What you need to know before you travel to Laos

    Article by Zaytoen Domingo

    Zaytoen Domingo

    Posted: October 3, 2018

    Original photo: Allie_Caulfield

    Volunteering in Laos is a perfect opportunity to explore Southeast Asia’s hidden jewel. It’s home to fascinating cultural festivals, breathtaking natural beauty and delicious local cuisine that will only cost you a few dollars.

    Once overshadowed by its neighbors Vietnam and Thailand, more and more travelers are becoming aware of Laos’ charms.

    Here are a few important things you need to know about Laos as well as what to see and do once you arrive.

    Interesting facts about Laos

    Laos is an ethnic melting pot

    It is estimated that more than 80 different ethnic groups live in Laos.

    These different ethnicities are grouped into four families, with each speaking their own language and practicing different traditions, religions, and customs.

    • The Laos Thais represent 75% of Laos’s population. They live in the lowlands around the Mekong River and are divided into 23 ethnic groups.
    • The Laos Theung live in the midlands. They make up 20% of the population and include 58 different groups.
    • The Laos Soung stay at altitudes above 3,280 feet. The ethnic groups are mainly the Hmongs or Yaos.


    Original photo: Allie_Caulfield

    You can’t drink the tap water

    If you want to avoid a case of Delhi belly in Laos, it’s best to stick to bottled water. Our volunteer house will make sure you have access to clean water every day to help you stay hydrated.

    Make sure you pack a reusable water bottle that you can fill up in between your project work. It’s a simple way to reduce your plastic consumption in the country and the world as a whole.

    People are recycling bombs from the Vietnam War into jewelry

    Local artisans in Laos are coming together to clear bombs from farming land and use it to improve the local economy.

    With an estimated 78 million unexploded ordnances (UXOs) still on the ground in Laos, it’s created difficulties for farmers, and is a barrier to development in the country.


    Original photo: Mario Micklisch

    Over 20,000 people have died or been injured since the end of the war and injuries still happen to this day.

    Many people have started using pieces of the bombs in practical ways to improve their way of life. One jewelry company, Article 22, uses funds from each piece of jewelry purchased to clear three square meters of land.

    At the same time, farmers are able to use the land once again to help break the cycle of poverty in Laos.

    Although the majority of UXOs are along the eastern border of Laos, but be sure to stay on marked paths when exploring more rural regions of Laos. To learn more about the ‘Secret War’ in Laas, visit the UXO Luang Prabang Center.

    Laos has a nationwide midnight curfew

    When volunteering in Laos, you’ll have to abide by the nationwide midnight curfew.

    Businesses are not allowed to stay open past midnight and guesthouses will request you return before the curfew.

    With most Lao people waking up early to give alms to the monks, it’s considered disrespectful to make noise after 10:00 pm.


    When is the best time to volunteer in Laos?

    There is no bad time to volunteer in Laos. Each season gives volunteers a chance to see different sides of the country.

    Don’t let the May to October monsoon season postpone your trip. The rising water levels make it an ideal time for adventures along the Mekong. The waterfalls are in full low, and the lush scenery attracts a variety of wildlife.

    From November to January, the rains ease up, but the temperature drops. While the days are still warm, the evenings can reach below freezing if you are staying in the highlands.

    As soon as February comes around, temperatures in Laos begin to rise and peak in April. The areas around the Mekong are hot and dry, and you’ll need to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. But if you can handle the heat, you’ll be in time for the Lao New Year –  one of the biggest cultural celebrations in the country.

    What to eat in Laos

    Original photo: T.Tseng

    No volunteer trip to Laos would be complete without indulging in some of the country’s top dishes. Here are four Laos cuisines to add to your gastronomy bucket list:

    Sticky rice (Khao Niaw): Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, you’re bound to find a tiny woven basket of sticky rice on the table. It’s usually served with a traditional mixture called jeow. It’s made from tomatoes, eggplant, chilies, and peanuts. Grab a ball of rice, give it a dip of jeow, and enjoy.

    Minced meat salad (Laab): Laab is a popular Laos food that packs a whole lot of flavor. It’s cooked with stir-fried minced meat, chilies, lemon juice, fish sauce, shallots, and rice. The meat is usually beef or pork, but the Lao people also enjoy the dish with raw fish or duck.

    Steamed fish in banana leaves (Mok Pa): If there is one Laos recipe you have to try –  it’s Mok Pa. The dish is similar to the Cambodian Fish Amok and is steamed over a fire to perfection. To make Mok Pa, the fish is soaked in a concoction of lemongrass, lime, onions, and fish sauce and cooked until the fish is soft and buttery.

    Papaya Salad: If you’re a fan of spicy Southeast Asian food, you’ll fall head over heels for Laos’ papaya salad. While the dish is more well-known in Thailand, it’s originated as a traditional Lao dish. It’s made from shredded, unripe papaya, a variety of meat and vegetables, is doused in fish sauce, and is served with plenty of chilies.

    Things to do in do in Laos

    Volunteering in Laos means you’ll be able to explore the best the country has to offer while helping to make a sustainable, long-term impact.

    From its ancient Buddhist statues to hair-raising adventure activities, there’s more than enough to keep you busy during your downtime – no matter your traveling style.

    Here are some of the best things to do in Laos:

    Explore the city of Luang Prabang

    Original photo: Jennifer Hubbert

    For over 200 years, Luang Prabang was the religious and cultural center of Laos. Today, it’s impressive architectural sites and Lao temples have earned the entire city UNESCO World Heritage status.

    The best part? You can wander around Luang Prabang before and after your volunteering project. You’ll have all the time you need to visit the many Buddhist temples, hike to the top of Mount Poussy for sunset, or go on day trips to the beautiful Kuang Si Falls.

    Go tubing down the Nam Song river

    Original photo: Chris Feser

    Vang Vieng is a top-notch adventure destination that is full of exciting adventures.

    The town’s most popular attraction is tubing. Travelers can rent a tube from one of the many vendors and enjoy a lazy afternoon drifting down the river.

    Looking for an adrenaline fix? Sign up for one of the trekking tours. Your guide will take you past massive caves, crystal blue lagoons and if you’re lucky, you’ll see a gibbon or two.

    Discover Vientiane’s Buddha Park

    Original photo: Jody McIntyre

    Vientiane is the capital city of Laos and is home to one of the country’s top attractions.

    The Buddha Park contains over 200 statues and sculptures depicting Hindu gods, animals, demons and of course, Buddha.

    It’s a great spot to spend an afternoon and marvel at the incredible craftsmanship.

    Go on a day trip to the Plain of Jars

    Original photo: James Antrobus

    The Plain of Jars is one of Laos’ weirdest tourist attractions.

    Standing at three to ten feet tall and weighing around 14 tons each, thousands of stone jars lie scattered across the landscape.

    No one is sure where the jars come from or what their use is. Local folklore tells the story of a giant who lived nearby and used the jars to store Laos rice whiskey, and rice.

    If you want to visit this unique site, it’s best to go with a Laos tour company. The surrounding area is still being cleared of unexploded bombs, and it’s safer not to wander off on your own.

    Volunteer opportunities in Laos

    Novice monks study English at the Pha-O Temple school.


    Want to volunteer in Laos? GVI runs sustainable and long-term projects with local NGOs and government agencies.

    Choose from programs such as volunteering with novice monks, teaching English in Laos or women’s empowerment initiatives.

    Speak to a member of our team today.

    By Zaytoen Domingo

    Zaytoen Domingo is a content writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently enrolled in the Masters program in English at the University of the Western Cape. After graduating with an Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing, Zaytoen completed a skills-development program for writers and became an alum of the GVI Writing Academy.