15 hours ahead of Vancouver, 12 hours ahead of New York, 3 hours behind Sydney and 5 hours behind Auckland.

Toilets

Squat toilets are the norm throughout Laos, although almost all hotels and guesthouses have Western-style porcelain thrones. Public toilets are not common in Laos though you’ll find them at airports and most bus stations; at the latter a small fee is usually collected. Not all toilets will have toilet paper, so it’s worth carrying some with you. Most squat toilets require manual flushing – you’ll find a bucket of water with a scoop floating on the surface for this purpose. In some small, rural villages people tend to take to the woods because of a lack of plumbing. On long road trips this is also a perfectly acceptable way to relieve yourself, though keep in mind that many parts of Laos have UXO, so it’s not wise to wade too far into the bush when the bus stops for a bathroom break.

Travellers with disabilities

For anyone with limited mobility, Laos is a difficult country to explore. Even in the big tourist cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, you’ll be met with uneven pavements, which lack ramps, and small sets of stairs leading into most restaurants and guesthouses. In smaller towns the situation is even worse – there are often no pavements and most of the roads are dirt tracks.

However, a handful of the newer hotels in Laos (especially in cities) have been built with some regard for disabled guests. The best places have ramps at the front of the building, lifts to all floors of the hotel, and wider doorways that at least allow wheelchair users to pass from one part of the building to another. That said, your chances of getting a room that’s been specially adapted for a wheelchair user, complete with grab-rails and a roll-in shower, are close to zero.

Hotels that do make specific allowances for disabled guests include the 3 Nagas by Alila in Luang Prabang and the Lao Plaza in Vientiane.

The best way to alleviate transport difficulties is to take internal flights and hire a private minibus with a driver. You should also consider hiring a local tour guide to accompany you on sightseeing trips – a Lao speaker can facilitate access to temples and museums. Flying an international carrier whose planes are suited to your needs is also helpful. Keep in mind that airline companies can cope better if they are expecting you, with a wheelchair provided at airports and staff primed to help.

When preparing for your trip, it’s a good idea to pack spares of any clothing or equipment that might be hard to find. If you use a wheelchair, you should have it serviced before you go and carry a repair kit. If you do not use a wheelchair all the time but your walking capabilities are limited, remember that you are likely to need to cover greater distances while travelling (often over rougher terrain and in hotter temperatures) than you are used to.

 

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