The local currency is the kip. 10,000 kip is $US1. There was an ATM at the airport and there were lots of ATMs and money exchanges in town especially on the main street. It is better value to pay for sights in kip rather than US. It is easy to change US and Thai currency.Notes should be in good condition, though.
We frequently changed small amounts at the money exchange as we needed it. You cannot change it back if you take out too much.
Sorry, I don't use MC (although I have one but I prefer to use only one major VISA) but I had no problems using my USA banks ATM in Luang Prabang to withdraw funds. Also VISA is linked to both BCEL Bank and Lao Development Banks' ATMs (these are the 2 main banks in Luang Prabang ALTHOUGH there are a number of foreign exchange offices/kiosks/booths in LP, especially along the main-street/Sisavangvong/tourist central .
However, you do incur a 20,000 kip (approx. U$2.50 local bank service fee) and this does not include your own bank/VISA's fee unless you have one of those high-end accounts which provides complimentary use of international ATMs (they reverse the charge or reimburse you for all fees --BUT double check your bank's ATM or Visa card's fees).
Also, subject to your account, you might also incur a foreign exchange fee.
DO NOT draw cash or get a cash advance using your VISA card because it's usually at a hefty interest rate.
BTW, BCEL now operates 5 ATMs in Luang Prabang and one of them is right next to the exit door of LP's airport terminal so you don't need to exchange at a bank unless you want/need to upon arrival.
Hope this helps!
Oops, almost forgot; you're limited to a maximum withdrawal of 700,000 kip or approx. U$85 per ATM transaction BUT you can put your ATM card right back into the machine and withdraw again up to your ATM's daily maximum.
Also, annother caveat!!!! Some ATMs sometimes run out of cash and MAY not dispense said Lao kips so keep your receipt. The main BCEL branch is on Phu Vao Road which is about one mile from the main tourist area (5 minute bike ride, 20 minute walk, or 2 minute tuk tuk ride) and they have an office that takes care of ATM disputes since this seems to occur from time to time. A friend visiting from California had this problem and had to go to their main office and had no problem getting his funds since they have a data read out of all ATM transactions. I myself had no problems using the ATM to get cash/kips, even sometimes doing several cash withdrawals in one day.
Favorite thing: This useful Tourist Information Centre is located on the corner of the main road that goes through the old town and the road that goes down towards the local food market and river. Inside you'll find many maps, leaflets and other information.
Simply put, I would choose Luang Prabang over Vientiane. I spent some time in Vientiane and was bored after about one day. I stayed several nights in Luang Prabang and feel that I still had things to do. Depending on your international connection (BKK, HCM, Hanoi), all have direct flights to Luang Prabang. Airports in Laos offer Visa on arrival for US cash payment (not available on all land crossings). If you have limited time, and are trying to pick between the two, I'd recommend Luang Prabang.
Fondest memory: The Luang Prabang National Museum was nice. It was full of old memorabilia from the Royal Family, including library, chambers, throne room, and gifts from other nations. All reference to the Royal Family was dated up to the early 1970's. After that all support is gone and silence... Enter the communist government after the war. Rumor is that the family was exiled to caves in the remote north and eventually died of malnutrition and lack of medical care. The monarchy sought the protection of the French against all their other enemies, foreign and domestic... The French allowed the monarchy to remain and function, unlike what the museum in Vientiane wants you to believe. They are very different presentations of the same story.
My vote would also be for Luang Prabang. It's the seat of the former royal capital of Lan Xang. And if you're visiting in the next several months, it's not at hot nor humid as Vientiane. Lp's got a lot more to 'see/do' than Vientiane, too. Besides the 35 temples/vats, there's great colonial architecture, two rivers--the Nam Khan which is also much nicer than the Mekong (kayaking, tubing, rafting, etc), elephant riding, waterfall, etc. But if you've only got 3 days, then it's best to fly in and out since it's up in the mountains which means it takes a full day by land to get to. Also, LP offers better accomodations for the moeny than Vientiane.
This is a public service announcement by the Luang Prabang Tourism office--;~)
No problem, you can apply for a tourist visa upon arrival, it is quiet fast (any way faster than at consulat before departure) and it will cost 30 USD + one photo (if you forget your photo, it will cost 1 USD more).
Have good trip
Don't worry about getting no money. There sure is 1 ATM at Luang Prabang.
The ATM is at Sisavangvong Road, just opposite the Luang Prabang Bakery, a little further than the Royal Palace.
You can see from far if the ATM is operational, you'll notice a large queue of people. If the ATM is not working, they will shut the wooden doors in front of it.
You can get 700.000 kip at one time, and you are allowed to get 6x 700.000 kip a day.
That's also the reason of the queue; almost all the people get the money out of the ATM 6 times at a time.
The voltage is 230 Volts and the current frequency 50 Hz.
As for plugs, a variety is being used so you might wish to bring a multi-plug adapter.
-Flat blade attachment plug
-Round pin attachment plug
-Round pin plug and receptacle with male grounding pin
-"Schuko" plug and receptacle with side grounding contacts
The currency is the Kip and it is NOT freely available on the open market.
You'll have to bring a third party currency, usually the US$, the Euro or the Thai Baht and then exchange it into Kip for usage. US$ is accepted (and preferred) for tours and lodging payment but it is wiser to use the Kip to pay for daily expenses.
Circa Nov 2007, exchange rate is US$1 to about 10000 Kip.
Internet cafes/stops are easily available throughout Luang Prabang. The rates are really economical (I forgot what were the actual rates circa 2007; think it might be 100 Kips per minute but I could be wrong)
Visa-on-arrival (US$30) is available at 3 checkpoints:
1. Wattay International Airport @ Vientiane
2. Louang Prabang International Airport
3. Friendship Bridge
....though as a Singaporean, I can visit Laos visa exempted for 30 days under the ASEAN pact.
Laos has visa exempt arrangements with a number of nations, mostly from the ex-communist bloc and within ASEAN: Brunei, PR China, Cambodia, North Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, The Philippines, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar and most East European countries.
You have to pay the airport tax of US$10 separately from the flight ticket.
Cost is US$10 per pax for international departure, circa Nov 2007.
There is a counter for collection of the tax in the airports just before you enter customs.
Favorite thing: Laos was a colony of France for many years. There're the vestiges of that relationship with France still in many places. The Post Office for instance, has bilingual signs in Lao and French. But talk to anyone in French and you'll be redirected to English rather quickly. In addition to English, the most useful language on the streets is actually the smattering of Thai you might have picked up from Bangkok!
Favorite thing: Along Sisavangvong there're many internet cafes. Typically, it's USD 0.01/minute for access to internet, or about $0.60 an hour. These places also offer long distance phone call servcies, ranging from 0.30 USD to 0.60 USD a minute. Stay in touch!
Favorite thing: There're a lot of convenience stores along Sisavangvong that also provide dropoff laundry servcies. It costs about $1 per kilo, wash, dry, iron and "smell good"! You drop of your laundry and voila, you get them the next day. No fuss at all.
Options for changing money are few in LP. There's a branch of the Banque Commerce Exterieure and also a Lao Development Bank on Sisangvangvong that'll take US cash and give you Lao Kip.
The rates for cash are reasonable at both places. Travellers cheques: 3% commission and tons of red tape.
The Banque Commerce Exterieure has a cash machine (only one I saw in town) but it only takes MC and NOT VISA. Bring cash!
The folks of Luang Prabang get more gregarious and friendly as you move away from town. You will attract plenty of attention, especially from kids. I would advise that you DO NOT entice them with sweets and candies. First, you are doing your best to promote tooth decay. Second, you are breeding a sense of greed into these innocent kids. Third, well, we can't be carrying pencils and pens everywhere we go.
I love taking shots of kids as they are always very spontaneous. What I noticed is that, if you care to show them what you've taken (this works only for folks with digital cameras), they will be excited enough to allow you to take more.
I think it's a perfect barter trade. You get your lovely photos to bring home to show folks to and you gave these kids something fun they can enjoy at the very moment. It really doesn't take much to connect people.
Information extracted from Flags Of The World:
The People's Democratic Republic of Laos is one of the last few remaining communist states.
The current flag was adopted in 1975 and was the flag of the Pathet Lao (Communist). It replaced the old monarchy flag used since 1952. The flag of Laos is one of the few communist-style flags not featuring a star.
The red stripes represent blood shed in the fight for freedom. The white disc on a blue stripe represents the full moon over Mekong river. The same centre white disc also symbolises the unity of the people under the leadership of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party and the country's bright future.
Fondest memory: If you go to the Luang Prabang Museum (the previous Royal Palace), you will get to see the old monarchy flag (the few allowed to be shown) encased in a special exhibit. This flag had made history by going into space on Apollo 11 but soon after, the monarchy became history as well.
Favorite thing: Laos has the rather dubious honour of being the most shelled (bombed) country in SE Asia - and you often seen shells lying around, or being utilised for some practical purpose. These were quite a juxtaposition, being used as planters in the vicinity of various sacred areas, near the top of Mount Phousi.