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Laos - Country Profile

Summary

Largely unknown until recent years, Laos is gradually opening up to western tourists. The cities of Vietiane and Luang Prabang are now firmly on the tourist route and are a laid back alternative to most cities in the region.

The rest of Laos remains very much a rural backwater, swathed in deep jungle where life hasn't changed in centuries. River travel is still the most direct way of getting around, following the Mekong or its many tributaries. The dramatic landscapes are some of the grandest in the region, and eco tourism is taking off in a big way ensuring they remain unspoilt for future visitors. Adventure activities are developing amongst the jagged peaks and cave systems and the varied hill tribes provide interesting trekking.

A visit to Laos provides a slowing of pace and is a step back in time to a rural traditional Asia.

Highlights

Weather and times to visit

The northeast monsoon makes November to February the best time to visit much of Laos, keeping temperatures comfortable although they can fall to freezing in highland areas. Temperatures then climb to unbearably hot in April with the rains running from May to October.

Language

Official Lao is very similar to Thai although with six tones. However in rural areas many different dialects are spoken. English has become the preferred foreign language and is spoken widely across tourist areas.

Currency and money matters

Lao kip is the only official currency although despite government efforts Thai baht and US dollars are accepted in many places. Prices are often quoted in dollars although Lao kip are accepted everywhere. The kip is not convertible, meaning they cannot be exchanged outside of the country and are useless once you leave. ATMs are springing up in all the major towns, although the daily limit of 700000 Kip only equates to about £60 so could result in higher charges than normal depending on your bank.

Travellers cheques can be difficult to exchange in rural areas so it's worth having a supply of Thai baht or US dollars as back up currency.

Business Hours

Banks are open 8.30 to noon and 1 to 3.30pm Monday to Friday but private exchange kiosks are open later. Shop hours vary but the majority are closed on Sunday.

Visas

30 day visas are now available on arrival at all major border crossing and airports and cost around $35 depending on your nationality.