Special Travel Circumstances in Laos

Travel of Foreigners within Laos: The Lao tourist police have informed foreign tourists that a licensed Lao tour guide must accompany any group of more than five foreign tourists; however, this regulation does not appear to be strictly enforced. The authorities may restrict travel in rural areas outside of popular tourist destinations. Restricted areas may not be marked or even widely known by local citizens. If you travel without a reputable tour guide who is aware of local conditions, please talk to local authorities before entering remote areas away from obvious tourist destinations. Lao citizens who wish to have any foreign citizen, including a family member, stay in their home must obtain prior approval from the village chief. You may be held responsible if the Lao host has not secured prior permission for your visit. U.S. citizens are strongly advised to ensure that such permission has been granted before accepting offers to stay in Lao homes.

Surveillance: Security personnel may at times place foreign visitors under surveillance. Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in problems with the local authorities. Please review the section below on Photography and Other Restrictions.

Relationship with Lao Citizens: Lao law prohibits 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 enters into a sexual relationship with a Lao national risks being interrogated, detained, arrested, or fined. Lao police have confiscated passports and imposed fines of up to $5,000 on foreigners who enter into unapproved sexual relationships. The Lao party to the relationship may be jailed without trial. Foreigners are not permitted to invite Lao nationals of the opposite sex to their hotel rooms; police may raid hotel rooms without notice or consent.

Marriage: A Lao Prime Ministerial decree requires that marriages of Lao citizens performed abroad be registered with Lao embassies in order to be legal in Laos. If you marry a Lao citizen in the United States, when you visit or return to Laos, you may be subject to penalties under the Lao law governing sexual relationships (above) if your marriage was not registered beforehand with a Lao embassy.

If you plan to marry a Lao national, you are required by Lao law to obtain prior permission from the Lao government. The formal application process can take as long as a year. The Lao government will not issue a marriage certificate unless the correct procedures are followed. You can obtain information about marriage requirements from the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. Any attempt to circumvent Lao regulations may result in arrest, imprisonment, a fine of $500 to $5,000 and deportation.

If you cohabit with or enter into a close relationship with a Lao national, Lao authorities may accuse you of having entered into an illegal marriage, and you will be subject to these same penalties. If you wish to become engaged to a Lao national, you must also obtain prior permission from the chief of the village where the Lao national resides. Failure to obtain prior permission can result in a fine of $500 to $5,000. Lao police may impose a large fine on a foreign citizen a few days after he or she holds an engagement ceremony with a Lao citizen based on the suspicion that the couple subsequently had sexual relations out of wedlock.

Religious Workers: Religious proselytizing or distributing religious material is strictly prohibited. If you are caught distributing religious material, you may be arrested or deported. The Government of Laos restricts the importation of religious texts and artifacts. While Lao law allows freedom of religion, the Government registers and controls all associations, including religious groups. Meetings, even in private homes, must be registered and those held outside of established locations may be broken up and the participants arrested.

Modes of Transportation: When you travel in Laos, please consider carefully and evaluate the relative risks of the three modes of transport (see sections on Aviation Safety Oversight, Traffic Safety, and River Travel) below.

River Travel: River travel is common in Laos, but safety conditions do not conform to U.S. standards. In particular, travel by speedboat (the local term is “fast boat”) is dangerous and should be avoided, particularly during the dry season, which generally runs from December through April. Avoid travel on or across the Mekong River along the Thai border at night. Lao militia forces have shot at boats on the Mekong after dark.

Photography and Other Restrictions: If you photograph anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest, including bridges, airfields, military installations, government buildings, or government vehicles, you may be detained or arrested, and local authorities may confiscate your camera. Be cautious when traveling near military bases and strictly observe signs delineating military base areas. Lao military personnel have detained and questioned foreigners who have unknowingly passed by unmarked military facilities. Because of the prohibition on religious proselytizing, you should avoid taking photographs or videotaping non-Buddhist religious services. If attending public services or religious gatherings, ask permission from the local police and civil authorities to photograph or videotape. Please see the section above on Religious Workers. Local police may suspect persons using any kind of sophisticated still or video camera equipment of being professional photographers or possibly photojournalists, which may lead to questioning, detention, arrest, or deportation.

Financial Transactions: Network-connected ATMs are available in Vientiane, including those operated by the Australia and New Zealand Bank – Vientiane (ANZV) and the Foreign Commercial Bank of Laos, also known as the Banque Pour le Commerce Exterieur de Laos (BCEL). BCEL also has network-connected ATMs in Vang Vieng, and most provincial capitals, or “Muang.” These machines are generally limited to withdrawals of the equivalent of about 100 U.S. dollars in Lao kip only. Credit cards are accepted at major hotels and tourist-oriented businesses. Credit card cash advances and/or Western Union money transfers are available at banks in most provincial capitals and other tourist centers. While the government requires that prices be quoted in Lao kip, prices are often given in U.S. dollars or Thai baht, especially in tourist areas or at markets. The Lao government requires payment in U.S. dollars for some taxes and fees, including visa fees and the airport departure tax.

Customs/Currency Regulations: Lao customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Laos of items such as firearms, religious materials, antiquities, foreign currency, cameras and other items. Please contact the Embassy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in Washington for specific information regarding customs requirements. Please also see section on “Religious Workers” above. Prohibitions exist against importing or exporting currency of any kind in excess of U.S. $2,500 or its equivalent without authorization. Contact a Lao embassy or Lao customs authorities for more details.

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