Cities

Vientiane

the still sleepy capital on the banks of the Mekong River

Houay Xai

in the north, on the Mekong and the border with Thailand

Luang Namtha

capital of the north, known for its trekking

Luang Prabang

a UNESCO World Heritage City known for its numerous temples, colonial era architecture, and vibrant night market

Muang Xay

also known as Oudomxay, the capital of the multi-ethnic province of Oudomxay

Pakbeng

halfway point on the overnight slow boat between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang

Pakse

gateway to the Wat Phu ruins and the "four thousand islands" (Si Phan Don)

Savannakhet

in the south on the Mekong, connected by bridge to Mukdahan in Thailand

Tha Khaek

a popular base for exploring Phou Hin Boun National Park including the famous Konglor Cave

Other destinations

Ban Nalan Trail

a two-day ecotourism trek in the north of Laos

Bolaven Plateau

highland with waterfalls, jungles and farmland

Champasak

Wat Phu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with Angkor-style Khmer temples

Nong Khiaw

beautiful karst cliffs where you can discover hilltribe villages, kayak, bike ride or just hang out

Plain of Jars

Iron Age cemetery sites near Phonsavan; also one of the main locations to learn about the "Secret War".

Si Phan Don

the "four thousand islands" are nestled within the Mekong near the Cambodian border

Vang Vieng

backpacker hangout for exploring limestone caves and tubing on the Nam Song river

Vieng Xai

remote cultural oasis and symbolic cradle of Marxism; see the caves where the Pathet Lao leaders ran their operations in defiance of the West

Sights

Thailand

constitutional monarchy in Southeast Asia

Vietnam

republic in Southeast Asia

Vientiane

capital of Laos

Vang Vieng

town in Laos

Luang Namtha

city

Si Phan Don

river

Luang Prabang

city located in north central Laos

Plain of Jars

megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos, consisting of thousands of stone jars scattered around the upland valleys and the lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau

Phonsavan

town

Angkor Wat

Hindu/Buddhist temple complex in Cambodia

Oudomxay Province

province of Laos

Pakse

human settlement

Nong Khiaw

Someday

guide to

Laos

Laos (ສປປ ລາວ), officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic (ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ) (Lao PDR), is a nation in Southeast Asia, known for its mountainous terrain, French colonial architecture, hill tribe settlements, and Buddhist monasteries. A mountainous and landlocked country, Laos shares borders with Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar and China to the north.

Arriving

Visas

Visas are not required by citizens of: Brunei and Myanmar (14 days), Japan, Luxembourg and Switzerland (15 days), Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam (30 days).

The website of the foreign ministry does not prove too helpful in obtaining up-to-date visa information. But the website of Tourism Laos provides more useful information on this topic.

Visa on arrival

A visa on arrival is available to most nationalities entering at the airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet. These land border crossings offer visa on arrival: Boten (China), Houay Xay / Nam Ngeun / Kenthao / Vientiane / Thakhet / Savannakhet / Vangtao (Thailand) which includes all friendship bridges, Ban Leui / Nam Kan / Nam Phao / Dan Savanh (Vietnam) as well as Veun Kham (Cambodia). One passport photo is required although you may be able to pay a US$1 fee for your passport photo to be scanned upon arrival.

As of 2019, the price is US$30 for all except the following nationalities (the list excludes countries not eligible for visa on arrival and those with a visa exemption for at least 30 days):

Paying in Thai baht (1500 baht ~ US$47 in Jan 2019) is possible too, but the mark-up means that travellers should try to bring US dollars. While Lao kip are usually not accepted for the visa fee, border staff does make exceptions sometimes, however at a bad rate. A US$1 "out of office hours/overtime" surcharge at the Friendship Bridge in Vientiane, and a small possibly 10 baht to US$1 entry stamp fee might also be charged.

Visa from the embassy

Visas can be obtained in advance from Lao embassies/consulates. The fee varies by nationality/embassy; US$40 is common, although can be as high as US$63 (in Kuala Lumpur). Processing times also vary; 2-3 days is typical, though you may be able to pay an extra small amount (around US$5) to receive the visa in as little as one hour. In Phnom Penh the travel agencies can arrange the visa the same day (but may charge as much as US$58) while getting it from the embassy takes a few days. Getting a visa from the embassy in Bangkok costs around 1,400 baht for most nationalities, plus 200 baht more for "same day" processing. It's cheaper and quicker to get a visa at the border.

Visa extension

Entry permit extensions (sometimes referred to as "visa extensions") are available from the Immigration Department in Vientiane, Luang Prabang or Tha Khaek, the Police Station in Pakse, and possibly other cities. Extensions are not possible in Laos' second city, Savannakhet, although you can do a border run from there to Thailand to get a new 30-day visa. The cost is US$2.50 per day plus a small "form fee" ranging between 5,000 Kip (Pakse) to 30,000 Kip (Vientiane). The process is very easy; turn up in the early morning with your passport and one photo; fill in a form (in Luang Prabang they do this for you) and come back in the afternoon to collect your passport with an extension stamp in it. If you do this in the late morning or later in the day, your passport will be ready the following day.

If you want to extend for longer than two weeks and are near the Thai border, it can be more cost effective to nip over the border (entry to Thailand is free for most Western nationalities) and return immediately to get a new 30-day Lao visa since a 30-day visa extension costs US$75.

By train

There is a bridge across the Mekong from the Thai town of Nong Khai to Tha Naleng near Vientiane. There are two shuttle services per direction per day, with one timed to connect to the night trains to/from Bangkok. Visa on arrival is available when crossing the border by train. The train is not a very attractive option because the railway station is in the middle of nowhere, however, there are shuttle buses to take you the rest of the way. Plans are underway to extend the line further into Laos, making it useful for domestic traffic, too.

By land

Most border crossings open for foreigners, with an indication where visas on arrival can be issued, are listed on the web site of the National Tourism Administration. This list is unfortunately incomplete.

Cambodia

Visa on arrival for Laos is available when entering from Cambodia overland, with an official "Visa on Arrival" office incorporated into the checkpoint. The nearest Cambodian town is Stung Treng, and the border is a 60 to 90-minute bus ride away. The border is lightly used, with almost no onward public transport available once you passed through immigration, therefore it may be wise to book transport all the way to Ban Nakasang or Pakse depending on your destination.

If you're buying a ticket from a destination in Cambodia to one in Laos (the most common being Siem Reap/Phnom Penh to Don Det) and you want the border crossing to be as trouble-free as possible, accept that you will have to pay an additional fee that usually isn't lower than US$5 on top of the visa-on-arrival fee applicable to your nationality, current as of 2019. Not including possible mark-ups for the visa, the charge consists of:

Note that this is the best case scenario; the "assistance fee" may also be $2 depending on the bus company used, and/or the facilitator will demand a higher total to account for the inflated visa price. While you can decline to use a facilitator, you will nevertheless be asked for the unofficial fees by the immigration officials, as the facilitator merely collects them on their behalf to "speed up the process".

It is possible to at least circumvent the unofficial fees on the Cambodian side – several reports on the net suggest that the Cambodian officials are quick to give in if you refuse to pay the fee; it seems easiest if you can convince them that you simply don't have any dollars left.

Little public information exists for the Lao side. The officials may or may not try to overcharge you for the visa on arrival. For Canadians, this can oddly result in paying less than the official price of US$42. One traveller reported that officials, at least on one occasion, seemed to use US$30 (the official price for most eligible nationalities) as the baseline for passports from Western countries, but then asked a Canadian citizen for US$35 instead. Whatever your nationality, do make sure you know what visa price applies to your passport before you hop on the bus to this border.

Furthermore it is unknown whether one can refuse to pay the inflated visa fee (if applicable), the unofficial stamp fee, be successful and be still able to find onward transport to Ban Nakasang, although this definitely works the other way round (coming from Laos, going to Cambodia). Getting held up by not paying will likely see your bus leave without you.

For those who want to stand their ground and don't mind possibly having to wait for a few hours in order to beat corruption, there is an option worth trying: Book your transport with any operator to the border only, ideally from Stung Treng with a departure in the morning to have time on your side. Enquire with travel agencies or online to book your separate onward transport from the border going North, and make sure it only leaves two to three hours after your arrival at the border. Alternatively, if you're feeling the stars are aligned in your favour, you may be able to catch a minivan or tuk-tuk that some travellers use to get independently to the border from the Lao side; it's unlikely to happen after lunchtime though.

Another pitfall of the journey to the border is that you will often have four changes of bus (number depending on your origin – some vehicles are small minibuses where passengers have to sit on each other's laps), and hours spent driving to remote guesthouses to pick up backpackers. Asia Van Transfer (AVT) was set up by a foreign expat and has built a good reputation for not letting passengers wait unnecessarily, not letting them change vehicles and also not overbooking seats, but this means they're also a bit pricier; also, they cannot drive into Laos.

If your luggage has been sent in a bus you are not on, because of "lack of space", it will sometimes disappear. The "King of Bus Company" is known to do this.

China

The land crossing between Mengla (Yunnan) and Boten (Laos) is open to foreigners and visa on arrival is possible or you can get in advance at the Lao consulate in Kunming. Daily bus service operates from Mengla to Luang Namtha and Udomxai. Buses from Mengla to Luang Namtha leave from the North bus station. The first bus leaves around 08:00 and costs about ¥40.

Generally speaking, it is not possible for independent travellers to cross from China to Laos via the Mekong River, not least because there's a chunk of Myanmar in the middle and the Lao checkpoint at Xieng Kok does not issue visas on arrival. Travel agents in China, including Panda Travel, run irregular cruises from Jinghong (China) via Chiang Saen (Thailand) to Huay Xai (Laos), but schedules are erratic and prices expensive.

Myanmar

The Myanmar-Lao friendship bridge connects Shan State in Myanmar with Luang Namtha Province in Laos.

By motorbike from Vietnam

The border crossing on a Vietnamese motorbike at Tay Trang is very easy and straightforward. You arrive after going over some hills at the Vietnamese border where very friendly guys handle your case easily and with no hassle. You fill out the form for "temporary export of a vehicle", show them the Vietnamese registration card for the bike (which is usually in the owners name) and pay US$10. Then you proceed to the police, show the papers to them and get the exit stamp.

You then have to drive for 6 km over the mountains to get to the Lao checkpoint. There some not so friendly border guards there who expect you to pay 5,000 kip for general fees and 25,000 kip for importing a vehicle. They fill out the form themselves.

More information available on Wikivoyage

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