Laos, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is the only land-locked country in South-East Asia and is bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. The Mekong River, almost half the length of which flows through Laos, forms most of the border with Thailand. Large population centers (including Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet) lie on the Mekong.
The capital city is Vientiane, the largest city of Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River near the border with Thailand.
Its total land area, much of which is mountainous and densely forested, is approximately 237.000 km2.
The population of Laos is approximately 6,8 million people and is diverse, with 49 broad ethnic groups recognized by the Government of Laos, divided into 149 sub-groups and 80 different languages. About half of the population in Laos is Lao Loum people, "lowland Lao" who live in the river plains and mostly along the Mekong region.
The official language is Lao, a tonal language similar to Thai. Among younger Lao, English is now the most widely-spoken second language.
Theravada Buddhism is followed by approximately 60 % of the population and a higher proportion of members of the Lao-Tai language ethnic groups. Animism is still widely practiced among a number of minority groups, especially in the more remote rural areas.
Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) was established on December 2nd, 1975 following the abdication of the King after many years of civil war and political instability. Laos is a single-party socialist republic. The Lao PDR is a Marxist-Leninist state ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Vietnam People's Army continue to have significant influence in Laos.
Laos became a member of ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations) in 1997 and the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 2013. Laos is now a full member of the WTO, affirming its engagement in the global economy.
Laos has strong political links with Vietnam. The 1977 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Laos and Vietnam covers defense arrangements, delineation of the border and Vietnamese economic assistance to Laos. Other important bilateral partners are China and Thailand.
Laos is classified as a Least Developed Country and relies heavily on donor assistance. At the same time, Laos has a number of economic advantages as it is situated in an economic growth area.
The earliest inhabitants of Laos were hunter-gatherers. Later they were farmers growing rice and pulses. The first farmers used stone tools; bronze was used in Laos from about 2000 BC and iron from about 500 BC.
From the 1st Century, Indian merchants introduced Theravada Buddhism into Laos.
From the 2nd to the 5th centuries, South Laos came under the control of the Chams (Indianized Malays); and as from then, whilst Indochina was opening sea-routes to India, Middle-Laos was probably colonized by Buddhist Indian Indonesians.
Between the 6th and 13th centuries, South Laos was dominated by the Khmers whose influence reached as far as Thailand and Cambodia. The Thais Siam followed by the Thais Lao took over to the South of China and founded two realms in the North of Laos having as capital Luang Prabang and Xiengkhuang.
In the 14th Century, King Fa Ngum founded the ancient kingdom of Lan Xang (kingdom of a million elephants), ancestors of today's Laotians. In 1520, the capital was moved to Vientiane. In the 17th Century, Lan Xang Kingdom entered its most illustrious era. 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. After centuries of gradual decline, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th Century until the late 19th Century.
From 1893, Laos became a French protectorate until 1945, when it is briefly occupied by the Japanese towards the end of World War II. Laos gains full independence as a constitutional monarchy. However, in 1946, French rule over Laos was resumed. In 1954, the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu marked the end of the French protectorate in Laos.
Laos in the 1960s was a divided country. Most was ruled by Royalist governments supported by the USA while parts were ruled by the Communist Pathet Lao assisted by their allies the Viet Minh.
In 1975, the communist The Pathet Lao – renamed as the Lao People's Front – took control of the government ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict socialist regime closely aligned to Vietnam. On December 2nd, 1975, congress representatives had a meeting, accepted the abdication of the king and proclaimed the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos with the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) the only legal political party.
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.
The rich culture of Laos is rooted in immense spirituality, as the predominant religion of Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism. Laos is quite traditional and conservative country. Despite globalization and modernization, Laos culture is still profoundly influenced by Buddhism which put effect on Laotians' thinking, attitude and behavior. It is impossible to understand Laos culture without having at least a basic understanding of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
Acceptance is the Laos worldview. There is no need for discussion or confrontation. They accept everything coming to their lives even it is good or bad. They believe that if things are not good at that time, it will get better later. That is the reason why they are really patient and resigned.
Laotians are truly people of heart. It is strongly proved in their language with dozens words which have rooted from "chai" (heart) such as "souk chai" (happy), "khao chai" (to understand is to enter the heart), "chai borisud" (to be honest is to have a pure heart)... A culture with so many shades of meaning based on the heart is a deeply sensitive culture. One should always bear this in mind before making a strong comment or taking direct action.
In some ways, the Lao people are not as collectivist as other East Asian neighbors because Laos has up to 68 ethnic minorities, each ethnic has their own identity and language. In addition, Buddhism philosophy of “each individual is responsible for his own actions” also leads people go their own way and not interfere the others. All this is not to say the Lao are strong individualists. Collective tradition in Laos culture expresses in work or community tasks. They share equal responsibility in community tasks. Building the local school or someone's house generates the enthusiastic contribution of the whole neighborhood.
The Lao have very close family and tribal relationships, which they value above everything else. Relationships between Lao people are primarily based on family ties with less interest shown to strangers or outsiders. Trust is limited to those within this circle.
Lao people may show shyness with strangers and rarely initiate a conversation with someone they do not know, except, perhaps, if they wish to practice their English. Laotian tends to keep more physical distance from each other than Westerners. However, if comfortable with you, a Lao person will touch you a lot, especially among women.
With the Lao people’s simple life, it is perfectly normal for relatives or friends to drop by without calling in advance. Sometimes when someone pays a visit unexpectedly at meal time, the host family will automatically invite them to join without any hesitation.
Time is also a fairly flexible commodity in Laos culture. Planning ahead and making firm times for occasions can sometimes be frustrating for foreigners.