Photo: Wat Sisaket, Vientiane.

Banking ATMs are readily available, and many are connected to international networks. Most, like BCEL, have a 1,000,000 kip maximum per withdrawal plus a 20,000 kip fee (this in addition to the fee imposed by your own bank). Banque Franco-Lao and ANZ allow 2,000,000 kip per withdrawal with a 40,000 kip fee.

There are a few bank-run exchange booths in the tourist centre, as well as those attached to mom-and-pop type shops on Setthathirath Rd. BCEL operates a large exchange booth next to their headquarters on the corner of Pangkham and Fa Ngum Rd. The main concentration of other bank headquarters is on Lane Xang Avenue. USD is still the most useful currency but you can exchange GBP, EUR, baht, Canadian and Singapore dollars at less favourable rates.

Boutiques, upscale restaurants and anything above a midrange hotel accept credit cards but some may charge a small fee for it.

Keep in mind that you cannot use or exchange Lao kip outside of Laos!

Post office
As of 2014, the central post office or “Entreprise des Postes Lao” is on Saylom Road, across from the Lao Telecom headquarters. It has DHL, EMS, Western Union and Fedex services. Hours are Monday to Friday 08:00-12:00 & 13:00 -17:00, Saturday 08:00-12:00.

Immigration office
Visa on arrival is issued for 30 days for most nationalities at the Friendship Bridge and at Wattay International Airport. Should you wish to extend a tourist visa you can do so at the Immigration Office in Vientiane on Hatsady Road just off Lane Xang Avenue. It costs US$2 per day, plus small application and service fees. Your extension can be for up to 30 days. You can extend two times before having to leave the country. Leave Laos with an expired visa and you will be penalised US$10 per day overstayed. Extensions are also possible at the immigration office in Luang Prabang. Agents can be hired to carry out the task from other provinces, but prices go up to about $3 or $4 per day for the service. If you want to extend a visa that you have already overstayed on, you are still required to pay the $10 per day fine to cover the days you have already overstayed. It’s best to pay with US dollars and with the exact amount. It takes one day to process a visa extension - drop it off one day, pick it up the next.

Office hours are Mon-Fri 08:00- 12:00 and 13:00-16:00. T: (021) 212 520.

The other option is to do a visa run to Thailand across the Friendship Bridge. For a genuine tourist, there is usually no problem.

Emergency
If you require any specific medication, you should be stocked up before you enter Laos.

There are many pharmacies, which are open daily and have general medicines, though be sure to check the expiry date. Poppy’s on Hengboun Road is the most Boots-type pharmacy in town. If you can’t find a drug or vaccination in Vientiane, you won’t be able to find it anywhere else in Laos.

If you require medical care, clinics of Western standards include Alliance International Medical Centre (often referred to as “The Thai Clinic”) operated by Thailand’s Wattana Hospital. It is off of Souphanouvong Road just east of the airport.
Honda Complex, Souphanouvong Rd, Ban Wattayyaithong; T: (021) 513 095; F: (021) 513 096; http://www.aimclao.com

“Le centre médical français”, known as “The French Clinic,” is a walk-in clinic run by the Embassy of France at the corner of Simuang and Khouvieng Blvd (across from the new Vientiane Center Mall). It has 24/7 on call emergency service, as well as dental, dermatology, laboratory and vaccinations. Appointments are not required during regular hours.
Kouvieng Blvd, Ban Simuang; T: (021) 214 150, (020) 5655 4794 (emergency); http://www.ambafrance-laos.org/Centre-medical-francais-Simuang
Open daily 08:30-12:00 & 13:30-19:00 except Wed, Sat, Sun 09:00-12:00 & 13:30 – 17:00

Less welcoming is the clinic at the Australian Embassy, a Family General Practice clinic only open to Australian citizens. It does not cover emergency services or in-patient care. It operates on a fee for service basis during regular embassy hours. The embassy is located on Thadeua Rd, 4 km from town.
Thadeua Road, Km 4; T: (021) 353 840; http://laos.embassy.gov.au/vtan/aev001003.html
Mon-Fri 08:30-12:30 & 13:30-17:00

Local hospitals are still frighteningly basic and leave much to be desired. English is also limited. Mahosot Hospital is located downtown on Fa Ngum Road, just east of the Presidential Palace. T: (021) 214 023-4,

For anything serious: get thee to Thailand. Udon Thani is one hour from the border. Both Thai and Lao authorities at the Friendship Bridge are cooperative with ambulance service at night but someone should inform the Thai hospital you are coming so they can call border immigration and facilitate.

AEK Hospital: 555/5 Posri Rd, Amphur Muang, Udon Thani; T: (+66 42) 342 555, (66-1) 954-0954
F:(+66 42) 341 033; http://www.aekudon.com
Bumrungrad International Hospital: 33 Sukhumvit 3, Soi Nana Nua, Wattana, Bangkok; T: (+66 2) 667 1000 F: (+66 2) 667 2525; https://www.bumrungrad.com

A 2015 Al Jazeera report called them “saviours of the street.” Vientiane Rescue is a free emergency ambulance and rescue service formed solely with trained volunteers and funded by public donations. Call 1623 for any life-threatening situation. This broadly covers any hairy situation, from traffic accidents to fires to snake bites. There are English-speaking members on the team. People from developed countries take for granted their access to free emergency help and first aid, which is why this initiative has garnered buzz with both locals and international media.

Safety
Vientiane is safe, but it is not as safe as it once was. Bag snatchings are a serious issue, specifically targeting women in the downtown core, and they are becoming increasingly violent. Thieves, on foot or motorbike, surprise those headed to or leaving restaurants, bars and hotels in the evening, but snatchings have also been known to occur in broad daylight on busy streets full of people. Be aware and smart: avoid unlit roads and narrow alleys, and don’t carry anything valuable.

Take care when driving, especially at night. Some roads are in poor condition, some vehicles don’t have lights. Most accidents are caused by drunk driving or simply reckless driving.

And, like you would do at home, don’t leave food or drinks unattended and be wary of taking drinks from strangers.

Police
In an emergency police can be contacted on 191. There is also a tourist police office next to the Tourist Information Centre on Lane Xang Avenue, T: (021) 251 128.

Books
Vientiane is getting better with English-language books on offer, but choices of titles are still quite limited. Monument Books on Nokeokoummane (next to the Vayakorn Guesthouse) has a good selection of English and French books covering Lao culture, history and cuisine. Here you can pick up Hobo Maps, and maps of Laos and neighbouring countries. A selection of western magazines is also available at a premium. Kosila has two shops, one at the bottom of Nokeokoummane and another just before the That Dam stupa. Both have a reasonable collection of secondhand titles but nothing too inspired. You can find the latest Colin Cotterill Dr Siri mystery novel or travel books at Book – Cafe. Cute and small Miss Vong Deane Book Shop on Inpeng Road does buy, exchange and postcards.
Book – Cafe: 053/2 Hengboun Rd. T: (020) 6893 741. Open daily: 09:00-19:00. https://www.facebook.com/bookcafevientiane
Kosila: Nokeokoummane Rd and That Dam stupa circle T: (020) 2240 964 Open: Mon-Sat 09:00-19:00.
Monument Books: Nokeokoummane Rd T: (021) 243 708. Open: Mon-Fri 09:00-20:00, Sat & Sun 09:00-18:00.
Miss Vong Deane Book Shop: Inpeng Rd, Ban Wat Chan. T: (030) 946 3393.

Internet and telecommunications
WiFi is a standard feature in hotels and guesthouses, but not always in the room. Speed and reliability is also a standard frustration, though it has improved greatly in recent years. WiFi is readily available at the city’s many cafes. Mobile shops sell SIM cards (including nano SIM) that include phone and 3G services for next to nothing and you can top up with scratch cards sold at any convenience shop. Telecommunications companies include Lao Telecom, Unitel, ETL and Beeline. Lao Telecom has reasonable coverage across the country.

Tourist information
Aside from Travelfish, the best way to get the most out of Vientiane is to pick up a good map like Hobo Map. You can often pick up free tourist maps at restaurants and cafes but these seriously lack detail and are not to scale.

The Tourism Information Centre on Lane Xang Ave, a block up from Talat Sao mall, has reasonably helpful English speaking staff and a visitor friendly setup. There are brochures and displays highlighting what each province has to offer, giving you inspiration and ideas for your trip throughout Laos.
Lao National Tourism Information Centre: Lane Xang Ave; T: (021) 250 681; F: (021) 212 769; http://www.tourismlaos.org; open daily 08:30-12:00, 13:00-16:30.

For special events and happenings in the city, check daily English-language, government controlled newspaper Vientiane Times, monthly glossy magazine Sabaidee (found free in cafes) and the Facebook pagePaisai. Look for posters and adverts displayed around town.

When to go
Vientiane gets a very predictable climate. The dry season commences between late October and early November and runs through till the rains break some time in May or June. April to June can be excruciatingly hot with almost unbearable midday heat and it’s well worth it for travellers to splurge on an air-con room during this time. Wet season rains bring relief, with August and September seeing the most rain. Expect short, heavy downpours during this time.

The best time to visit Vientiane is between November and February, when weather is dry and temperatures more reasonable though it never gets cold. This is typically high tourist season for the entire country.

Vientiane Festivals

Vientianale International Film Festival
Established in 2009, Vientianale was the first international film festival in Laos. It’s run by volunteers and held annually, showcasing Lao and international films. It also has a short films competition. Check http://www.vientianale.org for dates.

Pimai Lao (Lao New Year)
Lao New Year takes place annually from April 14 to 16 (with parties and slacking at work for weeks leading up to it). A country known for its laidback, polite citizens lets loose and goes wild. But it’s not all about water and powder throwing and bingeing on BeerLao. Pimai symbolises renewal and water represents cleansing and blessing. Families gather and make pilgrimage and offerings to the wats. Homes are cleaned, Buddhas are washed. Festivities include a baci ceremony, building of sand stupas on the Mekong and performances of traditional Lao music and dance. Rooms fill up fast for this time. Don’t wear or carry anything you don’t want destroyed.

Rocket Festival
Boun Bang Fai or the rocket festival occurs in the sixth month of the lunar calendar (usually May or June). The festival calls for rain and fertility and it doesn’t take Freud to analyse the symbolism of shooting a phallic symbol into the sky. Celebrations involve a lot of bawdy innuendo and homemade rockets that NASA and Workplace Health and Safety would definitely not approve of. The competition is simple: the highest rocket wins, and those whose rockets fail face outrageously funny punishment. Each village has their festival at a different time so it takes some asking around to find out where and when.

Boun Ok Phansa and Boat Racing Festival
Boun Ok Phansa marks the end of Buddhist Lent (October). Wats will be filled with candles, lanterns and pilgrims making offerings. The day after the end is Boun Suang Heua, the hugely popular boat racing festival on the Mekong with teams from all over the country represented. The Mekong riverside takes on a festival atmosphere, with food stalls, games and vendors selling goods.

That Luang Festival
Boun That Luang is the country’s largest and most significant festival. It’s held here annually on the full moon of the 12th month of the Buddhist calendar (usually November, sometimes fall in October – check Tourism Laos for dates. The festival lasts for three days, commencing with a procession of phasat pheung, wax castles decorated with money and wax flowers, from Wat Si Muang to That Luang stupa. Pilgrims circle clockwise three times before the wax castles are offered to the temple. The festival ends with thousands participating in tak bat, the giving of morning alms to monks followed by an enormous picnic with family and friends, games and fireworks. The festival has evolved in modern times to include events before and after such as a large market fair, children’s entertainment, concerts and performances, all of which draw huge crowds.

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Further reading

Visas & immigration


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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Vientiane? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Laos.


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