Laos is the least developed and most enigmatic of the three former French Indochinese states. A ruinous sequence of colonial domination, internecine conflict, catastrophic bombing, and dogmatic socialism finally brought the country to its knees in the 1970s, and almost ten percent of the population left. Now, after two decades of isolation from the outside world, this landlocked, sparsely populated country is enjoying peace, stabilising its political and economic structures, and admitting foreign visitors – albeit in limited numbers due to a general lack of infrastructure. The lack of foreign influence offers travellers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional Southeast Asian life. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, travelers who have made it to Laos tend to agree that this country is the highlight of Southeast Asia.

Warnings: Between March and December 2000, there was a series of small bombings and attempted bombings in Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Pakse, but since then they seem to have stopped. As of 2001, most areas of the country are considered secure. The western portion of Route 7 in Xieng Khuang Province, between Muang Phu Khun and Phonsavan, has recently opened to regular bus traffic – ask around in Vientiane or Luang Prabang to make sure the situation is still safe. The Saisombun Special Zone, considered a ‘troubled’ area, is definitely not safe.

Taking drugs in foreign countries is always going to be iffy, but it’s especially high-risk in Laos. Penalties for possession of illicit drugs are also very harsh. Reports have begun to filter back of tourists dying from opium and other drug overdoses.

  • Full country name: Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR)
  • Area: 236,000 sq km (92,040 sq m)
  • Population: About 6.5 million
  • Capital city: Vientiane (pop. about 700,000)
  • People: 50 percent Lao Loum (lowland Lao), 30 percent Lao Theung (lower-mountain dwellers of mostly proto-Malay or Mon-Khmer descent), 10-20 percent Lao Sung (Hmong or Mien high-altitude hill tribes) and 10-20 percent tribal Thais
  • Language: Lao and Lao dialects (closely related to Thai), French, Hmong
  • Religion: 60 percent Buddhist, 40 percent animist and spirit cults
  • Government: Socialist republic
  • President: Khamtai Siphandon
  • Prime Minister: Bounyang Volachit
  • GDP: US$9.7 billion
  • GDP per head: US$1700
  • Major products/industries: Rice, tobacco, coffee, tin mining, timber, and opium
  • Major trading partners: Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan