Although it is forgotten by many travelers, Laos is a languid, pristine and mesmerizing destination. Time moves slower here. In the historic royal city of Luang Prabang, saffron-robed monks move silently among centuries-old monasteries, capturing your imagination. In the capital Vientiane, life moves dreamily along the banks of the Mekong, and sneaks into your heart with its unhurried tempo.
It’s the Land of Sandalwood, Land of a Million Elephants, and a land full of adventure. Students studying abroad in Laos will marvel its relaxed style and it's window into the "original Asia" is lost elsewhere in the rush of contemporary life.
Many factors contribute to picking a study abroad program. Students interested in studying abroad in Laos should consider the following tips when making decisions:
The most important classes you will take in Laos are the language courses. Many programs also facilitate language partners, usually students from local universities, who can help you perfect your Lao as you help them learn English.
Many programs will include trips in their program fees to complement students' learning experiences. These trips can range from a daily trip to a nearby the nearby Buddha Park, where huge statues are arranged in a verdant park, or a longer weekend ventures to other towns. Regardless of the excursion, most students find these activities to be a highlight of their study abroad experience (besides, there's really only so much you can learn in a classroom!).
Students are often given single or double‐occupancy rooms in a basic hotel or “guesthouse.” While it may be tempting to live on your own (and certainly everyone deserves privacy!) consider the advantages of having roommates in a new place. Travel can be broadening AND lonely, but new friends help ease the transition!
The official language of Laos is Lao, a tonal language closely related to Thai. Thanks to ubiquitous Thai broadcast media most Lao understand Thai fairly well. Most young people prefer to learn English. French, a legacy of the colonial days, still features on signs and is understood by some older people, but these days English is far more popular.
Vientiane (pronounced "Wieng Chan") is the largest city in Laos. Declared the capital during French rule in 1899, it resembles a sleepy town more than a bustling capital city. However, today Vientiane is undergoing change as the economic prosperity and increase tourism push for growth. The central district, Chanthabuli, contains most government offices, hotels and restaurants. Vientiane's widest boulevard, Thanon Lane Xang, runs from the Presidential Palace to the northeast towards the temple Pha That Luang, the most important religious monument in Laos and symbol of Laotian culture. Study Abroad students will feel at home in Vientiane. Though it’s a manageably-sized city there are always new corners to discover.
The whole of the ancient capital of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of that status, this is a truly unique city-- clean, orderly and peaceful. Visitors speak most often of the “atmosphere” that sets the city apart, complete unlike anywhere else in the world. Buddhist temples, traditional Laotian houses and French colonial mansions rub shoulders in this tiny town, all tucked away deep in the jungle. Add a thriving café culture to the mix and you have a picturesque town perfect for any student to explore.
Social Life and Student Culture
Buying the ticket is the easy part, here’s some hints and tips on what to do when you arrive:
- The Plain of Jars is an awe-inspiring and treacherous landscape that can’t be missed. Thousands of massive stone jars are scattered over a large area of the low foothills of Laos. The main archaeological theory is that the jars formed part of Iron Age burial rituals in the area, but lacking hard evidence, and a great deal of mystery remains. The area suffered tragic damage from American bombing during the secret war of the 1960s, and many unexploded bombs remain, making this incredible site as dangerous as it is beautiful.
- Beerlao is the national drink of this South Asian country. You’ll spot it everywhere, and nothing beats a relaxing in a shady café with a cool glass of beerlao, made with local jasmine rice.
- A recommended Laotian experience is the herbal sauna. Often run by temples, these are usually just a rickety bamboo shack with a stove and a pipe of water on one side, open only in the evenings. Here’s some sauna etiquette so you’ll avoid a faux-pas:
- Enter and pay (consider an optional massage afterward)
- Go to the changing room wrap yourself up in a sarong and rinse off your body
- Plunge into the sauna room. It will be dark, hot and steamy inside, with intense herbal scents of lemongrass and whatever the sauna master is cooking that day. You will soon start to sweat profusely.
- When you've had enough, exit the sauna, sip on a little weak tea and marvel at how the tropical heat of the day now feels cool and refreshing
- Rinse, and repeat
- Interestingly, sexual relations between a Lao national and a foreigner are illegal (unless they are married, and marriage requires special permits). Lao hotels are not permitted to allow a foreigner and Lao national in the same hotel room together unless you put a ring on it.
Here are some resources to help pay for your study abroad!
- The Freeman Awards for Study in Asia are given to students who wish to study abroad in an Asian country, such as Laos.
- More Study Abroad Grants and Scholarships
Guide contributed by Julia Brady. Header photo by Bryant Cheng
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