Population and People
The population of Laos is about six million, which means Laos has one of the lowest population densities in the Southeast Asia region. Lao make up 50 percent of the population, while a huge number of other ethnic groups make up the rest. They include a diversity of groups known as Lao Thai, related to the Thai minorities, Lao Theung, mainly Mon-Khmer peoples thought to have inhabited the area before the other groups, and the Lao Sung, who live at elevations above 1000m and only migrated here in the last century. There are also sizeable Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and Khmer communities.
The national language of Laos is Lao, as spoken and written in the capital Vientiane. Thai and Lao are mutually intelligible, although the script is different. English is the first language among young students, while French is spoken by some of the older generation.
About 60% of the population follows Theravada Buddhism. It is enhanced by traditional animist beliefs and spirit worship that were popular before Buddhism and remain the pre-dominant faith among minority groups in Laos. Buddhism is believed to have arrived in Laos in the late 13th or early 14th centuries and probably arrived through Cambodia which controlled much of Laos at that time. Buddhism became the state religion under the first of the Lan Xang monarchs, the great King Fa Ngum in 1356 AD, who symbolically accepted the Pha Bang Buddha image from his Khmer father-in-law Jayavarman. Buddhism was slow to spread through Laos due to a belief in spirits among many of the Lao highland minorities, but finally began to be regularly taught from the 17th century. Therevada Buddhism, as practised in Laos and much of mainland South-East Asia, is believed by its followers to be a purer form of buddhism than its Mahayana counterpart from Tibet. According to the four noble truths of Therevada Buddhism, all life is suffering and that suffering is caused by desire. The way out of suffering is to eliminate desire by following the eight-fold path. The eight fold path is a code of ethics for life and consists of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. The eventual goal for all Buddhists is nirvana or the elimination of all suffering, extinction and an end to the cycle of reincarnation.
Food & Drink
Most visitors will find Lao cuisine to be similar to that of neighbouring Thailand. Freshwater fish is a popular part of most Lao diets, while in remote areas wild animals are more likely to be part of the diet than domestic animals. Local specialities include laap, a salad of minced meat, lime juice, garlic, green onions, mint and chillies. Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food is also widely available, as is a range of western cuisine in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Beerlao is the national drink and dominates the local market. It has a cult following among backpackers travelling in Southeast Asia. Lao coffee has an excellent reputation among coffee connoisseurs. Grown on the highlands of the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos, it commands some of the world’s highest prices on the global market.
All urban areas have minimum electricity (220 volts). Most sockets found in hotels are French style two-pin. Power cuts are common.
Laos offers a limited range of handicrafts when compared with neighbouring Thailand, but Lao textiles are among the most accomplished in the region. Different minority groups produce different patterns and items can be bought as clothing, tablecloths or bags. Carvings in wood or stone are popular depicting scenes from Hindu or Buddhist mythology, as well a intricately carved opium pipes, although make sure these not of ivory. Some Asian antiquities are available in the visitor centres, , including Buddha images, but officially there is a ban on the export of these items so do not invest too much in any one item.
There are several international gateways to Laos. Wattay International Airport serves the capital of Vientiane and Luang Prabang International Airport acts as a newly popular gateway to the north. In the south, both Pakse and Savannakhet have limited international connections. Airlines currently servicing Laos include flag carrier Lao Airlines, as well as Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Siem Reap Airways, Yunnan Airlines and Vietnam Airlines. Direct flights to Vientiane are available from Bangkok, Chang Mai, Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kunming and Singapore. Luang Prabang is connected to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Siem Reap, but more routes are expected soon.
Domestic flights are available between Vientiane and a number of provincial destinations. Most popular is Luang Prabang, but it is also possible to fly to Xieng Khuang, Oudomxai, Luang Namtha, Huayxai, Samneua, Savannakhet and Pakse. Luang Prabang is connected to Xieng Khuang and Luang Namtha.
US$10 for international flights from Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet.
Passports & Visas
Laos issues 30-day tourist visas on arrival at all international airports and land borders. For land borders, visas are currently available at all border crossings shared with Thailand and Cambodia, but not at all land borders shared with Vietnam. With sufficient notice, Hanuman can arrange a Lao visa to be issued in Vietnam or Cambodia for onward travel into Laos.
Visas on arrival cost US$30 to US$47 in US dollars, depending on nationality, plus two passport-sized photographs. However, regulations and prices change regularly, so it’s worth checking online with the nearest Lao embassy before pitching up to some remote border.
The Kip is the used as the official currency of Laos (US $1 = 8000K), but US dollars and Thai Baht are widely accepted. Some hotels and restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang accept international credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard. ATMs are still quite a rarity, although most major towns have at least one. Daily cash withdrawal limits are quite low by international standards.