LAOS > FACTS ABOUT THE COUNTRY
In the mid-14th century a Khmer king married his daughter to a Lao warlord,
and helped him to form his own, independent kingdom of Lan Xang (a Million Elephants).
In the 19th century Laos was under Thai control. But by the late 19th century,
after France had established French Indochina in the Vietnamese provinces of
Tonkin and Annam, the Thais ceded all of Laos to the French. During World War
II, the Japanese occupied Indochina, a Lao resistance group was formed to prevent
the return of the French, and independence was achieved in 1953. The USA began
bombing North Vietnamese troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos in
1964 and by the time a ceasefire was negotiated in 1973, Laos was the most bombed
country in the history of warfare. A coalition government was formed, but when
Saigon fell in 1975, most of the royalists left for France and the Lao People's
Democratic Republic was established in December 1975. In the following decades
Laos cultivated a close relationship to Vietnam. In the 1990s there was a move
towards market economy, permitting private business, free-market competition
and foreign investment in order to accelerate the economic development of the
country, together with a 'Visit Laos' campaign in order to attract the tourist
Covering an area of 236,800 square kilometers, Laos is the only Southeast Asian
country without direct access to the sea. To the West the country borders Thailand
and Burma, to the North is Myanmar and China’s Yunnan province, to the
East is Vietnam, and to the South is Cambodia. Over 70% of the country comprises
mountains and plateaus; the highest peak is Phu Bia at 2820 meters in northern
Laos. Laos' main artery is the Mekong, which for more than 1,800 kilometers
passes through the country or forms the border between Laos and Thailand. The
rugged Annamite Chain of mountains, averaging between 1500 and 3000 meters,
border Vietnam and run parallel to the Mekong River for half the length of the
country. The Bolaven Plateau is a 10,000 square kilometer area producing high
altitude crops such as mountain rice, coffee and tea.
In Laos there are 2 distinct seasons, the wet season (May to October) and the
dry season (November to April). This can then be roughly divided into 3 seasons,
although temperatures vary according to altitude. The cold, dry season lasts
from November to February; the hot dry season is from March until April or May;
and from May until October is the rainy monsoon season. The temperature can
reach 40 degrees in the Mekong Delta in the hot season and the lowest temperature
in this region is about 15 degrees occurring between December and January. However,
it is at least 10 degrees cooler in the mountains and can become very cold during
winter. It rains more in the North than in the South. During most of the rainy
season, daytime temperatures average around 29°C in the lowlands and 25°C
in the mountain valleys. The best time to visit is between November and February,
and the mountains are very pleasant between May and July. Roads can be washed
out during rainy season but there's plenty of river travel. Although Laos has
relatively few visitors at any time, the peak tourist months are December to
February and also during August.
The ecology of Laos is one of the most pristine in the whole of Southeast Asia
and this is despite the bombings and the use of defoliants in the east of the
country during the US war with neighbouring Vietnam. Two-thirds of Laos is forested,
about 50% of the country is primary forest and 30% is secondary growth, the
commonest woods being teak, Asian rosewood and bamboo. But illegal logging endangers
the forests. There are 17 Biodiversity Conservation Areas in Laos.
The wildlife of Laos includes concolor gibbon, snub-nosed langur, lesser panda
and raccoon dog. There are more exotic species in Laos than in other Southeast
Asian countries because of the large amount of forested area and fewer hunters.
These exotic species include the Javan mongoose, Siamese hare, leopard cat,
tiger, Irrawaddy dolphin, and a few Javan rhinos.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Laos is a poor developing country with a communist government. Political power
is centralized in the Lao People's Revolutionary Party.
The government of Laos began decentralizing control and encouraging private
enterprise in 1986. The results, starting from an extremely low base, were striking
- growth averaged 7% during 1988-97. But the country was damaged by a financial
crisis between 1997 and 1999. A landlocked country with a primitive infrastructure,
Laos has no railroads, a rudimentary road system, and limited external and internal
telecommunications. Electricity is available in only a few urban areas. Subsistence
agriculture accounts for half of GDP and provides 80% of total employment. For
the foreseeable future the economy will continue to depend on aid from the IMF
and other international sources. Only 10% of the country is suitable for agriculture
and agriculture products and industries are sweet potatoes, vegetables, corn,
coffee, sugarcane, tobacco, cotton; tea, peanuts, rice; water buffalo, pigs,
cattle, poultry. Export commodities are wood products, garments, electricity,
coffee, tin mining, timber and opium. Major trading partners are Thailand, Vietnam,
POPULATION AND PEOPLE
The population of Laos is around 5.4 Million, making it the third smallest country
in Southeast Asia with one of the lowest population densities in Asia - around
18 people per square kilometer. Most of the population is settled along fertile
river valleys, although there are many small tribes living in the hills. 85%
of the population lives in rural areas. About half of the population is Laotian,
a race of people who, ethnically, are closely related to the Thais. The Laotian
language is also very similar to Thai. About a quarter of the population, ethnically
belongs to the Mon-Khmer group, about 15% are Thais, and various hill tribes
make up another 10% of the population.
There are many links between Lao and Thai culture, and this is particularly
noticeable in Lao sculpture, classical music, dance, drama and cuisine. Lao
folk music involves the khaen; a bamboo reed instrument fitted into a wooden
sound box, and is usually accompanied by dancing or theatre. Traditional art
is focused on wats (temples), stupas and representations of Buddha. The Lao
people are skilful carvers and weavers.
SOCIETY AND CONDUCT
Show respect to the local people. Don’t shout or lose your cool and dress
modestly. Avoid public displays of affection. Take your shoes off when entering
a house or a temple. Don’t point with your feet or place them on furniture.
Don't gesture with your feet or touch anyone on the head. Keep your head lower
than the Buddhas and the monks. Buddhist priests must not be touched by a woman
or accept anything from a woman’s hand. Don't turn your back on a Buddha.
The Lao are very friendly and hospitable and if you respect the culture you
will earn the respect of the people. Lao people dress modestly, and traditionally,
Lao women wear a 'phaa sin', a woven wrap-around skirt made of silk or cotton.
There's no need to tip in Laos, except at up market restaurants where around
10% is expected. If you're buying things in markets or hiring a vehicle, always
bargain; at shops it's usually worth a try. Keep it low-key because the Laotians
are generally gentle hagglers.
85% Buddhist, 15% animist and spiritualist cults. Every Lao Buddhist male is
expected to become a monk for a short period of his life.
The official language of Laos is Lao, one of the Sino-Tibetan languages; French
is also used in bureaucracy, and some English is spoken in the main tourist
areas. Laos has 68 ethnic minorities and a large number of these ethnic groups
have kept their own languages and dialects. The Lao script is a modern variant
of the old Khmer script, which originated 1700 years ago from the Brahma script