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The national currency of Laos is the Lao kip (LAK) but many places will accept U.S. dollars or Thai baht. The rate of exchange from USD to LAK is around 1: 8,200 and from baht to LAK is 1:265 (USD to baht 1:32).
Most large hotels will accept major credit cards, as will high end shops in the cities but if you plan to do any shopping in markets or on the streets you will need cash in at least one of the above denominations.
Kip is the currency of Laos, abbreviated as LAK. It comes in denomination of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, and recently 50,000. All bank notes bear the portrait of Kaysone Phomvihane, the leader of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and the prime minister of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic from 1975 to 1991.
Financial services in Lao are easily available in major cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Travelers rarely encounter problems when changing money, using a credit card or withdrawing from an ATM. With an exchange rate of about 8,200 kip to a US dollar, many travelers may feel like a millionaire when entering Laos.
Although US dollar and Thai baht are widely accepted, it is recommended to keep both kip and dollars on hand. There are four main places you can get LAK: at the airport, at an ATM, a money exchanger, or a bank.
As a general rule, airports will be safe and comfortable places to exchange large amounts of money but they will charge you the highest rates to do so. Additionally, changing back can be an issue and as USD and baht are widely accepted, there is rarely a need to exchange large amounts.
ATMs can be found in major towns; they tend to offer about 7 percent less in rate compared with other exchange transactions. Most ATM’s around Laos will offer you the option of withdrawing in LAK or USD. The typical charge for withdrawing LAK is 20,000 LAK and you can usually withdraw between 120,000 and 150,000 LAK at one time. For many travelers who do not enter the country with baht or USD, this is the preferred method.
Money exchangers are scattered everywhere and are especially common in tourist areas and near markets. In general, they will offer better exchange rates than at the airport. You can find them easily by looking for large signs covered in international currency symbols, advertising the rates of exchange they offer.
If you prefer, the national bank of Laos offers exchange services for similar fees as you would expect to find at the airport. Typically, you can avoid making a trip to the bank by using one of the other options above.
Major credit cards such as MasterCard and Visa are becoming more widely accepted around Laos but you should be prepared to use cash in almost every situation. Major hotel chains and fancy restaurants will undoubtedly take your card, and a service charge of 3 percent is often added. As the systems are new, you might find that their card reader is down and they are asking for cash anyway.
For large, pre-planned or pre-booked purchases you can plan on using your card but for daily activities, shopping and eating, you will need to rely on cash. USD and baht are accepted almost everywhere and in many places the vendors prefer these more stable currencies.
Keep in mind that 1 USD is roughly 8,200 LAK and a bottle of water should cost around 7,000LAK so if you are making lots of small purchases in USD the vendor will be getting the better end of the transaction. If you are using kip, it’s recommended to pay with small bills, because vendors may lack sufficient small change.
The bank that most foreign visitors will deal with is the government-owned Banque Pour le Commerce Exterieur Lao (BCEL). Local banks include: ANZ Laos, Lao Development Bank and the Joint Development Bank. If you need banking services, you will find the most comprehensive help at the BCEL and ANZ.
Opening hours are Monday - Friday 08:30am - 03:30pm. Some branches offer limited hours on weekends. When in doubt, it is best to check ahead of time online.
In the last five years, international ATMs have sprung up all across Laos. Visa, MasterCard, and China UnionPay are commonly accepted at these ATMs.
In the capital of Vientiane you will find an ATM at every bank you pass and many independent ATMs scattered across the city. As recently as 2015, most small towns have at least one or two international ATMs as well. It is always recommended that when traveling outside of Vientiane you carry cash, as there can never be a guarantee that the local ATMs will be in service.
Laos is an affordable destination in Asia with slightly higher prices than its neighboring countries, Thailand and Vietnam. Remaining an undeveloped and landlocked country, most goods are imported. So the prices for all goods and services are higher than the average in the region.
A 3- to 4-star boutique hotel charges around US$ 100 per night for a standard room in the ancient town of Luang Prabang or downtown Vientiane. A simple meal on the street with snacks like barbecued meat or Mok Pa (white fish with spices, wrapped in a banana leaf) or a bowl of Pho, accompanied by a vegetable salad, takes about US$ 5. While a decent meal in a local restaurant costs around US$ 15-20 per person.
The most comfortable way to experience Laos’ highlights and to make the most of your vacation is to sign up for an organized tour. These tours usually provide airport pick-up, guides and car service during the day and will help arrange hotels and flights.
Currency exchangers in Laos are known for being fair and honest about their exchange rates and the ATMs in cities are by and far safe. As long as you use common sense, keep your eyes open for card readers attached to machines, and avoid doing banking on public Wi-Fi signals you can assume your money will stay safe with you.
All of this might seem like a lot to handle, so why struggle on your own? If you travel with Asia Highlights, our highly trained and helpful staff can quickly guide you towards the nearest money exchange, help you set up the SIM card on your phone, or find you a computer with secure internet access.