Official Name: Laos People’s Democratic Republic Population: 6.5 million
Capital City: Vientiane, population 750,000
People: Over 60 ethnic groups, the mains ones are Lao Lom (lowland: 50%), Lao Theungm Lao Sung and tribal Thais
Currency: Kip (KN)
Time Zone: GMT +7 Hours
International Dialing Code: +856
Laos is a landlocked country of stunning natural beauty and strong spiritual traditions which remain relatively unexplored. With a population of roughly 6 million people, it is one of the least populated countries in the world. Much of the country is dominated by forested mountains, verdant valleys and broad snaking rivers which are perfect for nature lovers and those seeking the ultimate laid-back holiday.
Laos has three basic seasons. The monsoon period lasts from May to November. After the monsoon there is a dry period from November through to March. From March until the approaching monsoon the country experiences its hottest weather. The best time to visit Laos is between November and February when there is less chance of heavy rain and the temperature is cooler. The average temperature is between 25°C/77F and 30°C/84F.
Laos’ history is one of colonization and occupation. Some of the earliest conquerors were the mighty Khmer Empire. The nation of ‘Lane Xang’, or the Land of a Million Elephants was born with Luang Prabang as its capital. Khmer power yielded to that of the neighboring Thais until towards the end of the 19th century the Thais were forced to give up large parts of their territory to France. Lan Xang was renamed Laos and became part of French Indochina. France granted Laos sovereignty in 1953 although many nationalists were not convinced that government with a constitutional monarch was the answer. After France vacated Vietnam in 1954 Laos was dragged into the wider conflict in Vietnam. In 1975 both Saigon and Phnom Penh fell and Vientiane soon followed with little opposition as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established.
Laos is a land-locked nation of stunning natural beauty and strong spiritual tradition and remains relatively unexplored. Roughly the area of Great Britain, Laos has less than 6 million people making it one of the most under-populated countries in the world. Much of the country is comprised of striking mountain ranges, valleys and gorges or thick rainforest. Laos’ principal charm lies in this abundance of nature. And then there are the cities. Vientiane has a relaxed atmosphere whilst Luang Prabang, a former royal capital and now a World Heritage Site is an enchanting city dominated by golden-roofed temples and bright saffron-robed monks exuding a spiritual essence that will surely capture your soul.
Laos’ population currently stands at approximately 5 million. 85% of the country’s inhabitants still live in rural areas. The Laos people divide themselves into four distinct categories: The Lao Loum (50%), Lao Thai (approx. 15%), Lao Theung (25%) and Lao Sung (10%). Most differentiation appears to be made upon where the people live. For example Lao Luom means Low Lao and relates to those who have traditionally lived in the Mekong Valley. Lao Theung translates at Upland Lao and Lao Sung as High Lao. Many subsections exist within each category, particularly for those in the hills and mountains.
The official language spoken in Laos is Laotian or Lao. The four principle ethnic groups of the country speak varying dialects of this language, most of which are mutually intelligible. The Lao language is a member of the Tai language group, sometimes known as Tai-Kadai or Kadai. Thai is well understood in Laos, since Lao people will watch Thai television and listen to Thai radio.
French, English, Russian and Chinese are spoken by some members of the population, although none can be considered widely understood. As a general rule, older Lao may speak some French and younger Lao may speak some English or Russian.
Public holidays and special events
Laos has a number of religious and cultural festivals. Here are some of the more important ones:
Sikhottabong Festival (February)
This religious festival is held at Sikhottabong stupa in the region of Khammouan.
Wat Phu Festival (February)
This festival is celebrated on the full moon of the 3rd month of the lunar calendar in the grounds of the enchanting pre-Angkorian Wat Phu in Champasak. Festivities include elephant racing, buffalo fighting, cock fighting and performances of traditional Lao music and dance.
Lao New Year (April)
The Lao New Year or Pi Mai Lao usually occurs in April. This is the nation’s biggest holiday and the entire country celebrates. People remove Buddha images from the temples to anoint and clean them with scented water. Street parties that invariably involve people dowsing one another with water then follows. This is essentially an act of cleansing and purification in anticipation of the end of the dry season.
Vientiane Boat Racing Festival (October)
At dawn donations and offerings are made at temples throughout the city. In the evening candlelight processions are held around the temples as hundreds of candles with flowers and incense are cast into the Mekong River in thanksgiving. The following day an exciting boat race is held on the Mekong.
That Luang Festival (November)
This religious festival is held in and around the splendid That Luang stupa. Hundreds of monks gather to accept alms and floral offerings from the people. The festival includes a grand fireworks display at night, and a trade fair, showcasing Lao products, will take place during the day.
Traditional Lao food is dry, spicy and absolutely delicious. The most commonly used ingredients are lime juice, lemon grass and coriander. The majority of Lao food uses fresh vegetables and fish, mostly freshwater fish due to the country’s landlocked location. Other popular meat dishes involve chicken, duck, pork and beef. Lao food is traditionally eaten with sticky rice. In the countryside people eat on a communal basis, sitting on the floor and sharing the dishes.
One of the most common Lao dishes is Laap; a traditional food made from minced chicken or duck mixed together with lime juice, garlic and chilies and broth with uncooked rice grains that have been fried and crushed. Laap is usually eaten with a plate of raw vegetables and sticky rice. Another popular dish is Tam Mak Houng a salad made from sliced raw papaya, garlic, chili, peanuts, sugar, fermented fish sauce and lime juice and it has a reputation as being very spicy! Barbecued som moo is also delicious. Som moo is fermented pork sausage and is often served in this Vietnamese style. Known as Naem Nuang, it is served with transparent rice paper, thin noodles and lots of herbs, vegetables, lettuce and a sauce. The basic idea is to take all the ingredients and create your own spring roll.
The main port of arrival by air is Vattay International airport in Vientiane. The following companies currently fly to Vientiane: Lao Aviation, Thai Airways International, Vietnam Airlines, Southern China Airlines, Silk Air and Malaysian Airlines. Regular flights are available to and from Bangkok, Phom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Chiang Mai, Kunming, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Entry to Laos is possible from neighboring countries. Between Thailand and Laos the border can be crossed at Houeixay in Bokeo province, at the Mittaphab Friendship Bridge near Vientiane and at Dan Savannakhet Province, and Thai – Laos Friendship Bridge in Nong Khai Province Thailand connect to Vientian, Laos. A border crossing between Laos and Vietnam has been set up at Laksao.
The Kip is the official currency of Laos. Bank notes are currently in denominations of 100, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000. All major currencies, but especially the US Dollar and Thai Baht can be exchanged at banks. In Luang Prabang and Vientiane competitive rates are offered among numerous authorized private exchange bureaus. There is an exchange facility available at Wattay airport in Vientiane.
Exchange bureaus and banks will cash traveler checks in major currencies. Furthermore, most domestic and foreign banks in Vientiane will allow cash withdrawals on Visa. Also, major credit cards can be used in many restaurants and hotels. If you intend to travel to a more remote area we suggest you take a good supply of Kip with you. The Kip comes in denominations of 5,000 2,000 1,000 500 200 and 50.
The current rate of exchange is US$1 = 9,500 Kip
Please note that the Laos Kip is non-convertible outside Laos.
Modes of dress in Laos very much depend on gender and age but in general Lao women wear silk skirts, blouses and scarves to attend important ceremonies. Lao men wear a sarong or long pants to attend the important ceremonies. Visitors should wear light, comfortable clothing that is easy to launder. The winter months and rainy season in the central region can get cool so a sweater or light jacket will come in handy. Good walking shoes and sandals that can be easily removed are recommended especially when entering temples and people’s homes.