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What Should I Know About Laos?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Laos is a large country in Southeast Asia. It covers 91,400 square miles (236,800 sq. km), making it a bit larger than the state of Utah. It shares borders with Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The region has been populated by humans for millennia. The pre-historical period of this country is not as well known as that of some of the surrounding nations, and in fact in recent years there has been a push towards de-emphasizing this period to focus on the early kingdom period. It is known that a number of different groups settled the area before the 14th century, however, with the Mon Kingdom that ruled much of Southeast Asia controlling Laos for some time, and the Khmer Empire holding parts of the country at different points.

Laos is near China's southern border.
Laos is near China's southern border.

The modern nation, however, considers its foundations rooted in the formation of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the mid-14th century by Fa Ngum. Prior to this, the country was already inhabited by the Lao, as well as Mon and other ethnic groups. By the 16th century Theravada Buddhism was well entrenched as the dominant religion. Beginning in the mid-17th century, Laos went into an economic and political decline, and the state grew substantially weaker. By the end of the 18th century it had grown weak enough that neighboring Thailand — then Siam — was able to conquer much of the country.

Covering 91,400 square miles, Laos is a large country in Southeast Asia.
Covering 91,400 square miles, Laos is a large country in Southeast Asia.

In the late 19th century the French, who had recently conquered Vietnam, negotiated with the Thai for ownership of Laos, and by the beginning of the 20th century the country was entirely under French control. During World War II the Japanese occupied Laos, and as with neighboring Vietnam, following the Japanese defeat the Laotians declared independence. France responded by sending in troops and taking control the region again. The nationalist movement continued to push for independence, however, and by 1950 the French declared them autonomy. In 1954, the country was reconstituted as a fully-independent constitutional monarchy.

From the outset, Laos had difficulty actually asserting its independence, in light of interest from the United States in the region as a force to combat Vietnam. The first coalition government fell in 1958, and although another formed soon after a coup in 1960, it fell almost immediately as well. The country declared neutrality in 1962, and the United States and North Vietnam both responded by creating their own proxy armies in the region, effectively destroying the nation’s official stance of neutrality.

Although the country continued to try to retain its democracy, when the US withdrew from the region and South Vietnam fell, the country was taken over by the Communist faction, with military backing from North Vietnam. At the end of 1975 the king abdicated, and the Communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic was formed. As with nearby Vietnam, who controlled much of Lao policy for the next couple of decades, Laos instituted a series of economic reforms and hard-line Communist agendas that slowly drove the country’s economy into the ground. Beginning in the late 1980s, the country started opening its economy more, however, and allowing more capitalist practices, starting a slow road towards economic recovery.

Laos is the most bombed sovereign nation on Earth, and land mines and unexploded ordinance still litter the countryside. Visitors should take special care not to leave marked paths, and to pay attention to all land mine warning signs.

Many people enjoy traveling to this country. The Laotian people are generally considered to be some of the most open, kindest people in the world. The country’s relative isolation has led to the country retaining much of its traditional lifestyle. Travelers looking for high-end accommodations will probably not find what they're looking for, as the country’s infrastructure is far from developed. Rough roads and guest houses are the norm, but are the price one pays for such an unspoiled natural beauty.

Highlights in the country include the Khone Phapheng, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, the Pha That Luang, a beautiful Buddhist temple, and the caves of Pak Ou. The Plain of Jars is also a fascinating place to visit, particularly for any amateur archeologists. These enormous stone jars can weigh more than six tons, and are about 2000 years old, yet their purpose remains unknown. Hundreds of jars are strewn about the region.

Flights arrive in Vientiane fairly regularly through the major Asian hubs. Overland crossings are possible from Thailand, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and Burma, but tend to be remote and over undeveloped roads. River crossings are one of the more popular ways for tourists to enter the country, traveling the Mekong on a scenic boat trip.

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    • Laos is near China's southern border.
      By: Ruslan Olinchuk
      Laos is near China's southern border.
    • Covering 91,400 square miles, Laos is a large country in Southeast Asia.
      By: Ekler
      Covering 91,400 square miles, Laos is a large country in Southeast Asia.