On the whole, Laos is not a dangerous country and Vientiane is safer than most Western capitals. Gang violence and sexual assault of travellers is virtually unheard of. That said, Laos is still a developing country; widespread poverty and lack of infrastructure mean the roads are dangerous and petty theft can occur. Here’s what we keep in mind when we’re on the road in Laos to try to stay safe while also enjoying ourselves.
Traffic is unpredictable. Whether you’re travelling on foot or by bicycle, motorbike or car, do not enter the road with any expectations whatsoever. Be prepared for anything! Don’t expect people to drive at a speed comparable to your own, don’t expect people to drive on the correct side of the road, don’t expect people to wait for you to get out of their way, don’t expect people to use lights or turn signals, and don’t expect people to pay any attention to what you’re doing or signalling, particularly if they have a family of six and a TV balanced on their motorbike while they are texting and driving — they have other stuff on their mind.
When it comes to crime, the most typical kind we hear of from travellers is people having their bags snatched, either while walking, riding a bicycle or on a motorbike. The latter can be very dangerous, so wear a daypack if you’re riding around on a scooter. Bag snatching is not rampant, but it happens; don’t put all your eggs in one basket/valuables in one bag. Be careful on bus journeys; keep your valuables with you on the bus and keep your wallet and passport on your person while you sleep.
Possession of drugs is a crime punishable by death in Laos. Do not let the party legends that emerged from Vang Vieng‘s hedonistic days guide your behaviour. Stories of debauchery, shrouded in the haze of space brownies and shroom shakes are probably not unlikely, but they happened in a certain place at a certain time that is now over. Living in Vientiane, we hear almost weekly stories of tourists heading down to the river at night to light up a joint, only to get arrested. While in some countries, laws may apply more strictly to locals, in Laos, the imposition of certain laws is heavily aimed toward foreigners.
Don’t, in general, trust tuk tuk drivers offering extra services. Don’t change money with them, don’t let them take you to get your visa at their suggestion, don’t leave your bags with them and always agree on a price before you get in the tuk tuk.
Know where it is you need to go to get various documents and money. Stories of visa scams abound in Vientiane, and before entering Laos in Nong Khai. If you’re getting a visa in Laos for your next destination, don’t use or pay for any services until you enter the embassy. If you’re arriving in Laos by land, do not get your visa anywhere other than at the Lao border, after you’ve left Thailand and crossed the bridge.
Be warned that ATMs can be tricky. Some don’t work the first time, some simply won’t accept certain cards, and not consistently, either. Some travellers have reported BCEL ATMs working until the money should be dispensed, then giving a ‘down for maintenance’ message and no cash, but deducting money from the account. If this happens, do not try to take more money out; return to the bank during opening hours for assistance. The ANZ and BFL ATMs usually let you take out higher sums of money. If you’re going to a rural area, get money ahead of time in one of the cities. While US dollars and baht will be accepted for exchange, notes must be in excellent condition. Do remember that the Lao kip is a closed currency and cannot be used or exchanged anywhere once you leave Laos.
Laos has some wonderfully warm and hospitable individuals who will have your back in a pinch. Yet, as anywhere, you may come across a predatory opportunist seeking out the unwary or naive. Be compassionate, be friendly, be open-hearted, but do remember where you are.
Serious problems? Depending on the issue, your embassy may be able to provide assistance but in the first instance, try the tourist police next to the palace.
By Ivana Lexa-French
Last updated on 3rd October, 2013.