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WHY VISIT LAOS

Genuine and enchanting, Laos is however one of the poorest countries in the world and is only now slowly opening up to tourism.

The capital, Vientiane, on the banks of the Mekong River, has an old village, temples, and markets with an atmosphere both provincial and peaceful. Do not miss the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang with its 66 temples dominated by Mount Phu Si, it has a great traditional market and the caves of Pak Ou are only a little further north.

Later you could visit the Plain of Jars, where there are over a hundred jars of unknown origin that date back over 2000 years; these are dispersed in the desert.

Visiting the Bolaven plateau allows you to meet the different ethnic groups of Khmer origin, some of who still live in a traditional way with rituals going back thousands of years. This plain is very fertile and here Arabica coffee is still grown in the traditional way. In Saravane, you will be surprised to discover a market of chameleons and lizards. If you go to the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border you can see river dolphins.

Especially, take your time and leave your western influences at home in order to appreciate the true value of the kind and friendly Laotians.

WHAT TO SEE IN LAOS

Top destinations in Laos are:

  • Luang Prabang
  • Vientiane
  • Vang Vieng
  • Phonsavan
  • Si Phan Don
  • Wat Phu
  • Luang Namtha
  • Tham Kong Lo
  • Nong Kiau
  • Bokeo Nature Reserve

WHEN TO GO TO LAOS

The best period to visit Laos is from November to March.

January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December

There is a dry season and a rainy season in Laos. Between April and October, the monsoon brings heavy rains, particularly in the South, which sometimes makes transport by road impossible due to damaged roads; in April and May, the weather is hot with temperatures of around 30°C and 35°C. From July to September, the rains are less frequent but heatwaves are normal.

From November to March is the dry season: These months have lower humidity and bearable temperatures, which however change with the altitude. Nights can be cold in the northern mountains! This is the best time to visit Laos.

Following a list of typical festivals and celebrations of Laos.

January-February

Boun Pha Vet: This temple centered festival celebrates the birth of Prince Vessanthara, the Buddha’s penultimate existence. The jataka or birth story of Buddha is recited. This is the favored time for Lao men to become ordained as a monk. Festivities are staggered between villages so that different villages can visit one another to their celebrations.

February

Magha Puja or Boun Ma Kha Bu Saar (Full Moon): This celebration commemorates a speech given by the Buddha in which he laid down the first monastic regulations and predicted his own death. The speech was heard by 1250 enlightened monks who arrived without prior summons. The festival is to celebrate with chanting and presenting offering carious Vat throughout the country. The biggest celebrations take place at the Khmer ruins of Vat Phu Champasack.

Sikhotabong Festival: This religious festival takes place in the province of Khammouant five hours drive south of Vientiane, on February 5 to February 8 at the Sikhottabong stupa, located about 6 km south of Thakhek.

The Wat Phu festival: This religious festival is held at the pre-Angkorian Wat Phu site every year in Champassak province about 10 hours drive south of Vientiane. It is held on the full moon of the 3rd month of the lunar calendar (in 2012 it falls on 6-8 February). A trade fair of products from the southern province of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam is also held.

The Elephant Festival: The elephant festival is organized annually in Xayaboury province. More than 50 elephants and their mahouts from around the area gather to demonstrate working techniques and all things elephantine. Homestays are available.

Xayaboury Elephant Festival: Located in the west of Laos, Xayaboury is home to rugged mountains, hill tribes, pristine jungle, and wild animals, including the largest number of wild elephants in Laos. Every year in February or March, a three-day festival draws people from around the country to celebrate the importance of Laos’ national animal.

March

Boun Khoun Khao: Harvest festival is celebrated in various villages throughout the month.

April

Boun Pi Mai: Pi Mai means “new year” and it is the time when the Lao celebrates the start of their Lunar calendar year. Practically, the entry country grinds to a half for the festivities. Houses are cleaned, people wear new clothes and Buddha images are washed with holy water and this festival makes one of the best times to visit Laos.

Boun Pimai (or Pimai Lao): Boun Pimai is one of the most important annual festivals (particularly in Luang Prabang) to celebrate Lao New Year in the lasting several days in mid-April (13-15). The first month of the Lao New Year is actually December but festivities are delayed until April when days are longer than nights. By April it’s also hotting up, so having hoses leveled at you and buckets of water dumped on you is more pleasurable. It is a combination of merriment and meditation. Similar to festivals at this time of year in other Southeast Asian countries – particularly Thailand – Boun Pimai is celebrated with parades, circle dance (ramwong), traditional Lao folk singing (mor lam), and enthusiastic water-throwing. The religious aspects of the festival are most apparent in Luang Prabang, where Buddha statues are worshiped with water pouring ceremonies. Temple compounds are further decorated with small sand Stupas, offered as merit towards good fortune and health.

May

Visakha Puja or Boun Visakha Bu Saar (Full Moon): Starting on the day of the sixth lunar month, this celebration commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana (death) of Buddha. The festival is based and visitors can see chanting and sermonizing at night followed by beautiful candlelight processions.

May-June

Boun Bang Fai “Rocket Festival”: Various villages throughout the country take part in one that most boisterous festivals on the Lao calendar. This festival dated back to pre-Buddhist times and featuring homemade rockets that are fired into the clouds to ask for rain as well as it amidst a great deal of raucous chanting and merry-making.

July

Boun Khao Phansa: This is the beginning of the three-month-long Buddhist Lent. All monks stop traveling and stay at the temple for prayer and meditation. It’s also time for the ordination of men entering a monkhood.

August

Boun Khao Padabdin: An important religious festival in Luang Prabang, Boun Khao Padabdin festival is celebrated to honor the dead and make merit by giving offerings to thousands of monks that pass through the city at sunrise. Taking place in August every year, it is also a major attraction for visitors as it includes the famous dragon boat races on the Nam Khan River.

September

Boun Haw Khao Padup Din or Boun Haw Khao Salaack (Full Moon): Prayers and offerings are made to the deads at the temples around the countries.

Boun Khao Salak (Rice): This is for offerings to be made for dead ancestors to obtain merit. Popular and exciting longboat-racing competitions are held to celebrate the River. This festival is held during the tenth full moon of the lunar calendar.

Boat Racing Festival in Khammouane Province: This is held on the Sebangfai River. On the same occasion, a trade fair of agricultural products, local handicrafts, traditional Lao music, and dance performance is organized. In this festival, citizens donate offerings to dead ancestors to gain merit.

Boat Racing Festival: This festival is organized in Luang Prabang from Aug 17 to Aug 18, including boat racing on the NamKhane River and a trade fair in Luang Prabang city. At the Khao Salak ceremony day, people visit local temples to make offerings to the dead as well to share merits making.

October

Boun Awk Phansa: The festival held after the end of the monks’ three-month fast and retreat during the rainy season (Boun Khao Pansa). At dawn on the first day, donations and offerings are made at temples around the city. In the evening, candlelight processions are held at temples and hundreds of colorful floats decorated with flowers, incense, and candles are set adrift down the Mekong River to pay respect to the river spirit. The following day in Vientiane, Savannakhet and Champasack Province, a popular and exciting boat racing competition is held to celebrate the Mekong River.

Bun Nam (water festival): A second festival held in association with Awk Phansaa is Bun Nam (water festival) in riverside towns such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet, the highly competitive Bun Nam boat races (suang heua) are held during the same time as Awk Phansaa. Smaller communities sometimes hold these races on National Day on 2nd December so that residents aren’t saddled with two costly festivals in two months.

Boat Racing Festival: This festival is organized on Oct 2 to Oct 3 in Vientiane. The water festival held during Pansa is spectacular; on the first day at dawn, donations and offerings are made at temples around the city; in the evening, candlelight processions are held around the temples and hundreds of colorful floats decorated with flower; incense and candle are set adrift down the Mekong river in thanksgiving to the river spirit; the next day, a popular and exciting boat racing competition is held on the Mekong.

Boun Khathin: This festival begins immediately after the last day of Lent, and lasts until the next full moon. During the one month period, devotes of the Buddhist faith help the monks to carry out their religious practice by making offerings of all their 9 requisites and other useful items.

That Inhang FestivalHeld in early October in Savannakhet province, around 8 hours drive south of Vientiane. It is held on the grounds of the That Inhang stupa, located just outside the town of Savannakhet and includes parades, music, dancing, and an international trade fair of products from Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Naga Fireballs: Also called Mekong lights, there is an ancient belief that fireballs can be seen flying out of the Mekong River once a year in the Bolikhamxay province. Thousands of Lao and Thais attempt to see the sight in late October, which does not always materialize. It is almost impossible to find accommodation during this festival, so bring your own tent and sleeping bag.

November

Hmong New Year: Hmong New Year celebrations frequently occur in November and December, traditionally at the end of the harvest season when all work is done and normally takes place where large Hmong communities exist. During the New Year’s celebration, Hmong dress in traditional clothing and enjoy traditional foods, dance, music, bullfights, and other forms of entertainment. This time also serves as a matchmaking occasion when young men and women meet and make marriage plans.

That Luang Festival and Trade Fair in Vientiane Capital: This religious festival is held in and around That Luang Stupa, the National Symbol of Laos, where hundreds of monks gather to accept alms and floral votives from the people. The festival includes a grand fireworks display at night. During the day, an international trade fair, showcasing tourism in Laos and other countries from ASEAN and the Greater Mekong Sub-region. During the same period, a similar festival is also celebrated at Ching Tim Stupa in Luang Namtha Province.

Boun That Luang: Though celebrated at many temples and stupas around the country, this festival is traditionally, colorfully, and most enthusiastically celebrated at That Luang in Vientiane. Fairs, beauty contests, music, and fireworks take place throughout the week of the full moon and end with a candlelight procession (wien thien) around the temple of That Luang.

Handicraft Festival: The best venue to see a wide range of handicrafts, this annual event is held at the ITECC convention center in Vientiane in November. It’s a great place to see a range of goods and gifts all in one place to do your souvenir shopping.

December

Lao National DayThis celebrates the 1975 victory of the people over the monarchy. However, it is mainly a day for government events and public participation is limited to flying the Lao and Communist flags.

That Inhang Festival: This festival will be held on the grounds of the splendid That Inhang stupa, located just outside the city of Savannkakhet; an international trade fair will include exhibitions of tourism products from Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and performance of traditional Lao, Thai and Vietnamese music and dance; the fair will also include a sports competition, complete with football, boxing, and tennis matches and local traditions like a drumming competition.

HOW TO REACH AND TRAVEL THROUGH LAOS

There are no direct flights to Laos: You will have to go through Bangkok where Thai Airlines have a daily charter flight to Vientiane.

by plane, the main airports are

  • Luang Prabang
  • Vientiane
  • Savannakhet
  • Pakse

by train

by car

GENERAL INFORMATION ON LAOS

health tips & vaccination: drink only bottled water and avoid ice. Recommended anti-malaria vaccination.

local currency: Lao Kip

local time zone: GMT+7

electricity: type A, type B, type C, type E and type F (230 V, 50 Hz)

mobile phone operators:

WHAT TO DO IN LAOS

typical food in Laos

  • Khao niaw: Lao glutinous rice (aka sticky rice) is the national staple; simply roll it up into balls and pop in your mouth
  • Tam mak hoong: Laos’ favorite salad is an incendiary mix of pounded green papaya, peanuts, dried shrimp, green beans, lime juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar
  • Laap: A lip-smacking salad made from minced meat, fish or vegetables tossed with mint, chili, lime juice, garlic, onions, and powdered rice
  • Pho: White rice noodle soup, usually served with beef or pork; it’s subtly flavored and locals spice it up with fish sauce, dried chilies, and herbs
  • Khao jee: Baguettes are a legacy of the French colonial period, often served with tomatoes, cheese, and pork in chili sauce
  • Sai oua: Traditional Lao sausage, flavored with lime leaves, onion, garlic, and Lao herbs
  • Kai paen: Weed from the Mekong River – a Luang Prabang specialty usually served dried into sheets with sesame
  • Khao poon: Spicy soup with vermicelli noodles, chili, lime leaves, and strongly-flavored perilla leaves
  • Ping Kai: Lao-style grilled chicken, seasoned with pepper, coriander root, garlic, and fish sauce
  • Or Lam: A rich jungle stew or dried buffalo meat or game, chili, mushrooms, beans, and mashed eggplants
  • Lao lao: The local rice whiskey, traditionally prepared in village stills
  • Beer Lao: The nation’s favorite brew
  • Cafe pakxong: Lao coffee, brewed using beans from plantations on the Boloven Plateau

souvenirs from Laos

  • cotton or silk fabrics
  • handmade shirts
  • wood carvings
  • pottery
  • silver jewelry
  • clay pitchers and basketwork
  • Pha sin (Lao sarongs)
  • hill tribe bags
  • coffee and tea
  • sǎa (mulberry bark paper)

SIMPLE DICTIONARY

Hello: Sabaidi

Goodbye: La

How are you?: Sa bai di bo?

Thank you: Sa bai di bo

What is your name?: Sa bai di bo?

How much is it?: La kha the a dai?

Sorry: kho othd

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