The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR, is a country that moves to its own measure of time. Life flows along at a languid pace which mirrors the waters of the Mekong River that flows through the country. Towns are less hectic than elsewhere in Asia and the countryside is a rare combination of beauty and tranquillity.
Compared to the rest of Indochina, Laos remained largely hidden to the rest of the world for much for the 20th Century. Visitors today encounter an unfussed society with a strong spiritual tradition where the cacophonies of the modern world seem irrelevant.
Despite increased international interest, Laos remains the undiscovered gem of Asia. This landlocked nation of six million people exudes a delightful, almost other-worldly, charm and reminds visitors of a simpler, less harried past.
Humans began living in present day Laos more than 10,000 years ago. Stone tool implements and skulls discovered in Huaphan and Luang Prabang provinces certify the existence of such settlements. The giant jars in Xieng Khouang province and stone columns in Huaphan province date from the Neolithic period.
The rural communities slowly formed into muang (townships) between the 4th and 8th centuries on either side of the Mekong River and along its tributaries. Between 1349 and1357 a movement emerged to concentrate the muang into a unified Lan Xang Kingdom under the command of King Fa Ngoum, a national hero. The capital stood at Xiengdong Xiengthong, now Luang Prabang. Fa Ngum’s ancestors strengthened Luang Prabang in the face of both Burmese and Vietnamese invasions. The constant attacks led to King Settathirat switching the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in 1563. He was responsible for the building of the That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine and the national symbol of Laos. Following Settahirat’s death in 1574 the country was raided numerous times by the Burmese while a series of ineffectual monarchs ruled Lan Xang.
In the 17th century, under the reign of King Souliyavongsa, the Kingdom entered its most stable era. European merchants and traders of the late 16th century spoke of rich and beautiful palaces and temples and splendid religious ceremonies, declaring Vientiane was the most magnificent city in Southeast Asia. At the end of the reign of King Souliyavongsa, the feudal lords of Lan Xang each ontested the throne leading to the division of the country into three Kingdoms in 1713: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassak.
Over the next two centuries the Thais sphere of influence steadily grew until Laos became little more than a satellite state. In a rebellion by King Anou in 1827 Vientiane was liberated from the Thais. Towards the end of the 19th century the Thais were forced to give up large parts of their territory, including Laos and Cambodia to France. Lan Xang was renamed Laos and became part of French Indochina in 1893.
Unlike Vietnam Laos was seen as the least important part of Indochina and as a result received less attention from the French authorities. Few roads, schools, hospitals or universities were created and most of the country’s administration was left in the hands of Vietnamese civil servants. This coupled with the imposition of various taxes led to rebellion, especially in the highland areas.
In 1945 the Japanese briefly took control of Laos and when they left later that same year a power vacuum was created. The Lao Issara, or Free Laos movement, led by Prince Phetsareth quickly moved into this breach to declare independence from France. Unfortunately for the Prince, King Sisavang Vong sided with the French and the Prince was forced into exile in Thailand. This resulted in the dissolution of the Lao Issara and the crowning of King Sisavang Vong as King of all Laos in 1946. In the wake of Lao Issara, the Pathet Lao was formed in the northeast of the country. The Pathet Lao received support from the Viet Minh of communist northern Vietnam and continued the struggle. Although France granted Laos sovereignty in 1953, the Pathet Lao was not convinced that government with a constitutional monarch was the answer.
After France’s defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States began to take an active interest in Laos and in particular in supporting the Royal Lao Government. The government tried unsuccessfully to integrate Pathet Lao in the political arena. By 1962 the lines had been drawn; Pathet Lao had the backing of the North Vietnamese and the Royal Lao Government was receiving aid and arms from the US and Thailand. Almost inevitably the country was dragged into the wider conflict in Vietnam and was effectively split into four parts. The Chinese in the north, the Vietnamese in the east using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Thais in the West with the aid of the US-backed government and the Khmer Rouge in the south. During this time, known as the ‘Dirty War’ Laos was subjected to intense and prolonged saturation bombing by the US in an attempt to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In 1973 Pathet Lao finally gained the advantage as the US began its withdrawal from Vietnam. In 1975 both Saigon and Phnom Penh fell and Vientiane soon followed with little opposition as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established.
CULTURE & TRADITION
Traditional culture in Laos has been heavily influenced by various strains of Khmer, Vietnamese and Thai cultures. The lowland Lao share the same ancestry as many Thai tribes, so the similarities between Lao and Thai culture are especially strong. This can be seen in Lao sculpture, classical music, dance-dramas and cuisine. Lao folk music is more indigenous, based around the khaen (a double row of bamboo reeds fitted into a hardwood sound box). Folk music is often accompanied by dancing or bawdy theatre. The focus of most traditional art has been primarily religious and includes wats (temples), stupas and several distinctively Lao representations of Buddha. The Lao remain skilful carvers and weavers, but traditional arts such as silversmiths and goldsmiths are declining.
Area & Geography: South East Asia
Laos is a landlocked country covering 236,800 square kilometers and shares its borders with China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
About 70% of its total land area is comprised of mountains and plateaus.
The Mekong River is Laos’ primary geographical feature, running the entire length of the country and serving as a natural border with Thailand..
Time-zone: GMT +7
GMT plus 7 hours
Government offices are open from 08:00 to 17:00 (with a one-hour lunch break) from Monday to Friday. Saturday and Sunday are holidays. In local regions, offices are open from 07:00 to 11:00 and 13:00 to 17:00
Private shops are open from about 08:00 or 8:30 to 21:00 or 22:00
Climate & Seasons: Tropical Monsoon
Laos has a tropical monsoon climate with wet and dry seasons.
May is very hot with occasional rain;
June to October is the humid and wet monsoon season;
November to April is the cooler, dry season.
The Lao language has varying dialects throughout the country. Interestingly, many ethnic groups don’t speak any Lao. Other languages used in Laos are French, English, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.
People & Religion: Laotians & Buddhism
Laos’ population is about 7 million consists of more than 60 different ethnic groups, with most falling into three main categories: The Lao Loum who inhabit the lowlands, the semi-nomadic Lao Theung who live in the lower mountain ranges and the Lao Soung hill tribes originating from Burma, Tibet and southern China.
The great majority of the Lao people are Theravada Buddhists. Many Laotian men attend Buddhist monasteries for training before entering secular life. Other religions practiced include various Christian denominations, Baha’I Faith and Islam. Animism is widely practiced among ethnic groups.
FESTIVALS & HOLIDAYS
The vast majority of Laos’ festivals are linked to the seasons or Buddhist holidays. Pimai, the Lao New Year, is the country’s most important holiday. The three-day celebration usually takes place in mid-April and is characterized by the ceremonial washing of Buddha statues in temples. Other noteworthy festivals include:
+ January – Bun Pha Wet: Falling on different dates throughout the month the festival commemorates the Jataka, the life story of Lord Buddha as Prince Vestsantara. The story is recited in temples throughout the country and this is considered a particularly auspicious time for ordination as a monk.
+ February – Magha Puja: Held on the night of the full moon to commemorate the original teachings of Lord Buddha given to over a thousand monks who came spontaneously to hear him speak. The festival is marked by grand parades of candle-bearing worshippers circling their local temples and much religious music and chanting. – Vietnamese Tet & Chinese New Year – Celebrated in Vientiane, Pakse and Savannakhet by the Vietnamese and Chinese communities who close their businesses for several days during this period.
+ March – Boun Khoun Khao: – A harvest festival celebrated at local temples
+ April – Boun Pimai – This is the celebration of the Lao New Year and is a combination of merriment and meditation. Similar to other festivals at this time, in particular Thailand, Boun Pimai is celebrated with parades, dancing, singing and enthusiastic water-throwing. At Luang Prabang water pouring ceremonies are performed on Buddha statues. Temple compounds are further decorated with small sand Stupas, offered to bring good fortune and health.
+ May – Labor Day 1st May – public holiday. Boun Bang Fai (rocket festival) – With its origins in pre-Buddhist rain-invoking ceremonies, this festival now coincides with the Lao Visakha Puja celebrations. Parades, songs and dances all lead to an explosive climax as huge, ornate, homemade bamboo rockets are blessed and fired into the skies to invite the rains.
+ June/July – Children’s Day (1st June – public holiday). Khao Phansaa – Marking the beginning of the three-month Buddhist Lent, which commences at the full moon in July and continues until the full moon in October.
+ August – Haw Khao Padap Din – Devoted to remembering and paying respect to the dead, it is marked by the macabre ceremony of exhuming previously buried bodies, cleaning the remains and then cremating them on the night of the full moon. Relatives then present gifts to the monks who have chanted on behalf of those who have passed away.
+ October – Awk Phansaa (Awk Watsa) – Marking the end of Buddhist Lent on the day of the full moon. Monks are at last permitted to leave the temple and are presented with gifts. Bun Nam (water festival) – In riverside towns such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet, the highly competitive Bun Nam boat races (suang heua) are held during the same time as Awk Phansaa.
+ November – Boun That Luang – Though celebrated at many temples around the country this festival is traditionally centered at That Luang in Vientiane. Fairs, beauty contests, music and fireworks take place throughout the week of the full moon and end with a candlelight procession (wien thien) around the temple of That Luang.
+ December – Lao National Day (2nd December – public holiday) – Streets strewn with national flags and banners, processions, parades, and speeches are the highlights of this celebration for the victory of the proletariat in 1975.