Laos , officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is one of the poorest nations in South-East Asia. 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.
Thailand promotes itself as amazing, Vietnam can well be described as bustling, Cambodia's Khmer temples are awe-inspiring, Myanmar's junta is barbaric... but the adjective most often applied to Laos is forgotten. Although there are a few grand (but relatively unheard of) attractions, those visitors who are drawn by the laid-back lifestyle and the opportunity to knock back a few cold Beerlao while watching the sunsets on the Mekong will simply explain the attraction by revealing that the true meaning of "Lao PDR" is Lao - Please Don't Rush.
Laos is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours. First created as an entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lane Xang ("Million Elephants"), the kingdom was initially a Khmer vassal state. After a succession dispute, the kingdom split in three in 1694 and was eventually devoured piece by piece by the Siamese, the last fragments agreeing to Siamese protection in 1885.
The area east of the Mekong, however, was soon wrenched back from Siam by the French, who wanted a buffer state to protect Vietnam, and set up Laos as a unified territory in 1907. Briefly occupied by Japan in 1945, a three-decade-long conflict was triggered when France wanted to retake its colony. Granted full independence in 1953, the war continued between a bewildering variety of factions, with the Communist and North Vietnam-allied Pathet Lao struggling to overthrow the French-leaning monarchy. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), this alliance led the United States to dump 1.9 million metric tons of bombs on Laos, mostly in the northeast stronghold of the Pathet Lao (for purposes of comparison, 2.2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Europe by all sides in World War II and unexploded ordinance still kills at least 1 person and 4 cows a day up there).
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and admission into ASEAN in 1997.
Despite being just one hour by air from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos has continued in much the same way it has for hundreds of years, although things are now slowly beginning to change. In the mid-90s the government reversed its stance on tourism, and then declared 1998 "Visit Laos Year" - but despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer, monks still outnumbered tourists throughout the country. This is now rapidly changing, with tourist numbers rising every year. Indeed, Vientiane is a laid-back, yet charmingly cosmopolitan village.
Despite its small population, Laos has no fewer than 49 officially recognized ethnic groups. About half of the population are Lao Loum, "lowland Lao" who live in the river plains. Officially, this group includes the Lao Tai, who are subdivided into numerous subgroups. The Lao Theung (20-30%), or "upland Lao", live on mid-altitude slopes (officially defined as 300-900m), and are by far the poorest group, formerly used as slave labor by the Lao Loum. The label Lao Sung (10-20%) covers mostly Hmong peoples who live higher up. In today's egalitarian People's Republic, this caste division has been formally abolished, but it still persists in real life. There are also an estimated 2-5% Chinese and Vietnamese, concentrated in the cities.
Laos is officially Buddhist, and the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang, has replaced the hammer and sickle even on the state seal. Still, there is a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci (also baasi) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participant's body before a long journey, after serious illness, the birth of a baby or other significant events.
Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long sarong available in many regional patterns, however many ethnic minorities have their own clothing styles. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a common sight. These days men dress Western style and only don the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays women often wear western-style clothing, though the "phaa sin" is still the mandatory attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also for Lao women just visiting).
Laos has three distinct seasons. The hot season is from March to May, when temperatures can soar as high as 40°C. The slightly cooler wet season is from May to October, when temperatures are around 30°C, tropical downpours are frequent (especially July-August), and some years the Mekong floods.
The dry season from November to March, which has low rainfall and temperatures as low as 15°C (or even to zero in the mountains at night), is "high season" (when the most tourists are in the country). However, towards the end of the dry season, the northern parts of Laos — basically everything north of Luang Prabang — can become very hazy due to farmers burning fields and fires in the forests.
Lao or Laos?
The people call themselves Lao and the language is Lao, so where did that "s" come from? The answer seems to be a mistranslation from French: somebody read royaume des Laos ("kingdom of the Lao people") as royaume de Laos ("kingdom of Laos"), and the name stuck. The politically correct form of the name, however, is Lao PDR and, should you have any incoming mail, using it will increase the odds of it passing the censors.
Russians, Japanese, Swiss and ASEAN nationals including Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines can enter Laos "visa free" ; all other tourists need a visa in the form of a tourist visa (for one or possibly two months) issued by a Lao embassy or consulate. A visa on arrival is also available to most people entering at the airports in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, as well as the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge between Nong Khai in Thailand and Vientiane. When applying for a tourist visa or to obtain a visa on arrival, one passport photo is required (although you may be able to pay a US$1 "fee" to have this requirement waived).
Prices range from US$30 to US$42 depending on nationality - Australians pay $30, Canadians US$42, Chileans US$30, Belgians US$30, British, Dutch US$35, Swedes US$31.
Visas can be obtained in advance from Lao embassies/consulates. The fee varies by nationality/embassy; US$20 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 1400B for most nationalities, plus 200B more for "same day" processing. It's cheaper and quicker to get one at the border.
There are Visa-on-Arrival facilities at the international airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, and at all border crossings (see below), including now overland from Cambodia (visa on arrival facilities opened at Voen Kham -north of Stung Treng, Cambodia- in February 2010). The cost varies between US$30 and $42 (if paid with US$ notes; paying with Thai baht will cost considerably more and border officials will not accept Lao kip at all). A US$1 "out of office hours/overtime" surcharge, and a small (possibly 10 baht to US$1) entry stamp fee, might also be charged.
Entry permit extensions (sometimes referred to as "visa extensions") are available from the Immigration Department in Vientiane (US$2 per day) and via agencies elsewhere in Laos (who will courier your passport to Vientiane and back again, around US$3 per day minimum of 7 days).
The international airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang are served by national carrier Lao Airlines and a few others, including Thai Airways , Bangkok Airways (Luang Prabang only) and Vietnam Airlines . Some seats on flights of Vietnam Airlines are reserved for Lao Airlines (codesharing / better price). Pakse is the third international airport, with flights to/from Siem Reap (Vientiane - Pakse - Siem Reap by Lao Airlines) and from/to Hochiminh city.
Laos used to be off-limits to low-cost carriers, however AirAsia now flies to Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur three times a week. Another cheap option for getting to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani in Thailand with discount airlines Nok Air or Air Asia and connect to Nong Khai and the Friendship Bridge via shuttle service directly from the airport (40 minutes); from here Vientiane is just 17 km away.
The long-awaited first link across the Mekong from the Thai town of Nong Khai to Tha Naleng near Vientiane finally opened in 2009. 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.
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.
Visa on arrival for Laos is now available (as of Feb 2010) when entering from Cambodia overland (previously was not available), with an official "Visa on Arrival" office incorporated into the checkpoint. The nearest Cambodian town is Stung Treng, and the border is a 90-minute speedboat or bus ride away. Note that the border is lightly used, with almost no onward public transport available at the border (therefore book through transport from Stung Treng to Ban Nakasang for Si Phan Don/Don Det) and both customs officers and transport providers have a reputation of gouging foreigners, although this seems to have improved recently (currently both Cambodian and Laos border officials request US$1 stamp fee per country). Crossing the border (Oct 2010) the Cambodia officers will ask for $1 for exit stamp.You can tell them you don't have any and they will still stamp it. On the Laos side they will demand $2 for entry stamp, if you refuse they will not stamp it, (you will need the stamp to get out), so you have no choice than to pay the bribe. Note if you cross the border by boat, you will have to return by road to the border checkpoint to officiate your arrival (ie. get your passport stamped) in Laos.
The land crossing between Mengla (Yunnan) and Boten (Laos) is open to foreigners and visa on arrival is possible ($37 for UK citizens) 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 8am and costs about 40 RMB.
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.
Foreigners cannot legally cross the Laos/Myanmar border.
There are seven border crossings open to all between Thailand and Laos. From north to south:
There are at least six border crossings that can be used by foreigners. These include:
Being in transit by air, road or river in Laos can be as rewarding as the destination itself - but allow plenty of leeway in your schedule for the near-inevitable delays, cancellations and breakdowns.
State carrier Lao Airlines has a near-monopoly on domestic flights, a dodgy safety history in the past, but a good safety record now. The fairly comprehensive network is by far the fastest (and, relatively speaking, the safest) way of reaching many parts of the country. As of 2009, the popular Vientiane-Luang Prabang route costs US$78 (one-way full fare for foreigners), but covers in 40 minutes what would take you at least six to eight hours by speedboat or bus, and is usually operated with ATR-72s. Flights to more remote destinations, though, are flown on the Xian MA60, a Chinese knockoff of the Soviet An-24, and are frequently cancelled without warning if the weather is bad or not enough passengers show up.
Lao Airlines also flies14-passenger Cessnas from Vientiane to Phongsali, Sam Neua and Sainyabuli (Xayabouly) several times a week. These airfields are all rudimentary and flights are cancelled at the drop of a hat if weather is less than perfect.
VIP, minibus or car?
Minibuses are quicker and more expensive, however that doesn't mean they are necessarily better. A typical VIP Bus is just an old bus by Western standards, and may be more prone to breakdowns, but they usually have more leg room which can make a long journey much more comfortable. Both types are usually air conditioned.
Even more expensive, but certainly the most convenient, is a rented car with driver. A car with a driver will cost around $95 USD per day. Some can even drive over the border to Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam. The cars can be arranged at tour agencies, tourist hotels and car rental companies. The cars are new, so they're reliable. They have the bonus of your being able to stop the car at any time for photos, nosing around a village or just stretching your legs.
The highways in Laos have improved in the past ten years, but the fact that 80% remain unpaved is a telling statistic. Still, the main routes connecting Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet are now sealed, and the transport options on these roads include bus, minibus, and converted truck.
Some common routes through Laos include:
Local transport (less than 20 km) in Laos consists of tuk tuks, jumbos and sky labs, motorised three or four wheelers. A jumbo should cost no more than 20,000 kip (about US$1) for short journeys of 1-5 km.
Boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are useful shortcuts for the horrible roads, although as the road network improves river services are slowly drying up, and many of the remaining services only run in the wet season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable. Huay Xai (on the border with Thailand) to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are the main routes still in use.
There are so-called slow boats and speedboats - the latter being tiny lightweight craft equipped with powerful motors that literally skid across the water at high speeds.
Many people go from Chiang Khong in Thailand via the border town of Houai Xai downstream the Mekong to the marvelous city (if you can call a 16000 capita place a city) of Luang Prabang. The ride takes basically two days and is very scenic. Apart from that, it is a floating backpacker ghetto with no (good) food sold, so bring some, cramped and considerably hot. It's your choice, but one of my fellow travellers remarked the second day 'no-one looks happy on this boat any more...' Be sure to bring a good (long) read, something soft for the wooden benches and your best patience.
An attractive choice for some, with a 6 hour ride from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, as compared to the two-day trip on the slow boat, but not for the faint of heart. Expect to be crammed into a modified canoe made for 4, with 10 other people, along with all the luggage somehow packed in. Expect to sit on the floor of the canoe, as there are no seats, with your knees against your chin for the full 6 hours. Expect an incredibly loud engine inches behind your head. Expect the engine to break a few times, and stops for delays to fix it. That being said, when this ride finally ends, if you make it with no trouble, you will never be happier to get to Luang Prabang. Stories of small, overloaded speedboats sinking or hitting driftwood are common, but if you are a good swimmer, take comfort in the fact that you can see both shores throughout the entire trip. So, as you see, choosing between the slow boat and the speedboat is a hard call, based mostly upon your comfort level; would you prefer a slow unpleasant trip, or a much faster, but more dangerous unpleasant trip. Either way, the scenery along the way is gorgeous and unexploited, and Luang Prabang is an incredible city, worth a thousand of these journeys.
January 1, 2007: There are unconfirmed reports that as of January 1, 2007, the Lao Government has banned the use of speedboats due to environmental concerns. Relying on speedboats for travel may not be an option, and further information should be investigated. However, in early December 2007 speedboats were still cruising the Mekong, operating the Vientiane-Paklay-Vientiane route on five days/week and the Luang Prabang-Huay Xai route.
Though helpful in saving time, speedboats are not without danger: built to carry 8 passengers, they are often overloaded; the engine noise is well above a healthy level, which could be a serious hazard to your ears, especially if you are on the boat for a long time (as well as causing considerable noise pollution, scaring wildlife and spoiling the peaceful river life); and fatalities resulting from capsize due to incautious maneuvering, or hitting floating logs or hidden rocks, have been reported (and exaggerated by competing slow boat owners, some say...) However, the vast majority of speedboat users have no serious problems. If you are taller than the average Laotian (many are), are a bit claustrophobic and/or have inflexible leg muscles you are guaranteed an extremely uncomfortable experience for several endless hours.
Suggestions for those who decide to take the risk:
Motorcycle travel in Laos is not without risks but the rewards of truly independent travel are great. There are several rental shops in Vientiane only and bike rentals in other parts of the country are few. Quality of machines varies from shop to shop so you need to fully inspect your new friend before you head out on the road. There are many good roads and many paved ones and touring Laos is done easily. Most bikes in Laos are Honda Baja or XR 250 dual purpose bikes and anything else is usually mechanically questionable. Helmets are not only mandatory in the country but a valuable item in a place where traffic rules are made up by the minute. Police have been cracking down on people who do no have a motorcycle license, so expect to pay a fine if caught without one.
There is an operator in Laos that offers not only bike rentals but full support and tour guidance for self drive trips, Remote Asia Travel based in Vientiane.
Cycling is a great option with quiet roads. Laos offers wonderful remote areas to discover, very little traveled roads, friendly people and even some companies providing cycling tours with the help of professional guides all over the country. The more time people seem to spent in Laos the more they seem to like the quiet travel mood and the opportunity to actually be in contact with the people along the way. Good maps are available about the roads in Laos and all major routes are with good roads. In normal distances you find simple guest houses and in all major towns better choices and restaurant. Food is not a problem as long as you remember to carry some stuff with you. Tropical fruits and noodle soup is one of the standards. There are a number of local operators running a wide selection of guided mountain biking tours through Laos:
A thing to note if you travel on your own...there are very few proper bike shops outside of Vientiane but also for bikes with 28 inches wheels you would have a hard time. Bring your equipment with you and make sure you get contact details to a supplier maybe from Thailand (Chiang Mai or Bangkok)
Some may prefer the speed of a motorbike, note that some roads are still not brilliant condition for a scooter due to the poor balance of those chinese imports.
The official language of Laos is Lao, a tonal language closely related to Thai. Thanks to ubiquitous Thai broadcast media most Lao understand Thai fairly well, but it's worth learning a few basic expressions in Lao. Most younger people prefer to learn English over other foreign languages in school, so young people generally know some basic English, though proficiency is generally poor. French, a legacy of the colonial days, still features on signs and is understood by some older people, but these days English is far more popular.
There are two main ways to turn the Lao script into the Latin alphabet: either French-style spellings like Houeisay, or English-style spellings like Huay Xai. While government documents seem to prefer the French style, the English spellings are becoming more and more common and are (naturally) easier for English speakers to read, so they're used on Wikitravel as well. Two quick pronunciation tips: Vientiane is actually pronounced "Wieng Chan", and the letter x is always read as a plain old "s".
Trekking in mountainous northern Laos is quite popular. The main hub for this is Luang Namtha. New trekking hubs include Oudomxay, just south of Luang Namtha and Pakse in southern Laos.
One Laotian experience definitely worth trying is the herbal sauna. Often (but not always) run by temples, these are simple-looking affairs, often just a rickety bamboo shack with a stove and a pipe of water on one side, usually open only in the evenings. The procedure for a visit usually goes like this:
The Lao currency is the kip, which is non-convertible (outside Laos), unstable and generally inflationary. As of March 2009, there are around 13,500 kip to the euro and 8500 kip (June 2010: 8,250 Kip) to the US dollar. Make sure that you get rid of all your kip before you leave the country (unless keeping a handful as a souvenir), since there will be no possibility to exchange it in other countries. The Vientiane airport for example will exchange your kip into dollars.
The largest note is only 50000 kip, the other notes in common circulation are 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 kip; withdrawing the maximum of 700,000 kip from an ATM (about US$70) could result in 70 notes of 10000 kip each. This makes carrying large quantities of kip quite inconvenient. Fortunately, there is little need to do so, as US$ are generally accepted (although typically at somewhat disadvantageous rates - about 5-10% less than the official rate is common), and Thai baht are also readily accepted in many areas near the border, notably Vientiane. For short visits to the main centres there's little point in exchanging kip, as changing them back is a hassle in Laos and impossible elsewhere. Beware though, that in remote places only kip is accepted and no ATMs will be available, so plan ahead.
More touristy places and banks are also starting to accept euro. So if you're from one of the euro countries, just bring some just in case. This could be cheaper than changing your euros into baht or US$ and then into kip.
There are now quite a few ATMs in Vientiane, and they have also appeared in other major cities including Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Savannekhet, Tha Khaek, Pakse and Luang Namtha. BCEL , the largest bank, accepts both Visa/Cirrus and MasterCard/Maestro, but surcharges of US$1-2 apply. Don't rely on ATMs outside Vientiane, since they're still rare and often unreliable — but if it doesn't work the first time, keep trying every few hours (they tend to get emptied in the course of the day, due to the huge numbers of notes withdrawn).
Many banks, travel agents and guest houses will allow you to take out cash from a credit card as a cash advance. This usually occurs by withdrawing the money in US$ from the card as a cash advance; the card issuer will usually charge a fee (about 3%), the Lao bank involved will charge about 3%, and then the agent providing the cash advance might (or might not) charge another 3%, and then the amount is converted from US$ to kip at a poor rate to the US$, costing another 5% or so - hence, overall, these transactions are much more expensive than the typical charge for withdrawing cash from ATMs in other countries. However, as for example euros get pretty bad rates compared to US$ when exchanged in Laos, getting a cash advance in US$ and changing it to kips might actually save money compared to bringing euros with you to Laos. Expats living in Vientiane routinely get cash from ATMs in Nong Khai or Udon Thani (Thailand), where the maximum per transaction is mostly 20000 baht, or ten times what you'll get in Laos.
The use of both ATMs and credit cards in banks is subject to computer functionality, staff's computer skills, power cuts, telephone network breakdowns, National Day, etc etc. A few travellers have been forced out of the country prematurely as they couldn't withdraw funds to further their travels. Always bring cash as well. Changing money can be next to impossible outside major towns.
Banks give good rates, but seem to abide in morbid fear that a tourist might stumble upon them and change money. To avoid this unpleasant eventuality, they ensure that the banking hours are very restricted and that both Laos and European holidays are fully observed, with generous buffer days between the official holiday and resuming work.
Many shops start an hour's lunch break at noon, and some maintain the (now abolished) official French two-hour break. Nearly everything is closed on Sundays, except restaurants and many shops.
US$20 a day is a good rule of thumb, though it's possible to get by on less than US$10. A basic room with shared bathroom can be as little as US$2 in Vang Vieng or as much as US$8 in Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Meals are usually under US$5 for even the most elaborate Lao, Thai or Vietnamese dishes (western food is more expensive), and plain local dishes can cost less than US$1. A local bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng costs US$2.50; the slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai costs US$20 for both days.
Typical Lao dresses in cheap machine-made fabric can be made to order. Expect to pay around US$5 for the fabric and US$2 for labour. Handmade Lao silk is one of the most attractive things to buy. The Talat Sao (Morning Market) in Vientiane has dozens of small shops selling 100% handmade silk scarves or wall hangings from US$5 upwards depending on quality, intricacy of design and size. Beware cheap synthetic fabrics sold as 'silk' imported from China and Vietnam. Be careful also of 'antique' silk. There is very little left but new fabric can be made to look old and worn. Still attractive, but don't pay more than US$30-50. In markets, always bargain: it is expected, but keep smiling...
Lao cuisine is very similar to the food eaten in the north-eastern Isaan region of Thailand: being very spicy, more often bitter than sweet, and using lots of fresh herbs and vegetables served raw. Some of the raw vegetables can be used to cool your mouth when the chilis are overwhelming.
Rice is the staple carbohydrate. The standard kind is sticky rice (ເຂົ້າໜຽວ khao niaow), eaten by hand from small baskets called tip khao. Using your right hand, pinch off a bit, roll into a ball, dip and munch away.
The national dish is laap (ລາບ, also larb), a "salad" of minced meat mixed with herbs, spices, lime juice and, more often than not, blistering amounts of chili. Unlike Thai larb, the Lao version can use raw meat (dip) instead of cooked meat (suk), and if prepared with seafood makes a tasty if spicy carpaccio.
Another favourite is tam maak hung (ຕໍາຫມາກຫຸ່ງ), the spicy green papaya salad known as som tam in Thailand, but which the Lao like to dress with fermented crab (ປູດອງ pudem) and a chunky, intense fish sauce called pa daek (ປາແດກ), resulting in a stronger flavor than the milder, sweeter Thai style. Other popular dishes include ping kai, spicy grilled chicken, and mok pa, fish steamed in a banana leaf.
In addition to purely Lao food, culinary imports from other countries are common. Khao jii pat-te, French baguettes stuffed with pâté, and foe (pho) noodles from China are both ubiquitous snacks particularly popular at breakfast. Note that foe can refer both to thin rice noodles (Vietnamese pho) as well as the wide flat noodles that would be called kuay tiow in Thailand.
The national drink of Laos is the ubiquitous and tasty Beer Lao, made with Laotian jasmine rice and one of the few Lao exports.It maintains an almost mythical status amongst travellers and world beer aficionados. The yellow logo with its tiger-head silhouette can be seen everywhere, and a large 640 ml bottle shouldn't cost more than 12,000 to 15,000 kip in restaurants. It's available in three versions: original (5%), Dark (6.5%) and Light (2.9%). The brewery claims they have 99% market share, yet you can get Carlsberg (from the same brewery) and Heineken (imported from Thailand) - but why would you? In 2008, Tiger Beer (Singapore) opened a brewery in Laos, and it is now also widely available in Vientiane and other cities.
Rice liquor, known as lao-lao, is everywhere and at less than US$0.30 per 750 ml bottle is the cheapest way to get drunk. Beware, as quality and distilling standards vary wildly.
Lao coffee (kaafeh) is widely reckoned to be amongst the best in the world. It's grown on the Bolaven Plateau in the south; the best brand is Lao Mountain Coffee. Unlike Thai coffees, Lao coffee is not adulterated with ground tamarind seed. To make sure you aren't fed overpriced Nescafé instead, be sure to ask for kaafeh thung. By default in lower end establishments, kaafeh lao comes with sugar and condensed milk; black coffee is kaafeh dam, coffee with milk (often, however, you'll get non-dairy creamer) is kaafeh nom.
Tap water is not drinkable, but bottled water is cheap and widely available.
There is not much nightlife outside of Vientiane and Vang Vieng. To have a beer in some places, simply visit a restaurant.
Accommodation options outside the Mekong Valley's main tourist spots are limited to basic hotels and guest houses, but there are many budget and mid-price hotels and guest houses and quite a few fancy hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Pakse has the Champasak Palace.
Lao work permits are difficult to obtain, unless you can secure employment with one of the numerous NGOs. English teaching is possible but poorly paid (US$5-8/hour).
Parts of Laos have a good deal of Malaria so anti-malarials are recommended if visiting those areas for an extended period, but check with health professionals: there is a high incidence of drug-resistant parasites in these parts. Other mosquito-born diseases, such as dengue, can be life-threatening, so make sure you bring at least 25% DEET insect repellent and ensure that you sleep with mosquito protection like nets or at least a fan. Vientiane seems to be malaria-free but not dengue-free. The mosquitoes that are active during the day carry dengue and those that are active in the evening carry malaria.
The usual precautions regarding food and water are wise. Bottled water is widely available.
Vientiane has several medical clinics associated with European embassies. Care in the clinics is up to First World standards. Otherwise, you probably have to go to Thailand for treatment of serious injuries and illnesses. Udon Thani and Chiang Mai are generally recommended; they're only a few hours away, depending on your location in Laos. Ubon Ratchathani and Chiang Rai might have suitable clinics, as well, and there's Bangkok, of course. Expatriates in Laos probably have the best information; the more upscale hotels can be good resources, as well. Medical travel insurance is a good idea.
Dress respectfully (long trousers, sleeved shirts) when visiting temples and take your shoes off before entering temple buildings and private houses.
As with other Buddhist countries, showing the soles of your feet is very poor manners. Never touch any person on the head. Despite prevelant cheap alcohol, being drunk is considered disrespectful and a loss of face.
Things in Laos happen slowly and rarely as scheduled. Keep your cool, as the natives will find humor in any tourist showing anger. They will remain calm, and venting your anger will make everybody involved lose face and is certainly not going to expedite things, particularly if dealing with government bureaucracy.
Respect for monks is part of Laotian life, and the monks take their duties seriously. Remember that monks are forbidden to touch women. Some undertake a vow of silence, and will not answer you even if they can understand and speak English. It is best not to compel them to stand next to you for a photograph, or start a conversation, if they seem reluctant.
Internet cafés can be found in larger towns, however access speeds are usually painfully slow. The most reliable connections are in Vientiane, and usually cost around 100 kip/minute, with the cheapest offering 4000 kip/hour. In many normal cafés they're offering free WiFi-access for your laptop, when you're consuming something (check first if it's really free). GPRS via mobile phone is also an option, if you have a local or Thai SIM.
Mobile phone usage in Laos has mushroomed, with four competing GSM operators. Two of these offer roaming services. Calling people on the same network is always cheaper than calling another network, but there is no clear market leader. Tourist and expats tend to prefer Tigo or M-phone (Laotel), while locals could have any of the four networks.
Local prepaid SIM cards can be purchased in various shops and stores without any paperwork (at least for M-Phone and Tigo).
Also, there is Thai GSM coverage close to Thai border (including a significant part of Vientiane), and Thai SIM cards and top-up cards can be bought in Laos; in addition, DeeDial International Call Cards are available. Thus, if you already have Thai number, you can use (generally cheaper) Thai network and/or avoid buying one more SIM. However, beware - if your Thai SIM has International Roaming switched on, your phone will use Lao network when your Thai network is not available, and the roaming charges will be significantly higher.
Postal service in Laos is slow but is reliable.