Often overlooked in favor of its better-known neighbors, landlocked Laos remains one of Southeast Asia’s most beguiling destinations. The country retains a slow, rather old-fashioned charm and its people – incredibly laidback and friendly, even by Asian standards – are undoubtedly one of the highlights of any visit. Laos’s lifeline is the Mekong River, which runs the length of the country, at times bisecting it and at others serving as a boundary with Thailand; the rugged Annamite Mountains historically have acted as a buffer against Vietnam, with which Laos shares its eastern border.
For such a small country, Laos is surprisingly diverse in terms of its people. Colorfully dressed hill tribes populate the higher elevations, while in the Lowland River valleys, coconut palms sway over the Buddhist monasteries of the ethnic Lao. The country 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, and many of the old shop houses of its larger towns now (appropriately) house French restaurants.
Whether you’re riding through the countryside on a rickety old bus crammed with sacks of rice, more people than seats, and blaring tinny Lao pop music, leisurely sailing down the Mekong past staggeringly beautiful scenery, or being dragged by a stranger to celebrate a birth over too much Beer Lao and lào-láo, it’s hard not to be won over by this utterly fascinating country and its people.
Most Lao people live in rural villages clustered around a temple. Lao, Tai, and groups such as the Khmu live in houses raised off the ground on stilts. In Khmu villages, instead of a temple, there may be a communal house for meetings, usually used by men. Hmong, Iu Mien, and some other groups in the north build large sturdy houses on the ground. In the south, among the Ta Oi, there are still villages with matrilineal organized longhouses. The temple in most Lao villages remains the main center for social and recreational activities, usually associated with religious celebrations.
Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Nearly three-quarters of Laos is covered in mountains and forested hills that are too steep to live on. There are three plateaus between the mountains and the Mekong River—the Xiangkhiang, the Khammouan, and the Bolovens Plateaus.
The Xiangkhiang is the largest, while the Bolovens Plateau near Cambodia provides more fertile farmland where coffee, tea, rice, strawberries, and pineapples are grown. The lowland region is the most vital to the Lao. There the Mekong River floods the soil providing rich nutrients to grow enough rice and other crops to feed the whole country for one year.
Most of the country’s population lives along the river, which winds more than 2,600 miles (4,180 kilometers) from China through Laos to the ocean in South Vietnam. Only 10 percent of the country is below 600 feet, and the highest peak, Phu Bia is 9,242 feet (2,817 meters).
OFFICIAL NAME: Lao People’s Democratic Republic
CAPITAL: Viangchan (local name); Vientiane
POPULATION: 6.758 million
AREA: 91,429 square miles (236,800 square kilometers)
BORDERING COUNTRIES: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), and China.
MAJOR MOUNTAIN RANGES: Annamite Range, Luang Prabang Range
MAJOR RIVERS: Mekong
HIGHEST POINT: Phou Bia at 9,242 ft. (2,817 m)
LOWEST POINT: Mekong River at 229 ft. (70 m)