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1. Q. Is Laos safe?
A. Yes, Laos is a safe place for independent travel, and many find it much safer than their hometowns in the west. There are occasional reports of petty theft, and the occasional bag snatching, but these can be avoided by being cautious with your belongings. It is a good idea to leave expensive jewelry and watches at home. You also may consider NOT carrying that laptop as there are internet shops all around the country. And never,ever leave cash or valuables unattended in your hotel room. Some travelers opt for money belts that can be worn inside the clothing, or hanging around the neck under the shirt.
2. Q. What's the weather like?
A. The cool, dry season is from November to February. The temperatures still get up to 30 degrees C during the daytime, but the evenings and early mornings can be quite chilly. A thin layer of fleece (or a light jacket) is recommended. The real heat & humidity really starts to set in around March, and April and May are by far the hottest months, with daytime temperatures reaching 40 degrees C. The heat will be the most extreme in the south. The rains begin in May and the wettest months are from June to September. The rain is not constant, however, and may be characterized by afternoon or evening downpours. Some roads in the countryside may be impassable at this time as they get flooded or washed out.It is a good idea to check the road situations beforehand if you plan to travel overland at this time. Temperatures in the north, especially in Phonsavan, can get down to freezing in the cool season, so be prepared if you are heading up to those areas. The Bolaven area can get pretty chilly as well.
"Slash and burn" forestry is practiced during the ealry spring and some parts of Laos may be covered in a haze of smoke. The situation is at its worst in March, but it varies from year to year. Be careful to come prepared if you have a medical condition that warrants medication such as asthma.
3. Q. What's an ideal budget?
A. That depends entirely on your style of travel and level of comfort that you are accustomed to. Here are some examples of basic costs.
You can find a bungalow on Don Det for $3 or a suite at the Lao Plaza Hotel for $530.
Dinner at a street stand for $2-$3, at a cheapie local placefor $4 or $5 (including beer). On the main tourist drags expect to pay a few dollars more for a meal.
A massage can be had for $5 at a small place and for upwards of $15 at a fancier "spa".
Generally speaking, you can consider this for a daily budget per person- accommodation, food & a beer or two:
Budget traveler- $18~$25
Do note that prices in the cites tend to be higher than in the country, and this especially holds true with Luang Prabang, which seems to use its World Heritage status to justify the high prices of accommodation there.
4. Q. What's the best way to get around?
A. Bus travel is the most commonly used means of transport, and a few dollars can get you a long way. It is time consuming, however, to travel long distances overland and if one is limited for time then should opt to fly. The "bed bus" is a fairly comfortable way to travel long distances by night. One common route is Vientiane-Pakse which costs around $16 and leaves at night, arriving in Pakse in the early morning. Mini-vans can also be hired and are more comfortable than a bus.
The sangtheaw is also a fun experience, and is how many locals get around. It is simply a truck with benches in the back, and on some routes get packed to the gills with people, produce and even livestock.
Tuk-tuks are also common but you 'll have to be prepared to do some negotiating, especially with the guys in Vientiane who drive a hard bargain.
Motorcycles, bicycles and mountainbikes can be rented in most cities and are a great way to see the sights. Do not attempt to rent a motorcycle if you don't know how to ride one, and if you do, make sure your insurance covers accidents when abroad. Also be warned that bag snatchings have occurred when people ride around on bicyles with their stuff in the bicycle basket. Carry it on you, or at least put the strap around the handlebar.
5. Q. Should a visitor take malaria medications? What else should one look out for?
A. This is a personal choice. While malaria really isn't aproblem in the main tourist areas of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, you should take care when heading out to the countryside, and especially in the southern provinces such as Sekong and Attapeu. It is recommended to wear a good DEET-based mosquito repellent when you are outside, and re-apply periodically. Long pants and long-sleeved shirts are also good to prevent bites. Some guesthouses provide mosquito nets(when A/C is not available), so you don't have to bring those along. Taking anti-malaria medications is a personal choice, and if you opt to do so visit a medical practioner who specializes in tropical medicine to see exactly what will be the best medication for you.
Vaccines: If you will be spending more than a couple of weeks traveling in Laos, it is a good idea to get a hepatitis A & B shot (schedule these well before departure-also has cumulative benefits if further future SEA trips are planned), as well as to update your tetanus shot. If you will be spending a good deal of time in rural areas on farms, working with livestock or in areas with rice paddies, you may want to look into getting a Japanese encephalitis vaccine. See the CDC homepage for detailed information on these diseases.
6. Q. What kind of currency is used?
A. The currency in Laos is the kip, approximately USD$1 is 8000 kip. (Rates fluctuate, see the Oanda website for present rate) Dollars are also accepted but most people will be happier to be paid in kip as it is easier for them to calculate, and you will also end up getting a better deal. If you 're buying expensive items (silks at the market, etc) then it may be easier to use US$ instead of walking around with a thick wad of kip. You will find ATMs in most cities nowadays, and money changers as well. Some hotels will accept credit cards, but may charge a fee (usually at least 3%) to use them.
7. Q. How does one get a visa for Laos?
A. First, make sure your passport will not expire within six months. 30-day visas are available on arrival at the airport. The price varies a few dollars depending on the nationality; $42 Canada, $35 USA, UK and most of Europe, $31 Sweden, $20 China, etc. You can fill out the forms on the plane before you land, and you will need one passport-sized photo. Japanese citizens and Cambodians do not need a visa.
8. Q. What is Lao food like?
A. Lao food ranges from simple, sticky rice to spicy and pungent papaya salad, seasoned with chilies and fish sauce. The national dish is "laap", ground meat served with vegetables, and sometimes with plenty of chilies! (If you don't want it spicy, say "Bo mak pet!") Noodle soup is also popular (similar to the"pho" in Vietnam). Beerlao is the national brew, a mild-tasing (but delicious) lager, and there is also a dark version. If you like your spirits, you can try the "lao lao", a distilled beverage made from rice. It is lethally strong as it is usually drunk straight, but you can mix it with Fanta or whatever's available to dilute it a bit. Lao coffee is excellent and is most commonly served in a big glass with lots of chipped ice and sweetened condensed milk at the bottom. Mix it up with the spoon and staw before you start to drink.
9. Q. What are some good souvenirs to buy?
A. Handicrafts abound; wood carvings, silk scarves and silk fabric (you can even have a Lao skirt made by a local tailor if you have a few days), silver items, weaving, Lao coffee from the Bolaven area, T-shirts and jeobong (spicy paste famous in Luang Prabang).
10. Q. What is the best place to photgraph monks?
A. You can snap a photo of a monk anywhere in Laos, they will be everywhere that has a temple. The most popular place, however is Luang Prabang, and the morning food-collection rounds the monks make attract hundreds of visitors, in some places all at once. Please do not approach the monks and start snapping photos right in front of them, this demonstrates poor manners. It would be best to stand across the street (bring your telephoto lens if you have to) and let them go about their business. They are not there to do this for a show, it is how they get their meals every day of the week. And this is not "begging", as some incorrectly put it, is collecting alms.
11. Q. Are people allowed to talk to the monks?
A. Yes, of course, and most are very happy to get the chance to talk with visitors as they can practice their English (or other languages). Women must know that they are never allowed to touch the monks, and should not even sit next to them or too near them. When visiting active temples (as in temples that are not ruins like Wat Champasak) women dress modestly.
12. Q. What kind of clothing is suitable?
A. People should wear whatever they are most comfortable in,but a fair amout of modesty should be exercised. It can be extremely hot and humid and while some are comfortable in loose-fitting cotton,others feel better in quick-drying synthetics. A hat is also recommended to keep the hot sun off your face, as is a good sunscreen(mosquito repellent goes over the sunscreen). While hiking boots would be too hot in the tropical climes, walking shoes/sneakersare good but sturdy hiking sandals ( those made by Teva, Keens, Chaco,Merril, etc) are ideal. Opt for a thin cargo pant or capri-length pantinstead of jeans, which are too hot for the tropics. A definite no-no in Asia is showing too much skin. Women, keep it modest with the cleavage, showing a bare midriff or wearing short shorts. Also try to be modest when swimming in public (you will notice the locals swimming in shorts and T-shirts!).
Laos can get a bit chilly late at night or in the early morning in the cool months and it is a good idea to bring a fleece jacket. It's also good to have this for overland travel as sometimes the A/C on the VIP buses or mini-vans can get downright cold.
When visiting active temples women should cover their shoulders, amnd refrain from wearing short shorts/skirts. Shoes are removed to enter temples, so a comfortable walking sandal is a good idea.
13. Q. How can I help the local people?
A. Buying things at the local markets and staying at family-run guesthouses is a good way to start, but you might also want to contact a school and see if they need anything that you could bring in lieu of a donation. Local markets carry all the latest text books, dictionaries and heaps of school supplies.
One organization based in Luang Prabang creates illustrated children's books, and you could even go there and volunteer your skills as an artist- Big Brother Mouse
In Vientiane, there is an organization that makes prosthetics for victims of landmines and UXO- COPE