Before the French, British, Chinese and Siamese drew a line around it, Laos was a collection of disparate principalities subject to an ever-revolving cycle of war, invasion, prosperity and decay. In the 14th century, a Khmer backed Lao gave his kingdom the title Lan Xang, or Land of a Million Elephants, introduced Theravada Buddhism and adopted the symbol of Lao sovereignty that remains today, the Pha Bang Buddha image. Lan Xang reached its peak in the 17th century when it was the dominant force in SE Asia.
In the 18th century, after a period of Siamese control, the French moved from present day Vietnam across the Mekong, and Laos was born. After the Japanese left at the end of WWII, the country returned to French rule, and sovereignty was granted to Laos by the French in 1953. Laos was set to be a chessboard of communist ambition and US anxiety.
Despite being declared neutral by the UN, CIA operatives secretly entered the country to train anticommunist Hmong fighters in the jungle. From 1965 to 1973, the US, in response to the Viet Minh funneling massive amounts of war munitions down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, devastated eastern and northeastern Lao with nonstop carpet-bombing (a reported plane load of ordnance dropped every eight minutes). This exacerbated the war between factions in Laos and if anything, increased domestic support for the communists.
After the US withdrawal in 1973, Laos was eventually taken over by the communists and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) was created. About 10% of the population fled to Thailand. The remaining opponents of the government (mainly the Hmong or highland dwellers) were brutally suppressed. Laos entered the political family of SE Asian countries known as ASEAN, in 1997. In 2004, the US ended trade embargoes in place since 1975. Politically the Party remains firmly in control and there is little incentive to move towards any form of democracy. While still heavily dependent of foreign aid, there is move towards establishing ecotourism. The Hmong insurgency has been reduced to a forgotten few hundred.
Up until 2008, Laos was doing well with a record number of foreign visitors, new hydroelectric dams, and gold and copper mines. Foreign investors then pulled out, mining concessions collapsed, fewer tourists visited and the economy stagnated. Since 2010, close associations with China have resulted in it grabbing what it can in return for improving Laos’ transport infrastructure. Railroads and highways have been built connecting it to Pakistan, India and Singapore.
The country is a patchwork of different beliefs from animism to Thervada Buddhism. The laid back attitude can be ascribed to Buddhist control of extreme emotions (cool heart, making merit, and doing good in order to receive good). But the rest is a Lao phenomenon with a level of kindness not seen in the neighboring countries.
Its strongest links are to Thailand with music and TV ubiquitous. Touching a person’s head, pointing feet, and showing strong emotions is taboo.
Of the 132 ethnic groups, 60% are lowland Lao and the rest labelled according to the altitude at which the groups live (midlevel mountain, upland valleys and upland groups above 1000m).
Religion. Most lowland Lao are Theravada Buddhists and many Lao males choose to be ordained temporarily as monks for a month to 3 years at a wat or temple, and are not considered to be “ripe” until he has completed his spiritual term. The communist government still forbids spirit worship and folk magic. Despite the ban, spirit worship remains the dominant Non-Buddhist belief system, and the ceremony in which the 32 guardian spirits of the body are bound by white strings tied around the wrists. Outside the Mekong River valley in tribal groups, animism and spirit worship remain strong.
Arts. The true expression of Lao art is found in religious sculpture, handicrafts and sculpture. Distinctively Lao is the Calling for Rain Buddha, a standing image with hands held figidly at the sides, and the Contemplating the Bodhi Tree Buddha with crossed hands at the front. Wat have steep, low roofs with four-sided curvilinear spire like structures. Harsh Soviet designs mingle with beautiful Indochina villas. Upland crafts include gold and silver smithing, but classical dance and music have all but evaporated.
With a landmass of 236,500 sq km, Laos is a bit larger than the UK. Thanks to its relatively small population and mountainous terrain, it is one of the least altered environments in SE Asia. Unmanaged vegetation covers 87% of the country and 10% is original growth forest. A hundred years ago, this last statistic was 75%, giving an idea of the detrimental effects of relentless logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. Nevertheless, most Lao still live at or just above subsistence level, consuming far less of their own natural resources than the people of any developed country.
In 1993, the government set up its National Protected Areas comprising just over 10% of the land. An additional tow were added in 1995 to enlarge the NPAs to 14%. Despite these conservation efforts, illegal timber felling and the smuggling of exotic wildlife are still significant threats to Laos’ natural resources.
Laos is home to Asian elephants, jackals, Asian black bears, black-crested gibbons, langurs, leopards, tigers, pythons, king cobras, 437 kinds of birds and the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. Driven by its neighbors, most notably China, who seek body parts of endangered animals for traditional medicine and aphrodisiac purposes, the illegal wildlife trade is flourishing. Compared to Vietnam and Thailand though – much of which are now deforested, urbanized and farmed – Laos is an enviable hothouse of biodiversity. Almost two-thirds of Lao people live in rural areas and rely on wildlife as a source of protein to supplement their diet.
Visas. They are obtained and arrival and are given for 30 days. Cost is $30-42 depending on country (Canada is the only one costing $42).
Money. With 8,000 kip to the $US, it seems like everything costs a lot, but costs are less than surrounding countries. ATMs are common, rarely dispense more than one million kip (about $125) and charge 15,000 kip per transaction.