Laos - General Information

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LAOS also known as LAO PDR - GENERAL INFORMATION

Laos (officially know as the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic or Lao PDR) is a landlocked country covering 236,800 square kilometers in the centre of the Southeast Asian peninsula. Surrounded by Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and China, its geographical position has often made it a buffer between neighboring states, as well as a crossroads for trade and communication. Laos lies entirely within the tropical belt of the northern hemisphere and has a monsoonal climate. The Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand, while the mountains of the Annamite Chain form most of the eastern border with Vietnam.

The topography of the Lao PDR is largely mountainous, with elevations above 500 meters, and is typically characterized by steep terrain, narrow river valleys and land of low agricultural potential. In the southern part of the country there are large level areas in the provinces of Savannakhet and Champasack. These areas are well suited for extensive paddy rice cultivation and livestock rearing. The alluvial plains and terraces of the Mekong and its tributaries together cover only about 20% of the land area with the overall arable land being an estimated 4 - 5% of the country’s surface.

In 2007 Laos consisted of sixteen provinces and one municipality. Each province is further subdivided into districts amounting to a total number of 139. In 1994 a so-called special zone, “Ketphiset Xaisomboun” was established with 5 districts which was located between Vientiane and Xiengkhuang provinces. At the end of 2005, however, this zone was abolished and the five districts were joined to their original provinces again. Longsan, Xaysomboun, Phun, and Hom districts were added to Vientiane province while Thathom district was attributed to Xiengkhuang province.


Overview of the country with its provinces
Over the years there have been considerable changes in the number of districts. While the Population and Housing Census of 1995 reported 133 districts, this number increased to 141 in 2005 as a result of the addition of 8 new districts. Two new districts (Et and Sopbao) were created in Huaphanh in the north and one new district (Thomgmixai) in Xayabuly. In Vientiane province three districts (Met, Hinherb and Keo-Oudom) were created. Finally, in Savannaket two districts (Xaiphouthong and Phalanxai) were added. It was only in 2006 that the number of districts was again reduced to 139, when Phun district was merged with Xaysomboun district and Longsan district was merged with Hom district. In 2008 the Meun district in Vientiane Province and just recently Kwan/Kouan district was created in Huaphan Province in the North.
The north of the Lao PDR is dominated by high mountains. At 2,818 meters above sea level, Phou Bia is the highest while the average heights in this region are about 1,500 meters. The Phou Luang (the Annamite chain) stretches from the Phouane Plateau along the Vietnamese border down to the Cambodian border. In the north of the central region of the country, there is the Xiengkhuang Plateau or the Plain of Jars, an area of extensive rolling grasslands rather than a true plain. Caverns and eroded limestone pinnacles are found in the central provinces of Borikhamxay and Khammuane while the Bolaven Plateau in the south, at an elevation of about 1,100 meters, is covered by open woodland and fertile soils allowing for intensive agriculture.

Language
A member of the Tai Kadai (or just Kadai) language group, Lao is tonal, very similar to its Thai cousin. In fact there are more Lao speakers in Thailand's northeastern border lands of Isaan than there are in Laos. The two languages are so similar that Thai television and radio have become very popular among the Lao people.

Religion
The main religion is Buddhism. The Lao practice Theravada of the "small vehicle" which spread through Laos between the 14th and 17th centuries. The ideal situation is to reach Nirvana without going through re-incarnation. So for the Lao doing good deeds rather than bad ensures salvation. The monks are held in high esteem and treated with great respect. Please observe the proper rules of dress. Ladies must wear a dress or at least a suitably long skirt and shoulders should be covered. For men, wearing long pants is recommended. Shoes must be removed at the temple entrance. If you have to sit down avoid pointing your feet forward. If your joints allow it, fold your legs beneath you and keep your feet towards your back. In Laos however, Buddhism and Animism exist side by side. The Lao people believe in "Phi" which means spirit, soul, ghost. Any Laotian will be able to tell you stories about what a "Phi" can do to you. They are everywhere: good, bad, mischievous and can "reside" in trees, animals, houses and people. To protect themselves and show respect, people build a "spirit house", a small altar which, after consultations with people who are "close to the world of spirits" is placed in a precise spot, in front of the house or in the garden. The "spirit house" is always sheltered from the sun and offerings of food and drinks are made to keep the spirit pacified.

Social Rules
The Lao people greet each other with a prayer-like gesture called a nop. A younger person or a person of lower status will nop their elder or social superior. The western custom of shaking hands has become more common in recent years - though a smile and a slight bow of the head is still considered polite. Backslapping, public displays of affection, shouting, and wild gesticulation are all considered impolite.

The head is considered the highest part of the body, while the feet are considered the lowest, both literally and figuratively. Touching someone's head or pointing at people or things with the feet are, therefore, considered extremely rude. As with entering temples, shoes are removed before entering somebody's home.

Health
The health situation has improved significantly over the last few years although there is still a lot to do. Dengue Fever and Malaria are quite common so better take precautions like wearing long sleeved shirts, long pants during the evening and use mosquito nets to sleep under in particular in the smaller of-the-beaten places. Food/Drinking Water based illnesses are common so watch what you eat and drink. Most of the common problems can be treated in a number of Vientiane hospitals (Mahosot, Setthathrirat and the Mahosot International Clinic) or in hospitals or dispensaries in the provinces. In serious cases or for practical reasons (insurance coverage for instance) you may prefer to be treated in Thailand at Nong Khai, Udon Thani or Khon Kaen which will save you a trip to Bangkok. For some of the better medical facilities in Laos see: medical-services/medical-facilities-in-laos-t886.html

Money
The official currency in Laos is Kip. 254 Kip for 1 Thai Baht. 7,987 Kip for 1 US$. 10,068 Kip for 1 Euro. Banknotes of 500, 1000, 2000, 10000, 20000, 50000 and 100000 are available. Thai baht and US dollars are freely accepted in big towns, but less so in rural areas. So who will take your Euros? Banks are open from Monday to Friday from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM, as in Europe. Most credit cards are accepted in upscale hotels and in a few shops and restaurants in Laos. Most Laos based banks have ATM machines in the bigger cities as well as in most of the larger district capitals and some of these will accept international bank cards (generally only in the big cities like Vientiane, Luang Prabang, etc. - look for the sign INTERNATIONAL ATM) as well as some of the Credit Cards. The largest amount you can withdraw with an International Bank Card is 2 million Kip (about 250 USD or about 8000 Baht)

Local Time
Laos is 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time which is the same as its neighbors Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Working Hours
Government offices and banks are generally open Monday to Friday from 08:00-11:30 and 13:30-16:00. However, things move slow in Laos and these working hours are flexible or, as someone wrote on her blog:
[attachment=0:1fzx40vv]Laos Working Hours.JPG[/attachment:1fzx40vv]​

Fuel
Along the main roads and in cities fuel is available from regular fuel stations but in smaller places and in remote areas fuel is often sold along the road side either sold from a drum or in bottles with prices some 30-50% higher than what you would have to pay at regular fuel stations. Late May 2012 petrol stations in Vientiane were selling Premium petrol (Octane 95) for 12,170 kip per liter and Regular petrol (Octane 91) for 10,790 kip per liter, while diesel has remained steady at 9,630 kip per liter. Fuel prices in the other provinces vary depending on transport costs. Please note that premium petrol (95 Octane) is only available in Vientiane and only from some stations. All other fuel stations sell only Regular petrol (91 Octane) and Diesel fuel. For the latest fuel prices and availability of fuel types go to http://laostatefuel.com/ and select the province you are interested in.

Transport and Road System in Laos
A modern transportation system including highways, bridges, and airports is quickly growing in Laos. In 2007 the country had 21,716 km of main roads, of which 9,673 km were paved. Most of the road system still consists of unpaved tracks and trails which, in the rainy season (normally from May to October), often makes transport difficult. During the rainy season the unpaved tracks can get very muddy or even washed away and river crossings, in places where there is no bridge nor a ferry, often become difficult or become impossible to cross.

There are several bridges over the Mekong River, which forms a large part of the border between Laos and Thailand, with the first Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (Saphan Mitthaphap) which opened on 8 April 1994 linking Vientiane with Nong Khai in Thailand. The second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge linking Savannakhet with Mukdahan in Thailand was officially opened on December 19, 2006, although the bridge only opened to the general public on January 9, 2007. The Third Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong is a bridge that connects Nakhon Phanom Province in Thailand with Thakhek, Khammouane in Laos. The bridge's foundation stone was laid on March 6, 2009, and it opened for traffic on November 11, 2011. The Fourth Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge is being constructed at the moment over the Mekong River to link Houayxay in Laos with Chiangkhong (Chiangrai Province) in Thailand and, according to the official plans, will open in December 2012 but most probably will only open in 2013 as there have been quite a few delays. In addition to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridges there is also the Lao-Nippon Bridge which crosses the Mekong at Pakse (Pakxe) in Chapassack Province in South Laos. This bridge was opened in 2000.

There is a short railway, a 3.5 km extension of the Thai railway network, running across the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Thanaleng in Laos. A 12 km extension to Vientiane Capital will be completed in the near future. A high-speed railway is being planned to run from Boten in the North (linking with the Chinese railway system) to Vientiane where it will link with the Thai railways system. There are 52 airports but only 9 have paved runways. In addition to Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, direct international flights operate from Luang Prabang and from Pakxe to neighboring countries.


The Road Development Plan up to 2020 showing the road numbers as well as when things are expected to be ready. However, this is just the plan and what is shown here in reality may or may not be there (apologies for the bad quality of the picture).

For the latest information on roads and ongoing road construction activities in Laos please go to: laos-ride-reports/road-development-and-road-construction-in-laos-t118.html

Safety
Vientiane and the rest of the country is generally a safe place, however common sense and caution should be applied. For example, do not leave unattended bags around 2 wheeled vehicles. Although minor crimes such as pick pocketing are rare, they can ruin your trip so be vigilant. When staying in a hotel or Guesthouse it is best to make sure that your bike is parked safely, preferably "locked up" behind a gate. When you ride a motor cycle, wear a helmet, even if it is hot - remember it is compulsory to use a helmet while riding a motorbike in Laos and the cops are out there and more than happy to relieve you of some hard-earned Kip.
In case you are in need of help or assistance you can try to call the local equivalent to the “911” emergency lines which in Laos are 190 for fire, 191 for traffic police, and 195 for ambulance. Best is to have someone who speaks the Lao Language call for you as English is not widely spoken. The Tourist Police can be reached in Vientiane at 021-251128 and is located in the same building as the Lao National Tourism Administration (see Useful Contacts). In Luang Prabang the Tourist Police can be reached at 071-254568 or 030-5140195 and they are located next to the Provincial Tourism Department.

The number of road accidents and fatalities in Laos has risen sharply in the last decade as the number of motor vehicles has increased. Foreigners involved in traffic accidents have been barred from leaving Laos before paying compensation for property damage or injuries, regardless of who was at fault. A driver involved in a traffic accident should remain at the scene and attempt to contact the police and/or the head of the village and wait for them to arrive to prepare an accident report. If renting a car or motorcycle, contact the rental company and its insurance agent. If there is major damage, injury, or death, contact the Consular Section at your Embassy in the country (see Useful Contacts) or, in case your country has no embassy in Laos, contact the Embassy which represents your country in Laos.

Border Crossings
Laos has several international border crossings as well as numerous local border crossings which are closed for foreigners and can only be used by the local people. For information on some of the border crossings, etc. please go to: laos-ride-reports/laos-international-border-crossings-t117.html


Overview of the International Border Crossings in Laos

Maps
There are a variety of maps available for Laos as well Lao city maps. Unfortunately most are not very good nor very accurate. Those who travel extensively in Laos seem to prefer the "Reise Know-How" maps (in German) which are also available in digital format and the Gecko Map for Laos as both have Lat/Lon lines on them and both are using a scale of 1:600,000 so you have better details. The Laos GT Rider map is also good but does not have Lat/Lon lines and has a scale of 1:1,650,000. The latter map is laminated unlike the other 2 maps which are printed on paper. Maps are available in Laos from the better bookshops and can be ordered also from Omni Maps http://www.omnimap.com/catalog/int/laos.htm The Riders Corner Bar and Restaurant in Chiangmai sells also the Gecko Map for Laos & http://www.riderscorner.net/

Garmin GPS compatible maps are available from Riders Corner Bar and Restaurant in Chiangmai http://www.laosgpsmap.com/ purchase as well as from Eagle GPS also based in Chiangmai - http://eaglegps.co.th/index.php/lang-th/maps?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage.tpl&product_id=85&category_id=12 The maps sold by the former are geared towards the hard-core off-road riders while the latter are more suitable for the general tourists.

Warnings
Photography and Other Restrictions: If you photograph anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest - including bridges, airfields, military installations, government buildings or government vehicles - you may be detained or arrested, and local authorities may confiscate your camera. Be cautious when traveling near military bases and strictly observe signs delineating military base areas. Lao military personnel have detained and questioned foreigners who have unknowingly passed by unmarked military facilities.

Relationship with Lao Citizens: Lao law prohibits sexual contact between foreign citizens and Lao nationals except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao Family Law. Any foreigner who enters into a sexual relationship with a Lao national risks being interrogated, detained, arrested, or fined. Lao police have confiscated passports and imposed fines of up to $5,000 on foreigners who enter into unapproved sexual relationships. The Lao party to the relationship may be jailed without trial. Foreigners are not permitted to invite Lao nationals of the opposite sex to their hotel rooms; police may raid hotel rooms without notice or consent.

Identification: When traveling in Laos, it is important to travel with your passport at all times. Copies of your passport and visa are acceptable, and it is actually recommended to travel with a copy rather than the original, as this makes you less vulnerable. You may be asked to show ID at any time, and a fine (100,000kips) will be imposed if you do not produce documentation on request.

Drugs are a large problem in Laos and should be avoided at all costs. Lao law makes little distinction between personal use and trafficking and any conviction will result in heavy fines and expulsion at best and imprisonment or even execution at worst. Methamphetamine is widespread and often offered in "special" or "happy" shakes along the backpacker trail. Be extremely cautious of tuk-tuk drivers offering to sell you drugs, as they often collaborate with the police or a police impersonator to "shake down" ($500 is the common "fine") unsuspecting tourists. Keep in mind that often times Lao police dress as civilians (undercover).

Landmines or unexploded ordinance left over from the Vietnam War maims or kills hundreds of people every year as Laos is the most bombed country in history. Almost all of these occur in the eastern and northern parts of the country, especially near the border with Vietnam. Never enter areas marked as minefields and travel only on paved roads and well-worn paths. If you are unsure of which areas are safe, ask the locals.

Some Basic Statistics (source: The US Department of State)

Nationality: Noun and adjective - Lao (sing. and pl.).
Population (2012 est., from 2005 Census): 6.5 million.
Annual population growth rate (2011 est.): 1.7
Ethnic groups (The 2005 Census identified 49 ethnic groups): Tai-Kadai language family (6 ethnic groups) - 65% Austro-Asiatic (Mon-Khmer and Viet-Muong) language family (30 ethnic groups) - 24% Hmong-Yao (2 ethnic groups) - 8%; Tibeto-Burman (8 ethnic groups) - 3%; other ethnic groups (including Vietnamese and Chinese) - 0.9%.
Religions: Buddhism - 67%; Christianity -1.5%; Baha’i and Islam - <1%; Others (principally animism) - 30.9%.
Languages: Lao (official), English, French, and various ethnic languages.
Literacy rate: 73%.
Health (2005 Census): Infant mortality rate - 70/1,000. Life expectancy (2011, UNDP) - 67.5 years.
Work force: 3.691 million in the year 2010: Agriculture 75.1%; Industry 5.5%; Services 19.5%.

Useful Contacts
Addresses and contact details of Embassies in Laos as well as Lao Embassies abroad can be found here: http://www.tourismlaos.org/web/show_content.php?contID=15
The Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA) is based in Vientiane and can be found here: Lane Xang Avenue, P.O.Box: 3356, Ban Hatsady, Chanthabouly District, Vientiane Capital.
Tel: (856-21) 212248, 212251 - Fax: (856-21) 212769, 217910. E-mail : tmpd_lnta@yahoo.com - Websites: http://www.tourismlaos.org or http://www.tourismlaos.gov.la and/or http://www.trekkingcentrallaos.com
 
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