The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Laos at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions. Reconsider travel to Xaisomboun Province due to civil unrest. Exercise increased caution in remote areas along the border with Burma due to crime, and in several areas outlined in the Travel Advisory due to unexploded bombs.
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
The U.S. Embassy in Vientiane does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The American Citizen Services (ACS) unit cannot recommend a particular individual or establishment and assumes no responsibility for the quality of services provided.
Review OSAC’s Laos page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.
There is considerable risk from crime in Vientiane. Vientiane is a relatively safe city when compared to most cities of comparable size in the United States. Criminals do not target or single out U.S. citizens based on nationality, but do frequently target foreigners for crimes of opportunity. In recent years, there has been an increase in overall crimes of opportunity and drug trafficking.
The most common type of crimes include purse snatchings, typically committed by thieves operating on motorcycles/mopeds; pickpocketing; theft of unattended property; and residential crime. Criminals generally target homes with poor security – such as accessible windows, unlocked doors, and the absence of a guard – and do not limit their activities to nighttime hours. Car thieves tend to prefer areas outside the city center that tend to have less of a police presence.
Although violent crimes tend to remain relatively uncommon, there has been an increase in violent crime involving the use of weapons, including firearms. This disturbing new trend may relate to the increase in illicit drug use. Laos has long been a transshipment point for the illegal drug trade and illegal trafficking in general, but the last few years have seen an increase in drug use (primarily methamphetamines) among the local population.
Areas of Concern
U.S. government employees may not travel to Xaysomboun province due to security concerns. In 2015-2016, violent clashes between Lao military and police officials and an unnamed group(s) of dissidents resulted in injuries and deaths from small-arms fire and crude improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The Embassy has confirmed that many NGOs operating in Xaysomboun continue to use armed military escorts and travel only during daylight hours.
The large amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the Indochina War causes approximately 50 casualties in Laos each year. UXO remains in some parts of Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Saravane, Khammouane, Sekong, Champassak, Houaphan, Attapeu, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane provinces. In addition, numerous minefields remain along Route 7 (from Route 13 to the Vietnam border), Route 9 (Savannakhet to the Vietnam border), and Route 20 (Pakse to Saravane). Never pick up unknown metal objects, and avoid traveling off well-used roads, tracks, and paths.
Exercise caution in remote areas along the border with Burma. Bandits, drug traffickers, and other people pursuing illegal activities operate in these border areas, as do armed insurgent groups opposed to the government of Burma.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Road accidents are the number one safety concern. As the volume of vehicles in Laos continues to grow, so does the number of drivers with little or no driving experience. Drivers operating under the influence of alcohol are common; police make very little effort at enforcing laws related to driving while intoxicated. Laos routinely reports over 1,000 traffic-related deaths each year, including hundreds in Vientiane.
Defensive driving is imperative; many drivers pay little attention to traffic laws or even to other vehicles. Traffic is chaotic, and road conditions are very rough, particularly off the few main roads. Most roads have no lane markings. Where lane markings, road signs, and stoplights do exist, they are widely ignored. Many drivers are underage, unlicensed, inexperienced, and uninsured. Motorcyclists pay little/no attention to cars. Motorcycles carry as many as five people, greatly impeding the driver’s ability to react to traffic. The evening hours are particularly dangerous. Road construction sites are poorly marked, appear with no advanced warning, and can be difficult to see at night. Roads lack illumination, many vehicles have no operating lights, few bicycles have reflectors, and trucks without reflectors commonly park on unlighted roads.
Exercise caution on the roads and check with local authorities, transport companies, other travelers, and/or the Embassy regarding road developments prior to travel. Road obstacles, such as changes in surface conditions due to the weather, occur frequently. For more information on self-driving, review OSAC’s Report Driving Overseas: Best Practices.
Public Transportation Conditions
Public transportation is unreliable and is limited after sunset. Taxis or rental cars are available at the airport, the Friendship Bridge, most major hotels, and near the Morning Market in Vientiane. The most common form of public transport is a three-wheeled, open-sided vehicle called a "tuk-tuk.” Tuk-tuks and taxis are frequently in poor repair, and drivers generally speak little or no English. Buses, vans, pickups, and trucks provide intercity transit, but all such vehicles may be in a state of disrepair.
Be attentive to your surroundings and keep control of your personal items while on public transit. While waiting in line, keep your luggage close.
Airline travel is generally safe in Laos. A number of regional carriers have established new routes to Vientiane and Luang Prabang. In 2015, a Lao Skyways aircraft went off the runway after landing at Vientiane Airport (VTE) in clear weather conditions. There was major damage to the aircraft, but no reported injuries. In 2013, a Lao Airlines flight crashed killing all 49 aboard while trying to land in bad weather in southern Laos.
Parents should tell children before travel that their cooperation is helpful at airports to ensure everyone’s safety and ease of travel. Families become a prime target if the children are uncooperative and attention focuses on controlling them.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
There is minimal risk from terrorism in Vientiane. The threat of transnational terrorism is lower than in surrounding countries. There is no information to indicate specific, credible threats against U.S. citizens or interests. It remains possible that transnational terrorist operatives not identified by U.S. intelligence or law enforcement – or those traveling with fraudulent documents – could transit Laos, as its multiple land borders remain extremely porous.
Despite efforts by the central government to enforce laws and policies protecting religious freedom, district and local authorities in some provinces continue to be suspicious of non-Buddhist or non-animist religious groups, and have occasionally displayed intolerance for minority religious groups, particularly Christians. Restrictions on minority religions remain disproportionately high in certain provinces. There have been reports of attempted forced renunciations, imprisonment, detentions, and arrests. There was also a report of the extrajudicial killing of a religious leader by individuals claiming to operate on behalf of the police.
There does not appear to be any significant anti-U.S./anti-Western sentiment with the exception of some lingering resentment from the older generation over the Indochina War.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
There is minimal risk from civil unrest in Vientiane. The political situation is relatively stable. Several small bombings occurred in Vientiane in past years; however, none appeared to target U.S. citizens or interests directly. Perpetrators of these bombing incidents appear to have been a mix of local and expatriate Lao dissatisfied with the government. No such incidents have occurred in the last several years.
As a landlocked country, Laos typically suffers less from the variety of natural disasters experienced elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The most significant threat is the potential for flooding in the Mekong River Basin. The majority of the country’s population lives within the river basin, where any significant river flooding would be a concern.
Laws regarding intellectual property exist, but police do not enforce them with any regularity. Counterfeit items are readily available.
Personal Identity Concerns
Lao law prohibits cohabitation or sexual contact between foreign citizens and Lao nationals except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao Family Law. Any foreigner who cohabitates with or enters into a sexual relationship with a Lao national risks interrogation, detention, arrest, or fines. Foreigners may not to invite Lao nationals of the opposite sex to their hotel rooms. Police may raid hotel rooms without notice or consent.
Security personnel may place foreign visitors under surveillance. Authorities may monitor hotel rooms, telephones, and email, and search personal possessions in hotel rooms.
The number of reported drug-related arrests continues to rise. Cross-border illicit trade is increasing, along with a commensurate increase in addiction and associated criminality. Some tourists have had drinks or food spiked with drugs. Be aware that some restaurants in popular tourist destinations -- particularly Vang Vieng -- offer drug-laced food and drink, which has led to assaults. Consuming these products can result in serious injury or even death.
Local law enforcement response to crimes, even violent crimes, is often limited. Foreigners attempting to report crimes have reported finding police stations closed, emergency telephone numbers unanswered, or policemen lacking transportation or authorization to investigate crimes (particularly at night). Often, first responders to a crime scene during evening the nighttime hours will be neighbors or, at most, a quasi-police entity assigned to the local village chief.
Although most officers are polite, few speak English, and most will not respond without a formal authorization from their supervisory officers. Police have set up random checkpoints, imposed occasional curfews, and maintained static posts, which have helped deter some crime.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
The Embassy continues to receive confirmed reports from U.S. citizens about encounters with corrupt police, particularly at traffic checkpoints. Although they are supposed to write traffic offense tickets and direct offenders to the nearest police station for payment of the fine, officers regularly ask for money at the scene (in some cases, large sums of money).
Detained U.S. citizens may request that the authorities alert the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane of their arrest; they may also request to have communications from you forwarded to the Embassy.
Crime Victim Assistance
U.S. citizens requiring police assistance during non-working hours should contact the Embassy duty officer at +856-20-5550-2016. The local equivalent to the U.S. “911” emergency lines are: 190 for fire, 191 for traffic police, and 195 for ambulance. Reach the Tourist Police in Vientiane at +856-21-251-128.
Medical facilities and services are limited and do not meet Western standards.
Laos has a developing adventure tourism industry that includes, but is not limited to, zip-lining, bungee jumping, rock climbing, and off-road bikes and buggies. Safety standards and training requirements for personnel operating these activities and safety inspections of the equipment may not be equivalent to those required for similar activities in the United States. We recommend that travelers check the safety records of adventure tourism operators.
Travel by speedboat on rivers in Laos is dangerous, especially when water levels are low. White water rafting, kayaking, tubing, and other water-based activities, including swimming in the Mekong, are dangerous. Foreigners have drowned or been seriously injured. Do not participate in any water-based activities while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Laos does not have the same health and safety precautions as those in the U.S. Safety advice will be minimal, and there may not be warning signs at tourist sites.
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
For medical assistance, please refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.
All land border crossings between Laos and neighboring countries close overnight. The Friendship Bridge connecting Vientiane to Nong Khai, Thailand closes from 2200-0600 daily. While it is generally possible for ambulances to cross the Vientiane Friendship Bridge at night, it sometimes takes several hours to arrange for the crossing to open, even in cases of severe medical emergency. Inquire locally about the hours of other border crossings.
Available Air Ambulance Services
Lao Skyways: +856-20-5550-2399
Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Laos.
OSAC Country Council Information
The Regional Security Office (RSO) is in the process of revitalizing the OSAC Laos Country Council. Individuals who are interested in participating in the Country Council or contacting the RSO should reach out to OSAC’s East Asia-Pacific team.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
U.S. Embassy Vientiane, Thadeua Road, Kilometer 9, Vientiane
Hours of Operation: 0800-1700 Monday-Friday (excluding U.S. and local holidays)
Embassy Contact Numbers
Duty Officer (after-hours): +856-20-5550-2016
U.S. citizens living in or traveling to Laos are encouraged to register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). If you enroll, we can keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements. It will also help your friends and family get in touch with you in an emergency.
Laos Country Information Sheet