Laos

Laos

Things to do - general

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.

CLIMATE
Most of the year is hot and humid. Laos enjoys a tropical climate with two distinct seasons. The rainy season is from the beginning of May to the end of September, and the dry season is from October through April. The yearly average temperature is about 28 degrees Celsius, rising to a maximum of 38 degrees Celsius during April and May.

In Vientiane a minimum temperature of 19 degrees Celsius is to be expected during January. In mountainous areas, however, temperature drops to as low as 14-15 degrees Celsius during the winter months, and during cold nights, can easily reach the freezing point. The average precipitation is highest in Southern Laos, where the Annamite Mountains receive over 3,000 mm. annually. In Vientiane rainfall is about 1,500-2,000 mm., and in the Northern provinces only 1,000-1,500 mm.

LOCATION & TERRAIN 
The Lao P.D.R. is located in the heart of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It lies between latitude 14 to 23 degrees North and longitude 100 to 108 degrees East. It is the only Southeast Asian country without direct access to the sea, stretching North to South 1,700 kilometers.

Laos encompasses a total of 236,800 square kilometers with the terrain characterized by three distinct regions – mountains, plateaus, and plains. The mountains and plateaus make up three-quarters of the total area.

High mountains rising to an average height of 1,500 meters dominate the Northern region. The three highest mountains in the country are all located in the Phou Ane Plateau in Xieng Khouang Province. They are Phou Bia at 2,820 meters, Phou Xao at 2,690 meters and Phou Xamxum at 2,620 meters. The Phou Luang (Annamite Range) stretches from Southeast on the Phouane Plateau down to the Cambodian border; the others are the Nakai Plateau in Khammouane Province and the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos, which is over 1,000 meters above sea level.

The plain region consists of large and small plain areas distributed along the Mekong River. The Vientiane Plain, the largest, is situated on the lower reaches of the Nam Ngum River. The Savannakhet Plain is situated on the lower reaches of the Sebangfai River and Sebanghieng River, while the Champasack Plain on the Mekong River stretches out to the Thai and Cambodian borders. Blessed with rich and fertile soil, these plains represent one quarter of the total area known as the granaries of the country.

The Lao PDR is criss-crossed with a myriad of rivers and streams. The largest is the Mekong River, flowing for 1,898 kilometers from the North to the South, with 919 kilometers of the river forming the major portion of the border with Thailand. It is estimated that some 60% of all the water entering the Mekong River system originates in Laos. These rivers and streams provide great potential for hydropower development with 51% of the power potential in the lower Mekong basin contained within Laos.

PEOPLE & POPULATION
– Population: 6.5 million.
– Density: 23 people/square kilometer.
– The population consists of 49 ethnic groups, in 4 main linguistic.

  • The Lao-Tai Family includes 08 ethnic groups: Lao, Phouthai, Tai, Lue, Gnouane, Young, Saek and Thai Neua.
  • The Mon-Khmer Family includes 32 ethnic groups: Khmu, Pray, Singmou, Khom, Thene, Idou, Bid, Lamed, Samtao, Katang, Makong, Try, Trieng, Ta-oi, Yeh, Brao, Harak, Katou, Oi, Krieng, Yrou, Souai, Gnaheune, Lavy, Kabkae, Khmer, Toum, Ngouane, Meuang and Kri.
  • The Tibeto-Burmese Family includes 07 ethnic groups: Akha, Singsali, Lahou, Sila, Hayi, Lolo and Hor.
  • The Hmong-Loumien category has 02 main tribes: Hmong and Loumien (Yao).These multi-ethnic people are scattered across the country each with their own unique traditions, culture and language.
RELIGION  
Buddhism first appeared in Laos during the eighth century A.D., as shown by both the Buddha image and the stone inscription found at Ban Talat near Vientiane, now exhibited at Hor Pra keo Museum. After the foundation of the unified Kingdom of Lane Xang, King Fa Ngum (14th Century) declared Buddhism as the state religion and urged the people to abandon Animism or other beliefs such as the Cult of Spirits. His policy meant to develop the Lao culture based on a common faith: Theravada Buddhism.
Today, Theravada Buddhism is the professed religion of about 90% of Lao people. Buddhism is an inherent feature of daily life and casts a strong influence on Lao society. Lao woman can be seen each morning giving alms to monks, earning merit to lessen the number of their rebirths. It is expected that every Lao man will become a monk for at least a short time in his life.
Traditionally, men spent three months during the rainy season in a Wat (Buddhist temple). Today, however; most men curtail their stay to one or two weeks.Lao religious images and art is also distinctive and sets Laos apart from its neighbors. The “Calling for Rain” posture of Buddha images in Laos, for example, which depicts the Buddha standing with his hands held rigidly at his side, fingers pointing to the ground, can not 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.
TRADITIONAL DANCE
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.
WHEN TO VISIT
– The best time to visit Laos is between November and April.
– The hot season from March to May is very dry and certain river trips are not possible.Clothing During the hot season, January to April, bring light clothes in cotton and linen, sunglasses and a hat all year long. Sunscreen and bug repellant is also recommended. From November to December, the cold season, it is a good idea to bring warm clothing such as sweaters and jackets for the morning and evening, and even more so if you are visiting the mountainous regions of the North. From May to October, during the rainy season, it is best to have waterproof clothing. It is best to wear easily removable shoes or sandals when visiting the temples.Tourist visa
The 30-day tourist visa for Laos can be issued at some entry points, via a travel agency or through a Lao embassy or consulate. Via an embassy, the visa should cost between US$30 to US$37 depending on your nationality and the office you use. Some nationalities, notably ASEAN members, may get a visa-free stay — check with a Lao consulate or embassy for the very latest information.Visa on arrival is reliably available at most overland crossings between Thailand and Laos, including the Huay Xai, Vientiane, Savannakhet, Tha Khaek and Chong Mek entry points. It is also available at both Vientiane and Luang Prabang airports (US$37, cash only, one passport photo). It is available at the Boten crossing with China and at the main international crossings with Vietnam.Visa on arrival is not available at the Paksan crossing, but it is now available at the popular southern crossing from Cambodia.
Extensions
Extending a tourist visa is straightforward and can be arranged at the immigration office in Vientiane. An extension costs US$2-3 per day depending on whether you handle it yourself or work through a travel agent. This means an extra 10 days will cost you $30.Validity issues
All tourist visas are single-entry only. The visa sticker for visas issued from an embassy are full page, so bear that in mind if you do not have many pages left in your passport. If you want to stay in Laos longer than a month, it’s no big deal to exit to Thailand and come back in on a new tourist visa for another 30 days.Overstays
While it isn’t a big deal to overstay a visa in Laos, at US$10 a day, it is expensive. If you’re looking at an overstay of anything more than a couple of days, you’re better off leaving on time and coming back on another visa.Things to watch out for
If you get your visa beforehand from a Lao embassy, it should be valid for 30 days, but be wary of being stamped in for 15 days instead.Departure tax
There is no departure tax if using a land crossing, though on weekends and evenings you may be required to pay a small “overtime fee”, generally not more than $1. If you’re flying out of Vientiane or Luang Prabang international airport, there is a departure tax of US$10, but as of early January 2009 this fee was being incorporated into the price of airline tickets, so there’s no longer any need to pay in person at the airpo
Currency
Lao Kip (LAK; symbol ₭) = 100 cents. Notes are in denominations of ₭50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, 500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1.Currency Exchange
Thai Baht and US Dollars are the easiest currencies to exchange. They are also widely accepted in shops, markets and hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.Credit/Debit Cards and ATMs
Major credit cards are accepted in the more upmarket hotels and restaurants only.Traveller’s Cheques
Limited acceptance. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller’s cheques in US Dollars or Thai Baht.Currency Restrictions
Restrictions apply.
Banking Hours
Mon-Fri 0830-1600. Some banks remain open during lunch.
Time
The time in Laos is 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT +7).

Country Laos
Visa requirements

Visas
Required by all nationals referred to in the chart above.

Note: Nationals not referred to in the chart above are advised to contact the embassy to check visa requirements (see Contact Addresses).
Visa Note
(a) A 15-day visa on arrival is now available for nationals arriving at Vientiane International Airport, Luang Prabang International Airport or Friendship Bridge; visas are not extendable. (b) A one-month visit visa is available from the Laos embassy provided the applicant has a guarantor in Laos; visas can be extended by up to a further two months. (c) A one-month business visa is available from the Laos embassy; applicants require authorization from the organization they will be visiting in Laos before applying for a visa; visas can be extended until the completion of business. (d) A five-day transit visa is available for nationals transiting through Vientiane International Airport; nationals require proof of onward journey within five days. (d) Multiple-entry visas are only available from the ministry of foreign affairs in Laos.

Types of Visa and Cost
On arrival: US$30. Visit, Business and Transit: US$50.

Validity
All visas are issued for single entry and must be used within two months of date of issue.

Applications to:
Consulate (or consular section at embassy) or an officially recognized tour operator. A visa valid for Laos can also be obtained from travel agencies in Bangkok (Thailand) or on arrival.

Working Days Required
Three from consulate.

Languages spokenLaos
Currency usedLaos kip
Area (km2)236800

Interesting palaces & Activities

TOP THINGS TO DO

• Ascend Mount Phousi for a panoramic view of Luang Prabang and surrounding rivers and hills.

• Swim in the lower pools of the Kuang Si Waterfalls, situated 30km (19 miles) from Luang Prabang and bathe in the two hot springs some 52km (32 miles) north of Phonsavan: Bo Noi and Bo Yai.

• Spot the wildlife: Laos's pristine landscape hosts a variety of flora and fauna, including rare primates, mammals and birds. Take official advice about which areas to avoid as there is still some unexploded ordnance.

• Head to the hills and trek independently or as part of a locally organised tour. A number of guest houses offer hiking trips starting from Muang Xing, a small town on the river plains in the mountainous Luang Namtha province in the far northwest.

• Follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a clandestine route used by the North Vietnamese Army. It was bombed by the USA during the Vietnam War and parts of this devastation can still be seen. Take a guide as parts of the route still contain unexploded bombs.

• Lazily float along the Nam Song river in a rubber tube in Vang Vieng. The scenery is stunning and enterprising locals will tow the thirsty in to riverside bars for Beer Lao. Many of the bars have zip lines and water slides.

• Head to the Bolaven Plateau in Champassak province for elephant riding andtrekking. Pakse, home to many ethnic minority groups, is the region's capital and the ideal base from which to explore the plateau.

TOP THINGS TO SEE

• Check out the old French colonial architecture and numerous Buddhist wats and stupasin Vientiane, one of Asia's most relaxed and quiet capital cities, suitably nestled in fertile plains on the banks of the Mekong River.

• Visit Laos' cultural and religious centre, Luang Prabang. This ancient royal city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. Located between the Mekong and Khan River, it boasts 33 large temple complexes and around 1,000 resident monks.

• Marvel at the mysterious Plain of Jars, near Phonsavan. Hundreds of stone jars, some weighing up to 6 tonnes, are scattered over the landscape. Legend says they were used to ferment rice wine in the sixth century to celebrate a victory in battle.

• Be awed by Wat Xieng Thong, one of Laos' most impressive temples. Decorated with coloured glass and gold, it is testament to the fact that Luang Prabang had been the royal capital until 1975. The royal palace itself contains fine artwork and gifts made for former kings.

• Drop in on a traditional community in Ban Phanom. The village is famous for its weavings and offers the opportunity to purchase bargain-priced silk and embroideries.

• Do not miss the fascinating Pak Ou Caves. The two caves, Tham Ting and Tham Phun, are full of Buddha images that have been left there over hundreds of years by worshippers. They are easily reached by speedboat from Luang Prabang.

• Admire the breathtaking views across the Mekong Valley from the Wat Phu temple, constructed on a mountain top near fresh spring water by the Khmer Hindus, who went on to settle their empire at its former capital - Angkor Wat (Cambodia).

• Head south to the supremely laid-back Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), an archipelago on the Mekong river, to see the spectacular Khone Phapheng (the largest waterfall in South-East Asia (by volume)) and the endangered irriwaddy dolphins.

Useful information

GETTING AROUND Getting Around by Air Laos Airlines (website: www.laos-airlines.com) runs domestic air services from Vientiane to Houayxai, Luang Nmatha, Luang Prabang, Oudomxai, Sam Neua and Sayabouti in the north and Pakse and Savanakhet in the south. Private charter flights are also available through Westcoast Helicopters (website: www.laowestcoast.laopdr.com). Around by Water The Mekong and other rivers are a vital part of the country’s transport system. The choice is between irregular (and very basic) slow ferries and exciting but noisy and hazardous speedboats. Both services run from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and Luang Prabang to Huay Xai. Ferries often depart early in the mornings and can take several days, whilst speedboats run more regularly and take approximately eight hours for each leg of the journey. Times and prices alter according to demand. There are regular jet boats trips along the river, run by Lao River Exploration Services (website: www.jetboat.laopdr.com). Boats can also be hired privately. Around by Road Traffic drives on the right. Many of the roads have been paved in recent years, including the main highway from the Thai border at Savannakhet to the Vietnamese border. However, few main roads are suitable for all-weather driving. In the north of the country, there is a road link between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and from Vientiane to Nam Dong and Tran Ninh. Bus: Services link all major towns and cities. Buses can vary from air-conditioned to the more traditional type to the converted pickup truck. Car hire: It is not recommended to hire cars in Laos as driving standards are low. However, it is possible to hire cars with a driver through hotels or tourist agencies. Documentation: International Driving Permit recommended, although it is not legally required. Note: If you are on a strict timescale, it is advisable to prearrange travel outside Vientiane with a tour company to avoid unforeseen delays and costs. Around Towns and Cities There is a mixture of old and metered taxis in Vientiane that can usually be located at Wattay Airport, the Friendship Bridge and the Morning market. Taxis can also be hired for approximately US$20 per day. Converted motorcycles, known as tuk-tuks or jumbos, are available in all major towns and cities and are perfect for shorter journeys around town. Bargaining is expected. Motorcycles and bicycles can be hired for the day in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and other places frequented by backpackers.

Culture and history info

HISTORY
Stone tools discovered in Houaphanh and Luang Prabang provinces attest to the presence of prehistoric man in the hunter-gatherer stage in Lao territory from at least 40,000 years ago. Agriculturist society seemed to appear during the 4th millennia B.C. as evidence has been found by archeologists. Burial jars and other kinds of sepulchers have revealed a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 B.C. and iron tools were known since 700 B.C.

The proto-historic period is characterized by contact with Chinese and Indian civilizations. Between the fourth and eighth century, communities along the Mekong River began to form into townships, called Muang. This development culminated in the formation of the Lane Xang (million elephant) Kingdom in 1353 by King Fa Ngum and established Xieng Thong (now known as Luang Prabang) as the capital of Lane Xang Kingdom.

The Kingdom was further expanded by King Fa Ngum's successors, one of the most notable being King Setthathirath who ruled from 1548-1571. He moved the capital to Vientiane and built the That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine, and a temple to house the Pra Keo, the Emerald Buddha.

In the 17th Century, under the reign of King Souliyavongsa, the Lane Xang Kingdom entered it's most illustrious era. The country established first contacts with Europeans. In 1641, a Dutch merchant of the East India company, Geritt Van Wuysthoff, and later, the Italian missionary Leria de Marini, visited the Kingdom of Lane Xang and described Vientiane as the "most magnificent city of Southeast Asia".

This golden age was followed by in-fighting for the throne, which led to the break-up of Lane Xang into the three kingdoms: Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champasack. All of these civil wars weakened the kingdom, thus creating opportunities for new foreign aggressors to invade.

The unsuccessful challenge of the Siamese by King Anouvong resulted in the virtual destruction of Vientiane. The Siamese took the Emerald Buddha to Bangkok where it remains today.

Laos was put under the French administration in 1893. To recover its full rights and sovereignty, the Lao people started fighting against the French regime. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of Indochina (founded in 1930), the struggle for self-determination and independence gained importance. Finally, the long period of military and political upheaval culminated with the International Conference and the Geneva Agreement on Indochina in 1954 where the independence of Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia were recognized.

The situation worsened during the Vietnam War, even though the Geneva Accord of 1962 had recognized the neutrality of Laos and forbade the presence of all foreign military personnel. By bombing the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail across Laos, US forces dropped more bombs on Laos than they did worldwide during World War II .

Laos remains the most heavily bombed nation in history. This was particularly the case in Houaphanh and Xieng Khouang Provinces, where international teams are still clearing the terrain of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) and people continue to suffer from the legacy of war.

In 1975, under the leadership of the Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party, victory was achieved. After the Lao people gained power in a bloodless take-over, establishing the People's Democratic Republic on December 2nd. It was the culmination of a successful struggle for national liberation and a reinstatement of independence.

At present the multi-ethnic Lao people are making efforts to defendant develop Laos in line with the new policy of the Party and government in order to lead the country to progress and prosperity.

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