Laos, officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. A mountainous and landlocked country, Laos shares borders with Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar and China to the north.
Laos is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours. First created as an entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lane Xang (“Million Elephants”), the kingdom was initially a Khmer vassal state. After a succession dispute, the kingdom split in three in 1694 and was eventually devoured piece by piece by the Siamese, the last fragments agreeing to Siamese protection in 1885.
The area east of the Mekong, however, was soon wrenched back from Siam by the French, who wanted a buffer state to protect Vietnam, and set up Laos as a unified territory in 1907. Briefly occupied by Japan in 1945, a three-decade-long conflict was triggered when France wanted to retake its colony. Granted full independence in 1953, the war continued between a bewildering variety of factions, with the Communist and North Vietnam-allied Pathet Lao struggling to overthrow the French-leaning monarchy. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973) the United States dropped 1.9 million tonnes of bombs on Laos, mostly in the northeast: for comparison 2.2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped by all sides in World War II.
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and admission into ASEAN in 1997.
Despite being just one hour by air from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos has continued in much the same way it has for hundreds of years, although things are now slowly beginning to change. In the mid-90s the government reversed its stance on tourism, and then declared 1998 “Visit Laos Year” – but despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer, monks still outnumbered tourists throughout the country. This is now rapidly changing, with tourist numbers rising every year. Indeed, Vientiane is a laid-back, yet charmingly cosmopolitan village.
Despite its small population, Laos has 49 ethnic groups, or tribes, from which Lao, Khmou and Hmong constitute approximately three-quarters of the population. Most tribes are small, with some having just a few hundred members. The ethnic groups are divided into four linguistic branches: Lao-Tai language represented by 8 tribes, Mone-Khmer language with 32 tribes, Hmoung-Loumien language with 2 tribes and Tibeto-Chinese language represented by 7 tribes.
Laos is officially Buddhist, and the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang, has replaced the hammer and sickle even on the state seal. Still, there is a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci (also baasi) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participant’s body before a long journey, after serious illness, the birth of a baby or other significant events.
Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long sarong available in many regional patterns; however, many ethnic minorities have their own clothing styles. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a common sight. These days men dress Western-style and only don the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays women often wear Western-style clothing, though the “phaa sin” is still the mandatory attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also for Lao women just visiting).
Laos has three distinct seasons:
The hot season is from March to May, when temperatures can soar as high as 40°C.
The slightly cooler wet season is from May to October, when temperatures are around 30°C, tropical downpours are frequent (especially July-August), and, in some years, the Mekong will flood.
The dry season from November to March, which has low rainfall and temperatures as low as 15°C (or even to zero in the mountains at night), is “high season” (when the most tourists are in the country). However, towards the end of the dry season, the northern parts of Laos — basically everything north of Luang Prabang — can become very hazy due to farmers burning fields and fires in the forests.