Laos is now an independent state with a fairly progressive communist government which is tolerant of religion and has undertaken a programme of urbanisation and industrialisation. The fall of the USSR may well have accelerated that policy. Despite being a one party communist state, there has been a fair degree of decentralisation and economic growth is being sustained with support largely coming from China and Vietnam. In 2013 Laos became a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The infrastructure still lags behind its neighbours with rural areas markedly so. At times of monsoon transport can be affected yet its tourist number are rising and Laos travel packages reveal an extremely interesting country with a great natural environment, friendly people and a host of religious and cultural attractions. Agriculture still makes up almost 75% of employment, and 25% of GDP. The fertile part of Laos is the Mekong Valley with the mountainous regions often only good for basic subsistence.
The "Land of Million Elephants" no longer has anything like that yet a great deal of the natural environment survives and Laos tour packages are certain to reveal that to every visitor.
Laos is the smallest of the countries of Indochina, covering just under 240,000 square kilometres much of which is mountainous. Its population is 7.2 million the majority living in the lower lying areas in the south of this landlocked country. It has borders with China in the north, Myanmar in the north west, Thailand in the west, Cambodia in the south and Vietnam in the east.
The majority of the population are Lao Loum (67%) with Lao Theung and Lao Soung making up the balance except for a few Vietnamese and Chinese. Over the years, it has been invaded by neighbours coming from all directions and was a French ‘colony’ for a period until the resolution of the independence struggle that began in earnest after World War II.
Laos has been influenced by its neighbours and the produce available in South East Asia is fairly similar across the whole region but those on Indochina tour packages will find some differences between the cuisine of Laos and neighbouring countries. Rice plays a significant role, mostly sticky rice which is served in a basket, with diners taking some in their hands, rolling it into a ball and eating it. There is a variety of dishes which accompany it with pork, chicken fish and beef all fairly common on restaurant menus.
Those on organised Laos travel itineraries will find many of their meals arranged for them but one of the pleasures, especially in the urban areas around local markets, is to eat the street food from vendors’ stalls; always fresh simply because of the turnover.
Notable Dates & Events
Buddhism plays a central role in Laos life even though a significant minority of Laotians are animist. Travellers in Laos are likely to come across regular celebrations of one kind or another and if you are lucky enough to be on a Laos holiday to correspond with any of them a treat awaits.
• January means Pha Wet which commemorates the life of Buddha; the actual date varies.
• February is the month for Magha Puja held at a Full Moon and again remembers Buddha’s teaching while Vietnamese Tet and Chinese New Year are generally in February.
• March is harvest festival time, Buon Khoun Khao.
• April has a festival lasting a few days, Laos New Year, Buon Pimai.
• May has International Labour Day and the Rocket Festival (Boun Bang Fai) seeks the rains.
• June/July has just Children’s Day before Haw Khao Padap, in August, which pays respects to the Dead.
• October has two significant events, the end of Buddhist Lent (Awk Watsa) and Bun Nam, the Water Festival.
• November has Buon That Luang which traditionally centres in Vientiane while on 2nd December there is National Day celebrating the communist victory in 1975.
Everyone likes to celebrate in Laos and those on Laos travel packages are certain to meet a happy, smiling people wherever they go, be it the cities or the remote highland regions of the north. A real treat awaits those who go to Laos for a holiday.