Paddy fields, Laos
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Paddy fields, Laos

© 123rf.com / Rosmizan Abu Seman

Laos Travel Guide

Key Facts
Area

236,800 sq km (91,400 sq miles).

Population

6,918,367 (UN estimate 2016).

Population density

29.2 per sq km.

Capital

Vientiane.

Government

People's Republic.

Head of state

President Thongloun Sisoulith since 2021.

Head of government

Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh since 2021.

Electricity

230 volts AC, 50Hz. Plugs with two round pins or two flat pins are most commonly used.

Laos – officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic – is one of the great travel frontiers; landlocked and mountainous, swamped by jungles and promising Indian Jones adventures in remote tribal villages and ancient Buddhist caves.

With Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other, you might expect Laos to be commercial and crowded, but this is Asia’s backwater, where life moves as slowly as the churning waters of the Mekong River, which forms the border with three countries – Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia – as it snakes south towards the Gulf of Thailand.

A long-running civil war – during which the USA dropped millions of bombs in Laos – kept the country off the mainstream tourist circuit for many years. Unexploded ordnance and poor infrastructure continue to pose a challenge to tourism, but each year brings a new crop of upmarket accommodation to supplement the existing backpacker hostels – Laos is finally finding its feet. Eco-tourism looks set to be its trump card, taking visitors to remote tribal villages and pristine national parks teeming with weird and wonderful wildlife.

Despite this rugged outlook, the capital city, Vientiane, feels remarkably cosmopolitan, helped by a café culture left behind from when this was part of French Indochina. Dotted around its pleasantly faded, palm-shaded streets are ancient ruins, gleaming stupas and graceful colonial buildings.

The laidback atmosphere and the relative lack of modern development make Laos perhaps the most authentic and unspoiled of the Southeast Asia nations, though it competes for this title with neighbouring Myanmar. Laos is also one of the few communist countries left in the world – which should be obvious from the bureaucratic red tape and the omnipresent red stars on uniforms and state buildings.

Until 1988, tourists were banned from Laos, but now it is possible to travel all over the country. Nevertheless, there are few crowded tourist hotspots, with the possible exception of monastery-studded Luang Prabang and the overblown backpacker resort of Vang Vieng. Wherever you go in Laos, you’ll encounter the delectable Lao cuisine: a little bit French, a little bit Southeast Asian, and perfect washed down with a bottle of Beer Lao.

Travel Advice

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) provides advice about risks of travel to help British nationals make informed decisions. Find out more about FCDO travel advice.

Areas where FCDO advises against all but essential travel

Your travel insurance could be invalidated if you travel against FCDO advice. Consular support is also severely limited where FCDO advises against travel.

Xaisomboun Province

FCDO advises against all but essential travel to Xaisomboun Province. There are intermittent attacks on infrastructure and armed clashes with anti-government groups.

Find out more about why FCDO advises against travel.

Before you travel

No travel can be guaranteed safe. Read all the advice in this guide as well as support for British nationals abroad which includes:

  • advice on preparing for travel abroad and reducing risks
  • information for women, LGBT+ and disabled travellers

Follow and contact FCDO travel on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can also sign up to get email notifications when this advice is updated.

Travel insurance

If you choose to travel, research your destinations and get appropriate travel insurance. Insurance should cover your itinerary, planned activities and expenses in an emergency.

This advice reflects the UK government’s understanding of current rules for people travelling on a full ‘British citizen’ passport from the UK, for the most common types of travel.

The authorities in Laos set and enforce entry rules. If you’re not sure how these requirements apply to you, send a message to the Lao Embassy London Facebook page.

Passport validity requirements

Your passport should have an ‘expiry date’ at least 6 months after the day you enter Laos.

Airlines only allow boarding of flights to and from Laos if you have 2 blank pages in your passport.

Check with your travel provider to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements. Renew your passport if you need to.

You will be denied entry if you do not have a valid travel document, or try to use a passport that has been reported lost or stolen.

Visa requirements

Applying for a visa

Visa on arrival is available at Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport, Luang Prabang’s and Paske airports but not at all land borders or Lao Immigration checkpoints.

You can apply online for an e-Visa - you must submit your application at least 3 days in advance of your entry to Laos.

Visa extensions

Tourist visas will only be extended twice in Laos. Be aware if you do not renew your visa within 90 days, you will face a fine in Lao Kip equivalent to 2,000 US Dollars, deportation to your home country and a ban on returning to Laos.

To stay longer (to work or study, for business travel or for other reasons), you must meet the Lao immigration department’s entry requirements .

Vaccination requirements

At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the vaccinations and certificates you need in TravelHealthPro’s Laos guide .

Customs rules

There are strict rules about goods you can take into or out of country. You must declare anything that may be prohibited or subject to tax or duty.

Terrorism

There is a high threat of terrorist attack globally affecting UK interests and British nationals, including from groups and individuals who view the UK and British nationals as targets. You should remain vigilant at all times.

UK Counter Terrorism Policing has information and advice on staying safe abroad and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Find out how to reduce your risk from terrorism while abroad.

Terrorism in Laos

Although there’s no recent history of terrorism in Laos, attacks cannot be ruled out.

Political situation

Specific events or political disputes may trigger violent protests. You should avoid any demonstrations or large gatherings of people. Keep yourself informed of local developments.

As chair for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for all of 2024, there will be high-level meetings in Vientiane and around Laos throughout the year. Be aware that these may cause traffic delays, along with a much higher security and police presence.  Security will be more proactive around the events and as attendees travel between locations.

Crime

Protecting yourself and your belongings

Petty crime can occur in tourist areas and around ATMs. Try to have someone with you and do not carry passport, bank cards and cash in the same bag.

Travellers regularly report random bag snatches, often by people on motorcycles. Hold your bags on the side away from the road, and do not have valuables on display.

People have reported incidents where they are approached and followed when alone. Be alert to your surroundings, trust your instincts and if you think you’re being followed move to an area where there are other people. Consider sharing your planned route in advance and avoid quiet or sparsely travelled areas.

Safes in hotels and guesthouses are not necessarily secure. Use your own lock where possible. Take care of your possessions if you’re travelling overnight, on public transport.

Be particularly vigilant travelling at night by bicycle or motorcycle. Stick to well-used, well-lit roads and carry a personal alarm if possible, especially if you’re alone.

Motorcycle scams

Do not leave your passport as a deposit or guarantee when hiring motorcycles. There have been reports of rental companies arranging for their motorcycles to be deliberately stolen from you or damaged, then keeping passports and demanding high fees. Make sure your travel insurance covers medical and other costs that arise from motorcycle accidents.

Reporting a crime

Call the Tourist Police in Vientiane on 021 251 128.

Local law enforcement responses to crimes, even violent crimes, are often limited. Foreigners attempting to report crimes have reported finding police stations closed, emergency telephone numbers unanswered, or police with no transport or authorisation to investigate crimes at night. If the police do attend, they may ask you to pay fuel and telephone costs. Ask the staff at your accommodation for help with reporting a crime.

Drink and food spiking

Both male and female tourists have reported having their drink or food spiked with drugs and in some cases been assaulted. Never leave food or drink unattended. Be cautious about accepting drinks from strangers at bars, clubs, restaurants and parties.

Laws and cultural differences

Illegal drugs and the death penalty

The possession and use of all drugs including marijuana are illegal in Laos and penalties are harsh. These include life sentences and the death penalty, with a number of Lao nationals having been sentenced to death in 2019.

For confidential support and guidance for dealing with officials, call the British Embassy in Vientiane (24 hours).

Using cameras and binoculars in secure areas

Photographing or entering any military site without an official invitation is prohibited and you may be arrested or detained. Avoid photographing bridges or airfields.

Relationships with Lao nationals

The Lao government prohibits sexual relationships between foreign and Lao nationals, except when the parties have been married in accordance with Lao family law. You must ask permission for marriage or engagement to a Lao national in a formal application to the Lao authorities.

Penalties for failing to register such a relationship can be up to 5,000 US dollars fine and possible imprisonment. It is not unknown for Lao authorities to demand entry into hotel rooms or guesthouses where they suspect this regulation is being broken.

Smoking and e-cigarette bans 

While cigarettes are common, the use of E-cigarettes is illegal. You could be fined or imprisoned for importing, selling, purchasing or using them.

Dress codes

When you visit any temples and religious sites, your shoulders and knees should be covered, whether you are male or female.

It is not considered appropriate to walk around in public wearing swimming costumes after leaving waterfalls, rivers or swimming pools.

LGBT+ travellers

There are no legal restrictions on same-sex sexual relations in Laos. Proud To Be Us Laos raises awareness about LGBT+ rights and HIV/AIDS among the LGBT+ community. More information can be found on the Proud To Be Us Laos Facebook page.

Read more advice for LGBT+ travellers.

Outdoor activities and adventure tourism

River rafting and water activities

Travel on the Mekong River by speedboat and even slow boat can be dangerous, especially when water levels are low and sandbanks may be close to the surface. Make sure you travel with a company that provides lifejackets.

White-water rafting, kayaking, tubing and other water-based activities, including swimming in the Mekong, are dangerous and there have been incidents of drowning and serious injuries. Operators may not give the necessary safety advice and you cannot expect warning signs to tell you about currents or rough stretches of water. Take great care and check your travel insurance covers you for these activities. Make use of buoyancy aids and if none are available reconsider whether you want to take part.

Transport risks

Road travel

You need a 1949 international driving permit (IDP) to drive in Laos. You cannot buy an IDP outside the UK, so get one before you travel.

If you are planning to drive in Laos, see information on driving abroad. Roads in Laos are in poor condition and vehicles are not maintained to UK standards. Travel after dark significantly increases the risk of an accident, as vehicles often do not have lights. Livestock including water buffalo also stray on to the roads causing accidents.

The recently opened Vientiane to Vang Vieng section of the China-Laos Expressway is the first contained high-speed road in Laos, with posted speed limits between 80 and 120km/h. Take care when using this road, as some local users will be unfamiliar with this type of carriageway.

Motorbike rentals may not supply helmets, so budget to purchase one locally. Take extra care when using public transport or shared vehicles, as they can be overcrowded and unsafe. You can report road accidents to a dedicated police number +856 20 5666 9090.

If you’re involved in a road accident you will have to pay compensation for third-party property damage and injury, even if you’re not at fault. As a general rule, the Lao authorities will overwhelmingly find in favour of Lao citizens, regardless of the situation. Lao insurers only meet a small proportion of the costs of an accident and will not cover this compensation.

You should get permission from the local district authorities for any travel seen as out of the ordinary, such as extensive photography, or scientific research of any kind.

Police may stop you at any time, particularly in the evening, and ask for ID. You should stop at checkpoints and roadblocks unless you are waved on.

Anti-personnel mines

Mines and other unexploded weapons are a hazard throughout Laos and kill a number of people each year. Keep to main routes in rural areas, and do not pick up metal objects. This risk is higher after flash floods or landslides during the monsoon season.

Extreme weather and natural disasters

Monsoon

The rainy season in Laos normally runs from May to October, at the same time as the typhoon season in south-east Asia. Mountain areas are vulnerable to landslides in the rainy season and the Mekong’s river basins and surrounding areas are likely to be flooded . The Mekong River Commission posts official updates on the Mekong River. Travel to some provinces can be seriously disrupted during this time. Monitor local news and check World Meteorological Association weather reports.

See more information on tropical cyclones.

This section has safety advice for regions of Laos. It only covers regions where FCDO has specific advice.

You should also read FCDO’s overall travel advice and safety and security advice.

Xaisomboun Province

FCDO advises against all but essential travel to Xaisomboun Province. There were reports in 2021 of attacks on infrastructure and armed clashes with anti-government groups in the province. There could be more skirmishes.

Borders with Thailand and Myanmar (Golden Triangle)

There have been small-scale clashes between anti-government groups and government troops in isolated areas along the Laos-Thailand border. The local law enforcement agencies have limited capability to counter these threats.

Be extremely cautious in Bokeo Province, particularly near the borders with Myanmar and Thailand, and around the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone. Armed groups carry out employment scams and drug trafficking in this area.

Northern and eastern Laos, border with Vietnam

The risk of unexploded landmines and other weapons is particularly high in Xieng Khouang Province (Plain of Jars), Luang Prabang Province and areas of the Lao-Vietnamese border, formerly the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Mined areas are often unmarked.

Before you travel check that:

  • your destination can provide the healthcare you may need
  • you have appropriate travel insurance for local treatment or unexpected medical evacuation

This is particularly important if you have a health condition or are pregnant.

Emergency medical numbers

Dial 1195 or 030 525 7239 and ask for an ambulance.

Voluntary ambulance services also operate in Vientiane free of charge.

Vientiane Rescue: 1623 or (0)20 5666 8825

Lao Red Cross Rescue: (0)20 5996 6111 or (0)20 2200 5563

Make sure anyone attending an accident is wearing a uniform marked ‘Vientiane Rescue’ or ‘Lao Red Cross’. There have been reports of bogus companies attending accidents and trying to charge fees.

Contact your insurance company promptly if you’re referred to a medical facility for treatment.

Vaccinations and health risks

At least 8 weeks before your trip check:

Mosquito-borne diseases

The rainy season sees an increase in dengue cases, which have been getting more severe. Dengue and malaria are endemic, so you should increase precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

Anthrax

Anthrax has been found in cattle and buffalo near the tourist areas of 4000 Islands, Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau. Anthrax is a serious disease that can be transmitted to humans. Avoid contact with cattle and buffalo and make sure meat is thoroughly cooked. Seek medical attention if you are exposed to infected animals or show symptoms.

Air pollution

Regional air pollution can be a problem in some cities in Laos, and may aggravate heart, lung or respiratory conditions. Children, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions may be especially affected. You can read guidance on how to cope with air pollution.

Medication

International clinics, large hospitals and larger pharmacies in Laos can supply most prescription medication. In remoter areas this may be more difficult.

The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or bought in the UK can be different in other countries. Read best practice when travelling with medicines on TravelHealthPro.

The NHS has information on whether you can take your medicine abroad.

Healthcare facilities in Laos

Medical care in Laos is basic and outside the capital there are no reliable facilities to deal with medical emergencies. Medical evacuation is difficult to organise and very expensive. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.

You may be asked to pay for an ambulance and any treatment you need in advance. Make sure you get a receipt to use for insurance claims.

FCDO has a list of English-speaking doctors in Laos.

There is also guidance on healthcare if you’re living in Laos.

Travel and mental health

Read FCDO guidance on travel and mental health. There is also mental health guidance on TravelHealthPro.

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) cannot provide tailored advice for individual trips. Read this travel advice and carry out your own research before deciding whether to travel.

Emergency services in Laos

Fire: 1190

Police: 1191

Alternative numbers for police stations: 241162, 241163, 241164, and 212703

Ambulance: 1195 or 030 525 7239

Contact your travel provider and insurer

Contact your travel provider and your insurer if you are involved in a serious incident or emergency abroad. They will tell you if they can help and what you need to do.

Refunds and changes to travel

For refunds or changes to travel, contact your travel provider. You may also be able to make a claim through insurance. However, insurers usually require you to talk to your travel provider first.

Find out more about changing or cancelling travel plans, including:

  • where to get advice if you are in a dispute with a provider
  • how to access previous versions of travel advice to support a claim

Support from FCDO

FCDO has guidance on staying safe and what to do if you need help or support abroad, including:

Contacting FCDO

Follow and contact FCDO travel on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can also sign up to get email notifications when this travel advice is updated.

You can also contact FCDO online.

Help abroad in an emergency

If you’re in Laos and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the British Embassy in Vientiane.

Telephone: +856 30 770 0000 (24 hours)

FCDO in London

You can call FCDO in London if you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad.

Telephone: 020 7008 5000 (24 hours)

Find out about call charges

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.