A practical guide to Laos
National holidays and celebrations
Laos' beautiful landscapes and laid-back atmosphere give it a definite holiday feel for visitors throughout the year. However, during its many lively national festivals, the country's vibrant side can be seen, making these a great time to visit.
Largely linked to farming seasons and Buddhist holidays, Lao 'boun' (the local word for festival) often run on longer than their official dates. The Lao people love to celebrate, so holidays frequently begin early and continue for as long as possible! They include the Boun Khoun Khao, which is a harvest festival typically celebrated in villages throughout March, and the Boun Visakha Bu Saar, which marks the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. This religious festival includes some beautiful candlelight processions once the sun goes down.
The highlight of the Lao festival calendar is Boun Pi Mai in April, which is the Lao new year. The whole country enjoys a holiday to celebrate with a mixture of lively festivities and new year rituals, such as washing Buddha images and cleaning homes.
Also worth noting is the Boun Bang Fai or Rocket Festival, which is held in various villages and sees locals fashioning homemade rockets from May to September. These are then fired in the hope that they'll reach the clouds and encourage rain. It's definitely one of the liveliest festivals in the calendar!
The Lao kip (K) is the national currency. US$1 is roughly equivalent to 8,215 kip, so you should expect your currency to come in large denominations. Notes are 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000 kip. It's worth bearing in mind that smaller vendors will often struggle to make change on a 100,000 kip note, so aim to carry smaller notes wherever possible.
While the currency is officially the kip, it's common to see Thai baht and US dollars in circulation too. Most transactions will still be carried out in kip, but larger items might be quoted for - and often paid for - in baht or dollars.
Vientiane is the top place for eating out during Laos holidays - it's here that the nation's French culinary legacy can most easily be seen in the excellent selection of French restaurants. Luang Prabang also has a number of French establishments, but outside of these cities you should expect to encounter largely only traditional Lao cuisine.
Fortunately, this cuisine is delicious. Rich with fresh vegetables, fragrant herbs and grilled meats, Lao cooking is flavoursome and nutritious. Among the staples is sticky rice - something that is served with most meals. You are also likely to discover several fusion dishes, which mix Lao and French heritage. One such meal is the Khao Jee sandwich, which is a baguette filled lettuce, onion, carrot, tomatoes, meat and topped with either cheese, pate or chilli sauce.
You should expect to encounter dishes from surrounding countries too. For example, pho, one of the most popular dishes of Thailand, is just as popular here. In Laos, this noodle soup is usually eaten with the addition of a handful of fresh greens and chilli.
It's worth bearing in mind that Lao food is traditionally eaten with the fingers, so outside of the more tourist-focused French restaurants, you shouldn't expect to be given cutlery. Meanwhile, tipping is not standard in Laos, with the exception being tourist restaurants. Here, it's usual to leave ten per cent of the bill - but check first to see whether the service charge has already been added.
In terms of the weather, the best time to visit Laos is typically November to March. This is when the temperature is pleasant without being too hot (it is worth remembering it can be a lot cooler in the mountains during this period), and largely dry. From April to June is the hot season, when temperatures soar to 40 degrees C, making sightseeing uncomfortable for most travellers. This, as well as the wet months of September and October, forms the low season.
July and August are less popular than the high season of November to March, largely because the weather is often wet with high humidity, but there are certain advantages of travelling at this time of year, such as the lush green of the landscape.
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Neil Murray, a writer from The Telegraph, has recently taken a tour with Voyages Jules Verne to Laos and Cambodia to explore the delights of south-east Asia. The tour stopped off at attractions in both countries, including the impressive Angkor Wat, waterfalls, a floating village, cruises on the Mekong River, night markets, and the Killing Fields under the guidance of professional tour experts.
Laos has recently reported a 10 per cent year-on-year growth in the number of international arrivals in 2014 with 4.16 million arrivals. In an effort to build on its current success, the Southeast Asian country recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China aimed at developing Laos' infrastructure and services.