Laos

Introduction

Introduction

Laos,  officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic,  or commonly referred to its colloquial name of Muang Lao  is a landlocked country in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of Mainland Southeast Asia, bordered by Myanmar (Burma) and Chinato the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west.

Present day Laos traces its historic and cultural identity to the kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao(Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under the White Parasol), which existed for four centuries as one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Due to Lan Xang's central geographical location in Southeast Asia, the kingdom was able to become a popular hub for overland trade, becoming wealthy economically as well as culturally.

After a period of internal conflict, Lan Xang broke off into three separate kingdoms— Luang Phabang, Vientiane and Champasak. In 1893, it became a French protectorate, with the three territories uniting to form what is now known as the country of Laos. It briefly gained independence in 1945 after Japanese occupation, but returned to French rule until it was granted autonomy in 1949. Laos became independent in 1953, with a constitutional monarchy under Sisavang Vong. Shortly after independence, a long civil war ended the monarchy, when the Communist Pathet Laomovement came to power in 1975.

Laos is a one-party socialist republic. It espouses Marxism and is governed by a single party communist politburo dominated by military generals. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Vietnam People's Armycontinue to have significant influence in Laos. The capital city is Vientiane. Other large cities include Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Pakse. The official language is Lao. Laos is a multi-ethnic country with the politically and culturally dominant Lao people making up approximately 60 percent of the population, mostly in the lowlands. Mon-Khmer groups, the Hmong, and other indigenous hill tribes, accounting for 40 percent of the population, live in the foothills and mountains.

Laos' ambitious strategies for development are based on generating electricity from its rivers and selling the power to its neighbors, namely Thailand, China, and Vietnam, as well as its initiative to become a 'land-linked' nation, shown by the planning of four new railways connecting Laos to those same countries. This, along with growth of the mining sector, Laos has been referred to as one of East Asia and Pacific's fastest growing economies by the World Bank, with annual GDP growth averaging 7% for the past decade.

It is a member of the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), East Asia Summit and La Francophonie. Laos applied for membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1997; on 2 February 2013, it was granted full membership.

According to the anti-corruption non-governmental organisation Transparency International, Laos remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This has deterred foreign investment and created major problems with the rule of law, including the nation's ability to enforce contract and business regulation.  This has contributed to a third of the population of Laos currently living below the international poverty line (living on less than US$1.25 per day) . Laos has a low-income economy, with one of the lowest annual incomes in the world. In 2014, the country ranked 141st on the Human Development Index (HDI), indicating lower medium development. According to the Global Hunger Index (2015), Laos ranks as the 29th hungriest nation in the world out of the list of the 52 nations with the worst hunger situation(s). Laos has also had a poor human rights record.


Culture

Despite its small population, Laos has 49 ethnic groups, or tribes, from which Lao, Khmou and Hmong constitute approximately three-quarters of the population. Most tribes are small, with some having just a few hundred members. The ethnic groups are divided into four linguistic branches: Lao-Tai language represented by 8 tribes, Mone-Khmer language with 32 tribes, Hmoung-Loumien language with 2 tribes, and Tibeto-Chinese language represented by 7 tribes.

Laos is officially Buddhist, and the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang, has replaced the hammer and sickle even on the state seal. Still, there is a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci (also baasi) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participant's body before a long journey, after serious illness, the birth of a baby, or other significant events.

Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long sarong available in many regional patterns; however, many ethnic minorities have their own clothing styles. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a common sight. These days men dress Western-style and only don the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays women often wear Western-style clothing, though the "phaa sin" is still the mandatory attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also for Lao women just visiting).


Tourism

The tourism sector has grown rapidly, from 80,000 international visitors in 1990, to 1.876 million in 2010. Tourism is expected to contribute US$679.1 million to the gross national product in 2010, rising to US$1.5857 billion by 2020. In 2010, one in every 10.9 jobs was in the tourism sector. Export earnings from international visitors and tourism goods are expected to generate 15.5 percent of total exports or US$270.3 million in 2010, growing in nominal terms to US$484.2 million (12.5 percent of the total) in 2020.

The official tourism slogan is "Simply Beautiful". The main attractions for tourists include Buddhist culture and colonial architecture in Luang Prabang; gastronomy and ancient temples in the capital of Vientiane; backpacking in Muang Ngoi Neua and Vang Vieng; ancient and modern culture and history in The Plain of Jars region (main article: Phonsavan); Laos Civil War history in Sam Neua; trekking and visiting hill tribes in a number of areas including Phongsaly and Luang Namtha; spotting tigers and other wildlife in Nam Et-Phou Louey; caves and waterfalls near Thakhek; relaxation, the Irrawaddy dolphin and Khone Phapheng Falls at Si Phan Don or, as they are known in English, the Four Thousand Islands; Wat Phu, an ancient Khmer temple complex; and the Bolaven Plateau for waterfalls and coffee. The European Council on Trade and Tourism awarded the country the "World Best Tourist Destination" designation for 2013 for this combination of architecture and history.

Luang Prabang and Wat Phu are both UNESCO World Heritage sites, with the Plain of Jars expected to join them once more work to clear UXO has been completed. Major festivals include Lao New Year which is celebrated around 13–15 April and involves a water festival similar, but more subdued than that of Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.

The Lao National Tourism Administration, related government agencies and the private sector are working together to realise the vision put forth in the country's National Ecotourism Strategy and Action Plan. This includes decreasing the environmental and cultural impact of tourism; increasing awareness in the importance of ethnic groups and biological diversity; providing a source of income to conserve, sustain and manage the Lao protected area network and cultural heritage sites; and emphasising the need for tourism zoning and management plans for sites that will be developed as ecotourism destinations.

Laos is known for its silk and local handicraft product, both of which are on display in Luang Prabang's night market, among other places. Another speciality is mulberry tea.


Geography

Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, and it lies mostly between latitudes 14° and 23°N (a small area is south of 14°), and longitudes 100° and 108°E. Its thickly forested landscape consists mostly of rugged mountains, the highest of which is Phou Bia at 2,818 metres (9,245 ft), with some plains and plateaus. The Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand, whereas the mountains of the Annamite Range form most of the eastern border with Vietnam and the Luang Prabang Range the northwestern border with the Thai highlands. There are two plateaux, the Xiangkhoang in the north and the Bolaven Plateau at the southern end. The climate is tropical and influenced by the monsoon pattern.

There is a distinct rainy season from May to November, followed by a dry season from December to April. Local tradition holds that there are three seasons (rainy, cold and hot) as the latter two months of the climatologically defined dry season are noticeably hotter than the earlier four months. The capital and largest city of Laos is Vientiane and other major cities include Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Pakse.

In 1993 the Laos government set aside 21 percent of the nation's land area for habitat conservation preservation. The country is one of four in the opium poppy growing region known as the "Golden Triangle". According to the October 2007 UNODC fact book Opium Poppy Cultivation in South East Asia, the poppy cultivation area was 15 square kilometres (5.8 sq mi), down from 18 square kilometres (6.9 sq mi) in 2006.

Laos can be considered to consist of three geographical areas: north, central, and south.


Climate

Laos has three distinct seasons. The hot season is from Mar-May, when temperatures can soar as high as 40°C. The slightly cooler wet season is from May-Oct, when temperatures are around 30°C, tropical downpours are frequent (especially Jul-Aug), and some years the Mekong floods.

The dry season from Nov-Mar, which has low rainfall and temperatures as low as 15°C (or even to zero in the mountains at night), is "high season" (when the most tourists are in the country). However, towards the end of the dry season, the northern parts of Laos — basically everything north of Luang Prabang — can become very hazy due to farmers burning fields and fires in the forests.


Demographics

The term "Laotian" does not necessarily refer to the Lao language, ethnic Lao people, language or customs. It is a political term that includes the non-ethnic Lao groups within Laos and identifies them as "Laotian" because of their political citizenship. Laos has the youngest population of any country in Asia with a median age of 21.6 years.

Laos' population was estimated at 6.5 million in 2012, dispersed unevenly across the country. Most people live in valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries. Vientiane prefecture, the capital and largest city, had about 740,010 residents in 2008. The country's population density was 27/km2.

Ethnicity

The people of Laos are often considered by their altitudinal distribution (lowlands, midlands and upper high lands) as this approximates ethnic groups.

Lao Loum (lowland people)

More than half of the nation's population, 60 percent, is ethnic Lao—the principal lowland inhabitants, and the politically and culturally dominant people of Laos. The Lao belong to the Tai linguistic group who began migrating southward from China in the first millennium CE. Ten percent belong to other "lowland" groups, which together with the Lao people make up the Lao Loum.

Lao Theung (midland people)

In the central and southern mountains, Mon-Khmer tribes, known as Lao Theung or mid-slope Laotians, predominate. Other terms are Khmu, Khamu (Kammu) or Kha as the Lao Loum refer to them as indicating their Austroasiatic origins. However, the latter is considered pejorative, meaning 'slave'. They were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos. Some Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai minorities remain, particularly in the towns, but many left after independence in the late 1940s, many of whom relocated either to Vietnam, Hong Kong, or to France. Lao Theung constitute about 30 percent of the population.

Lao Soung (highland people)

Hill people and minority cultures of Laos such as the Hmong, Yao (Mien), Dao, Shan, and several Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples have lived in isolated regions of Laos for many years. Mountain/hill tribes of mixed ethno/cultural-linguistic heritage are found in northern Laos which include the Lua and Khmu people who are indigenous to Laos. Today, the Lua people are considered endangered. Collectively, they are known as Lao Soung or highland Laotians. Lao Soung account for only about 10 percent of the population.


Religion

67 percent of Laotians are Theravada Buddhist, 1.5 percent are Christian, and 31.5 percent are other or unspecified (mostly practitioners of Satsana Phi)  according to the 2005 census. Buddhism has long been one of the most important social forces in Laos. Theravada Buddhism has coexisted peacefully since its introduction to the country with the local polytheism.


Economy

The Lao economy depends heavily on investment and trade with its neighbours, Thailand, Vietnam, and, especially in the north, China. Pakxe has also experienced growth based on cross-border trade with Thailand and Vietnam. In 2009, despite the fact that the government is still officially communist, the Obama administration in the US declared Laos was no longer a Marxist–Leninist state and lifted bans on Laotian companies receiving financing from the US Export-Import Bank. In 2011, the Lao Securities Exchange began trading. In 2012, the government initiated the creation of the Laos Trade Portal, a website incorporating all information traders need to import and export goods into the country.

Subsistence agriculture still accounts for half of the GDP and provides 80 percent of employment. Only 4.01 percent of the country is arable land, and a mere 0.34 percent used as permanent crop land, the lowest percentage in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Rice dominates agriculture, with about 80 percent of the arable land area used for growing rice. Approximately 77 percent of Lao farm households are self-sufficient in rice.

Through the development, release and widespread adoption of improved rice varieties, and through economic reforms, production has increased by an annual rate of five percent between 1990 and 2005,  and Lao PDR achieved a net balance of rice imports and exports for the first time in 1999. Lao PDR may have the greatest number of rice varieties in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Since 1995 the Lao government has been working with the International Rice Research Institute of the Philippines to collect seed samples of each of the thousands of rice varieties found in Laos.

The economy receives development aid from the IMF, ADB, and other international sources; and also foreign direct investment for development of the society, industry, hydropower and mining (most notably of copper and gold). Tourism is the fastest-growing industry in the country. Economic development in Laos has been hampered by brain drain, with a skilled emigration rate of 37.4 percent in 2000.

Laos is rich in mineral resources and imports petroleum and gas. Metallurgy is an important industry, and the government hopes to attract foreign investment to develop the substantial deposits of coal, gold, bauxite, tin, copper, and other valuable metals. In addition, the country's plentiful water resources and mountainous terrain enable it to produce and export large quantities of hydroelectric energy. Of the potential capacity of approximately 18,000 megawatts, around 8,000 megawatts have been committed for exporting to Thailand and Vietnam.

The country's most widely recognised product may well be Beerlao which is exported to a number of countries including neighbours Cambodia and Vietnam. It is produced by the Lao Brewery Company.

The Mining industry of Laos has received prominent attention with Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). This sector, since 2003-04, has made significant contributions to the economic condition of Laos. More than 540 mineral deposits of gold, copper, zinc, lead and other minerals have been identified, explored and mined.

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