Laos is the least developed and most enigmatic of the three former French Indochinese states. A ruinous sequence of colonial domination, internecine conflict and dogmatic socialism finally brought the country to its knees in the 1970s, and almost ten per cent of the population left. Now, after two decades of isolation from the outside world, this landlocked, sparsely populated country is enjoying peace, stabilising its political and economic structures and admitting foreign visitors – albeit in limited numbers due to a general lack of infrastructure. The lack of foreign influence offers travellers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional South-East Asian life. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, travellers who have made it to Laos tend to agree that this country is the highlight of South-East Asia .
Warning Between March and December 2000 there was a series of small bombings and attempted bombings in Vientiane , Savannakhet and Pakse, but since then they seem to have stopped. As of 2001, most areas of the country are considered secure. The western portion of Rte 7 in Xieng Khuang Province , between Muang Phu Khun and Phonsavan, has recently opened to regular bus traffic – ask around in Vientiane or Luang Prabang to make sure the situation is still safe. The Saisombun Special Zone, considered a ‘troubled’ area, is definitely not safe. Taking drugs in foreign countries is always going to be iffy, but it’s especially high-risk in Laos . Penalties for possession of illicit drugs are also very harsh. Reports have begun to filter back of tourists dying from opium overdoses.
Full country name: Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR)
Area: 236,000 sq km (92,040 sq m)
Population: 5.5 million
Capital city: Vientiane (pop 500,000)
People: 50 Lao Loum (lowland Lao), 30 Lao Theung (lower-mountain dwellers of mostly proto-Malay or Mon-Khmer descent), 10-20 Lao Sung (Hmong or Mien high-altitude hill tribes) and 10-20 tribal Thais
Language: Lao and Lao dialects (closely related to Thai), French
Religion: 60 Buddhist, 40 animist and spirit cults
Government: Socialist republic
President: Khamtai Siphandon
Prime Minister: Bounyang Volachit
GDP: US$9.7 billion
GDP per head: US$1700
Major products/industries: Rice, tobacco, coffee, tin mining, timber, and opium Major trading partners: Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan