Laos is one of those places that is stunningly beautiful and not as populated as most other Asian countries. This allows more breathing room when traveling to some of the top destinations and a nice break from the overrun tourist areas of nearby Thailand. Its culture is more accessible and isn’t as blurred by the tourism machine.
Laos has many excellent ways to volunteer for those who like helping out in communities while abroad. We plan to do just that. As we travel we do want to find ways to give back and this is the perfect opportunity. With programs like Big Brother Mouse Project, volunteers help children learn how to read and improve their English skills. There is also Cope, which provides assistance and rehabilitation to those who were injured during the Vietnam war (details on both below).
Why do we want to go?
Laos was not really on our radar until recently. Many people travel to Laos as a way to renew their tourist visa to Thailand for another 90 days. However, we want to explore the beauty of this country. It has amazing landscapes and an authentic culture.
We saw a video on the Vang Vieng Challenge, which sparked our interest as well, even though it is a tourist attraction. It kind of reminds me of Costa Rica, with the zip lines, bridges, and canopy forests. As nature lovers, this sounds like a great fit. Also the volunteer opportunities sound incredible.
What are some bucket list contenders?
- Vang Vieng
- Tham Phu Kham: Contains crystal clear waters and many chambers to explore
- Tham Chang: Located near Blue Lagoon with beautiful stalactites
- Tham Xang: “Xang” means elephant as the cave was named after an elephant-form stalactite
- Tham Hoi: “Hoi” means snail, as this cave is small and has a snail-shaped stalactite
- Tham Nam: “Nam” means water, as this cave can be accessed by water
- Blue Lagoon (swimming)
- Kayaking / Tubing / Cycling / Zip Lining
- Luang Prabang
- Mount Phousi: Steep hill with views of the city
- Kuang Si Falls: Beautiful waterfall
- Tak Bat: Morning Alms-Giving in Luang Prabang
- Royal Palace Museum
- Phousi Day Market / Night Market: Enjoyable local markets
- Cooking classes
- Chat with monks: Not something you can do every day and they welcome practicing their English
- Buddha Park: Enjoy this park with many Buddhas
- Pha That Luang: Golden National Monument
- Patuxai Monument: French influenced arch-like monument
- Sisaket Temple: 16th century Buddhist temple
- Cope Visitor Center: Volunteer opportunity to help war victims
- Laos National Museum: Learn about the history of Laos
- Night Market: Another local market that shouldn’t be missed
- Sunset on Mekong River: The best way to view sunset in Vientiane
|COUNTRY | Laos|
|Best Season||October through April is the dry season|
|Average Temp / Weather Conditions||Averages are between 29°C (77°F) in May and 23°C (72°F) in January. May through September is the wet season.|
|Key Attractions||Waterfalls, lush forests, great food and caves.|
|Entry / Visa Requirements||30 day visa with possible extensions. Two blank passport pages are required.|
|CURRENCY | Laotion Kip (~₭8,333 LAK = $1 USD)|
|Daily Budget||₭400,000-500,000 ($48-60) per couple on a non-frugal budget with occasional splurging (private rooms, restaurant meals/cooking, local transportation, activities that are really a key attraction for going). You can cut this by 1/3 on a frugal backpackers budget with hostels, cooking all meals, and local transportation ₭266,000- 333,000 ($32-40).|
|Frugal Tips||Buy your own food instead of eating out for every meal. Stick to the local markets and avoid western food. Live like the locals and use local transportation options. Taxis are expensive. Book your own activities instead of doing it through your hotel, hostel, or tour company.|
|THE STAY | Possible duration: 2-3 Weeks|
|Lodging Types||Guesthouses, budget hotels, airbnb, hostels, homestay, camping in designated areas|
|Food||Soup, sticky rice, meat based dishes that are similar to many Thai dishes|
|Transportation Options||Buses, motorbike, tuk tuk (looks somewhat like a big golf cart), cycling, walking|
|Driving Requirements||International Driving Permit, although motorbikes are rarely checked. In Laos you drive on the right side of the road.|
|Connectivity||WiFi is at many local accommodations, some internet cafes in Vientiane only|
|CULTURE | Language: Lao, Thai, English, French, Chinese|
|Customs||Buddhism is prevelant in the culture and many festivals. Lao greetings include prayer-like gestures called a nop (smile and slight bow of the head). Lower status people will nop their superiors or elders. Shaking hands is becoming a more common greeting due to western influence. Shoes are removed when entering someones home or visiting a temple.|
|Local Laws||Drug offenses can mean significant prison sentences or even the death penalty. Sexual relationships with foreign and Lao nationals are illegal and can have steep fines and prison sentences. Photographing or even visiting military sites is illegal, which can include bridges or airfields. Wear suitable clothing when visiting religious sites (women cover shoulders). Do not photograph monks around temples and during ceremonies.|
|Local Holidays/Festivals||January/ February: Boun Pha Vet – Celebration of the birth of Prince Vessanthara (Buddha’s penultimate existence) at temples in each village with various celebrations
February: Boun Ma Kha Bu Saar – Celebration of a speech given by Buddha laying down the first monastic regulations and the prediction of his own death. The largest celebration takes place at the Khmer Ruins of Vat Phu Champasack.
April: Boun Pi Mai: This is a new year’s festival to celebrate the lunar calendar year. The theme is cleansing, with clean homes, new clothes, and Buddha images washed with holy water. This festival is a good time to visit Laos.
September: Boun Khao Salak – Offerings are made to dead ancestors during this festival, and the event includes boat racing competitions, music, and dance performances.
October: Boun Ok Phansa and Boat Racing Festival – Festival held after monk’s three-month fasting during the rainy season. The festival includes boat racing, colorful floats, candelight processions and incense/ candles to pay respect to the river spirit.
November: That Luang Festival – One week celebration that includes a fair, concerts, fireworks and light shows in Vientiane
|English Availability||Very limited, but locals will find a way to communicate with you. English will be available in tourist areas, but this is one of the hardest countries to get by with English (China and Vietnam are two others)|
|Attitudes Toward Americans||Generally positive. The people are very friendly and you will be well-received as long as you aren’t being disrespectful to their local customs and laws.|
|Photography Concerns||Do not photograph anything military related including bridges or airfields, and do not take pictures of monks near temples.|
|General Safety||Primarily petty theft and scams involving motorbikes that target foreigners. There is a prevalence of unexploded ordnance in Laos so it is a good idea to stay on well-traveled paths.|
|Emergency Number||Tourist Police Number: 021-251-128, 1190 for fire, 1195 for ambulance and 1191 for police|
|Location of U.S. Embassy / Phone||Thadeua Road, Km 9
Ban Somvang Thai
Vientiane, Lao PDRTelephone: +(856) (21) 48-7000Emergency After-Hours Telephone: +(856) (21) 48-7600
|Medical Facilities||Extremely limited and generally poor. For serious medical issues, go to nearby Thailand for care.|
|Vaccinations Needed||None required. Recommended vaccines are Diphtheria, Hep A, Poliomyelitis, Tetanus, Typhoid. Check with your doctor before going to get official recommendations.|
|Health Concerns||Many adventure sports activities could have safety risks and be far away from medical care|
|Water Quality||Drink bottled water, avoid tap water or ice cubes made from tap water. Do not rinse your mouth with tap water as bacteria and parasites can be ingested. Your body wont be used to these being in the water and you may get sick. Locals do not have as much trouble as their guts are used to it.|
Have you been? What activities do we have to try out? What other countries should we consider?