Laos, officially Lao People's Democratic Republic, Southeast Asian country formerly part of French Indochina. It is bordered by China to the north, Vietnam to the east, Kampuchea to the south and Thailand and Burma to the west. It is a small country (650 mi/1,046 km-long and in places barely 50 mi/81 km-wide). The administrative capital is Vientiane. The total population is over 4,000,000.
Land and climate
Laos is dominated by mountain chains and plateaus, cut by deep, narrow valleys, covered by forests interspersed with patches of grassland. The Mekong, the river that creates the important Mekong Basin, forms the border with Burma and most of Thailand. Laos has a tropical monsoon climate, with near-drought from Nov. to Apr. and a wet season from May to Oct.
The people of Laos include various ethnic groups, the largest being the Lao, who total over half of the population. Their language, Lao, is the official language. Most practice Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism. The rest of the population consists of the Kha—original inhabitants of Laos—and mountain tribes, which include the Mons, Thai, Meos and Hos. The education system is poorly developed. There is one university, at Vientiane, the University of Sisavang Vong. Smaller urban areas include Luang Prabang (the royal capital), Pakse and Savannakhet.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. The people of Laos are mostly primitive farmers who mainly grow rice. Some coffee, corn, hemp, cotton and opium poppies—although illegal—are grown, and the Mekong River and its many tributaries provide fish for local consumption as well as the major means of transportation. The forests provide good teak and bamboo, charcoal, benzoin (used in perfumes) and stick lac (for shellac). Rich iron ore deposits are known to exist, but only the tin ore is exploited commercially. Industry is on a very limited scale. There are no railways and few reliable roads. There is an international airport at Vientiane.
Part of the Khmer empire, the territory was settled from the 10th to 13th centuries by Thai Lao. By the 17th century a powerful Lao kingdom had emerged; but in the early 1700s it split into the principalities of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. In 1893 France made Laos a protectorate. After World War II national insurgency of various factions (including the Communist Pathet Lao with Vietnamese support) won the country independence within the French Union in 1949; it remained in the French Union until 1954. In 1959 renewed civil war between the neutralist premier Souvanna Phouma and right- and left-wing rivals brought intervention from the great powers. A coalition government was formed in 1973. In Dec. 1975 the king abdicated, and the country became a Communist republic under the Pathet Lao, strongly influenced by Vietnam. In 1990 a small guerrilla resistance force took action against the communist government, but the effect was minimal. In 1997 Laos signed a trade agreement with the United States.