Often referred to as the “forgotten country,” Laos has an exotic appeal that attracts even the most experienced travelers. Linked by its winding network of rivers, Laos’s stunning geographic and cultural diversity is enough to satisfy anyone’s wanderlust.
Laos PDR – Location and Terrance
The Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos is nestled deep in the heart of Indochina. Bordered by China in the North (416 kilometers), Myanmar in the Northwest (236 kilometers), Thailand in the West (1,835 kilometers), Cambodia in the South (492 kilometers) and Vietnam in the East (1,957 kilometers); Laos is the only landlocked Southeast Asian country.
Encompassing a total of 236,800 square kilometers, Laos’s terrain is characterized by three distinct geographic formations: mountains, plateaus and plains. Approximately 70% of Laos's terrain is mountainous, rising to an average height of 1,500 meters. The three tallest mountains are all located on the Phou Ane Plateau in Xieng Khouang Province, reaching a maximum elevation of 2,820 meters. North Laos and the regions adjacent to Vietnam, in particular, are dominated by rough mountains.
Laos’s plain region consists of a combination of large and small plains distributed along the Mekong River. The Vientiane Plain, Laos’s largest, is situated on the lower reaches of the Nam Ngum River. The Savannakhet Plain lies along the lower reaches of the Sebangfai River and Sebanghieng River, while the Champasack Plain hugs the Mekong River and stretches out along the Thai and Cambodian borders.
The Mekong River is the main geographical feature in the west and forms a natural border with Thailand. The mighty Mekong flows through nearly 1,900 kilometers of Lao territory, strongly influencing Laotian lifestyle. In the South the Mekong reaches a breadth of 20 kilometers and is dotted with thousands of picturesque islands. It’s estimated that some 60% of all the water entering the Mekong River system originates in Laos. These rivers and streams provide the possibility for hydropower development with Laos holding 51% of the lower Mekong basin’s hydropower potential.
Laos’s major waterways include the Mekong, Nam Fa and Nam Ou rivers. These rivers are navigable year round, but alternate from mellow to challenging, depending on the season. Rivers act as Laos’s main arteries, flowing through dense jungle and connecting parts of the country, where no roads run.
For the traveler seeking the exotic and unspoiled, Laos is the ideal destination. Here, local life continues on much as it has for hundreds of years, untouched by modernity. With gorgeous, pristine landscapes, rich culture and friendly locals, Laos is a travel destination not to be missed.
People and population
Population: 6.2 million
Density: 23 people/square kilometer
The population consists of 49 ethnic groups and 4 main linguistic groups.
Buddhism first appeared in Laos during the 8th century A.D. and was declared the state religion in the 14th century under King Fa Ngum, following the foundation of the unified Kingdom of Lane Xang. Fa Ngum urged his people to abandon Animism, using his policy to develop a culture based on a common faith: Theravada Buddhism.
Today, Theravada Buddhism is the professed religion of about 90% of Lao people, remaining an inherent feature in daily life and holding a strong influence on Laotian society. Lao woman can be seen each morning giving alms to monks to lessen the number of their rebirths, while Lao men are expected to become monks for at least a short duration of their lives.
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.
Luang Prabang, a northern central city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is among Laos’s most popular attractions, replete with both natural and historical treasures. Situated where the Nam Khan meets the Mekong River, this charming city with its lantern lit streets and glittering mosaic temples is truly something to be experienced. Visit the historical Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum and the Wat Xieng Thong temple. Stroll down the wide boulevards still lined with crumbling French-provincial houses and watch the monks’ morning alms procession. Escape the city to visit two close-by natural attractions: the cascading Kuang Si Falls and mysterious Pak Ou caves, transformed into a pantheon of golden Buddha images.
Vientiane, Laos’s sleepy capital city is another of the country’s main attractions. See the enchanting Buddha sculpture park with its collection of hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu statues scattered in a green meadow. Visit Pha That Luang, a great sacred stupa and Laos’s national symbol. Discover Wat Si Saket temple filled with 6,840 Buddha images cast in gold, silver and bronze.
Another place worth visiting is Ban Pak Ou, a small fishing village located along the banks of the Mekong River. This picturesque village is situated directly opposite the famous Pak Ou Caves and bordered by towering limestone mountains.
Almost all of Laos’s main attractions are located along side a river. Vang Vieng town in Vientiane province is no exception. Tucked along the Nam Song River, this town also features a stunning, karst hill landscape. Due to its natural splendor, Vang Vieng was developed as a tourist attraction and boasts a full collection of bars, restaurants, cafes, hotels and guest houses. It’s also a great spot to kayak the Nam Song River, climb the limestone mountains or explore the cavernous nearby caves.
Deep in the far northern provinces of Phongsali, Luang Nam Tha and Udomxai, hides Laos’ best trekking regions. While in the south, travelers have a chance to see the rare freshwater dolphins in Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon.
Other spots worth exploring include Tha Khaek, Savannakhet, Attapeu, Pakse, Champasak and Salavan.
Culture in the land of a million elephants
Laos is one of Southeast Asia’s least urbanized countries and despite modern globalization, Lao culture remains strongly influenced by traditional Buddhist thinking and behavior. Founded on mantras such as: “do not kill humans or animals,” “do not commit adultery,” “do not tell lies,” and “do not take alcohol or drugs;” Lao culture is one that prizes love, honesty and respect for all living things. Lao people are truly people of the heart and their warm hospitality and infectious smiles make the country a warm and welcoming place to visit.
Savannakhet, Pakse, Luang Prabang and Vientiane are considered Laos’s most important cities. These urban landscapes are composed of an eclectic mix of French colonial architecture, Buddhist temples, traditional Lao houses raised on stilts, American-style houses built in the 1950s and 1960s, and new large developments, imitating Thai styles. All these cities are built alongside rivers whose banks provide major recreational spaces.
Located in a tropical climate, Laos produces a rich bounty of food. With sticky rice as its main staple, almost all traditional Laotian cuisine is also composed of vegetables and herbs. Garden vegetables include cucumbers, gourds, cabbage, beans, yams, water spinach, mangoes, pomelos, papaws, and sugarcane. Raw vegetables often accompany a meal to help cool the tongue. The most popular meat is freshwater fish, caught from the country’s many rivers. Laotians living in the cities also drink coffee and enjoy bread for breakfast, a lingering influence of French colonialism.
Laos’s most popular musical instrument is a kind of bamboo mouth organ called a Khene. Lam, known as Lao folk music, is a mix extemporaneous singing accompanied by the khene.
Rituals and Holy Places
Buddhism is by far the most prominent organized religion in the country, with nearly 5,000 temples serving as the focus of religious practice as well as the center of community life in rural areas. Most Buddhist men spend some part of their lives as monks, even if only for a few days. There are approximately 22,000 monks in the country and nearly 9,000 "senior monks," indicating years of devotion and study. In addition, there are approximately 450 nuns—generally widowed older women—, residing in temples throughout the country.
For the ethnic Lao, the Buddhist lunar calendar marks the major annual rituals. At the full moon every month there is a festival (boun).
That Luang, a Lao-style stupa, is the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos and the location of the November national festival and fair. Besides traditional Laotian temples, Laos is also home to some Hindu temples, remnants of the ancient Khmer Empire.