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Get in Laos

Posted by in on 5-17-13

Visas

Russians, Korean, Japanese, Swiss and ASEAN nationals including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines can enter Laos “visa free” [2]; all other tourists need a visa in the form of a tourist visa (for one or possibly two months) issued by a Lao embassy or consulate. A visa on arrival is also available to most people entering at the airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, as well as the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge between Nong Khai in Thailand and Vientiane and on the Lao/vietnam-Border. It is also available when entering via Stung Treng (Cambodia), although guesthouses in Cambodia and the Lao embassy in Phnom Phen will tell it is not to make money with visa services. When applying for a tourist visa or to obtain a visa on arrival, one (maybe two at Lao embassies) passport photo is required (although you may be able to pay a US$1 “fee” to have this requirement waived).

Prices range from US$30 to US$42 depending on nationality – Americans US$35, Canadians US$42, Australians US$30, Chileans US$30, Belgians US$30, British, Dutch, Italians US$35, Swedes US$31, Germans $30-$35.

Visas can be obtained in advance from Lao embassies/consulates. The fee varies by nationality/embassy; US$20 is common, although can be as high as US$63 (in Kuala Lumpur). Processing times also vary; 2-3 days is typical, though you may be able to pay an extra small amount (around US$5) to receive the visa in as little as one hour. In Phnom Penh the travel agencies can arrange the visa the same day (but may charge as much as US$58) while getting it from the embassy takes a few days. Getting a visa from the embassy in Bangkok costs around 1,400 baht for most nationalities, plus 200 baht more for “same day” processing. It’s cheaper and quicker to get one at the border.

Visas are also available at the Lao PDR consulate in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Thai and English (limited) are spoken by consular staff. Hours are Monday-Friday 08:00 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 16:00. (UPDATE July 2012): There have been several changes that took place in February 2012. Prices have increased and are now similar to those charged by the Laotian Embassy in Bangkok.

Visas for Americans, Britons, and those from several EU countries cost 1,400 baht/US$45, Australians and New Zealanders pay 1,200 baht/US$38, Canadians pay 1700 baht/US$54 while Chinese pay 600 baht/US$20. Officially, visas can be picked up the next day (or pay an additional 200 baht to have the visa issued within 1 hour). Officially, only baht is accepted. They may take US Dollars but it will likely be more expensive than a visa-on-arrival. Given that a visa for many countries can be had for US$20-42 at the border, getting a visa at the border is cheaper and quicker. NOTE: If you are taking the direct Khon Kaen to Vientiane bus and you require a visa for Laos, the bus company will not sell you a ticket unless you have a visa already issued.

UPDATE (March 2013): The Laotian consulate has re-located to a big gated building off of Friendship Road. The consulate is about 2 km north of the Khon Kaen Immigration office. It’s on the southbound side of Friendship Road (going towards Nakhon Ratchasima). The consulate is on the same side of the road as the Khon Kaen Immigration office. It’s also about 500 meters from a large Tesco Extra which is on the opposite side of the road. Visa prices are still the same as above.

There are visa-on-arrival facilities at the international airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, and at all border crossings (see below), including now overland from Cambodia (visa on arrival facilities opened at Voen Kham -north of Stung Treng, Cambodia). The cost varies between US$30 and US$42 (if paid with US$ notes; paying with Thai baht will cost considerably more and border officials will not accept Lao kip at all). If you pay in Thai baht, the cost is usually 1,500 baht (about US$47-48). A US$1 “out of office hours/overtime” surcharge, and a small (possibly 10 baht to US$1) entry stamp fee, might also be charged.

Entry permit extensions (sometimes referred to as “visa extensions”) are available from the Immigration Department in Vientiane, the Immigration Department in Luang Prabang, the Police Station in Pakse, the Police Station opposite the Lao-Mongolian Hospital in Phonsavan and possibly other cities. Extensions are not possible in Lao’s second city, Savannakhet, although you can do a border run from there to Thailand to get a new 30 day visa. The cost is US$2 per day plus a small “form fee” ranging between 5,000 kip (Pakse) to US$2 (Luang Prabang.) The process is very easy; turn up in the morning with your passport and one photo; fill in a form (in Luang Prabang immigration officers do this for you) and come back in the afternoon for your extension.

If you want to extend for longer than two weeks and are near the Thai border, it can be more cost effective to cross the border (entry to Thailand is free for most western nationalities) and return immediately to get a new 30 day Lao visa.

Extensions are also possible via agencies elsewhere in Laos (who will courier your passport to Vientiane and back again, around US$3 per day minimum of 7 days).

 By plane

The international airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang are served by national carrier Lao Airlines [3] and a few others, including Thai Airways [4], Bangkok Airways [5] (Luang Prabang only) and Vietnam Airlines [6]. Some seats on flights of Vietnam Airlines are reserved for Lao Airlines (codesharing / better price). Pakse is the third international airport, with flights to/from Siem Reap (Vientiane – Pakse – Siem Reap by Lao Airlines) and from/to Ho Chi Minh City.

Laos used to be off-limits to low-cost carriers, however AirAsia [7] now flies to Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur three times a week. Another cheap option for getting to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani in Thailand with discount airlines Nok Air or Air Asia and connect to Nong Khai and the Friendship Bridge via shuttle service directly from the airport (40 minutes); from here Vientiane is just 17 km away.

If you’re coming from Chiang Mai, please note that there are no ATM or money changing facilities at the international departure terminal of the airport. If you’re planning to get a visa on arrival in Laos, make sure you get enough USD “‘in town’” before you leave for the airport. Thai Baht is also accepted, but at very inflated rates.

 By train

The long-awaited first link across the Mekong from the Thai town of Nong Khai to Tha Naleng near Vientiane finally opened in 2009. There are two shuttle services per direction per day, with one timed to connect to the night trains to/from Bangkok. Visa on arrival is available when crossing the border by train. The train is not a very attractive option because the railway station is in the middle of nowhere.

 By land

Most border crossings open for foreigners, with an indication where visas on arrival can be issued, are listed on the web site of the National Tourism Administration [8]. This list is unfortunately incomplete.

Cambodia:

Visa on arrival for Laos is now available (as of Feb 2010) when entering from Cambodia overland (previously was not available), with an official “Visa on Arrival” office incorporated into the checkpoint. The nearest Cambodian town is Stung Treng, and the border is a 90-minute speedboat or bus ride away. Note that the border is lightly used, with almost no onward public transport available at the border (therefore book through transport from Stung Treng to Ban Nakasang for Si Phan Don/Don Det) and both customs officers and transport providers have a reputation of gouging foreigners, although this seems to have improved recently (currently both Cambodian and Laos border officials request US$1 stamp fee per country). Crossing the border (Oct 2010) the Cambodia officers will ask for US$1 for exit stamp.You can tell them you don’t have any and they will still stamp it. On the Laos side they will demand US$2 for entry stamp, if you refuse they will not stamp it, (you will need the stamp to get out), so you have no choice than to pay the bribe. Note if you cross the border by boat, you will have to return by road to the border checkpoint to officiate your arrival (ie. get your passport stamped) in Laos.

Two pitfalls at the Lao-Cambodian border are that you will often have four changes of bus (some of them tiny minibuses where passengers have to sit on each others’ laps), and hours spent driving to remote guesthouses to pick up backpackers; if your luggage has been sent in a bus you are not on (because of ‘lack of space’) it will sometimes disappear. The ‘King of Bus’ company is known to do this.

China:

The land crossing between Mengla (Yunnan) and Boten (Laos) is open to foreigners and visa on arrival is possible (US$37 for UK citizens) or you can get in advance at the Lao consulate in Kunming. Daily bus service operates from Mengla to Luang Namtha and Udomxai. Buses from Mengla to Luang Namtha leave from the North bus station. The first bus leaves around 08:00 and costs about 40 RMB.

Generally speaking, it is not possible for independent travellers to cross from China to Laos via the Mekong River, not least because there’s a chunk of Myanmar in the middle and the Lao checkpoint at Xieng Kok does not issue visas on arrival. Travel agents in China, including Panda Travel [9], run irregular cruises from Jinghong (China) via Chiang Saen (Thailand) to Huay Xai (Laos), but schedules are erratic and prices expensive.

Myanmar:

Foreigners cannot legally cross the Laos/Myanmar border.

Thailand:

There are Eight border crossings open to all between Thailand and Laos. From north to south:

* Huay Xai/Chiang Khong: Fourth bridge under construction. Usual route to/from Luang Prabang, easy bus connections to Chiang Rai and points beyond on the Thai side.
* Muang Ngeun/Huay Kon: Visa on arrival. 40 km from Pak Beng.
* Nam Hueng/Tha Li: Easily reached via Loei on the Thai side, but 378 km of dirt road away from Luang Prabang. No visa on arrival.
* Vientiane/Nong Khai: The first Friendship Bridge and the busiest of crossing of them all. Direct trains from Bangkok now available.
* Paksan/Bueng Kan: No visa on arrival.
* Tha Khaek/Nakhon Phanom: Third bridge under construction.
* Savannakhet/Mukdahan: The Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.
* Vang Tao/Chong Mek: On the route from Pakse to Ubon Ratchathani

Vietnam:

There are at least six border crossings that can be used by foreigners. These include:

* Donsavanh – Lao Bao – to/from Savannakhet
* Keo Nua Pass
* Lak Sao – to/from Khammouan Province
* Nam Can – to/from Plain of Jars
* Na Meo – to/from Sam Neua
* Tay Trang – to/from Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw
* Bo Y (nearest town on Vietnamese side being Ngoc Hoi and on Lao side Attapeu)

 By motorbike from Vietnam

The border crossing on a Vietnamese motorbike at Tay Trang is very easy and straightforward. You arrive after going over some hills at the Vietnamese border where very friendly guys handle your case easily and with no hassle. You fill out the form for “temporary export of a vehicle”, show them the Vietnamese Registration Card for the bike (which is in the owners name, not yours usually) and pay US$10. Then you proceed to the police, show the papers to them and get the exit stamp.

You then have to drive for 6 km over the mountains to get to the Lao checkpoint. There you will find some not so friendly border guards who expect you to pay 5,000 kip for general fees and 25,000 kip for importing a vehicle. They fill out the form themselves and issue a 30-day visa (there is some talk on the Internet about 15-day visa or even 7-day arriving on a bike, but that’s crap).

So after spending maybe 20 mins on at each border you and your bike are in Laos and the journey can go on! Brroammm…

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