Laos Travel Guide

Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos

Laos is located in southeast Asia, bordered by Vietnam (east) and Cambodia (south). Nearly 90% of the country is mountainous. Lowlands lie near the Mekong River where 75% of the population lives. The climate is tropical, but temperatures vary with elevation. Forests cover about 54% of the land, which provide timber trade and a habitat for elephants, panthers, leopards, and tigers. Half of the people are Lao. Other ethnic groups include the Lao Theung, Hmong (Meo), and Yao. The official language is Lao, but ethnic groups speak their own languages. The majority of people are subsistence farmers, growing mostly rice.

Official Name: Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR)
Founding Day: 2 December 1975 (National Day)
President: H.E. Mr. Choummaly Sayasone
Prime Minister: H.E. Mr. Bounnhang Vorachith
President of National Assembly: H.E. Mr. Thongsing Thammavong

Laos Basic Facts

Laos or the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao is located in the center of Indochina, sharing borders with china to the north, Myanmar to the northwest, Thailand to the west, Cambodia to the south, and Vietnam to the east.

The country has an area of the 236,800 square kilometers. Around 70% of its terrain is mountainous, reaching a maximum elevation of 2,820 m in Xieng Khouang Province.

The landscapes of northern Laos and the regions adjacent to Vietnam in particular are dominated by hills. 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 km of Lao territory and shapes much of the lifestyle of the of Laos. In the south the Mekong reaches a breadth of 14 km, creating and area with thousands of islands.

Laos is the least developed and most enigmatic of the three former French Indochinese states. A ruinous sequence of colonial domination, internecine conflict and dogmatic socialism finally brought the country to its knees in the 1970s, and almost ten per cent of the population left.

Now, after two decades of isolation from the outside world, this landlocked, sparsely populated country is enjoying peace, stabilising its political and economic structures and admitting foreign visitors – albeit in limited numbers due to a general lack of infrastructure.

The lack of foreign influence offers travellers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional South-East Asian life. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, travellers who have made it to Laos tend to agree that this country is the highlight of South-East Asia.

Climate: Laos has a warm and tropical climate with two seasons: the rainy season from the beginning of May to the end of September and the dry season from October to April. The average temperature 29 degree centigrade. Maximum temperature can reach up to 40 degree centigrade. Temperatures can drop to as low as 15 degrees or even lower in mountains.

In Vientiane minimum temperatures of 19 C are to be expected in January. In mountainous areas, however, temperatures drop to 14-15 C during the winter months, and in cold nights easily reach the freezing point.

The average precipitation is highest in southern Laos, where the Annamite mountains receive over 3000 mm annually. In Vientiane rainfall is about 1500-2000 mm, and in the northern provinces only 1000-1500 mm. The best time to visit Laos is during the months of November to March because these are cool months and rainfall is lower than other periods.

Electricity: 220 volts at 50 HZ electricity lines

Time: Lao standard time is GMT + 7

Language: Lao language is the national language. 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 the Museum of Ho Prakeo. After the foundation of the unified Kingdom of Lane Xang, King FaNgum (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: the 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, earing merit to lessen the number of their rebirth. Lao men are expected to become a monk for at least a short time in their lives. Traditionally they spent three months during the rainy season in a Vat, a Buddhist temple. But nowadays most men curtail their stay to one or two weeks.

People: The population of Lao PDR has reached 5,635,967 in 2002 (estimate), and is growing at an annual 2.4%. The average population density is 24 per square kilometre, giving Lao the lowest population density in Asia.

About 85% of the population are rural dwellers, and the 1999 census revealed that there were 60,000 more women then men.

Over 70% (2,220,547) are engaged in productive work, and 936,870 are unemployed, a classification which includes students (69.4%), domestic workers (12.6%), the aged (14.6%).

There are 576,758 people at work in towns, and 2,580,659 work in the countryside. An age-group breakdown gives: 0-14 years – 2,251,600; 15,59 years -2,548,800; 60 years and above – 290,700 people.

The people of Laos share a rich ethnic diversity, comprising of 94 ethnic groups, in four main linguistic families, according to preliminary figures given to a symposium on the name of ethnic groups on August 13-14, 2000.

The Mone-Khmer family has 32 ethnic groups which include Khmu, Pray, Singmou, Khom, Thene, Idou, Bid, Lamad, 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 Lao-Tai family includes eight groups: Lao, Prouthai, Tai, Lue, Gnouane, Young, Saek, and Thai Neua.
The Tibeto-Burnese family includes seven ethnic groups: Ahka, Singsali, Lahou, Sila, hayi, Lolo and Hor.
The Hmong-Ioumien category has two main tribes: Hmong and Ioumien.

These multi-ethnic people of Lao are generally scattered across the country, while each has its own unique tradition, culture and language. Most of them have kept their own customs, dialects and traditional dress.

Culture in Laos

Lao people boast a plethora of distinctive monuments and architectural styles. One of the most notable structures is That Luang , the Great Sacred Stupa, in Vientiane. Its dome like stupa and four-cornered superstructure is the model for similar monuments throughout Laos. Stupas serve to commemorate the life of the Buddha and many stupas are said to house sacred relics (parts of Buddha’s body).

Generally, Hinayana Buddhists cremate the dead body then collect the bone and put in the stupa which set around the temple. Different styles of architecture are evident in the numerous Buddhist vats. Three architectural styles can be distinguished, corresponding to the geographical location of the temples and monasteries. Vats built in Vientiane are large rectangular structures constructed of brick and covered with stucco and high-peaked roofs. In Luang Prabang the roofs sweep very low and, unlike in Vientiane, almost reach the ground. These two styles are different from the vats of Xieng Khouang where the temple roofs are not tiered.

Lao religious images and art are also distinctive and set Laos apart from its neighbors. The “Calling for Rain” posture of Buddha images in Lao, for example, which depicts the Buddha standing with his hands held rigidly at his side, fingers pointing to the ground, cannot be found in other South East 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 vats.

Another excellent example for the richness of Lao culture is its folk music, which is extremely popular with the people throughout the whole country. The principle instrument is the khaen, a wind instrument which comprises a double row of Bamboo-like reeds fitted into a hardwood soundbox. The khaen is often accompanied by a bowed string instrument or saw. The national folk dance is the lamvong, a circle dance in which people dance circles around each other so that ultimately there are three circles: a circle danced by the individual, another one by the couple, and a third one danced by the whole party.

National Tourism Authority of Laos

Here is the listing for the National Tourism Authority of Laos Offices. For more information, please visit the National Tourism Authority of Laos web site.

Vientiane Municipality and Province
Lane Xang Avenue
Phone : +856-21-222 971

Vientiane Provincial Management Office
Phone : +856-21-212 776

Luang Prabang Province
Sethathilath Road
Phone : +856-71-212 487
Fax : +856-71-212 407

Luang Namtha Province
Phone : +856-86-312 047
Fax : +856-86-312 020

Sayabouri Province
Phone : +856-74-412 004

Xieng Khouang Province
Phone : +856-61-312 163
Fax : +856-61-312 021

Borikhamsay Province
Phone : +856-54-212 332

Khammouane Province
Anou Road, Bane Lout Phosay, Thakek district
Phone : +856-51-212 512
Fax : +856-51-212 307

Savannakhet Province
Latphanith Road, Khanthabouly District
Phone : +856-41-212 755
Fax : +856-41-212 755

Champassack Province
Kheamkhong Road, Pakse District
Phone : +856-31-212 021
Fax : +856-31-212 021

Huaphanh Province
Phone : +856-64-312 661~2

Saravane Province
Phone : +856-31-212 116

Attapeu Province
Bane Nonesavang , Sena Road, Samakkhixay District
Phone : +856-31-212 039
Fax : +856-31-212 039

Oudomsay Province
Phone : +856-81-312 010

Last Updated (Friday,15 December 2006 )