LAOS GENERAL INFORMATION
The Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos is located in the center of Indochina,
sharing borders with China to the North 416 kilometers, Myanmar to Northwest 236
kilometers, Thailand to the West 1,835 kilometers, Cambodia to the South 492 kilometers
and Vietnam to the East 1,957 kilometers.
With a total area of 236,800 square kilometers, around 70% of Laos' terrain
is mountainous, reaching a maximum elevation of 2,820 meters in Xieng Khouang Province.
The landscapes of northern Laos and the regions adjacent to Vietnam, in particular,
are dominated by rough mountains.
The Mekong River is the main geographical feature in the west and, in fact, forms
a natural border with Thailand in some areas. The Mekong flows through nearly 1,900
kilometers of Lao territory and shapes much of the lifestyle of the people of Laos.
In the South the Mekong reaches a breadth of 20 kilometers, creating an area with
thousands of islands.
After decades of war and isolation, this landlocked and peaceful nation welcomes
more and more curious visitors each day. Travelers to Laos, a place once known as
the Land of a Million Elephants, are able to experience the many cultures and laid
back hospitality of a relatively sparse population, whether in the cities or rural
villages. Laos has also become a destination for those seeking outdoor fun, as the
topography is covered with rivers, mountains, caves, and limestone formations. If
you seek adventure, insight into a mystical place, or simply an enjoyable holiday,
make Laos your destination.
Laos has a tropical climate with only two distinctive seasons. The rainy season
lasts from early May until the end of September. The dry season runs from October
to April. The average temperature is about 28 C/82 F, with the hottest temperatures
at around 38 C/100 Foccurring in April. In the mountains, temperatures from December
until February may dip down to 15 C/59 F.
Lao, a monosyllabic and tonal language, is the official native tongue. English,
French are also widely spoken.
Lao Loum (lowland) 68%, Lao Theung (upland) 22%, Lao Soung (highland) including
the H’Mong and Yao 9%, ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese 1%
Festivals and Holidays
- January 1 - New Year
- April 13-15 - Lao New Year (Bun Pi Mai): this occasion is quite picturesque in Luang
Prabang, with colorful costumes and elephant processions.
- May 1 - International Labor Day
- Mid-May - Visakha Busa: on the 15th day of the 6th lunar month – this is considered
the day of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death.
ceremonies are centered on the wat.
- End of Apr - Rocket Festival: This is the rain ceremony celebrated to instigate the
season for rice cultivation. Festivities include music, dance, folk theater,
and bamboo rockets to open the skies.
- Mid-October - End of Buddhist Lent and national boat races
- Beginning of November - That Luang Festival in Vientiane
- December 2 - National Day
One of the earliest known kingdoms of Laos was called Chenla, around the 5th century.
Its capital was near Champasak, close to the Khmer temple of Wat Phu. This region
is believed to be the birthplace of the Khmer people who migrated south. Others,
including Tai people, migrated out of southern China around the 8th century. The
nation’s Golden Age occurred during the 17th and 18th century under King Suriya
Vongsa, when the capital of Vientiane became known as a major center for Buddhist
learning. Laos became a French colony in 1893, was briefly under Japanese rule during
WWII, then returned to the French before ultimately gaining independence in 1953.
Despite attempting to remain neutral, Laos found itself stuck in the middle of the
Cold War when strife crossed its borders and bombs rained down. Today, Laos is at
peace and looking forward with investment projects and more tourists visiting than
Art & Culture
One of the trademarks of Laos is the diversity of its people and cultures. There
are a number of traditional arts and crafts that represent their way of life. Lao
has a rich cultural heritage with religious art and architecture forming the cornerstone
of artistic traditions.
There exists across the country a plethora of distinctive monuments and architectural
styles. One of the most notable structures is the That Luang, the great Sacred Stupa,
in Vientiane. Its dome-like stupa and four-cornered superstructure is the model
for similar monuments across Laos.
Stupas serve to commemorate the life of the Buddha
and many stupas are said to house sacred Buddha relics (parts of Buddha's body).
Generally, Hinayana Buddhists cremate the dead body and then place the bones in
the stupa, which are set around the grounds of temples, or wats. Different styles
of architecture are evident in the numerous Buddhist Wats. Three architectural styles
can be distinguished, corresponding to the geographical location of the temples
and monasteries. Wats built in Vientiane are large rectangular structures constructed
of brick and covered with stucco and high-peaked roofs. In Luang Prabang the roofs
sweep very low and, unlike in Vientiane, almost reach the ground. These two styles
are different from the wats of Xieng Khouang where the temple roofs are not tiered.
Lao religious images and art is also distinctive and sets Laos apart from its neighbors.
The Calling for Rain posture of Buddha images in Lao, for example, which depicts
the Buddha standing with his hands held rigidly at his side, fingers pointing to
the ground, cannot be found in other Southeast Asian Buddhist art traditions. Religious
influences are also pervasive in classical Lao literature, especially in the Pha
Lak, Pha Lam, the Lao version of India s epic Ramayana.
Projects are underway to preserve classic Lao religious scripts, which were transcribed
onto palm leaf manuscripts hundreds of years ago and stored in wats. Another excellent
example of the richness of Lao culture is in its folk music, which is extremely
popular with the people throughout the whole country. The principle instrument is
the Khaen; a wind instrument, which comprises a double row of bamboo-like reeds,
fitted in a hardwood sound box. The khaen is often accompanied by a bowed string
instrument or Saw. The national folk dance is the Lamvong, a circle dance in which
people dance circles around each other so that ultimately there are three circles:
a circle danced by the individual, another one by the couple, and a third one danced
by the whole party.
- Visit temple, should dress appropriately, covering shoulders and knees. Take off
your shawl when go inside the “Sim”
Buddhist culture, should not pointing your feet at some one. For example, by putting
your feet upon a stool-is rude.
- Fewer local people give alms in the morning than in the past. Camera flashes in
their faces are not appropriate practice at a time when they are quietly
practicing their faith. Any time you see our culture hurt by a thoughtless individual,
please speak up.
- Holding hands, and other displays of affection with the opposite sex are private
acts that should not be done in public.
- Lao People are modest, and it’s uncomfortable to see people who are not. Nude bathing
at the water fall, in the river or while rafting, is never appropriated.
- Don’t buy old objects or antiques as souvenirs; they were probably stolen from
unprotected temples or historic sites. This is our national treasure leave it so
others and our children may enjoy and be proud of what our ancestors left for us.
Lao people are frank, open and friendly, and they possess a strong developed sense
of courtesy and respect for all people.
The generally accepted form of greeting among Lao people is the Nop. It is performed
by placing one’s palms together in a position of praying at chest level, but not
touching any part of the body . The higher the hands, the greater the sign
of respect. Nonetheless, the hands should not be held above the level of the nose.
The Nop is accompanied by a slight bow to show respect to persons of higher status
and age. It is also used as an expression of thanks, regret or saying good-bye.
But with western people it is acceptable to shake hands.
The feet form the inferior part of the body (as much spiritually as physically).
You must never indicate or touch another person or object with your foot.
Lao cuisine is similar to Thai food with meat salad and papaya salad being popular
Vegetables, fish (mostly fresh water varieties, as Laos is landlocked),
chicken, duck, pork, beef, and water buffalo are often grilled or roasted in lime
juice, lemongrass, mint leaf, coriander, coconut milk, hot chilies, and other spices.
Access is available at internet cafes. In provincial capitals, where there is more
competition, rates run from .50-$1/hr. Travelers can expect to pay from $3-$6/hr
in places where there are fewer outlets.
Health Travelers are advised to take insect repellent with DEET. You may want to consult
your physician on proper medication to take for malaria. Mosquito netting is always
suggested when you sleep.
Travelers are advised to check with their insurance company for emergency evacuation
Expect to spend about $40 USD/person/day, an additional $20 in high end restaurants.
For good service, guides are usually tipped $10-15 USD/day, and drivers about $5-10.
Tips are not expected in restaurants, but for good service you may leave $1-2 USD
in the local currency.
Currency, Banking, and Credit Cards
Local currency is called kip. One USD is worth approximately 8500 LAK (Lao
Kip). Money can be exchanged at banks, authorized shops, or hotels. Rates fluctuate
slightly on a daily basis. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted in most hotels,
and in higher end restaurants and shops. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. Traveler’s
checks may be cashed inside banks; a fee (around 1.8%) is usually charged if exchanged
for USD but not for the local currency. Most hotels do not accept traveler’s checks.
Visitors are advised to take USD in denominations of 50, 20, 10, 5 and 1.
Visa is the most common. Master Card and American Express are accepted at most banks
in the larger towns (such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang) and in the big hotels,
restaurants and souvenir shops.
Many ATM can be found in the main towns or Shopping Mall. But in small town, you
can find in front of banks or markets. You can withdraw 10 times per day and each
amount 700,000 Kip (Equal 80USD). You can withdraw only local currency.
Films can be found in shops in the larger towns, also if you need a digital download
service for your digital camera it is also available.
Silk and cotton fabrics, objects made from wood (sculptures, cut-out figures), pottery
and traditional instruments are part of the rich tapestry of Laotian craftsmanship.
220 volts, 50 Hz. Power outlets are two-prong round or flat sockets.