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Less than a decade ago, Laos was more or less unknown to Western travellers. Other than a brief period during the 1960s, when the diminutive Buddhist kingdom became a player in the Vietnam War, it has remained a backwater – a situation that only intensified after the 1975 revolution and the years of xenophobic communist government that ensued, when the former French colony was largely forgotten, at least by the West. However, when the Lao People’s Democratic Republic reluctantly reopened its doors to the outside world in the 1990s, after its major source of aid dried up with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a trickle of visitors braved the travel restrictions and exorbitant visa costs to have a look.

What they found was a poverty-stricken country stunted by war and politics and still doing things the old-fashioned way. The mighty Mekong and its tributaries were still the principal conduits for trade and, for much of the population, a pair of legs was the chief means of transport. Only a handful of provinces were wired for electricity, and Vientiane, the capital, was a sleepy town of tree-lined avenues, decaying French villas and a surviving opium den or two. Tourist infrastructure was almost nonexistent, and the very inadequacies that made travel in Laos unique were also causes of exasperation.

In the past few years, however, Laos has become much more accessible. Visa prices have come down and restrictions on travel have been all but lifted. In the major towns and cities there is good-value accommodation and a surprisingly diverse array of cuisines on offer. Conditions in the countryside, however, remain primitive and challenging, but travellers willing to brave difficult roads and basic, candlelit accommodation will be rewarded with sights of a landscape and people not much changed from those that greeted French explorers a century ago.

Laos’s lifeline is the Mekong River, which runs the length of the landlocked country, at times bisecting it and at others serving as a boundary with Thailand. The rugged Annamite Mountains also run much of the country’s length and historically have acted as a buffer against Vietnam, with which Laos shares its eastern border. Much of Laos is forested and, despite the ongoing use of the slash-and-burn technique of agriculture, there are still considerable tracts of dense forest inhabited by myriad animal species. Tigers and other majestic cats, all but vanished from neighbouring countries, still stalk the hinterlands of Laos, and new species of large mammals are still being discovered, such as the deer-like soala or spindlehorn. There is even an endangered colony of rare freshwater dolphins inhabiting an isolated stretch of the Mekong.

For such a small country – its population is about 5.6 million – Laos is surprisingly diverse in terms of its people. Colourfully dressed hilltribes populate the higher elevations, while in the lowland river valleys, coconut palms sway over the Buddhist monasteries of the ethnic Lao. Laos also retains some of the French influence it absorbed during colonial days: the familiar smell of freshly baked bread and coffee mingles with exotic local aromas in morning markets. Economic reforms undertaken in the early Nineties gave the green light to Lao entrepreneurs, but recent economic woes have hamstrung the fledgling capitalists. The future is unclear, as the revolutionary old-guard remains firmly at the helm but with little idea of which course to steer. For the visitor using US dollars, there are bargains to be had, and while accommodation and modes of transport are often very basic, they give visitors ample opportunity to rub shoulders with the people of Laos: a gentle and fun-loving folk whose patience and resilience continue to help them weather tough times.

[ Buy on Amazon: The Rough Guide to Laos ]

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