Laos travel 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 mountains and plateaus make up three-quarters of the total area.
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.
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.
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.
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, it 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.
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. Sunscreen and bug repellent 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.
Located on a curve of the Mekong River, Vientiane Capital has a recorded history that stretches back to around 1,000 AD. The area was originally settled because of the fertility of the surrounding alluvial plains, and Vientiane became the capital city of Laos around the mid-16th century.
Vientiane Capital is the home to the most significant national monument in Laos: That Luang (Great Stupa), which is the symbol of Lao and an icon of Buddhism in Laos. Of the many beautiful Wats in Vientiane, a visit to Wat Sisaket is a must; built in 1818, this is one of the oldest temples in Vientiane. Other Buddhist holy places are Wat Ong Teu Mahavihan, known for its 16th century bronze Buddha sheltered by a carved wooden masterpiece, and Wat Si Meuang, the site of the Lak Meuang or pillar-stone of Vientiane. Wat Si Meuang is also home to the guardian spirit of the city.Hor Phakeo, across the street from Wat Sisaket houses a beautiful collection of Buddha statues, including traditional Lao style of the “Calling for Rain” and “Offering Protection”. Spend a morning in the Lao National Museum, which displays an interesting mixture of revolutionary and contemporary exhibitions. The main sights in Vientiane are only a short walk or bicycle ride from most hotels. Wat Xieng Khouan, better known as the Buddha Park should not be missed: take a tuk-tuk to this unique park that includes Buddhist and Hindu. Shopping for handicrafts is easy in Vientiane Capital; visit Talat Sao (morning market) for a wide range of colourful textiles including silks, wall-hangings and other decorative pieces. For very fine handicrafts, try one of the many upscale galleries in the city center. Keep your eyes open for traditional wood carvings, mulberry paper and a variety of basketry made from bamboo and rattan.
Champasack lies to the Southwest in Laos. The capital city is Pakse, located at the confluence of the Mekong and the Sedon Rivers. Southeast Asia’s biggest waterfall, Khone Phapheng, is within easy reach by boat or by road. This is one of the main political and economic centers of Lao PDR. The people of Champasack Province are dwell along the of Kong Se Done River bank. In this province you will find ancient temples which were influenced the Angkor people who settled in Cambodia. There are many different minorities in Champasack who have their own language, culture and lifestyles. The distance from Vientiane to Pakse, the provincial capital of Champasack is 610 kilometers by Route 13 (south) via the provinces of Bolikhamxay, Khammouane, Savannakhet and Salavanh.
Champasack Province is known for its relaxed pace of life, warm hospitality and rich cultural, historic and natural heritage. The province has been ruled by various kingdoms through the ages, and today there are many archaeological remains scattered throughout the province. To the south of Pakse, the provincial capital is the Wat Phou Temple Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Attractions also include the Ancient City, historic colonial buildings, and Done Daeng Island, known for its traditional livelihoods and forested trails. In the southern region of the province is Done Khong and the Four Thousand Islands, or Si Phan Done in Lao. On this stretch of the Mekong is the largest waterfall by volume in Southeast Asia, Khone Phapheng, as well as Li Phi waterfall noted for its cascading emerald green waters. The endangered freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins inhabit the Mekong near the Lao-Cambodian border and can be observed from locally chartered boats.
In the Pakse area, there are about 62 tourist sites: 32 natural, 7 historical, and 27 cultural. There are many French colonial style buildings remaining in the city. From Sedon Bridge, often called ‘old bridge’ by the people of Champasack, you can walk around to see the old French style quarter. The Lao – Japan Mekong River Bridge was constructed in 2002 and is a route to Thailand.
Wat Poratana Sadsadaram (Wat Luang Temple) is located in the center of Pakse district. It is a temple that consists of traditional and new style constructions. There is a library, which was built in the last decade and a shrine with amazing wall paintings and excellent sculpturs .There are also interesting temples located close to the city including Wat Phabat, one called ‘Wat Tamfai temple’ and Wat Chomphet. There are big festivals in Pakse district every year, including the boat racing festival which consists of the Miss Nava Competition and many boats from all over the province. There is a parade of big Mark Beng (folded banana leaves) which is held during Ork Pan Sa day (Buddhist day) in mid-October. You may also want to see the Stone Buddha sculpture work of the people in Chomphet village. The Stone Buddha here is well know by Lao Buddhists. For people who like going shopping, there is a new Pakse Market, shopping center and other small markets around Pakse where you can buy local handicraft for reasonable prices.
Situated in the centre of northern Laos, Luang Prabang is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its outstanding cultural, historic and architectural values and its harmonious relationship between the natural and built environment. In the 14th century, the King Fa Ngum founded the first Lao Kingdom, Lane Xang, here in Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang remained the capital of Lane Xang until 1565 when the capital was moved to Vientiane. It remained to serve as the country’s spiritual and religious centre.
Visitors to Luang Prabang are charmed by the friendly atmosphere of this small town. The town itself offers several unique insights into the history of the region, through excellently preserved Buddhist temples, museum and a variety of Lao, Tai-Lue, Burmese, Chinese and Tai architecture at the Night Market. Luang Prabang sells a large variety of traditional goods. The town is famous for its unique textiles and beautiful mulberry paper. Famous foods in Luang Prabang are ‘Aur Lam’ (a thick stew made with the forsted herb), ‘Sakhan’, (meat and eggplants), ‘Jaew Bong’, (a sauce made with hot chillies and buffalo skin) and ‘khai Pan’ (dried river weed lightly fried with sesame seeds and garlic).
Some of the most visited sites in Luang Prabang Town are Wat Xieng Thong, Mount Phou Si, Wat Visounnarath, (the former Royal Palace) and Wat Manolom. Equally beautiful are the lesser known temples across the Mekong River in Chomphet District. You can take a 1.5 hour walk through the hills and forest opposite the main town to explore the old temple sites and peaceful environment. Just outside of the main town are the beautiful Tad Kwang Si Waterfall, Tham Ting Caves, Ban Xang Hai Village and the tiered waterfall Tad Sae. Further out is Muang Ngoi Kao, a quiet village located on the banks of the Nam Ou River surrounded by high karst mountains and sheer limestone cliffs. You can visit these sites on your own or use the services of one of the many tour operators based in town.
While in Luang Prabang, you may observe and join the morning alms giving ceremony, where monks walk through town in single file carrying their alms bowls to give laypeople the opportunity to offer alms and gain merit. Offerings by the people are usually comprised of sticky rice, fruit or simple traditional snacks. Know as ‘Binthabat’ in Lao, this is a sacred religious ceremony.
The small town of Vang Vieng is located 150 kilometers north of the Vientiane Capital. This is a place of a dreamlike landscape of bizarre limestone mountain peaks and scenic cliffs with the Nam Song (Song River) bisecting the town. At the base of the town’s limestone mountains are a network of caves. There are a variety of well-developed tourism services in Vang Vieng and a wide range of accommodations. Water sports such as kayaking and tubing are popular and rock climbing is also a growing pastime. Vang Vieng also offer some peaceful places like several 16th and 17th century monasteries and the small Hmong villages.
Just off route 13 north are two of Vientiane Province’s well known attractions: a small man-made reservoir known as Nong Nok near Ban Sivilay which is a great bird watching site; and the ancient Vang Xang Buddha images and sculptures that are carved into the side of a sandstone escarpment.
Xieng Khouang is home to the Plain of Jars, the prehistoric stone megaliths which attracts thousands of tourists to the province each year. The area is of significant archaeological importance on account also of the standing stones in nearby Houaphanh Province.
Famous for trekking and ecotourism opportunities in the Nam Ha National Protected Area and home to over 30 distinct ethnic groups, Luang Namtha is perhaps the most diverse province in the entire country. Akha villages are located in the hills and some are easily accessible. If you are interested in kayaking and rafting, 1-3 day trips can be arranged when you get there or by advance booking through a travel agent. Motorized boat trips on the Namtha River are a popular activity, as is simply renting a bicycle to explore the lush countryside and rice fields surrounding the town. At Nam Ngaen Village, climb the hill to Phoum Phouk Stupa for an amazing view of the Namtha Valley. In Vieng Phoukha, halfway between Luang Namtha and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand you can visit the abandoned 16th century settlement known as the Khou Vieng Ruins. For cave exploration, don’t miss the Phou Prasat and Nam Eng Caves in Vieng Phoukha.
In Namtha Town, visit Tai Dam Villages to see sericulture and purchase hand-made silk textiles. If you are interested in watching paper made by hand, stop at one of the Lantaen Villages outside of the main town. Because of its concentration of Khmu Villages, Namtha is a great place to purchase bamboo and rattan basketry–the Khmu are legendary basket-weavers. Here the bamboo and rattan are used for both handicrafts and food. Bitter bamboo-shoot soup and rattan-heart salad are two delicious local dishes. If you like rice noodles, the “khao soi” in Muang Sing is a must.
Credit: Information by Tourism Marketing Department Lao PDR
Photo by Department of Information Culture and Tourism, Luang Prabang