What would your ideal exotic holiday be? Soaking up the rays on white-sanded beaches while cobalt blue waters lap the shore, beckoning you in for a cooling spot of snorkelling? Or perhaps you’d prefer a challenging highland trek, marvelling at vistas of rolling hills and lush vegetation, witnessing first-hand the traditions of life in a hill-tribe village, with an elephant ride home to look forward to.
Maybe you enjoy the buzz of discovering a new city, snapping up souvenir bargains in markets, sampling dishes from one of the tastiest cuisines in the world, and exploring stunning monuments of a proud cultural heritage. Or perhaps all you desire is to find a peaceful and rustic corner of the earth in which to unwind and watch the world go by. Thailand combines all this and far more.
Laos is the forgotten country of South East Asia. Mountainous and land locked, it is the size of the UK with a population of just 5.4 million making it one of the least densely peopled countries in the world. Yet it is one of the most ethnically diverse with over 50 tribal groups. Prior to 1990 the country is said to have had only one international phone line and a generation ago, few people upcountry even knew they lived in a country called Laos. The North of the country is the perfect place for the independent traveller to indulge in a dose of high adventure through landscapes that evoke the journals of nineteenth century French explorers.
A trip to Thailand, combined with the rural charms of Laos, offers you all these experiences and more. With ever-increasing Western influence, Asian cultures are more diverse than ever, but from Bangkok‘s neon-lit bars to the untouched wilderness of the Lao highlands, the traditional welcoming disposition of the Thai and Lao people endures.
Light, loose clothes made from natural fibres are ideal. You can pick up these garments very cheaply after you’ve arrived, so don’t over-pack! Dressing modestly is preferred, especially in rural Laos, and remember that shorts and shoes are a sign of disrespect at sacred sites. Slip-on sandals are convenient for temple visits.
Two main physical features, rivers and mountains, dominate the country. This lends a humid, subtropical climate to most of the country, with fertile plains. May – November sees the country dominated by monsoons, which is followed by lower temperatures. March-May sees the hottest temperatures. Temperatures can range from as high as 40C in the hot season, down to as low as 0C in the mountains during the winter months. If you are planning mountain treks, it is wise to bear this in mind when you pack – or you may be surprised. March to May is a time to stick to the cool highlands, avoiding the uncomfortable heat of the lower plains. The best overall time for visiting the country is between November-February, when it rains the least and is not too hot.
A visa is required for entry into Laos, and is valid for up to 30 days, whether a tourist, journalist or business visa and can be obtained by most nationalities, free of charge. Make sure your passport is up to date. A transit visa is needed for travelling between countries in Southeast Asia. If you leave Thailand during or at the end of this period for even a day you can be issued another 30 day visa on return. Swedes, Danes, New Zealanders and South Koreans can travel for up to 90 days in Thailand without a visa.
A 15 day visa for Laos can be obtained on arrival at Vientiane’s Wattay Airport or the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge for $30US (cash). Otherwise you can obtain this or a 30 day visa before you go.
The Baht (B) is the currency in Thailand, approximate conversions:
£1 = 60B
$1(US) = 40 B
€1 = 40 B
The Laotian unit of currency is the Kip.
$1 (US) = 8,000 Kips
£1 = 10,000 Kips
1 Euro = 8,000 Kips
It is almost impossible to change travellers cheques in Laos outside the capital, Vientiane, but luckily many places accept Thai baht and US dollars as payment, so it is advisable to carry most of your cash in these currencies.
Thailand is a very cheap country to visit, and Laos even more so although they are becoming slightly more expensive due to the influx of tourism inspired by films like “The Beach”. You can rent a room in a hostel for as little as $4 US a day and eat for a few dollars more, or live more comfortably from around $25 in total. In Bangkok everything is at least twice the price of other towns, and there are a number of luxurious hotels where you can spend, spend, spend if you wish.
If you love spicy food, Thai cuisine is for you! If you are feeling less adventurous, the French have left behind their legacy of baguettes and salads. Remember the risks of water-borne diseases in both countries and stick to bottled water wherever possible.
Lao cuisine is very similar to Thai in that a lot of fresh ingredients are used. Vegetables, fish, chicken, duck, pork, beef and water buffalo are Lao staples. Due to the fact that Laos is landlocked, fish is usually of the freshwater variety.
In rural areas in both countries, you will find wild animals such as dog, pig, squirrels, rats andbirds are on the menu. So many wild animals are food for Laotians, that there is a serious lack of wildlife found in the country – though environmentalists are attempting to change this. Food is flavoured with fish paste, salt, lime and chillies. It is advisable to avoid the fish paste,especially in more rural areas of the country, as it is not pasturized. Do try laap – a common salad dish of minced meat, fowl or fish tossed with lime, garlic, sticky rice, green onions, mint and chilli.
Thais and Laotians also eat a lot of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes, with sticky rice forming a major part of the diet. Delicious cheap meals can be had from street vendors and markets. Be very careful about drinking water, ice cubes or drinks that have been diluted with water. Be sure not to miss the famous Lao coffee – flavoured with sugar and sweetened condensed milk, or for a kick sample some rice whiskey.
Thai and Lao are somewhat tricky tonal languages, but the effort to master even a few words is highly appreciated. Thai and Laos are closely related languages and both are widely understood. English is widely spoken in Thailand and is increasingly popular in Laos too, alongside French, a legacy of Indochina which is the second language of Laos. Hill tribes have their own languages and dialects, so it is important to find a trekking guide who can speak at least a few words of the local language as well as Thai or Lao. English can increasingly be found on signs, and many students speak it. Older people are less likely to. Russian, once in favour, now is heard very infrequently.
Lao has an amazing ethnic mix: Lao Loum, Lao Thai, Lao Theung and Lao Sung – roughly classified by the altitude at which they live. Half the population are ethnic Lao (Lao Loum). Over 60% are tribal Thai. There are officially 68 distinct ethnic groups classified so by language, history, religion, customs, dress and other factors. The people are mainly sustenance farmers whose agricultural skills have remained unchanged for thousands of years. Nearly all the peoples of Thailand and Laos are Buddhist, others have tribal beliefs. People are soft-spoken and welcoming, greeting visitors with wide smiles and a “wai” – pressing both palms together as if praying, with heads bowed respectfully.
When you’re on the move, it is advisable to bring along a good pair of sunglasses to protect against street dust, as well as a bandana. A light jumper or jacket is advisable for chilly mornings, and a small torch is good for frequent blackouts. Although Laos is a small country, the unreliability of air, train and car travel means that you should not be over ambitious in your travel plans: getting around takes longer than you would expect. Most Laotians get around by bike.
Vaccinations recommended for much of South-East Asia include Tetanus and Diptheria(usually combined), Polio, Hepatitis A and B and possibly Typhoid. Malaria tablets are a must, as is plenty of mosquito repellent, especially in rural areas. Consult your GP for details.
By Rowena Forbes
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