country info



..Laos lies landlocked but centrally located at the hub of the dynamic Indochina region, sharing borders with Thailand, Vietnam, China, Myanmar and Cambodia. The Mekong river flows almost the entire length of the country from north to south (and with a total length of 1865km inside the country). The Mekong is easily the longest river in Southeast Asia and is the twelfth longest river in the world. The Mekong plains, where the majority of the population reside, stretch into dramatic mountainous landscapes in the East and North of the country.

..For sheer drama, visit the country in the early rainy season, April - May, and enjoy the pyrotechnic displays of storms, the cacophony of thunder and the sheer quantity of rain. Lying in your bed at night, as the rain hammers down and the lightening flashes on the walls, you might ask yourself fleetingly if you're in a Ricky Martin video, but even this can't spoil the pure excitement of the tropics.

..March to April is the hot season, and if you like it hot you will not be disappointed. The heat is rarely unbearable as long as you try not to walk around too much at midday. It can be a great excuse to have an afternoon nap.

..For too-good-to-be-true holiday vibes, visit in November - February, when the high blue skies are complemented by cooling winds and the average daytime temperature is a perfect 21 degrees. Aah....perfect weather every day.


..Those entering the country at Vientiane (either over the Friendship Bridge or flying in to Wattay airport) often work on a variation of the basic Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang - Pakbeng - Vientiane route. A southern loop down to Savannakhet - Pakse - Si Phan Don - Champassak can also be added on or used as an alternative.

..Urban and rural Laos are both attractions in their own right. The urban population are firmly in the minority, and lead (on the whole) a very different existence from their cousins in the paddies. Unusually, urban migration is not a huge issue in Laos, and Vientiane is by far the most populous city with a mere 250,000 people.


..With a population estimated to have reached around 5.1 million in the year 2000, in an area equivalent to the UK's (or slightly larger than the state of Utah in the US), Laos is the least densely populated country in the region. There are only 20 inhabitants per square kilometre. This compares to 230 per square kilometer in neighbouring Vietnam.

..Ethnic groups within the country are divided by the government into three broad categories, according to the altitude which they customarily inhabit : the Lao Sung (highland Lao), the LaoTung (midland Lao) and the Lao Loum (lowland Lao), who form the majority group. The government officially recognises 48 different ethnic groups within these 3 categories.


..Stone tools discovered in Huaphan and Luang Prabang provinces indicate the presence of humans in Lao territory at least 40,000 years ago. Between the fourth and eighth centuries (AD) communities along the Mekong river began to form into townships called 'muang'. This development culminated in the formation of the kingdom of Lane Xang (which means million elephants in Lao) in 1353 by King Fa Ngum. He established Xieng Thong (now known as Luang Prabang) as the capital of the Lane Xang Kingdom.

..The kingdom was further expanded by his successors, one of the most notable being King Setthathirat who ruled from 1548-1571. He moved the capital to Vientiane and built That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine and a temple to house the Phra Keo, the Emerald Buddha.

..In the seventeenth century, under the reign of King Souliyavongsa, the Lane Xang kingdom entered its most illustrious era. The country established first contacts with Europeans. In 1641, a Dutch merchant of the East India company, Geritt Van Wuysthoff, and later, the Italian missionaries Leria de Marini visited the Kingdom of Lane Xang and described Vientiane as the most magnificent city of Southeast Asia.

..Competition for the throne led to the break-up of Lane Xang into the three kingdoms of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champassack. This development was ultimately weakening and created opportunities for foreign aggressors to invade.

..The unsuccessful challenge of the Siamese by King Anouvong? resulted in the virtual destruction of Vientiane. The Siamese took the Emerald Buddha to Bangkok where it remains till today.

.....Laos became part of French Indochina in 1893, joining Cambodia (annexed in 18 ) and Vietnam (annexed in 18 ). Until independence was granted in 1954 the French did little to develop Laos, and for the most part viewed Laos as little more than a territorial extension of Vietnam. Outside of the few main towns infrastructure remained limited. The main impact of the French was that, by agreeing to cede almost all territory west of the Mekong to Siam, they created a false border, since northeast Siam was overwhelmingly Lao speaking and therefore strictly speaking part of the country.

..Under the leadership of the Communist Party of Indochina (founded in 1930) a struggle for the self determination and independence was started. In 1954 the Geneva Agreement on Indochina recognised the independence of Laos, Vientiane & Cambodia.

..Despite the Geneva Accords of 1962, which recognised the neutrality of Laos and forbade the presence of all foreign military personnel, Laos was dragged into the Vietnam war. In bombing the portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail which crossed Laos, US forces dropped more bombs on Laos than they did world-wide during World War II. Between 1964 and 1973, over 500,000 bombing missions were launched over the country, dropped over 2 million tonnes of ordnance.
On a per capita basis Laos is hence the most heavily bombed nation in history. In provinces such as Huaphan, Savannakhet and Xieng Khouang, international teams are working to clearing the terrain of unexploded ordinance, and people still suffer from the legacy of the war.


..The Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) was established on December 2nd 1975. In 1986 the government adopted an open door policy for economic investment in the country. Laos' integration in the region and, more broadly, in the global political and economic arena, took another step forward when Laos became a full member of ASEAN in 1998.


..Laos has a tropical climate with monsoon from May to September and a dry season from October to April. In the winter months, December to February, the weather can be cool (averaging 15°C in January with highland temperatures dropping to lows of 0°C). Rice is the staple crop of all ethnic groups but increasingly, as transportation networks improve, farmers are experimenting with other cash crops.


..Buddhism is the main religion of the Lao people, shaping the social and cultural life of the country. Throughout the year, the various festivals which dominate the Lao calendar, centre round the temples (wats).


..Dining in the traditional Lao style is a communal affair where guests share bamboo baskets of glutinous (sticky) rice, meat and vegetables seasoned with aromatic herbs, chilli peppers, and pungent fermented sauces, sometimes a challenge to the western palate.
French culinary influence continues in the form of crusty baguette baked fresh each day in the main towns of most provinces.
Laos brews its own beer, and exports its coffee to an enthusiastic global market. Fine Asian and European restaurants cater to epicureans in the larger towns, particularly Vientiane. (See "Restaurants" in the Golden Pages directory.)


..The official language of the country is Lao. English, French, Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai are sometimes used, particularly in urban centres. The official currency is the kip. Check with one of the Banks for the exchange rate relative to other currencies.


..Laos is a convenient hub for travel in the Indochina region. Laos' national carrier, Lao Aviation, flies to Thailand, China , Vietnam and Cambodia, and offers regular services to all provincial capitals. Sealed all-weather roads link most provinces, although travel by boat along Laos' extensive river network is necessary for some areas and is a scenic option for the more adventurous traveller. Microwave telecommunications systems reach most Districts and email and Internet access is available in the larger towns. Mobile phones can be used in major urban centres and these can be obtained on a rental basis.


..Rich cultural traditions, developed over centuries, make Laos an exotic destination for visitors. Colourful festivals are celebrated throughout the year, providing a showcase of the country's religious and cultural life. Between major festivals, ample opportunities exist to observe takbat, the daily offering of alms to Buddhist monks, to learn Laos' traditional circle dance, the Lamvong, or to participate in a baci - a ceremony to bring blessings and good luck during important occasions in a person's life.


..Exquisite silk and cotton textiles, silverware, detailed wood carvings, pottery and traditional musical instruments are among the treasure trove of handicrafts for which Laos is becoming internationally renowned.