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Laos Travel Tips
Cautions

Despite being a friendly and laid-back Buddhist country, Laos has a few unique hazards which visitors need to be aware of before arrival. Violent crime against foreigners is rare, but petty theft happens as often as you leave something unattended. Laos is an impoverished country, and desperate times create desperate people. Keep your valuables with you at all times, as even your guesthouse room should not be considered safe. Lately, bag snatchers have been plaguing Luang Prabang, so be extra careful after dark when walking around. Political tensions are very mild in Laos and even major festivals and religious events rarely see any outbreaks of violent. Most visits are completely trouble-free, but buying travel insurance will cover any unforeseen incidents of theft.

Health

Visitors don't need any special vaccinations to enter Laos, but it's wise to ensure you are up to date with standard inoculations before you arrive. Hepatitis B is pervasive across the country, and dengue fever, tuberculosis and Japanese encephalitis often appear. Some rivers and lakes contain leptospirosis and schistsomiasis, so use care when swimming in fresh water.

The water in Laos is not safe to drink, with the exception of bottled water. Use bottled water for everything, even brushing your teeth. Bottled water is very cheap and can be found everywhere. Contaminated food is another thing to watch out for. Street food can be unclean, so make sure it's been thoroughly cooked. The popular spicy papaya salad is tasty, but uncooked. Even the locals occasionally get stomach pains after eating this popular Laos dish.

Should you get a stomach bug, there are basic pharmacies in most of the larger towns. If anything more serious befalls you, it is suggested that you catch the next plane to Bangkok or Chiang Mai for treatment. Medical care in Laos is primitive, and often unavailable outside o the capital or Luang Prabang. There is one 24-hour medical clinic in Vientiane named Mahosot Hospital which is your best option in the capital. Travel insurance is an excellent way to cover the cost of any unexpected trips to the hospital.

Language

The national language in Laos is Lao, which is similar to Thai. Those Lao who work in tourism industry can speak English, but once you get into the countryside only Lao is spoken. Some of the older Laotians can speak French, due to the colonisation of Laos by France in the 1950s.

Currency

The official currency in Laos is the kip. Banknotes come in denominations of 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 kip. There are no coins in Laos. In addition to kip, almost every business will accept Thai baht and US dollars.

Currency Exchange

With a currency exchange rate that consistently hovers around 10,000 kip to 1 US dollar, visitors should be careful not to exchange too much cash at any time, unless they want to be carrying around brick-loads of kip banknotes. Laos is primarily a cash country, so you won't be able to use your credit or ATM card very often. Only travel shops in large towns and big name hotels accept credit cards. There are a couple of international ATM machines in the capital Vientiane, and one ATM in Luang Prabang but few others around the country. Don't count on using your card at all during a trip to Laos.

The best place to exchange cash is at the bank or one of the bank-sponsored currency exchange offices. Many travel shops and guesthouses will exchange money as well, but at whatever rate they choose. Since you can use US dollars and Thai baht as easily as local kip, it's smart to keep a variety of small bills on your person. Try and keep small bills, because shopkeepers commonly don't have change for anything larger than US$2.

Customs

Visitors to Laos may bring: 500 cigarettes, 100 cigars or 500 grams of tobacco; 1 litre of alcohol and two bottles of wine; and as much money as they want into the country. Customs officials are very lax, but keep in mind that you are not allowed to take any Buddhist relics or certain antiques out of the country.

Etiquette
Laos people are some of friendliest you'll ever meet, but due to language barriers it may be hard to get to know any of them intimately. Despite the country's brutal wartime past, Laotians are eager to open up to the outside world and welcome foreigners.

It will go a long way if you learn a few local social rules before visiting Laos. The first thing to remember is that Laotians are very conservative people. You will rarely see a Laotian baring skin above the elbow or below the calf. Long shorts and t-shirts are acceptable for foreigners, but anything too revealing will be considered rude.

Public displays of affection are also taboo in Laos. Reserve the hand holding, hugging and kissing for the privacy of your room. Women need to be very careful when dealing with monks. A woman of any nationality is not permitted to touch a monk of any age, or even hand something directly to a monk. These are serious rules, so try and avoid any physical contact with monks if you are a woman. Striking up a conversation with a monk however is fine.

When you enter a temple or someone's home in Laos, remember to remove your shoes. The traditional greeting in Laos is the wai, similar to the Thai greeting. Most Laotians don't shake hands; they put their hands together at chest level and slightly bow their head. The feet are the lowest part of the body, and the head the highest. Don't ever touch someone on the head, even children. Don't use your feet to point at something or raise them higher than the floor. Pointing with your finger is also considered rude; use your palm to indicate something.

Laotians take great pride in keeping a cool head in any situation. You will inevitably encounter a frustrating moment during your travels due to communication barriers, social customs or the heat. Getting angry only makes things worse; relax and deal with things calmly. Laos moves at a glacial pace, so leave your impatience at home. Fortunately, Laotians are very tolerant people, so even if you make a major social mistake, a wai and a apology will smooth things over.

Dining Etiquette

There are very few rules when it comes to eating in Laos. Meals are usually shared among people at a table or on the floor. Each person will get their own basket of sticky rice, but the main dishes are put in the middle of the table for communal use. Dining Lao-style is a wonderful way to try more than one dish. Tipping is beginning to catch on in the big cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Leaving your change as a tip is always a safe bet. Otherwise, 5 to 10 per cent is considered generous.

Visa and Passports

Unless you are a citizen of an ASEAN country, you will need to purchase a tourist visa for your visit. A 15-day tourist visa can be arranged upon arrival at all airports and most border crossings. If you want a 30-day visa, you'll need to apply ahead of time at your nearest Lao embassy. Most travel shops in neighbouring countries such as Thailand can also provide this visa service for you. It takes between three to five days to complete the process. Tourist visas can be extended twice but extensions can only be made in Vientiane.
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