Laos is located in south-east Asia between Vietnam and Thailand. The country occupies a total area of 236,800 sq km of which 230,800 sq km is on land. It is landlocked by a 5,083 km long boundary.
Laos has a tropical monsoon climate – rainy season from May to November and dry season from December to April. The terrain is mostly rugged mountains with some plains and plateaus. Natural resources include timber, hydropower, gypsum, tin, gold and gemstones.
Laos has a total population of 4,569,327. Nationals of Laos are known as Lao(s) or Laotian(s). The main ethnic groups are Lao (50%), tribal Thai (20%) and Phoutheung (15%). The predominant religion is Buddhist (85%). Laos is the official language; English and French are also spoken.
Lao PDR used to be called Lane Xang, “The Land of A Million Elephants”. It was the name given to the country by King Fa Ngum whuen he reunified the country in 1353 A.D.
Lao folk music features the khan, or Lao panpipe, a wind instrument that is devised of a double row of bamboo like reeds fitted into a hardwood sound box. The khean is often accompanied by a bowed string instrument or saw.
The National Dance is a flok dance called the Lamvong, or Circle Dance, in which couples dance circles around one another until there are three circles in all: a circle prescribed by an individual, a circle danced by a couple, and one by the whole crowd.
The cultural history of Lao PDR has been shaped by a blend of three religions. The early Lao were animists, belivers in spirits, and many of these traditions still prevail; then Brahmanism spread estward from the Indian subcontinent, and finally Buddhism, the most obvious influence on Lao culture today, made its unique influence on Lao PDR.
Many Lao males choose to be ordained as monks temporarily, normally spending anywhere from a few days to three months at a wat or temple.
Lao art and architecture is often unique and expressive. Most tourists will visit a wat or temple during their visit to Lao PDR, and see the traditional turnet-up roofs of the wat. Wat is the compound where monks reside.
Sculptures usually depicting the image of Buddha are distinctively Lao: the “calling for rain” posture, which depicts the Buddha standing with his hand held rigidly at the side, fingers pointing to the ground. The flat, elongated earlobes, arched eyebrows and cauline nose are typically Lao. Another unique feature is that the bottom os the image’s robe turns up on both sides in a perfectly symmetrical fashion.
Customs, Gestures and Common Courtesies
The generally accepted form of greeting among Lao people is the Nop, placing one’s palms together in a position of praying, at chest level, but not touching the body. The higher the hand, the greater the sign of respect, although they should never be held above the level of the nose. This is accompanied by a slight bow to show respect to persons of higher status or age. The Nop is not only an expression of greeting, but also of thanks, of regret or saying goodbye. However, it is appropriate to shake hands with westerners.
As in many Asian cultures, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body, and the soles of the feet are the lowliest. One should not touch a preson’s head nor use one’s foot to point at a person or any object. Men and women rarely show affection in public. It is forbiden for a women to touch a buddhist monk.
It is cutomary to remove one’s shoes or sandals when entreing a Buddhist temple or private home. In Lao PDR, homes are raised off the ground, shoes or sandlas are left at the stairs. In a traditional home, one sits on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men may sits with legs corssed or folded to one side. Women sits with legs gracefully folded to the side. Guest me be served tea or fruit, which should not be refused. On should at least take a taste.
The country is known officially as Lao People’s Democratic Republic and in short, Laos. Laos is a communist state with the capital in Vientiane. Independence was gained on 19 July 1949 from France. The national holiday is on 2 December (1975).
The Laos flag consists of three horizontal bands of red (top), blue (double width), and red with a large white disk centered in the blue band.
Economy and Social Condition
One of the world’s poorest nations, Laos has had a Communist centrally planned economy with government ownership and control of productive enterprises of any size. In recent years, however, the government has been decentralizing control and encouraging private enterprise. Laos is a landlocked country with a primitive infrastructure; that is, it has no railroads, a rudimentary road system, limited external and internal telecommunications, and electricity available in only a limited area. Subsistence agriculture is the main occupation, accounting for over 60% of GDP and providing about 85-90% of total employment. The predominant crop is rice. For the foreseeable future the economy will continue to depend for its survival on foreign aid from the IMF and other international sources; aid from the former USSR and Eastern Europe has been cut sharply.
With a 1992 per capita Gross National Product (GNP) of US$250, the Lao PDR is among the group of countries designated by the World Bank as “low-income economies.” It has a population of 4.4 million with an average life expectancy of 51 years. The adult illiteracy rate of 36% in the Lao PDR is much lower than the rates in two other low-income Asian countries, Bhutan (62%) and Nepal (74%), but considerable higher than the 12% illiteracy rate in Sri Lanka.
Despite its low per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the economy of the Lao PDR has shown healthy growth over the past several years that was stimulated by a program of economic reform initiated by the government in 1986 called the New Economic Mechanism (NEM). The NEM emphasized “reorienting the economy away from central planning and its emphasis on public ownership towards a market-oriented economy led by a vigorous private sector”. While the shift to a more market-driven economy has not been without its problems, especially in financial institutions where the shift away from total government control has been difficult, considerable progress has been made.
Between 1988 and 1993, the real annual growth rate averaged 7.5%. With a population growth rate of 2.9%, real per capita income growth has been near 5%. Nearly 90% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, which includes livestock and fisheries, but the share of agriculture in the total GDP has declined from 63% to 56% since 1987 while the industrial share has grown from 11% to 17%. Even though the share of GDP attributable to the service sector has remained around a quarter over this period, “the composition of services has shifted away from public services towards commercial services, largely privately provided”. 25% of the workforce was employed in urban areas and the average monthly salary of urban workers was 30,000 kip or approximately US$43.
Laos has 27,527 km of highways and 4,587 km of inland waterways. There are 41 usable (small) airports and no sea ports (no access to the sea).
Telecommunications service to general public is practically non-existant. Radio communications network provides generally erratic service to government users
The KIP is the official currency of the Lao PDR and bank notes are presently in denomination of 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20, 10, and 5 Kip.
There are money exchange facility at the airports, and several licensed bureaux in towns. Although It is best to always use cash to ensure the best bargains, a few businesses and restaurants do accept travellers’ cheques. Traveller’s cheques in other currency are best changed in Vientiane and the major provinces. In general, US dollar traveller’s cheques can be cashed at most banks in Lao PDR nationwide. Major international credit cards, such as VISA, MasterCard, and American Express are now being accepted in foreign banks, restaurants, hotels and businesses shops.