What Currency is used in Laos?
Lying in the midst of the former French Indochina, landlocked Laos is a popular backpacker destination in Southeast Asia, and is an experience for the adventurous. With tourism being the fastest growing industry in the country over the last ten years, Laos is becoming a very popular tourist destination and has become famous for the laid-back atmosphere, the vivid natural landscapes, and the vibrant local culture that has managed to retain its traditions while still embracing tourism development. Laos has only had its own currency since 1945, and the Lao Kip has still undergone a lot of changes over the last 74 years to become what it is today.
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Official currency of Laos - Lao Kip
The modern Lao Kip is the official currency of the country, and is linked on the monetary exchanges for international exchange rates with currencies around the world. However, the kip has undergone several transformations since it was first introduced to replace the “Piastre” of the French Indochinese colonial rule of the region. The original replacement with the Piastre was at par, and the kip was divided into 100 att or cents. In 1976, the Pathet Lao regime introduced their own version of the kip, to replace the Royal Kip from 1952, but three years later was discontinued after the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
The current currency comes in a number of different denominations, though the old coins that were once issued in the 1980s are no longer used. 15 different banknotes are currently in circulation, in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, and 100,000 kip. The 100,000 kip note was issued in 2012 to try and encourage the use of local currency for larger purchases, instead of US dollars and Thai Baht.
Lao kip are still made from paper, instead of the more common nylon banknotes that are becoming more popular these days, so damage relatively easily. It is important in Laos to try and keep your banknotes in good condition, as many shopkeepers will not accept torn or damaged notes.
The Lao kip also has no value outside the country, as you cannot exchange them for foreign currency once you leave Laos. It is this non-convertible factor of the currency that has prompted the use of other currencies for high-cost purchases in Laos by tourists. Once you leave Laos, the money is worthless.
The kip is actually not the only currency used in Laos, despite being the only official currency of the country. It is common to see exchanges in both US dollars and Thai baht, especially for larger purchases, and many shopkeepers often put the price in both kip and dollars to allow tourists to understand the cost of the items. However, the con here is that the dollar price is normally a lot higher than the kip price, based on exchange rates, and you can find yourself paying as much as twice as much for items when paying in dollars and baht.
Dollars have long been a popular currency of use in many Southeast Asian countries that have poor economies, and this has mostly come about due to the lack of understanding of local currencies by international tourists who are not familiar with Asian travel. When you are looking at an exchange rate of around 8,800+ kip to 1 dollar, it can sometimes be hard to work out how much things actually cost. Many hotels also offer prices in US dollars, to make it easier for tourists, and to allow for easier credit card transactions in larger hotel chains.
The largest number of tourists to Laos from any country around the world comes from Thailand, and Thai tourists make up for almost half of the four million visitors to Laos every year. This has led to a huge increase in the spending of Thai baht in the country, especially as the exchange rate is around 300 kip to one baht. The use of the Thai baht started close to the Lao-Thai border, and slowly spread to other areas where Thai tourists go, eventually being found in almost all tourist destinations in Laos, except the more remote ones. However, while the US dollar is generally used for higher-priced items or hotel bills, the baht is used more commonly in many areas, and prices in the Thai baht are less likely to be inflated because of the lower exchange rates.
How to exchange currency in Laos?
Changing money in Laos is not as hard as you might think, and you can find that banks, hotels, and moneychangers will be able to exchange your currency for Lao kip. However, while banks and moneychangers normally have roughly the same exchange rates, hotels will often offer a lower exchange rate, and sometimes charge fees for changing money. You will also get a better exchange rate in the banks and money changers if you are exchanging higher bills, such as 50 and 100 dollar bills, than you would for a stack of twenties.
The major national banks can be found in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and you can usually change a wide range of currencies, including British Pounds, Canadian Dollars, Euros, and Australian dollars, as well as US dollars. Outside the big cities, though, you will only be able to change US dollars at the banks and moneychangers, so it actually pays to bring your money in US dollars, even if you are traveling from elsewhere.
How to use ATM and credit card in Laos?
Laos is a mainly cash-based country still, and you may be able to use credit and debit cards in the larger hotels, as well as an increasing number of restaurants and gift shops in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. However, outside the larger cities, you will find that few places accept credit and debit cards, and you will need to have cash to spend and pay for your purchases and sometimes hotel bills. If you are traveling to one of the more remote areas of Laos, make sure you have Lao kip with you as cash, as you will not be able to use your cards or find an ATM.
Fortunately, ATMs can now be found all over Laos, and are simple to use and conveniently located in almost all towns and cities. Only in the more remote areas will you not find an ATM. However, there is a maximum withdrawal limit on ATMs, which can vary from 700,000 to 2,000,000 kip per withdrawal, which equals around 85-250 US dollars. You will also have to pay a processing fee at the ATM, as well as any withdrawal fees your own bank or credit card provider may charge for international ATM withdrawals.
If you are looking to make larger withdrawals against a VISA or MasterCard credit card, then the Banque pour le Commerce Extérieur Lao (BCEL), which can be found in most major towns and cities, offers a counter-withdrawal service, which has no limit on the amount of withdrawal. However, the bank does charge a high fee for this service. There are other banks that offer this service, but it is not widely publicized, so you will need to ask around at the various banks in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Special tips for international tourists
With three currencies being widely used in Laos, you do have a choice of which currency to use, though having Lao kip is more useful in most places. However, make sure that you have low denomination notes, as many smaller stores and stalls may not be able to change 100,000 kip banknotes. Smaller purchases are preferred in Lao kip, while larger purchases of more than 200,000 kip often show the price in both dollars and kip.
The popular Traveler’s Checks that many tourists carry for insurance are openly accepted in Laos for exchange at many banks, though you will only get Lao kip in the exchange, as he banks do this automatically. However, you will not find moneychangers that will accept Traveler’s Checks, as they are unable to exchange them in the banks. Strangely, while almost no hotels accept American Express credit cards, all the banks will change AMEX Traveler’s Checks.
Personal checks are useless in Laos, as they are not issued by a Lao bank, so you can leave your checkbook at home, if you still actually have a checkbook. Few Laotian people use checks at all, and only the two largest banks offer them, and then usually to businessmen.
Carrying lots of cash is always a risk when traveling in Southeast Asia, and you have to be careful of the pickpockets that often work busy areas such as shopping malls, markets, and such. Your pants pocket is definitely not as safe as you might think. One way to keep your cash safer is to use a money belt or fanny-pack, which has secure zippers to keep money and valuable documents in. Keep it under your clothes, and just keep a few smaller bills in your pocket. Try not to carry your wallet in your pants too, as losing it may be problematic. For those with lots of cash, the hotels normally have safes in the rooms, so you can leave most of the money in the safe, and just take what you need for the day.
Using the currency in Laos is actually quite easy, and you simply need to remember that not everything can be worked out based on a direct exchange rate when it comes to the value of money. While the kip normally runs at around 8,800 to the dollar, 8,000 kip can buy you a lot more in Laos than one dollar can in the US. Understanding this will help you be able to use the kip much easier, and with less confusion. ATMs are almost everywhere, so there is not much need to carry lots of cash, just remember to keep your cards and documents safe with your cash. And when you leave, try and have only a few banknotes left over, so you can give your cab driver a decent tip.
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