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Laos 2017 Crime & Safety Report

East Asia & Pacific > Laos; East Asia & Pacific > Laos > Vientiane

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

U.S. Embassy 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.

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Vientiane as being a High-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government officials.

Please review OSAC’s Laos-specific webpage proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.

Crime Threats

Vientiane is relatively safe when compared to most U.S. cities of a similar size. Americans do not appear to be singled out or targeted based on nationality, but foreigners are frequently the victims of crimes of opportunity. Since the 2016 CSR edition, RSO has seen a slight decrease in crimes against foreigners, despite an overall increase in crimes of opportunity and drug trafficking. Crimes against foreigners are usually non-confrontational and primarily consist of purse snatching, pickpocketing, and theft of unattended property. A common modus operandi involves thieves who grab bags or cell phones while riding motorcycles or mopeds. It is advised to walk with a purpose, as criminals may view travelers who are lost or wandering as particularly vulnerable.

Criminals tend to target homes with poor security countermeasures (accessible windows, unlocked doors, absence of guards). Burglaries are not limited to nighttime hours.

Car thieves tend to prefer areas outside of the city center that have less of a police presence.

Although rare, there have been instances of violent crimes, sometimes involving the use of a firearm or other weapon.

From February 2003 to November 2004, there were periodic bombings in Vientiane, Savannakhet, and other cities and provinces (Xieng Khouang, Xayabury, Houaphan, Xaysomboun).

Areas of Concern

Xaysomboun province remains an area of heightened concern due to violent clashes between military/police officials and an unnamed group of dissidents. These clashes, which occurred periodically from November 2015 through much of 2016, involved the use small arms fire and crude improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and resulted in a number of injuries and deaths. Many NGOs use armed military escorts and travel exclusively during daylight. U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling to the region.

There has also been violence along Route 13 North (from Km 220 north of Kasi in Vientiane Province to Km 270 at the Phou Khoun junction in Luang Prabang Province) and on the “new road” (from the Kasi junction to the Road 4 junction between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng). Although reports suggest a recent decrease in violent activity, these areas continue to be off-limits to U.S. Embassy personnel due to security concerns.

Large amounts of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the Indochina War causes approximately 50 casualties each year. UXO can be found in parts of Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Saravane, Khammouane, Sekong, Champassak, Houaphan, Attapeu, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane provinces. In addition, numerous mine fields are left over from the Indochina War along Route 7 (from Route 13 to the Vietnam border), Route 9 (Savannakhet to the Vietnam border), and Route 20 (Pakse to Saravane). Travelers should never pick up unknown metal objects and should avoid traveling off well-used roads and paths.

Travelers should exercise caution in remote areas along the border with Burma. Bandits, drug traffickers, other people pursuing illegal activities, and armed insurgent groups opposed to the government of Burma operate in these areas.

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Road accidents are the principal safety concern for both Lao citizens and foreigners. As the number of vehicles in Laos increases, so does the number of drivers with little/no driving experience. Alcohol consumption is prevalent, and the police make very little attempt at enforcing drunk driving laws. Hundreds of people die every year on the roads in Vientiane, and Laos routinely reports over 1,000 deaths per year nationwide.

Defensive driving is imperative; many drivers pay little attention to traffic laws or 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 and may carry as many as five people, greatly impeding the driver’s ability to react to traffic.

The evening hours are particularly dangerous. Roads lack illumination, many vehicles have no operating lights, few bicycles have reflectors, and trucks without reflectors commonly park on unlighted roads. Road construction sites are poorly marked, provide no advance warning, and can be difficult to see at night. Changes in road surface conditions due to weather occur frequently.

Check with local authorities, transportation companies, other travelers, and the Embassy regarding road developments prior to travel.

Public Transportation Conditions

Public transportation is unreliable and is limited after sunset. Taxis or cars-for-hire 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 condition, and drivers generally speak little/no English.

Inter-city transport is provided by buses, vans, pickups, and trucks, many of which may be in poor condition. Between February and April 2003, armed attacks on buses and other vehicles on Routes 13 (Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang) and Route 7 (Junction 12 to Phonsavan) killed at least 22 people. Small bombings and attacks on remote roads, as well as other incidents, have been reported.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Generally, airline travel is safe in Laos, and a number of regional carriers established new routes to Vientiane and Luang Prabang in 2016.

  • In 2013, a Lao Airlines flight crashed, killing all 49 aboard while trying to land in bad weather in southern Laos.
  • In November 2015, a Lao Skyways aircraft went off the runway after landing at Vientiane Airport in clear weather conditions. There was major damage to the aircraft, but no injuries were reported.


Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Vientiane as being a low-threat location for terrorist activity directed at or affecting official government interests.

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

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 and/or individuals travelling with fraudulent documents could transit Laos, as its multiple land borders remain extremely porous. 

The threat of terrorism is not without precedent, and visitors should exercise caution.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Vientiane as being a LOW-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.

The political situation is relatively stable.

Civil Unrest

Several small bombings have occurred in Vientiane; however, none directly targeted Westerners or Western interests. Perpetrators appear to have been a mix of local and expatriate Lao dissatisfied with the government. No incidents of this type have occurred in the last several years.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

Despite efforts by the central government to enforce laws and policies protecting religious freedom, district and local authorities in some provinces are suspicious of non-Buddhist or non-animist religious groups and occasionally display intolerance for minority religious groups, particularly Christians. Restrictions on minority religions remain disproportionately high in certain provinces. There were reports of attempted forced renunciations, imprisonment, detentions, arrests, and an extrajudicial killing of a religious leader by individuals claiming to operate on behalf of police.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Laos been relatively less impacted by natural disasters in recent years than other countries in Southeast Asia. The most significant threat is the potential for flooding in the Mekong River Basin. The majority of the population base lives within the river basin and is affected by any significant river flooding.

Economic Concerns

Laws regarding intellectual property exist but are not enforced with any regularity. Counterfeit items are readily available. 

Privacy Concerns

Security personnel may place foreign visitors under surveillance. Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. 

Drug-related Crime

The number of reported drug-related arrests continues to rise. Cross-border illicit trade is increasing, and a commensurate increase in addiction and associated criminality has been observed. Some tourists have had drinks/food spiked with drugs. Be aware that some restaurants in popular tourist destinations (Vang Vieng) offer drug-laced food/drink, which has led to victims being assaulted. Consuming these products can result in serious injury or even death.

Kidnapping Threat

In 2012, an internationally-acclaimed community development worker and prominent member of Lao civil society was abducted and has not been heard from since. There have been no recent reports of kidnapping of foreigners.   

Police Response

Local law enforcement response to crimes, even violent crimes, is often limited. Foreigners attempting to report crimes have found police stations closed, emergency telephone numbers unanswered, or policemen lacking transportation or authorization to investigate crimes that occur at night. Often, first responders to a crime scene during evening/night 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 supervisor. Police have set up random check points, imposed occasional curfews, and maintained static posts, all of which has helped deter some crime.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

Throughout 2016, RSO received confirmed reports from American 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 asked for money at the scene (in some cases, large sums of money). Fines have risen upward of U.S.$100.

If you are arrested, you may request that authorities alert U.S. Embassy Vientiane of your arrest and to have communications from you forwarded to the Embassy. If you are allowed to call the Embassy, you can call during duty hours or call the duty officer after hours and on weekends and holidays.

Crime Victim Assistance

Fire: 190
Traffic police: 191
Ambulance: 195
Tourist Police (Vientiane): 856-21-251-128

American citizens requiring police assistance during non-working hours should contact the Embassy duty officer at 856-20-5550-2016.

Medical Emergencies

Medical facilities and services are limited and do not meet Western standards.

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

French Embassy Clinic (Centre medical de L’Ambassade de France (CMAF))

Khou Vieng Road across the street from the Green Park Hotel

Tel: +856-21-214-150 or 856-20-5558-4617

 

Australian government clinic (fee-for-service clinic at the Australian Embassy)

Kilometer 4 on Thadeua Road

Tel: +856-21-353-840

 

Americans in Laos often seek medical care in Thailand. The Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane, Laos, to Nong Khai, Thailand, is open daily 0600-2200 hours. Although not impossible, crossing the bridge after-hours routinely requires coordination between Lao and Thai immigration authorities. Ambulances for both AEK International Hospital and Nong Khai Wattana Hospital have permission to cross the Friendship Bridge to collect patients from Vientiane. The Alliance Clinic, operated by the Wattana Hospital group from Thailand, has basic clinical services provided by Thai physicians and is in the Honda building near the airport. In Vientiane, the Setthatirat Hospital ambulance (Tel: +856-21-413-720) can take patients to Thailand.

 

Bangkok Hospital

111 Thong-yai Road, Mak-Khaeng Sub-district, Muang District

Udon Thani, Thailand 41000

Tel: +66-42-343-111

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

An OSAC Country Council was recently established in Laos. The Country Council is co-chaired by RSO Eugene Kim and Eric Seastedt. The Country Council can be contacted at OSACLaos@state.gov.

Please contact OSAC’s East Asia Pacific team with any questions. 

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

U.S. Embassy Vientiane
Thadeua Road, Kilometer 9

Hours: Mon-Fri, 0800-1700 (except U.S. and local holidays)

Embassy Contact Numbers

Switchboard: 856-21-487-000
Duty Officer (afterhours): 856-20-5550-2016
Regional Security Office (RSO): 856-21-487-116
American Citizen Services Section: 856-21-487-000; Consular: conslao@state.gov
Website: http://laos.usembassy.gov

Embassy Guidance

If you are going to live in or visit Laos, please take the time to register in 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.

Additional Resources

Laos Country Information Sheet