Laos - Country Overview

Want to visit “The Land of a Million Elephants?” Come to Laos or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic,which is its official name. It is a landlocked country of about six million people, and is located in the center of Indochina. Laos shares borders with China to the north, Myanmar to the northwest, Thailand to the southwest, Cambodia to the south and Vietnam to the east.  Many foreign tourists find here elements of the “original Asia” lost elsewhere.  And to many tourists it is” Simply Beautiful” which is also the official tourism slogan of Laos, like India’s “Incredible India.”

Unspoiled by industrial pollution and covered with deep green forests, proud of its amazing biodiversity, and the mighty Mekong River dotted with numerous islands, Laos is really a beautiful country that attracts more and more foreign tourists. Its thickly forested landscape consists mostly of rugged mountains, the highest of which is Chou Bia at 9,262 feet (2,817 m), with some plains and plateaus.

The Mekong River is the main geographical feature in the west of the country, and in fact forms a natural border with Thailand in some areas. The Mekong flows through nearly 1,900 kilometers of Lao territory and shapes much of the lifestyle of the people of Laos. In the south the Mekong reaches an unbelievable width of 20 kilometers, creating an area with thousands of islands, some of which are attractive tourist resorts. With a flowing length of 4,350 km from its origin in China to the South China Sea where its journey ends, the Mekong River is the longest river in Asia.


Location and Terrain

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is located in the heart of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It lays between latitude 14 and 23 degrees north and longitude 100 and 108 degrees east. It is the only Southeast Asian country without direct access to the sea, stretching north to south 1,700 kilometers.

Laos encompasses a total of 2, 36,800 square kilometers with the terrain characterized by three distinct regions - mountains, plateaus, and plains. The mountains and plateaus make up three-quarters of the total area.

High mountains rising to an average height of 1,500 metres dominate the northern region. The three highest mountains in the country are all located in the Phou Ane Plateau in Xieng Khouang Province. They are Phou Bia at 2,820 metres, Phou Xiao at 2,690 metres and Phou Xamxum at 2,620 metres. The Phou Luang (Annamite Range) stretches from Southeast on the Phouane Plateau down to the Cambodian border; the others 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 distributed along the Mekong River. The Vientiane Plain, the largest one, 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 is criss-crossed with a myriad 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 Laos’ 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.

Time - The time in Laos is 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT +7).


Geographic Location

Situated in the heart of Indochina Laos is surrounded by Vietnam, China, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia with long common borders with them...  Its location has often made it a buffer between these more powerful neighboring states, as well as a crossroad for trade and communication with them. Migration and international conflict have contributed to the present ethnic composition of the country and to the geographic distribution of its ethnic groups. Its total area is 2, 36,800 sq km with 2, 30,800 sq km land area and the rest water surface.



Population: 6.2 million.

- Density: 23 people/square kilometre.

- The population consists of 49 ethnic groups, in 4 main linguistic families. These families are:

  • The Lao-Tai Family includes eight (8) ethnic groups: Lao, Phouthai, Tai, Lue, Gnouane, Young, Saek and Thai Neua.
  • The Mon-Khmer Family includes thirty-two (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.
  • The Tibeto-Burmese Family includes seven (7) ethnic groups: Akha, Singsali, Lahou, Sila, Hayi, Lolo and Hor.
  • The Hmong-Lou mien category has 02 main tribes: Hmong and Lou mien (Yao).

These multi-ethnic people are scattered over the whole country each ethnic group with their own unique traditions, culture, language and life style.



Archeological excavations in Houaphanh and Luang Prabang provinces of Laos 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 fourth   millennium B.C. as evidence has been found by archeologists. Burial 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 proto-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 founding of the Lane Xang (million elephant) Kingdom in 1353 by King Fa Ngum who had 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 being King Setthathirath who ruled from 1548-1571. He moved the capital to Vientiane and built the That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine, and a temple to house the Pra Keo, the Emerald Buddha.

In the 17th Century, under the reign of King Souliyavongsa, the Lane Xang Kingdom entered it's 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 Lan Xang and described Vientiane as the "most magnificent city of Southeast Asia".

For 300 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as over all of what is now Laos. After centuries of gradual decline resulting mainly from in-fighti9ng, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) for the late 18th century until the late 19th century. In the process the capital Vientiane was virtually destroyed and the Emerald Buddha was carried to Bangkok, the Thai capital where it remains today.

Laos was put under the French administration in 1893. Under the French, Vientiane once again was restored to its part glory when once again it became the capital of a unified Lao state.

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 momentum.

Following a brief Japanese occupation during World War II the country declared its independence in 1945; but the French under Charles de Gaulle re-asserted their control and only in 1950 was Laos granted semi-autonomy as an “associated state” within the French Union. Finally, the long period of military and political upheaval culminated into an International Conference in Geneva in 1954 that resulted in signing of the Geneva Agreement on Indochina in 1954. Under the said agreement the independence of Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia were recognized.

The situation worsened during the Vietnam War, when Laos was dragged into it and the eastern parts of the country followed North Vietnam and adopted North Vietnam as a fraternal country. Laos allowed North Vietnam to use its land as a supply route for its war against the South Vietnam. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. The result of these actions were a series of coups d’état and, ultimately, the Laotian Civil War between the Royal Laotian government and the communist Pathet Lao.

In 1968 the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack to help the communist Pathet Lao to fight against the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing and leaving the conflict to irregular forces raised by the United States and Thailand. The attack resulted in huge loss of lives.  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.

The Guardian reported that Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos in this period that was dropped during the whole of the Second World War. Of the 260 million bombs that rained down, particularly on Xiangkhouand province, 80 million failed to explode, leaving a deadly legacy. It holds the distinction of being the most bombed country in the world.

Thus Laos has earned the distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation in the world and the communist Pathet Lao took control of the government ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict socialist regime closely aligned to Vietnam. 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, they established the People's Democratic Republic 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 defend and develop Laos in line with the new policy of the Party and government in order to lead the country to progress and prosperity. This has led to, as in the case of Vietnam, a gradual return to private enterprise and liberalization of foreign investment laws beginning from 1988.

Laos became a member of ASEAN in 1997. It also participates in a number of international organizations including ADB, FAO, G-77, IDA, ILO, IMF, NAM, UN, UNESCO and WTO (observer.)

Laos' population was estimated at 6.8 million in early 2009, dispersed unevenly across the country. Most people live in valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries. Vientiane, the capital and the largest city, had about 740,010 residents in 2008. The country's population density was 27/sq. km in 2009. It is a land of very young people with the median age being 19.5 years according to an estimate of 2010. The median age of men is 19.2 and of women 19.8. Life expectancy at birth, which is one of the criteria of the UNDP to measure ‘development’ for its annual Human Development Report, is 57 years for the whole country. Its global position in this respect is 194 which is, rather, low. Its labour force in 2009 was 3.65 million out of about 6.94 million populations (2010 estimate.) That means, over half the human force work. The overall literacy rate of 68.7 percent (2006 est) is not discouraging, considering the fact that the country has passed through great turmoil during  past over half a century and its GDP per capita is one of the lowest in the world with US$ 2,100 in 2009 (an estimate of 2009.)

About half the country's people are ethnic Lao, the principal lowland inhabitants as well as the politically and culturally dominant group. The Lao people descended from the Tai people who began migrating southward from China in the first millennium A.D. Mountain tribes of Hmong-Yao, and Tibeto-Burman (Kor and Phounoy) as well as Tai ethno-linguistic heritage are found in northern Laos. Until recently, they were known as Lao Sung or highland Lao. In the central and southern mountains, Austro Asiatic (Mon-Khmer and Viet-Muong) tribes, formerly known as Lao Theung or mid-slope Lao, predominate. Some Vietnamese and Chinese minorities remain, particularly in the towns, but many left in two waves--after partial independence in the late 1940s and again after 1975.



The predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism. Animism is common among the mountain tribes. Buddhism and spirit worship coexist naturally. There also are small numbers of Christians and Muslims.

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 Lan 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 provides the inherent features of the daily life of the Laos and casts a strong influence on Lao society. Lao woman can be seen each morning giving alms to monks, earning merit to lessen the number of their rebirths. It is expected that every Lao man will become a monk for at least a short time in his life. Traditionally, men spent three months during the rainy season in a Wat (Buddhist temple). Today, however; most men curtail their stay to one or two weeks.



Laos has a tropical monsoon climate, with a pronounced rainy season from May through October, a cool dry season from November through February, and a hot dry season in March and April. Generally, monsoon occurs at the same time over the whole country, although the time for arrival of monsoon may vary significantly from year to year.  Rainfall also varies regionally, with the highest amounts-- 3,700 millimeters (145.7 in) annually--recorded on the Bolovens Plateau in Champasak Province. City rainfall stations have recorded that Savannakhét averages 1,440 millimeters (56.7 in) of rain annually; Vientiane receives about 1,700 millimeters (66.9 in), and Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang) receives about 1,360 millimeters (53.5 in). Rainfall is not always adequate for wet rice cultivation, however.  The relatively high average precipitation records high yield whereas areas of scanty rainfall, say only half or less than the normal rainfall may cause droughts resulting in significant declines in rice yields. Such droughts often are regional, leaving production in other parts of the country unaffected. Temperatures range from highs around 40 °C (104 °F) along the Mekong in March and April to lows of 5 °C (41 °F) or less in the uplands of Xiangkhoang and Phôngsali in January.



The official and dominant language is Lao, a tonal language of the Tai linguistic group. Minorities speak an assortment of Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Yao, and Tibeto-Burman languages.  Other languages used are: Chinese, English, French, Thai and Vietnamese.

French, once common in government and commerce, has declined in usage, while knowledge of English--the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--has increased in recent years. The government is encouraging officials and students to learn English. High school students are required to take either French or English as a compulsory subject; the majority today chooses English. The government plans to introduce English as compulsory reading at the primary school level before 2010 ends.