Like many poor tropical countries Laos is host to a variety of ailments. It's a good idea to check the most recent information at the Centers for Disease Control (click "Travelers' Health" at www.cdc.gov).
No water in Laos is considered potable, so stick with bottled water. Also, Lao cuisine uses many fresh ingredients and garnishes, and condiments made from dried fish that might have been stored under unsanitary conditions. Exercise caution when eating from roadside and market stalls and smaller local restaurants. You should make sure that the vaccinations you had as a child -- polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and so on -- are up to date. This is especially true if you plan to be working with children.
In Laos, medical facilities are scarce and rudimentary. Emergency medical facilities exist in Vientiane, but outside the capital you'll require medical evacuation.
Traveling to Laos puts you at risk for many of the same ailments you will find in Cambodia. There was an outbreak of cholera in southern Laos in 2008. As in Cambodia, malaria is a threat in the jungle areas of Laos, though is not a risk in major cities. If you're in a remote area, sleep under a mosquito net and use a repellent with DEET, especially at dawn and dusk. Note that in Laos the disease has developed a fairly strong resistance to most anti-malarials (particularly the provinces of Bokeo, Luang Nam Tha, Salavan, and Champasak, as well as the areas along the Thai and Burmese borders).Schistosomiasis may occur if swimming in the Mekong River. It is a disease caused by a waterborne parasite, generally carried by certain kinds of snails. If left untreated it can cause severe organ damage. Most people show no early symptoms, though they may include rash or itchy skin, fever, chills, cough, and muscle aches
Although levels of HIV/AIDS are, at present, relatively low in Laos, its incidence among commercial sex workers is quite high.
What to Do If You Get Sick Away from Home
Medical facilities in Laos are very basic. Most foreigners living in Laos go to Thailand for treatment for all but the most trivial of ailments. The Friendship Bridge connecting Vientiane to Nong Khai in Thailand, is open from 6am to 10pm. If there is a real medical emergency then crossing out of hours is allowed. Many travelers go to AEK International Hospital (tel. +66-42/342-555) or the North Eastern Wattana General Hospital (tel. +66-1/833-4262), both of which are in Udon Thani about 55km (34 miles) from the border. Both hospitals have English-speaking staff. For less complex medical procedures, Nong Khai Wattana Hospital in Nong Khai, Thailand (tel. +66-1/833-4262) is also an option.
Within Laos, the International Medical Clinic operated by Mahosot Hospital is situated on the banks of the Mekong on Fa Ngum Road (tel. 021/214-022; open 24 hr.). The Australian Embassy also operates a modern medical clinic. It is situated at Km 4 on Thadeua Road in Watnak Village. (tel. 021/353-840; fax 021/353-841; open Mon-Fri 8:30am-12:30pm and 1:30-5pm). Most doctors and hospitals in Laos require payment in cash, regardless of whether you have health insurance. The Australian Embassy Clinic accepts both MasterCard and Visa.
Laos is generally a very safe country in which to travel, with little reported crime and fewer of the scams so often found in other countries in the region. However, the vast influx of tourists and money over the last decade has given rise to petty crime, bag snatchings, hotel burglaries, and low-level scams. Often these kind of things will be more opportunistic than planned and if you are aware of them and use basic common sense, problems are fairly easily avoided. Keep an eye on your things and keep valuables concealed. Keep an eye on your bags when on bus journeys and keep valuables under your clothing. If you ride a bicycle or motorbike in the city, don't place anything valuable in the basket -- thieves on bikes have been known to snatch bags from baskets. Also in Vientiane, there have been several reports of women having day packs stolen after they've changed money near the BCEL bank on the riverfront.
It is also worth noting that sexual relations between a Lao national and a foreigner are illegal unless they are married, and marriage requires special permits. There have been some reports of deliberate attempts at entrapment with police involvement. The fine imposed can be up to $5,000.
Drug use in Laos results in heavy fines and expulsion at best, and imprisonment at worst. Drugs are also having a deeply detrimental effect on local communities, and you as a tourist can be instrumental by avoiding them.
Unexploded ordinance is still a major problem in areas of previous conflict. This is particularly true around the Plain of Jars and indeed anywhere that was formerly a part of the Ho Chi Minh trail. As a general rule of thumb, stay on established paths and roads.
Until a decade ago there were cases of armed attacks on buses, particularly on Rte. 13 from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. Buses even used to carry armed men on the roof as a not very convincing deterrent. It was never proved who was doing the ambushing, but what is sure is that they have stopped and this particular kind of attack doesn't happen anymore.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.