Laos

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Laos , officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. A mountainous and landlocked country, Laos shares borders with Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar and China to the north.

Population: 6,695,166 people
Area: 236,800 km2
Highest point: 2,817 m
Coastline: 0 km
Life expectancy: 63.14 years
GDP per capita: $3,100
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About Laos

History

Laos is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours. First created as an entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lane Xang ("Million Elephants"), the kingdom was initially a Khmer vassal state. After a succession dispute, the kingdom split in three in 1694 and was eventually devoured piece by piece by the Siamese, the last fragments agreeing to Siamese protection in 1885.

The area east of the Mekong, however, was soon wrenched back from Siam by the French, who wanted a buffer state to protect Vietnam, and set up Laos as a unified territory in 1907. Briefly occupied by Japan in 1945, a three-decade-long conflict was triggered when France wanted to retake its colony. Granted full independence in 1953, the war continued between a bewildering variety of factions, with the Communist and North Vietnam-allied Pathet Lao struggling to overthrow the French-leaning monarchy. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), this alliance led the United States to dump 1.9 million metric tons of bombs on Laos, mostly in the northeast stronghold of the Pathet Lao (for purposes of comparison, 2.2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Europe by all sides in World War II).

In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and admission into ASEAN in 1997.

Despite being just one hour by air from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos has continued in much the same way it has for hundreds of years, although things are now slowly beginning to change. In the mid-1990s the government reversed its stance on tourism, and then declared 1998 "Visit Laos Year", but despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer, monks still outnumber tourists throughout the country. This is now rapidly changing, with tourist numbers rising every year. Indeed, Vientiane is a laid-back, yet charmingly cosmopolitan village.

Climate

Laos has three distinct seasons. The hot season is from Mar-May, when temperatures can soar as high as 40°C. The slightly cooler wet season is from May-Oct, when temperatures are around 30°C, tropical downpours are frequent (especially Jul-Aug), and some years the Mekong floods.

The dry season from Nov-Mar, which has low rainfall and temperatures as low as 15°C (or even to zero in the mountains at night), is "high season" (when the most tourists are in the country). However, towards the end of the dry season, the northern parts of Laos — basically everything north of Luang Prabang — can become very hazy due to farmers burning fields and fires in the forests.

Activities

  • Herbal Sauna. One Laotian experience definitely worth trying is the herbal sauna. Often (but not always) run by temples, these are simple-looking affairs, often just a rickety bamboo shack with a stove and a pipe of water on one side, usually open only in the evenings. The procedure for a visit usually goes like this:
  • Hiking. Hiking in mountainous Northern Laos is popular, and this often includes homestays in minority tribe villages. The main hub for this is Luang Namtha where the two day Ban Nalan Trail is especially notable. The route goes through the Nam Ha National Protected Area, and involves staying in Khmu villages. Other hiking hubs include Oudomxay, south of Luang Namtha, and Pakse in southern Laos.
  • Kayaking. Can be arranged in a wide number of locations. The ambitious traveler could kayak the Mekong between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
  • Rock Climbing. The limestone karst formations in Northern Laos are ideal for rock climbing. Vang Vieng is the main rock-climbing centre but climbs are also possible further north at Nong Khiaw and Mung Ngoi.
  • Tubing. Floating down the river on a large inflatable tube is one of the attractions of the SE Asia backpacker circuit. The hugely popular stretch of the Nam Song at Vang Vieng is lined with bars that lure you and your tube in with ziplines, water slides, loud music, buckets of terrible local whiskey, and unlimited Beerlao. After numerous tourist deaths, crackdowns on Vang Vieng tubing were announced in Aug 2012. Since then, many river bars have been closed down along with their flying foxes and rope swings. Tubing is still possible, but it's now a lot quieter. Whether this is a long or short-term result is still to be seen. Tubing can also be found in other locations around Laos including Si Phan Don, Nong Khiaw and Mung Ngoi.

Food

Lao food is very similar to that eaten in the northeastern Isaan region of Thailand: very spicy, more often bitter than sweet, and using lots of fresh herbs and vegetables served raw. Some of the raw vegetables can be used to cool your mouth when the chilis are overwhelming.

Rice is the staple carbohydrate. The standard kind is sticky rice (ເຂົ້າໜຽວkhao niaow), eaten by hand from small baskets called tip khao. Using your right hand, never your left, pinch off a bit, roll into a ball, dip and munch away.

The national dish is laap (ລາບ, also larb), a "salad" of minced meat mixed with herbs, spices, lime juice and, more often than not, blistering amounts of chili. Unlike Thai larb, the Lao version can use raw meat (dip) instead of cooked meat (suk), and if prepared with seafood makes a tasty, if spicy, carpaccio.

Another Lao invention is tam maak hung (ຕໍາຫມາກຫຸ່ງ), the spicy green papaya salad known as som tam in Thailand, but which the Lao like to dress with fermented crab (ປູດອງ pudem) and a chunky, intense fish sauce called pa daek (ປາແດກ), resulting in a stronger flavour than the milder, sweeter Thai style. Other popular dishes include ping kai, spicy grilled chicken, and mok pa, fish steamed in a banana leaf.

Laos also boasts a range of local desserts. Kanom kok is a small, spherical pudding made from coconut milk, tapioca and ground rice. Sang kaya mayru is a pumpkin filled with a sweet custard and then steamed. The pumpkin itself is also sweet, and the resulting mixture can be quite delicious. Finally, sticky rice with mango or durian is also a popular snack.

In addition to purely Lao food, culinary imports from other countries are common. Khao jii pat-te, French baguettes stuffed with pâté, and foe (pho) noodles from China are both ubiquitous snacks particularly popular at breakfast. Note that foe can refer both to thin rice noodles (Vietnamese pho) as well as the wide flat noodles that would be called guay tiow in Thailand.

Drinks

The national drink of Laos is the ubiquitous and tasty Beerlao, made with Laotian jasmine rice and one of the few Lao exports. It maintains an almost mythical status among travellers and beer aficionados. The yellow logo with its tiger-head silhouette can be seen everywhere, and a large 640 ml bottle shouldn't cost more than 10,000 to 15,000 kip in restaurants. It's available in three versions: original (5%), dark (6.5%) and light (2.9%). The brewery claims they have 99% market share.

Rice spirit, known as lao-lao, is everywhere and at less than USD0.30 per 750 ml bottle is the cheapest way to get drunk. Beware, as quality and distilling standards vary wildly.

Lao coffee (kaafeh) is recognised to be of very high quality. It's grown on the Bolaven Plateau in the south; the best brand is Lao Mountain Coffee. Unlike Thai coffees, Lao coffee is not flavoured with ground tamarind seed. To make sure you aren't fed overpriced Nescafé instead, be sure to ask for kaafeh thung. By default in lower end establishments, kaafeh lao comes with sugar and condensed milk; black coffee is kaafeh dam, coffee with milk (often, however, you'll get non-dairy creamer) is kaafeh nom.

Tap water is not drinkable, but bottled water is cheap and widely available.

There is not much nightlife outside of Vientiane and Vang Vieng. To have a beer in some places, simply visit a restaurant. Something to note however is that some areas may be so laid back that they will expect you to keep track of what you have drunk, with the odd guest house asking how much you have drunk during your stay upon check out.

Shopping

The Lao currency is the kip, which is non-convertible (outside Laos), unstable and generally inflationary. Current exchange rates can be calculated here [1]. Make sure that you get rid of all your kip before you leave the country (unless keeping a handful as a souvenir). It is possible to exchange kip to foreign currencies at Vientiane airport, but the exchange opens only at 09:00, so you might not be able to change your money if you've an early flight.

The largest note is 100,000 kip and rather uncommon (although you may get some from the ATM). Notes in common circulation are 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 kip. Withdrawing the maximum of 1,000,000 kip from an ATM could result in 20 50,000 kip notes. This makes carrying large quantities of kip quite inconvenient. Although less common than in the past, USD will sometimes be accepted, although usually at about 5-10% less than the official rate. Thai baht may be accepted in many areas near the border, notably Vientiane. Beware though, that in remote places only kip is accepted and no ATMs will be available, so plan ahead.

More touristy places and banks are also accept the euro. So if you're from one of the euro countries, just bring some just in case. This could be cheaper than changing your euros into baht or USD and then into kip.

There are many ATMs in Vientiane, and they have also appeared in other major cities including Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Savannakhet, Tha Khaek, Pakse and Luang Namtha. BCEL [2], the largest bank, accepts both Visa/Cirrus and MasterCard/Maestro, but surcharges of USD1-2 often apply.

Many banks, travel agents and guest houses will allow you to take out cash from a credit card as a cash advance. This usually occurs by withdrawing the money in USD from the card as a cash advance; the card issuer will usually charge a fee (about 3%), the Lao bank involved will charge about 3%, and then the agent providing the cash advance might (or might not) charge another 3%, and then the amount is converted from USD to kip at an unfavourable rate, costing another 5% or so. Thus, these transactions are much more expensive than the typical charge for withdrawing cash from ATMs in other countries. Euros get pretty bad rates compared to USD when exchanged in Laos, getting a cash advance in USD and changing it to kips might actually save money compared to bringing euros with you to Laos. Expats living in Vientiane routinely get cash from ATMs in Nong Khai or Udon Thani (Thailand), where the maximum per transaction is mostly 20,000 baht, or ten times what you'll get in Laos.

The use of both ATMs and credit cards in banks is subject to computer operation, staff computer skills, power cuts, telephone network breakdowns, holidays, etc. A few travellers have been forced out of the country prematurely as they couldn't withdraw funds to continue their travels. Always bring some cash. Changing money can be next to impossible outside major towns.

Banks give good rates, and private exchange booths are common in the major tourist areas.

Many shops start an hour's lunch break at noon, and some maintain the (now abolished) official French two-hour break. Nearly everything is closed on Sundays, except restaurants and many shops.

Costs

The basic Lao approach towards tourists is the "milking cow" approach. They will take whatever tourists are willing to pay. Lately, prices have exceeded those of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, though the standards are lower. Hotels are of lower quality, and priced higher compared to Thailand or Cambodia, the dishes in restaurants are smaller, and the tuk-tuks more of a rip-off. It's worse in the tourist centres of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng than in the smaller towns and villages.

A budget of USD40 a day is a good rule of thumb, though it's possible to get by on less. A basic room with shared bath can be as little as USD6 in Vang Vieng or as much as USD10-15 in Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Meals are usually under USD5 for even the most elaborate Lao, Thai or Vietnamese dishes (Western food is more expensive), and plain local dishes cost USD2-3. A local bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng costs USD5; a VIP bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang costs 160,000 kip; the slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai costs USD25.

Unlike in Thailand, access to temples in Luang Prabang is not free, but typically costs 10,000 kip.

Laos is more expensive than Thailand and Cambodia as most goods, petrol, and food is imported from Thailand and Vietnam, and because most people have the bad habit (especially tuk-tuk drivers) of considering USD1 as 10,000 kip, where in fact it's about 7,700 kip for USD1. Remember this in bargaining with tuk-tuk drivers and when shopping in markets.

2nd opinion: Outside of tourist centres, rooms can be found for USD2.50, and even at Si Phan Don for USD5/night. Large noodle soups are around USD2, and a typical price for large bottles of Beerlao is 10,000 kip.

Excluding transport costs, living on USD15/day isn't hard.

What to buy

Typical Lao dresses in cheap machine-made fabric can be made to order. Expect to pay around USD5 for the fabric and USD2 for labour. Handmade Lao silk is one of the most attractive things to buy. The talat sao (Morning Market) in Vientiane has dozens of small shops selling 100% handmade silk scarves or wall hangings from USD5 upwards depending on quality, intricacy of design and size. Beware cheap synthetic fabrics sold as silk imported from China and Vietnam. Be careful also of "antique silk". There is very little available, but new fabric can be made to look old and worn. Still attractive, but don't pay more than USD30-50. In markets, always bargain: it is expected, but keep smiling…

This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Laos on Wikivoyage.

Cities in Laos

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Luang Prabang , also Luang Phabang, Luang Phrabang and Louang Phrabang is the former capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage city.

Interesting places:

  • Wat Mai
  • Royal Palace
  • Royal Palace Museum
  • Phu Si
  • Night Market
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Vientiane is the capital of Laos.

Interesting places:

  • That Dam
  • Haw Phra Kaew
  • Wat Si Saket
  • Talat Sao
  • Pha That Luang
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Vang Vieng (also Vang Viang) is a riverside town in Central Laos.

Interesting places:

  • Organic Mulberry Farm
  • VLT Natural Tours
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Pakse is a city in the Champasak province of Southern Laos. It's one of the biggest towns in Laos and a major transportation hub for southern Laos. If you plan to go to the Bolaven Plateau, Wat Phou, or Si Phan Don you will probably have to spend some time here.

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Champasak is a province of Southern Laos. It's best known for a series of Khmer ruins, collectively named a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the Champasak Cultural Landscape.

Interesting places:

  • Vat Phou
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Tha Khek is the main town in Khammouane Province, in Central Laos.

Interesting places:

  • Konglor Cave
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Points of Interest in Laos

The key attraction of Laos is its undoubted status as the least westernised, the most relaxed and thereby the most authentic of all Indochinese nations. How much longer this will last is open to much speculation, but while it does this is a truly special and unique country to visit.

Natural attractions

The term wilderness is much misused, but it can truly be applied to much of Laos. The mighty Mekong river and its tributaries together create perhaps the single most important geographic feature of the country. Its meandering path in the North has created some of the most stunning limestone karsts anywhere on earth. The backpacker-central town of Vang Vieng is a commonly used base for exploring the karsts. Further north, the terrain becomes more hilly, and the jungle less explored. Luang Namtha is the far-northern town which makes the best base for those visitors who really want to see the truly remote Lao wilderness, and directly experience the lifestyles of the various hill tribes in this region.

In direct contrast to Northern Laos, the Mekong delta lowlands in the South are perfectly flat. Si Phan Don (four thousand islands) is a great base for experiencing what is surely the most chilled and relaxed region anywhere in Asia. Experiencing local village life, taking it all in and doing absolutely nothing should be the aim here. There are though some wonderful river-based sights, including the largest falls anywhere in Southeast Asia. If you are lucky you might get a close-up view of a Mekong pink dolphin.

Cultural attractions

In this most Buddhist of nations, it is no surprise that temples are a key attraction. In the capital city of Vientiane, the three-layered gilded stupa of Pha That Luang is the national symbol and most important religious monument in the country, dating from the 16th century. There are numerous other beautiful temples which on their own make a stay in the capital city vital for any visitor to Laos.

The whole of the ancient capital of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Befitting that status, this is a truly unique city. Beautifully preserved gilded temples with their attendant orange-robed monks mold almost seamlessly with traditional wooden Lao houses and grand properties from the French colonial era. Spotlessly clean streets with a thriving café culture on the banks of the Mekong and the Nam Khan, complete the picture of a city which is almost too pleasant to be true.

The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape dating from the Iron Age. Thousands of stone jars are scattered over a large area of the low foothills near Phonsavan. The main archaeological theory is that the jars formed part of Iron Age burial rituals in the area, but this is by no means proven, and a great deal of mystery remains. The area suffered tragic damage from American bombing during the Secret War of the 1960s, and much UXO remains uncleared. When that process is complete it is very likely this will be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Wat Phu is a ruined Hindu Khmer temple complex in Champasak province. It dates from the 12th century and visitors who have been to Angkor Wat will notice the similarities.

Recent history

The town of Vieng Xai provides a striking insight in the recent history of not only Laos, but the whole of Indochina. In 1964, the US began intensive bombing of the Lao communist movement – Pathet Lao – bases in Xieng Khouang. Under much bombardment, the Pathet Lao moved east to Vieng Xai and established their headquarters in the limestone karst cave networks around the town. A whole 'Hidden City' was established which supported around 20,000 people. During nine years of almost constant American bombing, the Pathet Lao sheltered in these caves, and lived in a largely subterranean environment. Schools, hospitals and markets as well as government ministries, a radio station, a theatre and military barracks were all hidden in the caves. After the 1973 ceasefire, Vieng Xai briefly became the capital of Laos, before that function was moved to Vientiane in 1975. There are formal daily tours of the caves, as well as other evidence of that era in the town.

Wat Mai - Luang Prabang

That Dam - Vientiane

Vat Phou - Champasak

Konglor Cave - Thakhek

Royal Palace - Luang Prabang

Royal Palace Museum - Luang Prabang

Phu Si - Luang Prabang

Haw Phra Kaew - Vientiane

Wat Si Saket - Vientiane

Night Market - Luang Prabang

Talat Sao - Vientiane

Pha That Luang - Vientiane

Lao National Museum - Vientiane

Patuxay - Vientiane

Wat Si Muang - Vientiane

Golden City Temple - Luang Prabang

Kuang Si Falls - Luang Prabang

Pak Ou Buddha Caves - Luang Prabang

Laos National Stadium - Vientiane

Buddha Park - Vientiane

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