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Laos

Coat of Arms, Flag and Map of Lao P.D.R

Geography

Laos, officially called the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is located in the heart of Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It has common borders with China in the North (416 kilometers), Myanmar in Northwest (236 kilometers), Thailand in the West (1,835 kilometers), Cambodia in the South (492 kilometers) and Vietnam to the East (1,957 kilometers). It lies between latitude 14 to 23 degrees North and longitude 100 to 108 degrees East. It stretches from North to South about 1.700 kilometers. It is the only one country in Southeast Asia that has no direct access to the sea.

Laos has a total area of 236,800 square kilometres and about 70% of its terrain is mountainous with a maximum elevation of 2,820 meters in Xieng Khouang Province. The landscapes of Northern Laos and the regions neigboring to Vietnam are dominated by rough mountains.

The Mekong River is the main geographical feature in the west and forms a natural border with Thailand in some areas. The Mekong flows through nearly 1,900 kilometers in Lao territory and influences in the lifestyle of the people of Laos. In the South the Mekong reaches a breadth of 20 kilometers, creating an area with thousands of islands. The terrain of Laos is characterized by three distinct regions : mountains, plateaux and plains.

The mountains and plateaux make up three-quarters of the total area. High mountains rising to an average height of 1,500 meters dominate the Northern region. The three highest mountains in the country are all located in the Phou Ane Plateau in Xieng Khouang Province: Phou Bia at 2,820 meters, Phou Xao at 2,690 meters and Phou Xamxum at 2,620 meters. The Phou Luang (Annamite Range) stretches from Southeast on the Phouane Plateau down to the Cambodian border; the others plateaux are the Nakai Plateau in Khammouane Province and the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos, which is over 1,000 meters above sea level.

The plain region consists of large and small plain areas, scattering along the Mekong River. The Vientiane Plain, the largest, is situated on the lower reaches of the Nam Ngum River. The Savannakhet Plain is situated on the lower reaches of the Sebangfai River and Sebanghieng River, while the Champasack Plain on the Mekong River stretches out to the Thai and Cambodian borders. Blessed with rich and fertile soil, these plains represent one quarter of the total area known as the granaries of the country.

The Lao PDR has a lot of rivers and streams. The largest is the Mekong River, flowing for 1,898 kilometers from the North to the South, with 919 kilometers of the river forming the major portion of the border with Thailand. It is estimated that some 60% of all the water entering the Mekong River system originates in Laos. These rivers and streams provide great potential for hydropower development with 51% of the power potential in the lower Mekong basin contained within Laos.

Climate

Laos has two distinct seasons: the dry season begins from October to April and the rainy season is from the beginning of May to the end of September. Most of the year is hot and humid. The yearly average temperature is about 28 degrees Celsius, rising to a maximum of 38 degrees Celsius during April and May.

In Vientiane a minimum temperature of 19 degrees Celsius in January. In mountainous areas, the temperature may reach 14-15 degrees Celsius. During the cold months and in the cold nights it can reach to the freezing point.

The average precipitation is highest in Southern Laos, where the Annamite Mountains receive over 3,000 mm annually. In Vientiane rainfall is about 1,500-2,000 mm and in the Northern provinces only 1,000-1,500 mm.

Flora and fauna

Laos has one of the most pristine natural landscapes in Southeast Asia. An estimated half of its woodlands consist of primary forest, in particular the tropical rainforest. Tropical rainforest is composed of three vegetative layers. The top layer features single-trucked, high-reaching trees. The middle canopy consists of hardwood such as teak. Beneath, small trees, grass and sometimes bamboo can be found.

The low population contributed to the development of many animal species. We can still see recently almost unknown species like the Vu Quang ox, species regarded as extinct as the koupreys or Sumatran rhino or rare dolphin Irrrawaddy (freshwater dolphin) or Bear Malaysia. There are of course in Laos wildlife common to the Indochina Peninsula as sambar, gaur, bateng, black bear, civet, various species of primates (pig-tailed macaques, red panda, douc langur, gibbon, pangolin, reptiles as royal cobra, Malaysian green viper, black varan... Despite of the consequences of deforestation and especially the war along the Vietnamese border (bombings and deforestation), there remain a number of wild elephants, particularly in the provinces of Attapeu, Champassak, Sayaburi and Phongsaly. Leopard, tiger or panther are extremely rare, but still exist in the territory. We can see many beautiful butterflies.

History

Stone tools discovered in Houaphanh and Luang Prabang provinces attest to the presence of prehistoric man in the hunter-gatherer stage in Lao territory from at least 40,000 years ago. Agriculturist society seemed to appear during the 4th millennia B.C. as evidence has been found by archeologists. The stone jars and other kinds of sepulchers have revealed a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 B.C. and iron tools were known since 700 B.C.

The earliest historic period is characterized by contact with Chinese and Indian civilizations. Between the fourth and eighth century, communities along the Mekong River began to form into townships, called Muang. This development culminated in the formation of the Lane Xang (million elephants) Kingdom in 1353 by King Fa Ngum who established Xieng Thong (now known as Luang Prabang) as the capital of Lane Xang Kingdom.

The Kingdom was further expanded by King Fa Ngum’s successors. One of the most notable was the King Setthathirath who ruled from 1548-1571. He moved the capital from Nakorn Xieng Thong to Vientiane and built the That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine, and a temple to house the Pra Keo Morakod, the Emerald Buddha.

In the 17th 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 missionary Leria de Marini, visited the Kingdom of Lane Xang and described Vientiane as the "most magnificent city of Southeast Asia".

This golden age was followed by in-fighting for the throne, which led to the break-up of Lane Xang into the three kingdoms: Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champasack. All of these civil wars weakened the kingdom, thus creating opportunities for new foreign aggressors to invade.

The unsuccessful insurrection against Siam by King Anouvong resulted in the virtual destruction of Vientiane. The Siamese took the Emerald Buddha to Bangkok where it remains today.

Laos was put under the French administration in 1893. To recover its full rights and sovereignty, the Lao people started fighting against the French regime. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of Indochina (founded in 1930), the struggle for self-determination and independence gained importance. Finally, the long period of military and political upheaval culminated with the International Conference and the Geneva Agreement on Indochina in 1954 where the independence of Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia were recognized.

The situation worsened during the Vietnam War, even though the Geneva Accord of 1962 had recognized the neutrality of Laos and forbade the presence of all foreign military personnel. By bombing the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail across Laos, US forces dropped more bombs on Laos than they did worldwide during World War II.

Laos remains the most heavily bombed nation in history. This was particularly the case in Houaphanh and Xieng Khouang Provinces, where international teams are still clearing the terrain of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) and people continue to suffer from the legacy of war.

In 1975, under the leadership of the Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party, victory was achieved. After the Lao people gained power in a bloodless take-over, the People’s Democratic Republic was established on December 2nd. It was the culmination of a successful struggle for national liberation and a reinstatement of independence.

At present the multi-ethnic Lao people are making efforts to defendant develop Laos in line with the new policy of the Party and government in order to lead the country to progress and prosperity.

Provinces and districts of Laos

Laos is divided into 16 provinces (Khoueng) and Vientiane Capital (Na Khornluang Vientiane). The province is further divided into districts (Muang):

Provinces (Khoueng) in alphabetic orderDistricts (Muang)
1 Attapeu 5 districts: Phouvong, Samakkhixay, Sanamxay, Sanxay and Saysetha
2 Bokeo 5 districts: Houay Xay, Meung, Pak Tha, Pha Oudom and Ton Pheung
3 Bolikhamsai 6 districts: Borikhane, Khamkeut, Pakkading, Paksane, Thaphabat and Viengthong
4 Champassack 10 districts: Batiengchaleunsouk, Champassack, Khong, Mounlapamok, Pakse, Paksong, Pathouphone, Phonthong, Sanasomboun and Soukhoumma
5 Houaphanh 6 districts: Houameuang, Samneua, Samtay, Viengthong, Viengxay and Xiengkho
6 Khammouane 9 districts: Boualapha, Hineboune, Mahaxay, Nakai, Nong Bok, Saybouathong, Sebangphay, Thakhek and Yommalath
7 Luang Namtha 5 districts: Long, Na Le, Namtha, Sing and Viengphoukha
8 Luang Prabang 10 districts: Chomphet, Luang Prabang, Nam Bak, Ngoy, Pak Xeng, Pak Ou, Phonxay, Phoukhoune, Viengkham and Xiengngeun
9 Oudomxay 7 districts: Beng, Houne, La, Na Mor, Nga, Pak Beng and Xay
10 Phongsaly 7 districts: Boun Neua, Boun Tay, Khoua, May, Yot Ou, Phongsaly and Samphanh
11 Saravane 8 districts: Khongxedone, Lakhonepheng, Lao Ngam, Saravane, Sa Mouay, Ta Oy, Toumlane and Vapy
12 Savannakhet 14 districts: Atsaphangthong, Assaphone, Champhone, Khanthaboury, Nong, Outhoumphone, Phine, Seponh, Songkhone, Thapangthong, Thaphalanxay, Viraboury, Xayboury and Xonboury
13 Sekong 4 districts: Dak Cheung, Kaleum, La Mam and Tha Teng
14 Vientiane Province 12 districts: Feuang, Hinhurp, Hom, Kasy, Keooudom, Mad, Pholhong, Thoulakhom, Vangvieng, Viengkham, Xanakharm and Xaisomboun
15 Vientiane Capital (Nakhornluang Vientiane) 9 districts: Chanthabuly, Hadxayfong, Mayparkngum, Naxaithong, Sangthong, Sikhottabong, Sisattanak, Xaysetha and Xaythany
16 Sayaboury 10 districts: Botene, Hongsa, Kenethao, Khop, Ngeun, Parklai, Phiang, Thongmyxay, Sayabouli and Xienghone
17 Xiengkhouang 7 districts: Kham, Khoune, Mok May, Nong Het, Pek, Phaxay and Phou Kout

People and population

Population: 6.2 million inhabitants.

Density: 23 inhabitants/square kilometer.

The population consists of 49 ethnic groups, in 4 main linguistic Families:
1. The Lao-Tai Family:
This linguistic Family includes 08 ethnic groups: Lao, Phouthai, Tai, Lue, Youane, Young, Saek and Thai Neua.

2. The Mon-Khmer Family:
It includes 32 ethnic groups: Khmu, Pray, Singmou, Khom, Thene, Idou, Bid, Lamed, Samtao, Katang, Makong, Try, Trieng, Ta-oi, Yeh, Brao, Harak, Katou, Oi, Krieng, Yrou, Souai, Gnaheune, Lavy, Kabkae, Khmer, Toum, Ngouane, Meuang and Kri.

3. The Tibeto-Burmese Family:
It includes 07 ethnic groups: Akha, Singsali, Lahou, Sila, Hayi, Lolo and Hor.

4. The Hmong-Loumien:
It has 02 main tribes: Hmong and Loumien (Yao).

These multi-ethnic people are scattered across the country each with their own unique traditions, culture and language.

Language

The official language is Lao. Other languages used are French, English, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.

Religion

Buddhism first appeared in Laos during the eighth century A.D., as shown by both the Buddha image and the stone inscription found at Ban Talat near Vientiane, now exhibited at Hor Pra keo Museum. After the foundation of the unified Kingdom of Lane Xang, King Fa Ngum (14th Century) declared Buddhism as the state religion and urged the people to abandon Animism or other beliefs such as the Cult of Spirits. His policy meant to develop the Lao culture based on a common faith: Theravada Buddhism.

Today, Theravada Buddhism is the professed religion of about 90% of Lao people. Buddhism is an inherent feature of daily life and casts a strong influence on Lao society.

Lao people can be seen each morning giving alms to monks. It is expected that Lao men will become a monk for at least a short time in his life. Traditionally, men spent three months during the rainy season in a Buddhist temple. Today, most men reduce their stay to one or two weeks in the monks’ life.

When to visit Laos

The best time to visit Laos is between November and April. The hot season from March to May is very dry and certain river trips are not possible.

Food

Laotian food is based on fish, cow and buffalo meat, pork, poultry and especially herbs. It is always being freshly prepared and not being preserved. Other than sticky rice which is eaten with fingers, Lao food is very rich in vegetables and is often browned in coconut milk.

Rice is the staple of Laotian food. Lap is a traditional dish. It consists of minced meat accompanied by citronella, onions, and spices and mixed with a sauce and roasted rice. Lap means "happiness and luck". The sticky rice is always served with the hot sauce…

Laotian cooking not only uses cultivated vegetables, but often wild fruit or vegetables picked from the forests are used as well. Laotian food has a unique flavor and some dishes can be spicy to the un accustomed foreigner.

Clothing

During the hot season, January to April, bring light clothes in cotton and linen, sunglasses and a hat all year long. Sunscreen and bug repellent is also recommended. From November to December, the cold season, it is a good idea to bring warm clothing such as sweaters and jackets for the morning and evening, and even more so if you are visiting the mountainous regions of the North. From May to October, during the rainy season, it is best to have waterproof clothing. It is best to wear easily removable shoes or sandals when visiting the temples.

Electricity

Electric current: 220 volts.

Currency

The Kip is the official currency of the Lao PDR and the following bank notes are currently in circulation: 500, 1.000, 2.000, 5.000, 10.000, 20.000 and 50.000 Kip. The Government promotes to use the Kip. The US Dollars, Euros and Thai Baht can be exchanged at the bank, airport, or at a foreign currency exchange office. Do not exchange the money in the black market. It is against the law and you risk to be cheated.

Credit cards

Credit cards (Visa, Master, JCB, American Express) are accepted at most of the banks and in the big hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. Visa and Master are the most common.

Do and don’t in Laos

Lao people are frank, open and friendly, and they possess a strongly developed sense of courtesy and respect. Everyone who adheres to the latter will receive a warm welcome. It is recommended to respect these “Do and Don’t“ while travelling in Laos:

- The Lao word for hello is ‘Sa Bai Dee”, usually said with a smile. Touching or showing affection in public will embarrass them.
- The generally accepted form of greeting among Lao people, in particular for Lao women, is the “Nop”. It is performed by placing one’s palms together in a position of praying at chin level, but not touching the body. The higher the hands, the greater the sign of respect. Nonetheless, the hands should not be held above the level of the eye. The nop is accompanied by a slight bow to show respect to persons of higher status and age. It is also used as an expression of thanks, regret or saying good-bye. However for men of the same status and age, usually it is a shaking hands for greeting.
- Your feet is inferior part of the body. Using your feet for anything other than walking or playing sport is generally considered rude. You must never indicate, touch another person or object with your foot or put your foot on the table while sitting.
- The head is the highest part of the body. Touching someone’s head is not accepted by Lao people.
- Lao peole appreciate clean and neatly dressed visitors.
- Bathing nude in public is not accepted by Lao people.
- Take your shoes off before enter a Lao person’s home.
- You will be appreciated very much when passing someone who is seated you gently crouch down. Never step over someone in your path.
- Kissing and hugging in public is not accepted.
- Lao people speak softly and avoid confrontation. Do not shout or raise your voice.
- Before taking a photo of someone, please ask permission first.
- Please do not distribute gifts to children as it encourages begging, but give them to an established organization or Village Committee.
- While you are in temples and taking photos, please show respect and dress neatly.
- There are many sacred items and sites in Laos. Do not touch or enter these places without permission.
- Monks are revered and respected in Laos, however women should not touch a monk or a monk’s robes.
- Please help to keep Laos clean and beautiful by not leaving rubbish.
Picking up rubbish sets a good example for Lao youth.
- The illegal sale of wildlife and wildlife products endangers many species native to Laos. Please help protect Lao wildlife by refusing to buy wildlife products.
- Please help prevent of forest fires.
- Laos loses a little of its heritage every time an antique is taken out of the country. Please do not buy antique Buddha or other sacred items. Instead, support local craftsmen by purchasing new, quality handicrafts.
- The use of drugs is illegal in Laos. The consequences may be severe for you and Lao society.
- Sex tourism is illegal in Lao PDR and child-sex tourism is a serious crime. Please help protect children in Laos from sexual abuse and exploitation by reporting suspicious behavior.