Laos has a rustic appeal to many travellers who enjoy getting away from the sealed and packaged amenities of the West. Unfortunately, our immune systems aren’t always up to the task and accidents can happen when trekking through the jungle or spelunking in slippery dark caves. Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to your health while travelling in Laos.
Many vaccines are available before coming to Laos, and most all of them are recommended, except for Japanese B Encephalitis, which is extremely rare and basically unknown here. Rabies vaccines are an especially good idea for travellers going to rural areas. Malaria isn’t widespread and only a possibility in more rural areas. Dengue fever, however, affects a notable number of people all around the country and can only be prevented by avoiding infected mosquitoes, so do use mosquito repellent and sleep with a net, especially if visiting during the rainy season. Mosquito zapper racquets are highly effective and also have a certin entertainment value.
Stomach bugs tend to be the main culprit causing discomfort for travellers. It’s hard to avoid them entirely, but generally avoid undercooked meat and if you buy some fruit or veggies to nibble on, wash and peel them first.
Pharmacies are usually well stocked and don’t require a prescription, so if you know what medication you need the greatest challenge is usually communicating with the pharmacist. A few pharmacies in Vientiane have English-speaking staff, notably Poppy’s on Rue Hengboun, opposite Home Ideal. Several sizable pharmacies are near the Morning Market, up the road from the bus station, with staff who speak limited English but aim to be helpful. Lao pharmacists are very enthusiastic about antibiotics and will prescribe them even for a basic cold, so make sure you know what you actually need and what you’re getting.
Laos sources pharmaceuticals from a number of different countries, including Switzerland, Thailand, China and Vietnam. The Swiss medicine is preferable, and the Thai is good as well. Do be wary of the Vietnamese and especially the Chinese brands, as they aren’t always laboratory-grade products. Check the packaging carefully if the medication is for a more serious medical condition.
If you need to see a doctor, the French Medical Centre on the corner of Simueang and Khou Vieng Roads is Vientiane’s safest bet at 300,000 kip per visit. The centre provides a drop-in service, Monday to Friday, from 8:30-12:00 and 13:30-19:00, except on Wednesday when it closes at 17:00, plus it’s open on Saturdays from 09:00-12:00. The receptionists and doctors speak French and English.
The quality of their care can vary depending on the doctor; at the time of writing, Dr Cecile Hermann offers excellent medical service and is worth seeking out.
For more serious medical issues, you should go to Thailand. Expats and Laotians who can afford it don’t mess around with Lao hospitals and go to Thailand instead. Wattana Hospital in Nong Khai provides a high standard of medical care, as does Aek Udon in Udon Thani, although at higher prices than Wattana.
For dental work, likewise head to Thailand, which offers markedly high quality and affordable dental work, with procedures like wisdom tooth extraction and root canals costing under US$200 in some dental clinics, and excellent teeth-cleaning services costing around $30 USD. Lao dentists are rather unimpressive; avoid using them if possible.
Medical care in Laos is generally poor; parts of Laos are very remote and medical care limited. If you plan on going on a road trip or doing some serious outdoor sports, travel insurance is a very good idea. Most rural areas won’t respond to an insurance card though, so keeping a couple of $100 bills tucked away on your person to get help fast is a good safety measure. Laos is not a dangerous country, but its infrastructure for medical care is underdeveloped, so remember to have fun, but don’t forget where you are.
By Ivana Lexa-French
Last updated on 20th December, 2012.