Laos travel guide
Laos – officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic – is one of the great travel frontiers; landlocked and mountainous, swamped by jungles and promising Indian Jones adventures in remote tribal villages and ancient Buddhist caves.
With Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other, you might expect Laos to be commercial and crowded, but this is Asia’s backwater, where life moves as slowly as the churning waters of the Mekong River, which forms the border with three countries – Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia – as it snakes south towards the Gulf of Thailand.
A long-running civil war – during which the USA dropped millions of bombs in Laos – kept the country off the mainstream tourist circuit for many years. Unexploded ordnance and poor infrastructure continue to pose a challenge to tourism, but each year brings a new crop of upmarket accommodation to supplement the existing backpacker hostels – Laos is finally finding its feet. Eco-tourism looks set to be its trump card, taking visitors to remote tribal villages and pristine national parks teeming with weird and wonderful wildlife.
Despite this rugged outlook, the capital city, Vientiane, feels remarkably cosmopolitan, helped by a café culture left behind from when this was part of French Indochina. Dotted around its pleasantly faded, palm-shaded streets are ancient ruins, gleaming stupas and graceful colonial buildings.
The laidback atmosphere and the relative lack of modern development make Laos perhaps the most authentic and unspoiled of the Southeast Asia nations, though it competes for this title with neighbouring Myanmar. Laos is also one of the few communist countries left in the world – which should be obvious from the bureaucratic red tape and the omnipresent red stars on uniforms and state buildings.
Until 1988, tourists were banned from Laos, but now it is possible to travel all over the country. Nevertheless, there are few crowded tourist hotspots, with the possible exception of monastery-studded Luang Prabang and the overblown backpacker resort of Vang Vieng. Wherever you go in Laos, you’ll encounter the delectable Lao cuisine: a little bit French, a little bit Southeast Asian, and perfect washed down with a bottle of Beer Lao.
236,800 sq km (91,400 sq miles).
6,918,367 (UN estimate 2016).
29.2 per sq km.
President Bounnhang Vorachith since 2016.
Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith since 2016.
Last updated: 15 February 2019
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. 'We' refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to Xaisomboun province.
The 2018 wet season caused greater than normal damage to the road network. As a consequence, road travel in many areas may currently be more difficult than expected. Maintenance and repair standards differ to the UK, so you should take additional caution and undertake research if planning to travel by road.
The monsoon season in Laos runs from May to October. You should be aware of elevated risks of flooding and landslides during this period.
In November and December 2015, shootings took place in Xaisomboun town, in Xaisomboun Province.
Unexploded ordnance in rural areas is a real and ongoing danger. Take care when travelling around Laos.
UK health authorities have classified Laos as having a risk of Zika virus transmission. For information and advice about the risks associated with Zika virus, visit the National Travel Health Network and Centre website
Although there’s no recent history of terrorism in Laos, attacks can’t be ruled out. See Terrorism
Carry an ID document or passport at all times. You will receive a heavy fine if you don’t present ID on request.
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. Consular support is limited in parts of Laos where we advise against all but essential travel.
Safety and security
The local equivalent to the UK ‘999’ emergency lines are: 1190 for fire, 1195 for ambulance and for police: 1191, 241162, 241163, 241164, and 212703. The Tourist Police can be contacted in Vientiane on 021-251-128.
Petty crime, including bag snatching occurs frequently, especially in tourist areas. Take sensible precautions, keep hold of your bags and do not have valuables on display.
Safes provided in hotels and guesthouses aren’t necessarily secure. Consider using your own lock where possible. Take care of your possessions if you’re travelling long distances, or overnight, by public transport. Be particularly vigilant travelling at night by bicycle or motorcycle, especially if you’re alone. Stick to well-used, well lit roads and carry a personal alarm if possible. Be aware of your surroundings and avoid unlit roads, especially if you’re alone.
Don’t leave your passport as a deposit or guarantee when hiring motorcycles. There have been reports of rental companies arranging for rented motorcycles to be deliberately stolen or damaged resulting in the retention of the passport and payment of a heavy fine. Always make sure your travel insurance covers medical and other costs associated with motorcycle rental and accidents.
Local law enforcement responses to crimes, even violent crimes, are often limited. Foreigners attempting to report crimes have reported finding police stations closed, emergency telephone numbers unanswered, or police lacking transportation or authorisation to investigate crimes that occur at night.
Specific events or political disputes may trigger violent protests. You should avoid any demonstrations or large gatherings of people. Keep yourself informed of local developments.
Unexploded mines and ordinances are a hazard throughout Laos, and kill about 50 people each year. The risk is particularly high in Xieng Khouang Province (Plain of Jars), Luang Prabang Province and areas of the Lao-Vietnamese border, formerly the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Mined areas are often unmarked. Don’t stray off main routes in rural areas, and don’t pick up metal objects.
Take care near the border with Burma. This is a well-known drugs trade-route where armed groups operate.
There have been small-scale clashes between anti-government groups and government troops in isolated areas along the Lao-Thai border. The local law enforcement agencies have limited capability to counter these threats.
You should get permission from the village chief, district head, provincial governor or national tourism authority for any travel perceived as out of the ordinary, including business, extensive photography, or scientific research of any kind.
You may be stopped by the police at any time, particularly in the evening, and asked to show identification papers before being allowed to travel on. You should comply with requests to stop at checkpoints and roadblocks.
In 2016, there were a number of roadside attacks along Route 13 between Kasi and Phou Kon in Vientiane Province. Although the number of attacks on this route has decreased significantly since 2016, you should be vigilant and take extra care if you travel on this road.
There have been some incidents where tourists have had drinks or food spiked with drugs. Never leave food or drink unattended. Be careful about taking drinks from strangers at bars, clubs, restaurants and parties.
A list of recent incidents and accidents can be found on the website of the Aviation Safety network.
In 2015 the International Civil Aviation Organisation carried out an audit of the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in Laos.
We can’t offer advice on the safety of individual airlines. However, the International Air Transport Association publishes a list of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list does not necessarily mean that it’s unsafe.
A departure tax is now included in the price of the air ticket and is no longer paid separately in cash.
Roads in Laos are in poor condition and vehicles are not generally maintained to UK standards. Other road users might not show the same level of consideration as in the UK. Travel after dark significantly increases the risk of an accident as vehicles often do not have lights. Livestock also stray on to the roads causing accidents.
Motorbike rentals might not automatically provide a helmet. Take extra care when using public transport or shared vehicles, which might be overcrowded and unsafe. You can report road accidents to a dedicated police number +856 20 5666 9090.
If you are involved in a road accident you will have to pay compensation for third party property damage and injury, even if you are not at fault. As a general rule, the Lao authorities will overwhelmingly find in favour of Lao citizens, regardless of the situation. Lao insurers only meet a small proportion of the costs of an accident and will not cover this compensation.
Travel on the Mekong River by speedboat and slow-boat can be dangerous, especially when water levels are low. Make sure you travel with a company that provides lifejackets.
White water rafting, kayaking, tubing and other water-based activities, including swimming in the Mekong, are dangerous and incidents of drowning and serious injuries have been reported. Laos does not have the same health and safety expectations as in the UK. There might not be warning signs or safety advice provided, even where it’s needed. Take great care and check your travel insurance policy to ensure that you are covered for these activities.
Although there’s no recent history of terrorism in Laos, attacks can’t be ruled out. You should be aware of the global risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks which could be in public areas, including those frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.
There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
Find out more about the global threat from terrorism, how to minimise your risk and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack.
The information on this page covers the most common types of travel and reflects the UK government’s understanding of the rules currently in place. Unless otherwise stated, this information is for travellers using a full ‘British Citizen’ passport.
The authorities in the country or territory you’re travelling to are responsible for setting and enforcing the rules for entry. If you’re unclear about any aspect of the entry requirements, or you need further reassurance, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
You should also consider checking with your transport provider or travel company to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.
Visa conditions change regularly. For the most up to date information, contact the nearest Lao Embassy or Consulate.
You can get a visa on arrival for around US$35 or Thai Baht 1,500.00. You will need one passport photo. Alternatively, you can get a visa by contacting the Lao Embassy in London. Or if you are in the region, you can get a long-stay visa from the Lao Embassy in Bangkok or Hanoi.
When you enter Laos, make sure you get an entry stamp in your passport. Not having a legitimate entry stamp could lead to arrest or a large fine.
Overstaying your visa is a serious offence in Laos and the police are likely to issue heavy fines and detain those who are caught. Tourist visas can be extended 2 times and up to a total of 90 days. Tourists are required to check in with the immigration every 30 days in order to obtain this extension.
Recent changes to visa requirements for Thailand may affect travellers wishing to make regular crossings at the land border between Laos and Thailand. for further information.
Your passport should have at least 6 months’ validity remaining on your date of entry into Laos.
Additionally, be aware that a number of airlines will now only allow boarding of flights to Laos if you have two blank pages in your passport.
Yellow fever certificate requirements
Check whether you need a yellow fever certificate by visiting the National Travel Health Network and Centre’s TravelHealthPro website.
UK Emergency Travel Documents
UK Emergency Travel Documents are accepted for entry, airside transit and exit from Laos. If you’re planning to enter Laos using a UK Emergency Travel Document you should contact the nearest Lao embassy or consulate to get the appropriate visa before you travel.
If your passport has been lost or stolen, you must report the loss or theft to the nearest police station and get a police report. You’ll then need to get a certificate of loss from the Immigration Department in Vientiane which usually takes 1 to 2 working days.
After getting an Emergency Travel Document from the British Embassy, you’ll need to get an exit visa from the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs which takes up to 3 days.
At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the latest country-specific health advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website. Each country-specific page has information on vaccine recommendations, any current health risks or outbreaks, and factsheets with information on staying healthy abroad. Guidance is also available from NHS (Scotland) on the FitForTravel website.
General information on travel vaccinations and a travel health checklist is available on the NHS website. You may then wish to contact your health adviser or pharmacy for advice on other preventive measures and managing any pre-existing medical conditions while you’re abroad.
The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or purchased in the UK can be different in other countries. If you’re travelling with prescription or over-the-counter medicine, read this guidance from NaTHNaC on best practice when travelling with medicines. For further information on the legal status of a specific medicine, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
UK health authorities have classified Laos as having a risk of Zika virus transmission. For information and advice about the risks associated with Zika virus, visit the National Travel Health Network and Centre website
Medical care in Vientiane is extremely basic and outside the capital there are no reliable facilities to deal with medical emergencies. Medical evacuation is difficult to organise and very expensive. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.
There are no proper mental health services or care facilities in Laos. Professional treatment including medication is difficult and expensive to obtain. Emergency mental health treatment is likely to require transfer to a country offering appropriate facilities. Always make sure your travel insurance policy covers any pre-existing mental health conditions.
If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 1195 or 030 5257239 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment. You may be asked to pay for the use of an ambulance and any treatment you may require in advance. Usually you will get a receipt that can be used to claim on your insurance.
Voluntary ambulance services also operate in Vientiane free of charge. Make sure anyone attending an accident is wearing a uniform identifying themselves as ‘Vientiane Rescue’ or ‘Lao Red Cross’. There have been reports of bogus companies who aren’t trained in first aid charging for attending accidents.
Vientiane Rescue (telephone: 1623 or (0)20 5666 8825).
Lao Red Cross Rescue (telephone: +856 (0)20 5996 6111 or (0)20 2200 5563.
Please be aware that these phone lines and emergency services telephone numbers are not staffed by English speakers.
Water borne, food borne and other infectious diseases are common and serious outbreaks occur from time to time.
There have been outbreaks of avian influenza (also known as bird flu) in poultry in Laos. The risk to humans is very low, but as a precaution you should avoid contact with domestic, caged or wild birds and make sure poultry and egg dishes are thoroughly cooked.
Local laws and customs
Don’t get involved with drugs. There have been a number of occasions where British nationals have suffered fatal overdoses from very small quantities. Possession, trafficking and manufacture of drugs are serious offences. Those caught face lengthy prison sentences or the death penalty.
The Lao Government prohibits sexual relationships between foreign and Lao nationals, except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao family law. Permission for marriage or engagement to a Lao national must be submitted in a formal application to the Lao authorities. Penalties for engaging in prohibited sexual contact or failing to register a relationship range from US$500 to US$5,000 and may also involve imprisonment. It is not unknown for Lao authorities to demand entry into hotel rooms or guesthouses where they suspect this regulation is being broken.
There are no legal restrictions on same-sex sexual relations or the organisation of LGBT events in Laos. LGBT Pride was held by ‘Proud to be us Laos’ in 2012 and 2013. However, progress was stopped after their partner organisations became concerned about the reaction from government. Proud to be us Laos continue to raise awareness about LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS among the LGBT community. More local information can be found on their Facebook page. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.
Photographing or visiting military sites is prohibited and can result in arrest or detention. This includes photographing anything that can be perceived as a military site like bridges or airfields.
When visiting temples and religious sites, wear suitable clothing and be respectful of the Lao culture. For example refrain from photographing monks around temples and during alms giving ceremonies. Women should also cover their shoulders, including when swimming in waterfalls.
Conditions in prisons and other detention facilities are harsh, with limited access to healthcare. If a British national is arrested and detained in Laos, the Laos authorities must inform the British Embassy on the prisoner’s formal request. However, it can take several weeks or months for the British Embassy to be formally notified and the Embassy often learns of an arrest informally from friends or family.
The rainy season in Laos normally runs from May to November, coinciding with the typhoon season in South East Asia. Mountain areas are particularly vulnerable to landslides in the rainy season and flooding may occur along the Mekong river basins and elsewhere. The Mekong River Commission posts official updates on the Mekong River on their website. Travel to some provinces can be seriously disrupted during this time. Monitor local news and weather reports, and international weather updates from the World Meteorological Organisation.
Travel advice help and support
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London on 020 7008 1500 (24 hours).
Foreign travel checklist
Read our foreign travel checklist to help you plan for your trip abroad and stay safe while you’re there.
The FCO travel advice helps you make your own decisions about foreign travel. Your safety is our main concern, but we can’t provide tailored advice for individual trips. If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.
When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.
Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.
Refunds and cancellations
If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund. Many of them use our travel advice to help them reach these decisions, but we do not instruct travel companies on when they can or can’t offer a refund to their customers.
For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider and if you’re not happy with their response, you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Registering your travel details with us
We’re no longer asking people to register with us before travel. Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan your trip and stay safe.
Previous versions of FCO travel advice
If you’re a British national and you have a question about travelling abroad that isn’t covered in our foreign travel advice or elsewhere on GOV.UK, you can submit an enquiry. We’re not able to provide tailored advice for specific trips.