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Thanks to Khoa Viet Travel agency and thanks Uyen our very good French-speaking guide.

April 2015 Two weeks from Hanoï to the mountain valleys of Vietnam’s far north, home to ..

Laos

Laos


Laosin Brief

The Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos is located in the center of Indochina, sharing borders with China to the North 416 kilometers, Myanmar to Northwest 236 kilometers, Thailand to the West 1,835 kilometers, Cambodia to the South 492 kilometers and Vietnam to the East 1,957 kilometers.

With a total area of 236,800 square kilometers, around 70% of Laos' terrain is mountainous, reaching a maximum elevation of 2,820 meters in Xieng Khouang Province. The landscapes of northern Laos and the regions adjacent to Vietnam, in particular, are dominated by rough mountains.

The Mekong River is the main geographical feature in the west and, in fact, forms a natural border with Thailand in some areas. The Mekong flows through nearly 1,900 kilometers of Lao territory and shapes much of the lifestyle of the people of Laos. In the South the Mekong reaches a breadth of 20 kilometers, creating an area with thousands of islands.

Location and Terrain

The Lao P.D.R. is located in the heart of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It lies between latitude 14 to 23 degrees North and longitude 100 to 108 degrees East. It is the only Southeast Asian country without direct access to the sea, stretching North to South 1,700 kilometers.

Laos encompasses a total of 236,800 square kilometers with the terrain characterized by three distinct regions - mountains, plateaus, and plains. The mountains and plateaus make up three-quarters of the total area.

High mountains rising to an average height of 1,500 meters dominate the Northern region. The three highest mountains in the country are all located in the Phou Ane Plateau in Xieng Khouang Province. They are Phou Bia at 2,820 meters, Phou Xao at 2,690 meters and Phou Xamxum at 2,620 meters. The Phou Luang (Annamite Range) stretches from Southeast on the Phouane Plateau down to the Cambodian border; the others are the Nakai Plateau in Khammouane Province and the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos, which is over 1,000 meters above sea level.

The plain region consists of large and small plain areas distributed along the Mekong River. The Vientiane Plain, the largest, is situated on the lower reaches of the Nam Ngum River. The Savannakhet Plain is situated on the lower reaches of the Sebangfai River and Sebanghieng River, while the Champasack Plain on the Mekong River stretches out to the Thai and Cambodian borders. Blessed with rich and fertile soil, these plains represent one quarter of the total area known as the granaries of the country.

The Lao PDR is criss-crossed with a myriad of rivers and streams. The largest is the Mekong River, flowing for 1,898 kilometers from the North to the South, with 919 kilometers of the river forming the major portion of the border with Thailand. It is estimated that some 60% of all the water entering the Mekong River system originates in Laos. These rivers and streams provide great potential for hydropower development with 51% of the power potential in the lower Mekong basin contained within Laos.

Time


The time in Laos is 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT +7).

Climate


Most of the year is hot and humid. Laos enjoys a tropical climate with two distinct seasons. The rainy season is from the beginning of May to the end of September, and the dry season is from October through April. The yearly average temperature is about 28 degrees Celsius, rising to a maximum of 38 degrees Celsius during April and May.

In Vientiane a minimum temperature of 19 degrees Celsius is to be expected during January. In mountainous areas, however, temperature drops to as low as 14-15 degrees Celsius during the winter months, and during cold nights, can easily reach the freezing point. The average precipitation is highest in Southern Laos, where the Annamite Mountains receive over 3,000 mm. annually. In Vientiane rainfall is about 1,500-2,000 mm., and in the Northern provinces only 1,000-1,500 mm.

When to visit

- The best time to visit Laos is between November and April.
- The hot season from March to May is very dry and certain river trips are not possible.

Flora and Fauna


Laos has one of the most pristine natural landscapes in Southeast Asia. An estimated half of its woodlands consist of primary forest, in particular the tropical rainforest. Unlike the vegetation that grows in the climate of Europe and the United States, tropical rainforest is composed of three vegetative layers. The top layer features single-trucked, high-reaching trees called dipterocarps. The middle canopy consists of hardwood such as teak. Beneath, small trees, grass and sometimes bamboo can be found.

In addition to its fascinating vegetation, Laos plays host to a diverse animal kingdom. Several exotic mammals are endemic such as leopard cats, Javan mongoose, goat antelopes as well as rare species of gibbons and linger, Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear and gaur. The discovery of the Saola Ox, a breed of deer-antelope, in Vietnam a few years ago caused a great sensation. This extremely rare animal inhabits the Eastern border regions of Laos. It is thought that these remote areas probably still hide other unknown species.

In Southern Laos, near Khong Island, Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit the Mekong River. While many species of wildlife are shy and can rarely be seen, spectators will generally be able to spot the dolphins in Springtime when the water level of the Mekong is lowest. Laos is also rich in resident and migrating birds. One of the more notable ones is the rare Green Peafowl. Lao religious images and art is also distinctive and sets Laos apart from its neighbors. The “Calling for Rain” posture of Buddha images in Laos, for example, which depicts the Buddha standing with his hands held rigidly at his side, fingers pointing to the ground, can not be found in other Southeast Asian Buddhist art traditions. Religious influences are also pervasive in classical Lao literature, especially in the Pha Lak, Pha Lam, the Lao version of India’s epic Ramayana.

Projects are underway to preserve classic Lao religious scripts, which were transcribed onto palm leaf manuscripts hundreds of years ago and stored in Wats.

History

Stone tools discovered in Houaphanh and Luang Prabang provinces attest to the presence of prehistoric man in the hunter-gatherer stage in Lao territory from at least 40,000 years ago. Agriculturist society seemed to appear during the 4th millennia B.C. as evidence has been found by archeologists. Burial jars and other kinds of sepulchers have revealed a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 B.C. and iron tools were known since 700 B.C.

The proto-historic period is characterized by contact with Chinese and Indian civilizations. Between the fourth and eighth century, communities along the Mekong River began to form into townships, called Muang. This development culminated in the formation of the Lane Xang (million elephant) Kingdom in 1353 by King Fa Ngum and established Xieng Thong (now known as Luang Prabang) as the capital of Lane Xang Kingdom.

The Kingdom was further expanded by King Fa Ngum's successors, one of the most notable being King Setthathirath who ruled from 1548-1571. He moved the capital to Vientiane and built the That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine, and a temple to house the Pra Keo, the Emerald Buddha.

In the 17th Century, under the reign of King Souliyavongsa, the Lane Xang Kingdom entered it's most illustrious era. The country established first contacts with Europeans. In 1641, a Dutch merchant of the East India company, Geritt Van Wuysthoff, and later, the Italian missionary Leria de Marini, visited the Kingdom of Lane Xang and described Vientiane as the "most magnificent city of Southeast Asia".

This golden age was followed by in-fighting for the throne, which led to the break-up of Lane Xang into the three kingdoms: Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champasack. All of these civil wars weakened the kingdom, thus creating opportunities for new foreign aggressors to invade.

The unsuccessful challenge of the Siamese by King Anouvong resulted in the virtual destruction of Vientiane. The Siamese took the Emerald Buddha to Bangkok where it remains today.

Laos was put under the French administration in 1893. To recover its full rights and sovereignty, the Lao people started fighting against the French regime. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of Indochina (founded in 1930), the struggle for self-determination and independence gained importance. Finally, the long period of military and political upheaval culminated with the International Conference and the Geneva Agreement on Indochina in 1954 where the independence of Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia were recognized.

The situation worsened during the Vietnam War, even though the Geneva Accord of 1962 had recognized the neutrality of Laos and forbade the presence of all foreign military personnel. By bombing the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail across Laos, US forces dropped more bombs on Laos than they did worldwide during World War II .

Laos remains the most heavily bombed nation in history. This was particularly the case in Houaphanh and Xieng Khouang Provinces, where international teams are still clearing the terrain of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) and people continue to suffer from the legacy of war.

In 1975, under the leadership of the Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party, victory was achieved. After the Lao people gained power in a bloodless take-over, establishing the People's Democratic Republic on December 2nd. It was the culmination of a successful struggle for national liberation and a reinstatement of independence.

At present the multi-ethnic Lao people are making efforts to defendant develop Laos in line with the new policy of the Party and government in order to lead the country to progress and prosperity.

People and population

- Population: 6.2 million.
- Density: 23 people/square kilometer.
- The population consists of 49 ethnic groups, in 4 main linguistic.

Families
  1. The Lao-Tai Family includes 08 ethnic groups: Lao, Phouthai, Tai, Lue, Gnouane, Young, Saek and Thai Neua.
  2. The Mon-Khmer Family includes 32 ethnic groups: Khmu, Pray, Singmou, Khom, Thene, Idou, Bid, Lamed, Samtao, Katang, Makong, Try, Trieng, Ta-oi, Yeh, Brao, Harak, Katou, Oi, Krieng, Yrou, Souai, Gnaheune, Lavy, Kabkae, Khmer, Toum, Ngouane, Meuang and Kri.
  3. The Tibeto-Burmese Family includes 07 ethnic groups: Akha, Singsali, Lahou, Sila, Hayi, Lolo and Hor.
  4. The Hmong-Loumien category has 02 main tribes: Hmong and Loumien (Yao).These multi-ethnic people are scattered across the country each with their own unique traditions, culture and language
Language

The official language is Lao. Other languages used are French, English. Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.

Religion


Buddhism first appeared in Laos during the eighth century A.D., as shown by both the Buddha image and the stone inscription found at Ban Talat near Vientiane, now exhibited at Hor Pra keo Museum. After the foundation of the unified Kingdom of Lane Xang, King Fa Ngum (14th Century) declared Buddhism as the state religion and urged the people to abandon Animism or other beliefs such as the Cult of Spirits. His policy meant to develop the Lao culture based on a common faith: Theravada Buddhism.

Today, Theravada Buddhism is the professed religion of about 90% of Lao people. Buddhism is an inherent feature of daily life and casts a strong influence on Lao society. Lao woman can be seen each morning giving alms to monks, earning merit to lessen the number of their rebirths. It is expected that every Lao man will become a monk for at least a short time in his life.

Traditionally, men spent three months during the rainy season in a Wat (Buddhist temple). Today, however; most men curtail their stay to one or two weeks.

Visiting and entering temples

When visiting temples (call "Wat") you must be dressed decently and remove your shoes before you enter the religious buildings. Avoid wearing short and sleeveless shirts. Be deferential in front of objects in the pagodas.

When entering a Wat or a private home, it is customary to remove one’s shoes. In Lao homes raised off the ground, the shoes are left at the stairs. In traditional homes, one sits on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men usually sit with their legs crossed or folded to one side, women prefer solely the latter. Upon entering, guests may be served fruit or tea. These gestures of hospitality should not be refused.

Since the head is considered the most sacred part of the body and the soles of feet the least, one should not touch a person’s head nor use one’s foot to point at a person or any object. Moreover, men and women rarely show affection in public. It is also forbidden for a woman to touch a Buddhist monk.

Laotian food is based on fish, buffalo meat, pork, poultry and especially herbs. It is always being freshly prepared and not being preserved. Other than sticky rice, which can be eaten either sweet or sour, or fermented and is eaten with fingers, Laotian food is very rich in vegetables and is often browned in coconut oil.

Rice is the staple of Laotian food. Lap is a traditional dish. It consists of minced meat accompanied by citronella, onions, and spices and mixed with a fish sauce and roasted rice. Lap means "happiness and luck". The sticky rice is always served with the hot sauce or a spicy fish or shrimp based sauce.

Laotian cooking not only uses cultivated vegetables, but often wild fruit or vegetables picked from the forests are used as well. Laotian food has a unique flavor and some dishes can be spicy to the un accustomed foreigner. Clothing During the hot season, January to April, bring light clothes in cotton and linen, sunglasses and a hat all year long. Sunscreen and bug repellant is also recommended. From November to December, the cold season, it is a good idea to bring warm clothing such as sweaters and jackets for the morning and evening, and even more so if you are visiting the mountainous regions of the North. From May to October, during the rainy season, it is best to have waterproof clothing. It is best to wear easily removable shoes or sandals when visiting the temples.

Electricity

Electric current: 220 volts.

Currency

The Kip is the official currency of the Lao PDR and the following bank

notes are currently in circulation: 500; 1,000; 2,000; 5,000; 10,000; 20,000 and 50,000 Kip.

The best currencies to use when exchanging money are: US Dollars, Euros and Thai Baht. You can exchange your currency at the bank, airport, or at a foreign currency exchange office.

Credit Cards

Visa is the most common. Master Card and American Express are accepted at most banks in the larger towns (such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang), and in the big hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Common Courtesies

Lao people are frank, open and friendly, and they possess a strongly developed sense of courtesy and respect. Everyone who adheres to the latter will receive a warm welcome.

The generally accepted form of greeting among Lao people is the Nop. It is performed by placing one’s palms together in a position of praying at chest level, but not touching the body. The higher the hands, the greater the sign of respect. Nonetheless, the hands should not be held above the level of the nose. The nop is accompanied by a slight bow to show respect to persons of higher status and age. It is also used as an expression of thanks, regret or saying good-bye. But with western people it is acceptable to shake hands.

The feet form the inferior part of the body (as much spiritually as physically). You must never indicate or touch another person or object with your foot.

Photography

Films can be found in shops in the larger towns, also if you need a digital download service for your digital camera it is also available.

Purchases

Silk and cotton fabrics, objects made from wood (sculptures, cut-out figures), pottery and traditional instruments are part of the rich tapestry of Laotian craftsmanship.

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