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Laos >> About Laos
National Flag of Laos
Laos is a landlocked country located in Southeast Asia between Vietnam and Thailand on the east and west, and between China and Cambodia on the north and south. It has a total area of 236,800 sq. km, and has 5,083 km long boundary with its neighbors. The terrain is mostly mountainous with some extensive plains and plateaus.
Laos has a tropical monsoon climate. The rainy season is roughly from May to November and the dry season is from December to April.
The temperature is hot like its neighbors Thailand and Cambodia, especially in the central and southern parts. Temperatures are cooler in the north and northeast mountainous regions, and it tends to be a few degrees cooler in Luang Prabang, and in Phonsavan and Phongsali in particular temperatures can drop to the low teens or even single digits centigrade.
Laos has a total population of about 6.2 million. The main ethnic groups are Lao (50%), tribal Thai (20%) and Phoutheung (15%). The predominant religion is Buddhism (85%). Lao is the official language, but English and French are also spoken by some people.
The official name of the country is the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Laos is a socialist state, and the capital is Vientiane. Independence from France was gained on July 19, 1949. However, Lao National Day is celebrated on December 2nd, commemorating the victory of the Pathet Lao in 1975.
Laos is a landlocked country with an undeveloped infrastructure with a limited road system, and no railroad. It is one of the world's poorest nations, and subsistence agriculture is the main means of livelihood, accounting for over 60% of GDP and providing about 85-90% of all employment. As in other Southeast Asian countries, the main agricultural crop is rice. Natural resources include timber, hydroelectric power, gypsum, tin, gold and gemstones.
Laos has a socialist government and a centrally planned economy with government ownership and control of production. However, in recent years, the government has encouraged private enterprise, and decentralized control. But for the foreseeable future the Laotian economy of will continue to rely on international foreign aid for support. There are many NGOs still active in Laos.
Mobile phones are now as ubiquitous here as they in most other parts of the world, and SIM cards are readily available. Internet access seems to fairly free and unrestricted.
The Lao language is related to Thai, but they are very different. Most Lao people can understand spoken and written Thai, and some can speak Thai. However, outside of the Issan Region in northeast Thailand, most Thai people do not understand Lao, and very few Thai can read Lao.
The two languages are similar in that many of the nouns are the same, but most verbs, adjectives, etc. are different. Another main difference is that Lao has one common polite form for both genders, Jao; whereas Thai has two different gender forms, male, Kap, and female, Kaa.
Throughout history, Laotian culture was greatly influenced by Theravada Buddhism from India, and was also influenced by Khmer (Cambodian) and Thai cultures. These influences can be seen the language, art, literature, and performing arts of Laos. Present day Lao culture closely resembles that of Thailand.
History of Laos
The archeological evidence indicates the presence of prehistoric civilizations in the area of Laos from as early as 40,000 years ago. For centuries Laos was made up of many small, independent states which also included parts of southwest China, and northeast Thailand.
The history of Laos as a nation customarily starts with the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (the famous ‘land of a million elephants’) in the 14th century. However, there were fairly advanced cultures living in Laos for centuries before that, and there is evidence of the existence of an agrarian proto-Lao society dating back to the 9th century prior to the introduction of Theravada Buddhism. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the first ethnic Lao cultures developed in the middle Mekong region.
The Kingdom of Lan Xang, founded by Prince Fa Ngum, was an influential kingdom occupying present day Laos, northeast Thailand and parts of southern China. It was an important trading and cultural center for the region. King Fa Ngum introduced Theravada Buddhism from the Khmer Kingdom into Laos, and it became the predominant religion of Laos. In 1560, King Setthathirat moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. He built a shrine to house the Phra Kaeo, the Emerald Buddha, and he also erected the That Luang Stupa, now the symbol of the Lao nation.
The reign of King Surinyavongsa (1638) is considered by many to be the golden age of Laos, and Vientiane was said to have rich and beautiful palaces and temples, with resplendent religious ceremonies. However, upon his death in 1694, and because he didn’t leave an heir to the throne, a power struggle ensued. In 1707 this resulted in the break-up of the kingdom into the three independent, but weak, states of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassak. This division led to an opportunity for Thailand to invade Laos.
In the late 1820s, King Anuvong of Vientiane led a rebellion against Siamese rule, and attempted to retake the former Lao territory of the Korat Plateau. However, he was defeated, and the Kingdom of Vientiane was abolished. The capital Vientiane was ransacked and completely destroyed, and the Emerald Buddha was taken to Bangkok.
This led to both Vientiane and Champassak being conquered by Siam (Thailand), and began a period of Siamese domination of these Lao kingdoms.
When the French established their colony in Indochina in the late 1800s, the Kingdom of Luang Prabang asked the French for help to protect the kingdom from Siam. Because of the threat from the French, Siam withdrew from the kingdoms of Vientiane and Champassak, and all three Kingdoms became part of French Indochina. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present day boundary between Laos and Thailand, and Siam was forced to cede territory east of the Mekong back to Laos.
During World War II, Japan allowed the French Vichy government to govern Indochina.
In 1941, the Thai military government signed a secret agreement with Japan giving Thailand the right to annex all of Laos after a Japanese victory over the Allies. However, as we know, Japan did not win the war, and at the end of the war in 1945, Lao King Sisavang Vong declared independence from France. In September 1945, the independent government of Lao Issara (Free Laos) was formed.
However, a year later the French were back in Indochina, and they reoccupied Laos. Laos became an autonomous state within French Indochina. During the war between France and the Vietnam communists, the Pathet Lao were instrumental in fighting the French in Laos.
Full independence for Laos came after the French were defeated in Vietnam in 1953. Elections were held in 1955, and a year later the first coalition government was formed between the neutralists of Prince Souvanna Phouma (Prime Minister), the communist Pathet Lao of Prince Souphanouvong, and the royalist rightists of Prince Boun Oum. However, in 1955 the U.S. had established a covert US military operation giving support to right-wing elements in the Royal Lao Government, and in 1958 the coalition government collapsed, and right-wing forces came to power. Rightist forces under Gen. Phoumi Nosavan seized power, and as a result, the neutralists allied themselves with the communist insurgents, and received support from the Soviet Union, while the Nosavan regime received support from the United States.
Then in 1960, army captain Kong Le seized power in a coup and a second coalition government of the three political forces was formed; this one was also headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma.
After a failed coup attempt in 1964, Pathet Lao ministers left the government, thus ending the second coalition government, and Laos entered into a general civil war. The Royal Lao Government backed by the U.S. and assisted by Thai forces and CIA-funded Hmong guerrillas, fought the Communist Pathet Lao militias and the North Vietnamese Army.
The fighting between the communists, neutralists, and rightists continued during the Vietnam War. Then in 1975, after the North Vietnamese victory in South Vietnam, and Khmer Rouge taking of Phnom Penh, the Pathet Lao entered Vientiane. On December 2nd the king abdicated, and the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) was proclaimed, with Souphanouvong as President and Kaysone Pomvihane as Prime Minister. Soon after, hundreds of thousands of H’mong and other Lao people fled to Thailand, and became refugees.
In the late 70’s some socialist policies, such as collectivization, were done away with, and other restrictions are lifted. In the mid 80’s a new economic structure is introduced, and the government relaxed state control of the economy. There were border clashes between Lao and Thai military forces in 1987, but relations were improved between the two nations, and resulted in the construction of the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River.
A new 1991 constitution transformed the Lao PDR into a presidential republic with Kaysone as President. However, Kaysone, the leader of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party's since its founding, died a year later at the age of 72. The 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which started in Thailand, had a severe impact on Laos because of its close dependency on the Thai economy.
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