Laos is a hidden gem situated in Southeast Asia. Where the food is always fresh and the people impeccably respectful, foreigners often comfortably fit into this Buddhist-dominated country. The tropical climate attracts travelers from around the globe and encourages them to keep coming back. Amidst the paradise of beauty that is Laos, exists many opportunities for volunteering.
Geography & Demographics
Officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, sharing borders Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand.
The people of Laos are classified into three altitudinal distributions. The first group, the Lao Loum or the lowland people, are considered the ethnic Lao. Lao Loum groups are made up of migrants from China, and they are the culturally and politically dominant group of the nation. The second largest ethnic group, the Mon-Khmer tribes, are also known as the Lao Theung or midland people. Those living in isolated regions, the third altitudinal group, are referred to as the Lao Soung or highland people.
The majority of Lao people subscribe to Theravada Buddhism. The remainder of the population follows Animism through spirit (phii) worship, with the exception of a small Christian and Muslim following.
Laos enjoys a tropical climate with seasonal monsoons. The weather is typically hot and humid with large amounts of rainfall during the wet season. The average temperature nears 30 degrees celsius, but can drop as low as 15 to 20 degrees celsius during the cooler months. Visitors should pack a light rain jacket and sunblock to cope with the inevitably contrasting weather.
Laos has two basic seasons, the wet season and the dry season. The wet season typically begins in May and ends roughly in October. The dry season runs from November to April. One of the best times to volunteer in Laos is between November and February because it rains very little during these months, offering great opportunities for travel. Most national and regional festivals fall during this time as well. When planning to spend time in the mountainous northern provinces, the ideal time to travel is between March and June as temperatures tend to be moderate in places of higher elevations. In the southern region, between March and May, the temperatures can reach 40 degrees celsius with little relief throughout the night.
Food & Culture
The official language of the country is Lao. Just over half of the population speaks the language, with the rest speaking their prospective ethnic languages. French is commonly used in commerce, with over a third of Laotian students educated through French medium.
The cuisine in Laos is simple and straightforward: sticky rice being the staple. Overall Lao’s cuisine emphasizes freshness of ingredients, therefore, Laotian dishes can seem quite rustic and wholesome. Being a landlocked country, a variety of freshwater fish are eaten frequently. Lao dishes are hardly ever sweet and fresh, raw greens, and herbs are typically served undressed. The national dish, larb or laap, is a spicy mixture of marinated fish or meat. Tam maak hung, which consists of spicy green papaya, is also a popular dish in Laos. Laotian meals usually consist of a grilled dish with sauce, a soup, greens, and larb. The freshly ground Laotian coffee is a definite must try for those visiting the country, and the local Beer Lao is not something that should be ignored either.
The people of Laos place a high importance on courtesy and respect. Their traditional form of greeting is the Nop. It is done by placing the palms together at chest level, in what looks like a gesture of prayer. Cross behavior is frowned upon. Avoid shouting, backslapping, indiscreet gesticulations, and public displays of affection. More importantly, avoid touching anybody’s head. The Laotians consider the head of high spiritual importance and will this gesture significantly offensive.
The Lao Kip is the official currency. ATM’s are a convenient way to obtain cash but most only dispense a limited quantity and may have high transaction fees. Be sure to have small amounts of kip on hand if venturing into the rural areas as many vendors often lack proper change.
Things to Do
Any volunteer in Laos will find an abundance of entertaining outdoor and cultural activities to join. Elephants can be ridden in Pakse, Bolaven Plateau, or Luang Prabang. Kayaking and rafting is another adventurous activity widely available. Volunteers can take advantage of gentle cruises and white water thrills on the Nam Ou, Nam Ha, and Nam Than Rivers. The waterfalls in Laos most certainly make up for the lack of beaches. The Kuang Si fall in the north features turquoise waters that have become a favorite of locals and foreigners alike. The Tad Lo in the south is perfect for laidback swimming or just lounging in shallow pools. Trekking is also a popular activity in Laos, and is offered just about everywhere. Individuals can walk along single-track trails in the jungles leading to isolated villages and natural attractions. The most popular spots for trekking are found in Luang Nmtha, Muang Sing, Luang Prabang, and in areas just outside Pakse.
Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage town, provides a healthy dose of cultural experiences with Buddhist temples and an active novice monk community. From Luang Prabang, an hour-long boat ride shuttles people on the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves. These Buddhist Caves appear to rise out of the river, giving a mystical effect. The Royal Palace is also worthwhile with its collection of royal possessions, Buddhist relics and other remnants of Laos’ colorful past. There is no better way to experience Laos’ distinctly rustic culture than by visiting the Si Phan Don, or 4000 Islands.
Volunteering Abroad in Laos
Volunteer placements in Laos are abundant; there are programs to suit nearly every volunteer's area of expertise and interest. Common volunteer placements in Laos include organic and sustainable farming, community development, English teaching, and construction, just to name a few. Volunteer programs in Laos are generally affordable, varying in length from a few weeks to multiple months. Accommodation is typically included, either in a local host family or at a guest house, and meals are usually provided as well.