Take care and stay safe
How safe are you when you travel to Laos? The answer is that the overwhelming number of visitors have had a safe and thoroughly enjoyable trip with friendly people and exciting places to visit there are risks.
You need to prepare thoroughly and take care while travelling. Make sure you have all you need and good medical insurance. Do not travel into Laos if you think you may need medical help.
Always ask other travellers about their experiences and what they have heard about safety and security and pass on what you know. Ask local people: they have the best chance of accurately assessing changing risks.
In all cases, try to find out the facts rather than informants judgments: they may not view the situation in the same way as you. For example, locals in Vang Vieng think it is quite okay to climb 600ft up boulders wearing flipflops. You might want to wear something less hazardous ...
Take a look at these points and the links a reasonable guide but not exhaustive and remember: these are the horror stories, so try to balance having a good time with appropriate care.
ROADS: You need to remember that Laos is one of the poorest nations in the world. Outside Vientiane and the larger towns, vehicles are not necessarily in perfect repair and drivers may not be as thoroughly trained as your local bus or taxi driver. This is an example of classic British understatement, in case you had not recognised it.
The roads are not in any way comparable with those in the developed world but what would you expect? Unpaved mountain roads, tracks that can be washed away, almost complete lack of maintenance...
On the plus side, there is not much traffic to provide the kind of high-speed hazards that you find all over the world.
It is worth watching out for the tyres, if only because they are visible though, realistically, you might find your choice is to ride or not.
Expect breakdowns. These are usually fixed where they occur in rural areas and you should take food and water to last longer than the expected trip time.
In some places, there have been attacks on vehicles. This may be described as the work of "bandits" or maybe Hmong dissidents. It is hard to pin down and assess the actual risk.
It is worth inquiring about local conditions before embarking on travel to out-of-the-way places. (See Guns & UXO hazards, below)
An associated hazard is the lack of fast communications if you are injured: getting to hospital, or any skilled medical help, could be difficult though with increasing numbers of public vehicles on the roads, this may be less of a problem than a few years ago.
Many roads are impassable or dangerous during the rainy season: check before you set out on potentially difficult journeys.
RIVER: The biggest hazard seems to be the fast boats that ply on the Mekong and some smaller rivers. They skim along at 50mph and sometimes come to grief the Lonely Planet website has a couple of horror stories, though most people enjoy the excitement of the fast boats and come through with no more than temporary deafness (an unshielded car engine a few feet from your head tends to do that). Safety equipment crash helmet and lifejacket is supplied and it is worth sorting out good kit that fits you
FLYING: There are quite a few references to Lao Aviation not maintaining its planes but its safety record doesn't seem to be poor its planes keep flying (an exception is a helicopter that crashed in Xieng Khuang province in June 2000, killing all on board), passengers keep using them and Thai Airways is associated with Lao Aviation on shared routes. If you are worried, you can fly Thai Airways to some Laos destinations. Worth checking with the Foreign Office internet site before booking. And the American consular services site (which points out that their staff are limited to essential flights only).
Guns and UXO hazards
At any time, there are areas that pose safety risks because of men with guns, or where there is still unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the Vietnam War era.
Hmong guerrillas were said to be active in the area south of Phonsavan in Xieng Khuang province in the north-east of the country. This area has been regarded as dangerous for some time, with attacks on Route 7.
Guerrillas have ambushed army convoys and burned officials' houses in Muang Khoune and Paxai districts, according to some reports.
There was a spate of comparatively minor bomb attacks in Vientiane in 2000. One, in the covered morning market, injured 15 and led to the Laotian government imposing new security measures nationwide, including precautions at tourist and shopping sites and villages.
In early July 2000, about 60 heavily armed men crossed from Thailand and seized the customs and immigration post near Pakse in southern Laos. The Lao army recaptured it, and the Thais arrested those who escaped.
Route 13 is reckoned to be safe now (see other pages on this site for descriptions of the journey) but it is always worth checking before using.
In the extreme north-west of the country, part of the Golden Triangle, there is a sizeable opium trade. Although less than in the past, opium is still grown in quantity, processed and transported some reports say heroin production is down because of fierce competition from other parts of the world.
In addition, the new boom industry of the Golden Triangle is the production of chemical drugs, in particular the current Thai craze, ya ba, and ecstasy.
There have been gun battles on the Thai side of the Mekong and there is little doubt that it would be very hazardous to get in the way of the people carrying on the drugs business.
But travellers do go safely to this region: just take care to avoid any potentially dangerous situations.
Unexploded ordnance is a real problem in much of the north and east of Lao 15 of the 18 provinces are contaminated to some degree. Stay aware: stay safe. See also: War tourism
The most hazardous regions are said to be Xieng Khuang, Salavan and Savannakhet. The legacy of war kills or maims around 200 people a year, though visitors are not usually among those at particular risk.
The Lonely Planet guide book lists areas of danger and the Rough Guide to Laos goes one better with a map.
The types of ordnance range from small but deadly US-made cluster bombs (called "bombies" by Laotians) to 2,000lb bombs that failed to explode when dropped from B-52s. There are mortar rounds, phosphorus canisters and thousands of armed and decaying land mines the countries that kindly donated them include France, China, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam.
In areas where there was land fighting, there are unmarked minefields do not take risks and be very suspicious in those high risk areas (Xieng Khouang, for example) if innocent looking hilltops: there may well be unmarked minefields guarding ghost gun emplacements from the Secret War.
Basic advice: don't go where you know there is a danger from UXO; be especially wary if going off the established roads and tracks unless you know for sure that the area is safe; and do not touch anything that looks remotely possible of blowing up in your face.
Take the usual precautions: do not have anything to do with anyone involved with drugs; do not carry any packages for anyone else; keep your bags locked so that nothing can be placed in them without your knowledge; don't be tempted to try drugs. The latest craze in Thailand is ya ba (made in the Golden Triangle) and it has been responsible for a number of horrific deaths.
Malaria is the main hazard but other nasties include dengue fever and typhoid; liver flukes tiny worms can be caught from eating undercooked river fish; and swimming in the Mekong near the Cambodian border can result in schistosomiasis, a worm infection that can cause irreversible damage to internal organs. Aids is a serious hazard throughout South East Asia.
Take precautions against known problems get the latest medical advice before going and be sure to have good medical insurance as well as travelling with an adequate first aid kit (including syringes, which are worth carrying in most third world countries where the reuse of needles is common).
Medical insurance is vital and probably the best course of action in the event of serious illness or injury is to fly to a more developed country Thailand perhaps, or home if that is feasible.
The full list of medical horrors will give you nightmares but remember: most people have a good time and suffer nothing or very little.
Just balance good sense and reasonable precautions with having a good time.
|UK Foreign Office|
|US Foreign Service|
|War & tourism|
|United Nations Volunteers|
|On the ground with UXO dangers|
|US National Centre for Infectious Diseases|
|Royal Perth Hospital|