Laos Country Information

Laos is a landlocked country bordered to the north by China, to the east by Vietnam, to the south by Cambodia and to the west by Thailand and Myanmar.

Until 1988 tourists were not allowed access to Laos, but the country has recently opened up and it is perfectly feasible to travel all over the country, preferably with a recognised tour company. Following a considerable increase in tourist arrivals, the Government declared 1999 Visit Laos Year, and the number of tourists is expected to continue increasing over the next few years.

 Quick Facts

Full country name: Lao People’s Democratic Republic

Area: 236,800 sq km (91,400 sq miles).

Population: 5,407,453 (1999).

Population Density: 20.5 per sq km (1997).

Capital: Vientiane. Population: 555,100 (1997).

Government: People’s Republic since 1975. Head of State: Khamtai Siphandon since 1996. Head of Government: Sisavat Keobounphan since 1998. Gained independence from France in 1953.

Language: The official language is Lao, however many tribal languages are also spoken. French, Vietnamese and some English are also spoken.

Religion: The Laos-Lum (Valley Laos) people follow the Hinayana (Theravada) form of Buddhism. The religions of the Laos-Theung (Laos of the mountain tops) range from traditional Confucianism to Animism and Christianity.

Time: GMT + 7.

Electricity: 220 volts AC, 50Hz.

Communications: Telephone: Restricted IDD available. Country code: 856. Outgoing international code: 00. Press: English-language dailies in Laos include the Vientiane Times.

Administrative Divisions: 16 provinces (khoueng, singular and plural), 1 municipality* (kampheng nakhon, singular and plural), and 1 special zone** (khetphiset, singular and plural); Attapu, Bokeo, Bolikhamxai, Champasak, Houaphan, Khammouan, Louangnamtha, Louangphabang, Oudomxai, Phongsali, Salavan, Savannakhet, Viangchan*, Viangchan, Xaignabouli, Xaisomboun**, Xekong, Xiangkhoang

 

 Environment

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is located in South East Asia at the centre of the Indochinese Peninsula between latitude 14-23 degrees north and longitude 100108 degrees east.

Laos has an eastern border of 1,957 km with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a western border of 1,730 km with the Kingdom of Thailand, a southern border of 492 km with the Kingdom of Cambodia a northern border of 416 km with the People’s Republic of China and a North Western border of 230 km with the Union of Myanmar. Total area of Laos is 236,800 square kilometres, three quarters of which is mountainous and forest-covered 40 % while the country is rich in natural resources, such as mineral deposits, including 1 billion tons of high quality iron are between 60-70%, lead, gold, tin and 8200-8232 calorie/gram coal.

Although the Lao P.D.R. has no direct access to the sea, it has the Mekong River which is the main river of the country flowing north to south. In addition, there are many branch rivers which nourish agriculture. Laos people use it as a power source which supplies hydro-electric of over 18,000 MW from 57 dams.

The Population of the Lao P.D.R. is estimated at 4,581,128 (1995) and population density remains one of the lowest in the region at 19 persons per square kilometre with a population increase rate of 2.64 %. The Lao population is ethnically diverse with up to 68 different ethnic groups identified inhabiting the country, with various languages, cultures and traditions which are classified into three groups: The Lao Loam, who occupy the lowlands plains and the Mekong River valley, and constitute about 56% of the total population; the Lao Thing, who occupy the mountain slopes, comprising about 34% of the population, and the high mountain Lao, constituting about 9% of the total population, and one per cent foreigners

The annual Asian monsoon cycle gives Laos two distinct seasons: May to October is wet, and November to April is dry. Temperatures vary according to altitude. In the Mekong River Valley, the highest temperatures occur between March and April (38?C/100?F) and the lowest between December and January (15?C/59?F). During most of the rainy season, daytime temperatures average around 29?C (84?F) in the lowlands and 25?C (77?F) in the mountain valleys.

 History

Originally known as Lanxang (the land of a million elephants), Laos was part of French Indo-China, with full independence being attained in 1953 under the rule of King Sisavang Vong. The monarchy was opposed by former nationalist guerrillas organised into the Laotian Patriotic Front (LPF) whose fighters, the Pathet Lao, formed an alliance with the Viet Minh (later Viet Cong) nationalists in neighbouring Vietnam, to expel the residual French, and later to counter American influence in the region and the regimes supported by them.

Despite repeated efforts, both before and after the communist takeover in 1975, the Chinese failed to exert any significant influence over the country; indeed, after 1975, Laos became dependent on military and economic assistance from Vietnam, China’s enemy. In the late 1980s however, tension between China and Laos at last began to ease: diplomatic relations (which had been severed in the late 1970s) were restored in December 1987, and cultural and bilateral trade agreements signed. Relations with Thailand and with the West have followed a similar pattern.

Since 1988 there has been greatly expanded commercial contact between Thailand and Laos and the political relationship has much improved. The dominant political figures in Laos since independence have been the veteran General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (the LPRP, whose armed wing is the Pathet Lao), Kaysone Phomvihane, and Prince Souphanouvong (the ‘Red Prince’). The activities of the country’s main opposition movements, the right-wing pro-royalist United Lao National Liberation Front and the United Front for the National Liberation of the Lao People, have been confined to armed rebellion from bases among the northern hill tribes.

Souphanouvong retired from all his posts in March 1991, heralding a period of major political and economic reform. A new constitution  was adopted in August 1991 under which elections for a new National Assembly took place in December 1992. The following February, the appointments of Nouhak Phoumsavanh as president and Khamtay Siphandone as prime minister were ratified by the National Assembly. An important part of the Government’s programme was the improvement of Laos’s relations with its neighbours, partly to reduce its dependence on Vietnam and Russia, but also to improve the country’s economic prospects as it allowed free trade and market forces to take effect.

Several regional economic co-operation agreements have been reached with Thailand along with Cambodia and Vietnam, and Laos has also attended ASEAN summits as an observer and is hoping to join in the near future. Relations with China have improved significantly since 1990. The Government has also co-operated with American searches for soldiers allegedly ‘missing in action’ ? – this being the principal obstacle to an improvement of relations with the West.

In March 1996, changes in the upper echelons of the regime promoted Khamtay Siphandone, one of the few remaining veterans of the original Pathet Lao leadership, to the position of president and head of the LPRP politburo in place of the retiring Phoumsavanh. Elections to the National Assembly took place in December 1997: a single non-partisan, though government-approved candidate, joined the remaining members, all of whom belong to the LPRP.

 Economic Profile

GDP: US$9.7 billion
GDP per head: US$2071
Annual growth: 7%
Inflation: 6%
Major products/industries: Rice, tobacco, coffee, tin mining, timber, and opium
Major trading partners: Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan

 Culture

LAOS is a rural country whose relatively low population density has allowed the continuation of a village society reliant on subsistence agriculture. The lack of a national government infrastructure and effective transportation networks has also contributed to the relative independence and autonomy of most villages. Residence in a village thus has been an important aspect of social identity, particularly for lowland Lao ethnic groups. For many upland ethnic groups, clan membership is a more important point of social identification. For all groups, the village community has a kinship nexus, although structures differ. Rice is the staple food for all Laotians, and most families and villages are able to produce enough or nearly enough each year for their own consumption.

Laos is ethnically diverse; the population includes more than forty ethnic groups, which are classified within three general families of Lao Sung (upland Lao), Lao Theung (midland Lao), and Lao Loum (lowland Lao). The country is officially a multiethnic nation, with Lao as the official language, but relationships among the different groups have sometimes been characterized by misunderstandings and competition over natural resources. The different ethnic groups have substantially different residential patterns, agricultural practices, forms of village governance, and religious beliefs.

Only the national capital of Vientiane and a few other provincial capitals can be considered urban. These small cities are market and administrative centers that attract trading and communications activity, but they have developed very little manufacturing or industrial capacity. Daily and seasonal life in all sectors of the society is affected by the monsoon. Rice production determines periods of heavy and slack work, which are mirrored in school vacations, religious festivals, and government activity.

Most lowland Lao and some midland groups practice Theravada Buddhism, but also believe in spirits of places or of deceased persons. Upland and most midland ethnic groups are animist, with religious practices oriented toward protective or guardian spirits commonly associated with places or with a family or clan. Shamans or other spirit practitioners are recognized and respected for their divinatory and healing powers among most ethnic groups, whether Buddhist or not.

Education and social services remain rudimentary at best but are improving. In lowland villages traditional education was provided to boys and young men through the Buddhist temples. Although this practice continues in some areas, in general it has been supplanted by a national education system which, unfortunately, is hampered by limited financial resources and a lack of trained teachers. Western medical care is seldom available outside provincial or a few district centers and even then is very limited. Child and infant mortality is high, and life expectancy is the lowest in Southeast Asia; the population, however, is increasing at a rapid rate. Since the end of World War II significant differences in education, health, and demographic conditions have prevailed among the ethnic groups and between rural and urban populations.

 

Buddhism

Buddhism was the state religion of the Kingdom of Laos, and the organization of the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), paralleled the political hierarchy. The faith was introduced beginning in the eighth century by Mon Buddhist monks and was widespread by the fourteenth century A number of Laotian kings were important patrons of Buddhism. Virtually all lowland Lao were Buddhists in the early 1990s, as well as some Lao Theung who have assimilated to lowland culture. Since 1975 the communist government has not opposed Buddhism but rather has attempted to manipulate it to support political goals, and with some success. Increased prosperity and a relaxation of political control stimulated a revival of popular Buddhist practices in the early 1990s.

Lao Buddhists belong to the Theravada tradition, based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha and preserved in Sri Lanka after Mahayana Buddhism branched off in the second century B.C. Theravada Buddhism is also the dominant school in Thailand and Cambodia.

Theravada Buddhism is neither prescriptive, authoritative, nor exclusive in its attitude toward its followers and is tolerant of other religions. It is based on three concepts: dharma, the doctrine of the Buddha, a guide to right action and belief; karma, the retribution of actions, the responsibility of a person for all his or her actions in all past and present incarnations; and sangha, within which a man can improve the sum of his actions. There is no promise of heaven or life after death but rather salvation in the form of a final extinction of one’s being and release from the cycle of births and deaths and the inevitable suffering while part of that cycle. This state of extinction, nirvana, comes after having achieved enlightenment regarding the illusory nature of existence.

The essence of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha: suffering exists; suffering has a cause, which is the thirst or craving for existence; this craving can be stopped; and there is an Eightfold Path by which a permanent state of peace can be attained. Simply stated, the Eightfold Path consists of right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right effort, right thinking, and right meditation.

The average person cannot hope for nirvana at the end of this life, but by complying with the basic rules of moral conduct, can improve karma and thereby better his or her condition in the next incarnation. The doctrine of karma holds that, through the working of a just and impersonal cosmic law, actions in this life and in all previous incarnations determine which position along the hierarchy of living beings a person will occupy in the next incarnation. Karma can be favorably affected by avoiding these five prohibitions: killing, stealing, forbidden sexual pleasures, lying, and taking intoxicants. The most effective way to improve karma is to earn merit (het boun–literally, to do good–in Lao). Although any act of benevolence or generosity can earn merit, Laotians believe the best opportunities for merit come from support for the sangha and participation in its activities.

Traditionally, all males are expected to spend a period as a monk or novice prior to marriage and possibly in old age, and the majority of Lao Loum men probably did so until the 1970s. Being ordained also brings great merit to one’s parents. The period of ordination need not be long–it could last only for the three-month Lenten retreat period–but many men spend years in the sangha gaining both secular and religious knowledge. Study of the Pali language, in which all Theravada texts are written, is a fundamental component of religious training. Ordination as a monk also requires a man to comply with the 227 rules of the monastic order; novices–those under twenty years old–must obey seventy- five rules; and lay persons are expected to observe the five prohibitions. Only a few women, usually elderly, become Buddhist nuns; they live a contemplative and ascetic life but do not lead religious ceremonies as do monks.

Monks are trying to develop detachment from the world and thus, may have no possessions but must rely on the generosity of people for food and clothing. These gifts provide an important opportunity for the giver to earn merit. Women are more active than men in preparing and presenting rice and other food to monks, who make their morning rounds through the town carrying a bowl to receive offerings that are their only nourishment for the day. In villages where there are only a few monks or novices, the women of the village often take turns bringing food to the wat each morning. Attendance at prayers held at the wat on the quarter, full, and new moon of each lunar cycle also provides a regular means of gaining merit.

Major religious festivals occur several times a year. The beginning and end of the Lenten retreat period at the full moon of the eighth and eleventh months are occasions for special offerings of robes and religious articles to the monks. During Buddhist Lent, both monks and laity attempt to observe Buddhist precepts more closely. Monks must sleep at their own wat every night– rather than being free to travel–and are expected to spend more time in meditation. Offerings to monks and attendance at full-moon prayers are also greater than at other times. Vixakha Bouxa, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha at the full moon of the sixth month–usually May–corresponds with the rocket festival (boun bang fai), which heralds the start of the rains. The date of Boun Phavet, which commemorates the charity and detachment of Prince Vessantara, an earlier incarnation of the Buddha, varies within the dry season, and, aside from its religious orientation, serves as an important opportunity for a village to host its neighbors in a twenty-four-hour celebration centering on monks reciting the entire scripture related to Vessantara. That Luang, a Lao-style stupa, is the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos and the location of the nationally important festival and fair in November.

For the Lao Loum, the wat is one of the two focal points of village life (the other is the school). The wat provides a symbol of village identity as well as a location for ceremonies and festivals. Prior to the establishment of secular schools, village boys received basic education from monks at the wat. Nearly every lowland village has a wat, and some have two. Minimally, a wat must have a residence building for the monks and novices (vihan), and a main building housing the Buddha statues (sim), which is used for secular village meetings as well as for prayer sessions. Depending on the wealth and contributions of the villagers, the buildings vary from simple wood and bamboo structures to large, ornate brick and concrete edifices decorated with colorful murals and tile roofs shaped to mimic the curve of the naga, the mythical snake or water dragon. An administrative committee made up of respected older men manages the financial and organizational affairs of the wat.

Buddhist ceremonies generally do not mark events in a life- cycle, with the exception of death. Funerals may be quite elaborate if the family can afford it but are rather simple in rural settings. The body lies in a coffin at home for several days, during which monks pray, and a continual stream of visitors pay their respects to the family and share food and drink. After this period, the body is taken in the coffin to a cremation ground and burned, again attended by monks. The ashes are then interred in a small shrine on the wat grounds.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the Pathet Lao attempted to convert monks to the leftist cause and to use the status of the sangha to influence the thoughts and attitudes of the populace. The effort was in many ways successful, despite efforts by the RLG to place the sangha under close civil administrative control and to enlist monks in development and refugee assistance programs. Political scientist Stuart-Fox attributed the success of the Pathet Lao to the inability of the Lao Loum elite to integrate the monarchy, government, and sangha into a set of mutually supportive institutions. Popular resentment of the aristocracy, division of the sangha into two antagonistic sects, the low level of its religious education and discipline, and opposition to foreign (i.e., Western) influence all contributed to the receptiveness of many monks to Pathet Lao overtures. The politicization of the sangha by both sides lowered its status in the eyes of many, but its influence at the village level augmented popular support for the Pathet Lao political platform, which paved the way for the change in government in 1975.

The LPDR government’s successful efforts to consolidate its authority also continues to influence Buddhism. In political seminars at all levels, the government taught that Marxism and Buddhism were basically compatible because both disciplines stated that all men are equal, and both aimed to end suffering. Political seminars further discouraged “wasteful” expenditures on religious activities of all kinds, because some monks were sent to political reeducation centers and others were forbidden to preach. The renunciation of private property by the monks was seen as approaching the ideal of a future communist society. However, Buddhist principles of detachment and nonmaterialism are clearly at odds with the Marxist doctrine of economic development, and popular expenditures on religious donations for merit making are also seen as depriving the state of resources. Thus, although overtly espousing tolerance of Buddhism, the state undercut the authority and moral standing of the sangha by compelling monks to spread party propaganda and by keeping local monks from their traditional participation in most village decisions and activities. During this period of political consolidation, many monks left the sangha or fled to Thailand. Other pro-Pathet Lao monks joined the newly formed Lao United Buddhists Association, which replaced the former religious hierarchy. The numbers of men and boys being ordained declined abruptly, and many wat fell empty. Participation at weekly and monthly religious ceremonies also dropped off as villagers under the watchful eye of local political cadre were fearful of any behavior not specifically encouraged.

The nadir of Buddhism in Laos occurred around 1979, after which a strategic liberalization of policy occurred. Since that time, the number of monks has gradually increased, although as of 1993, the main concentrations continue to be in Vientiane and other Mekong Valley cities. Buddhist schools in the cities remain but have come to include a significant political component in the curriculum. Party officials are allowed to participate at Buddhist ceremonies and even to be ordained as monks to earn religious merit following the death of close relatives. The level of religious understanding and orthodoxy of the sangha, however, is no higher than it had been before 1975, when it was justly criticized by many as backward and unobservant of the precepts.

From the late 1980s, stimulated as much by economic reform as political relaxation, donations to the wat and participation at Buddhist festivals began to increase sharply. Festivals at the village and neighborhood level became more elaborate, and the That Luang festival and fair, which until 1986 had been restricted to a three-day observance, lasted for seven days. Ordinations also increased, in towns and at the village level, and household ceremonies of blessing, in which monks were central participants, also began to recur. Although the role of Buddhism has been permanently changed by its encounter with the socialist government, it appears that Buddhism’s fundamental importance to lowland Lao and to the organization of Lao Loum society has been difficult to erase, has been recognized by the government, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

 Tips For Travelers

VISAS: Required by all.

Note: The Embassy in Paris strongly advises obtaining a visa from a recognised travel agent before travelling to Laos; however visas are issued on arrival at Vientiane International Airport and International Friendship Bridge for a stay of 15 days provided travellers hold: a return air ticket, valid visa to a third country, contact name for individual or organisation based in Laos, confirmed hotel reservation and certificate of bank statement (min US$400) or a life insurance policy. A visa valid for Laos can easily be obtained from local travel agencies in Bangkok (Thailand).

Types of visa and cost: Tourist and Business: FFr150 (or US$30 if obtained on arrival). Family: FFr300.

Validity: Tourist visa: 15 days, renewable in Laos for up to 1 month. Business visa: Negotiable. Family visa: 1 month, renewable for up to 3. Visas are valid for 2 months from date of issue.

Application to: Consulate (or Consular section at Embassy)

Application requirements: (a) 2 passport-size photos. (b) 2 application forms. (c) Letter from sponsor for business application. (d) Valid passport. (e) Fee.

Business: (a)-(e) and, (f) Officially endorsed letter of invitation from Laotian company.

Working days required: Applications should be made as far in advance as possible.

 

Money & Costs

Currency: the kip
Relative costs:

  • Budget meal: US$1
  • Restaurant meal: US$4
  • Top-end meal: US$15
  • Budget hotel (1 person): US$5-10
  • Mid-range hotel (tour): US$20-35
  • Top-end hotel: US$35-60 .

HOTELS: There are good hotels and guest houses in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, but facilities are sparse elsewhere. Local village hostels are available, but with few amenities. For more details of prices and location, contact a tour company with experience in Laos.
CAMPING: There are no facilities for camping in Laos.

 Attractions

Until 1988 tourists were not allowed access to Laos, but the country has recently opened up and it is perfectly feasible to travel all over the country, preferably with a recognised tour company. Following a considerable increase in tourist arrivals, the Government declared 1999 Visit Laos Year, and the number of tourists is expected to continue increasing over the next few years. Most Laotian monuments are Buddhist, but many structures show the influence of the French upon the country, not least the Monument des Morts in Vientiane which bears a striking, if somewhat rococo, similarity to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Visitors will find Vientiane to be an extremely relaxed city for a national capital. 25km (15 miles) from the capital is the stone garden of Xieng Khuane. In the royal palace at Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos, there is fine artwork, and the visitor can see gifts made to former kings. Nearby, the Phousi in the town centre is a huge rock which visitors can ascend for a panoramic view of the river. Several interesting excursions along the Mekong River are possible from Luang Prabang, including a visit to the Pak Ou Caves where there are a great many statues of the Buddha. The Plain of Jars at Xien Khuang is accessible by air and offers the mysterious sight of hundreds of stone jars, some weighing up to six tonnes, scattered over the landscape. Located in a mountainous area with many hilltribe villages nearby, this is a popular tourist spot, although a local guide is necessary owing to the presence of unexploded ordinance.

 Getting In & Out

The national airline of Laos is Lao Aviation (QV) which serves the international routes from Vientiane to Hanoi (Vietnam), Bangkok, Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Chiang Mai (Thailand), Kunming (China) and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). Thai International flies from Bangkok, Vietnam Airlines flies from Hanoi and Royal Air Cambodge flies from Phnom Pen.

International airport: Vientiane (VTE) (Wattai) is 4km (2.5 miles) from the city (travel time – 20 minutes).

Departure tax: US$5; children under two years are exempt.

 Moving Around

AIR: Domestic air services run from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Paks?? and Savannakhet, Xayaboury, Nam Tha, Xieng Khuang, Oudomxay, Houixay and Sam Neua.

RIVER: The Mekong and other rivers are a vital part of the country’s transportation system. The choice is between irregular (and very basic) slow boats and exciting but noisy and hazardous speedboats. Limited tourist services are available and a travel company specialising in Laos will have details.

ROAD: Traffic drives on the right. Many of the roads have been paved in recent years, including the main highway from the Thai border at Savannakhet to the Vietnamese border. However, few main roads are suitable for all-weather driving. In the north of the country there is a road link between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and from Vientiane to Nam Dong and Tran Ninh. Bus: Services link only a few major towns. Car hire: Arrangements can be made through hotels for a car with a driver. Documentation: International Driving Permit recommended, although it is not legally required.

URBAN: Taxis are available in Vientiane, but only operate along fixed routes similar to those of the urban buses.

Note: Travel outside Vientiane should be prearranged with a tour company.

 

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