Over the last couple of decades Laos has earned a reputation among visitors as a remarkably safe place to travel, with little crime reported and few of the scams often found in more touristed places such as Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. And while the vast majority of Laotians remain honest and welcoming, things aren't quite as idyllic as they once were. The main change has been in the rise of petty crimes, such as theft and low-level scams, which are more annoying than dangerous.
The Lao people follow the usual Southeast Asian method of queuing for services, which is to say they don't form a line at all but simply push en masse towards the counter or doorway. The system is 'first seen, first served'. Learn to play the game the Lao way, by pushing your money, passport, letters or whatever to the front of the crowd as best you can. That said, it is nowhere near as chaotic as in some of the bigger neighboring countries.
Better roads, better vehicles and fewer insurgents mean road travel in Laos is quite safe, if not always comfortable. However, while the scarcity of traffic in Laos means there are far fewer accidents than in neighbouring countries, accidents are still the main risk for travellers.
As motorbikes become increasingly popular among travellers, the number of accidents is rising. Even more likely is the chance of earning yourself a Lao version of the 'Thai tattoo' – that scar on the calf caused by a burn from a hot exhaust pipe.
The speedboats that careen along the Mekong in northern Laos are as dangerous as they are fast. We recommend avoiding all speedboat travel unless absolutely necessary.
With the Hmong insurgency virtually finished, travel along Rtes 7 and 13, particularly in the vicinity of Phu Khoun and Kasi, is considered safe, although there was a deadly attack on a Chinese national in this area in early 2016. Ask around in Vientiane or Luang Prabang to make sure the situation is secure before travelling along Rte 7 to Phonsavan or Rte 13 between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Rte 1 from Paksan to Phonsavan is still considered a risk due to occasional banditry.
While Lao people are generally trustworthy and theft is much less common than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, it has been on the rise in recent years. Most of the reports we've heard involve opportunistic acts that are fairly easily avoided.
Money or items going missing from rooms is becoming more common, particularly in rural bungalows, so don't leave cash or other tempting belongings on show. When riding a crowded bus, watch the luggage and don't keep money in loose trouser pockets. When riding a bicycle or motorcycle in Vientiane, don't place anything of value in the basket, as thieving duos on motorbikes may ride by and snatch a bag.
Motorcycle theft is a growing problem. Always lock up your bike when out in the countryside or at night, and pay for parking whenever you can.
Large areas of eastern and southern Laos are contaminated by unexploded ordnance (UXO). According to surveys by the Lao National UXO Programme (UXO Lao) and other nongovernment UXO clearance organisations, the provinces of Salavan, Savannakhet and Xieng Khuang are the most severely affected provinces, followed by Champasak, Hua Phan, Khammuan, Luang Prabang, Attapeu and Sekong.
Statistically speaking, the UXO risk for the average foreign visitor is low, but travellers should exercise caution when considering off-road wilderness travel in the aforementioned provinces. Stick only to marked paths. And never touch an object that may be UXO, no matter how old and defunct it may appear.
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
Canadian Government (www.voyage.gc.ca)
German Foreign Office (www.auswaertiges-amt.de)
Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.anzen.mofa.go.jp)
Netherlands Government (www.minbuza.nl)
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
UK Foreign Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov)