Laos in Brief
The Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos is located in the center of Indochina, sharing borders with China to the North 416 kilometers, Myanmar to Northwest 236 kilometers, Thailand to the West 1,835 kilometers, Cambodia to the South 492 kilometers and Vietnam to the East 1,957 kilometers.
With a total area of 236,800 square kilometers, around 70% of Laos’ terrain is mountainous, reaching a maximum elevation of 2,820 meters in Xieng Khouang Province. The landscapes of northern Laos and the regions adjacent to Vietnam, in particular, are dominated by rough mountains.
The Mekong River is the main geographical feature in the west 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 a breadth of 20 kilometers, creating an area with thousands of islands.
Location and Terrain
The Lao P.D.R. is located in the heart of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It lies between latitude 14 to 23 degrees North and longitude 100 to 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 236,800 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 meters 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 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 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, 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 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.
Most of the year is hot and humid. Laos enjoys a tropical climate with two distinct seasons. The rainy season is from the beginning of May to the end of September, and the dry season is from October through April. 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 is to be expected during January. In mountainous areas, however, temperature drops to as low as 14-15 degrees Celsius during the winter months, and during cold nights, can easily reach 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. Unlike the vegetation that grows in the climate of Europe and the United States, tropical rainforest is composed of three vegetative layers. The top layer features single-trucked, high-reaching trees called dipterocarps. The middle canopy consists of hardwood such as teak. Beneath, small trees, grass and sometimes bamboo can be found.
In addition to its fascinating vegetation, Laos plays host to a diverse animal kingdom. Several exotic mammals are endemic such as leopard cats, Javan mongoose, goat antelopes as well as rare species of gibbons and linger, Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear and gaur. The discovery of the Saola Ox, a breed of deer-antelope, in Vietnam a few years ago caused a great sensation. This extremely rare animal inhabits the Eastern border regions of Laos. It is thought that these remote areas probably still hide other unknown species.
In Southern Laos, near Khong Island, Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit the Mekong River. While many species of wildlife are shy and can rarely be seen, spectators will generally be able to spot the dolphins in Springtime when the water level of the Mekong is lowest. Laos is also rich in resident and migrating birds. One of the more notable ones is the rare Green Peafowl. Lao religious images and art is also distinctive and sets Laos apart from its neighbors. The gCalling for Rainh posture of Buddha images in Laos, for example, which depicts the Buddha standing with his hands held rigidly at his side, fingers pointing to the ground, can not be found in other Southeast Asian Buddhist art traditions. Religious influences are also pervasive in classical Lao literature, especially in the Pha Lak, Pha Lam, the Lao version of India’s epic Ramayana.
Projects are underway to preserve classic Lao religious scripts, which were transcribed onto palm leaf manuscripts hundreds of years ago and stored in Wats.
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. 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 formation of the Lane Xang (million elephant) Kingdom in 1353 by King Fa Ngum and 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 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 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 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, establishing 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 defendant develop Laos in line with the new policy of the Party and government in order to lead the country to progress and prosperity.
People and Population
- Population: 6.2 million.
- Density: 23 people/square kilometer.
- The population consists of 49 ethnic groups, in 4 main linguistic.
- The Lao-Tai Family includes 08 ethnic groups: Lao, Phouthai, Tai, Lue, Gnouane, Young, Saek and Thai Neua.
- The Mon-Khmer Family 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.
- The Tibeto-Burmese Family includes 07 ethnic groups: Akha, Singsali, Lahou, Sila, Hayi, Lolo and Hor.
- The Hmong-Loumien category 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.
The official language is Lao. Other languages used are French, English. Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.
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 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.