The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
LAOS – INFORMATION
On this page:
- People and Society
- National Identity
- Media and Communications
Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia; bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). The total area is 236,800 square kilometres with only 6,000 square kilometres of water within. Its thickly forested landscape consists mostly of rugged mountains, the highest of which is Phou Bia at 2,818 metres, with some plains and plateaux such as Xiangkhoang in the north and the Bolaven Plateau at the southern end. Laos can be considered to consist of three geographical areas: north, central, and south.
Most of the western border of Laos is demarcated by the Mekong River, which is an important artery for transportation. The Khong falls at the southern end of the country prevent access to the sea, but cargo boats travel along the entire length of the Mekong in Laos during most of the year. Smaller power boats and pirogues provide an important means of transportation on many of the tributaries of the Mekong. The Mekong has thus not been an obstacle but a facilitator for communication, and the similarities between Laos and northeast Thai society – same people, same language – reflect the close contact that has existed across the river for centuries. Many Laotians living in the Mekong Valley have relatives and friends in Thailand. Prior to the twentieth century, Laotian kingdoms and principalities encompassed areas on both sides of the Mekong, and Thai control in the late nineteenth century extended to the left bank. Although the Mekong was established as a border by French colonial forces, travel from one side to the other has been significantly limited only since the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR or LPDR) in 1975.
The eastern border with Vietnam extends for 2,130 kilometres, mostly along the crest of the Annamite Chain, and serves as a physical barrier between the Chinese-influenced culture of Vietnam and the Indianized states of Laos and Thailand. These mountains are sparsely populated by tribal minorities who traditionally have not acknowledged the border with Vietnam any more than lowland Lao have been constrained by the 1,754-kilometre Mekong River border with Thailand. Thus, ethnic minority populations are found on both the Laotian and Vietnamese sides of the frontier. Because of their relative isolation, contact between these groups and lowland Lao has been mostly confined to trading.
Laos shares its short southern border, only 541 kilometres, with Cambodia. Ancient Khmer ruins at Wat Pho and other southern locations attest to the long history of contact between the Lao and the Khmer. In the north, the country is bounded by a mountainous 423-kilometre border with China which shifts into the 235-kilometre-long Mekong River border with Burma. Its geographic location has often made it a buffer between more powerful neighbouring states, as well as a crossroads for trade and communication. Migration and international conflict have contributed to the present ethnic composition of the country and to the distribution of its ethnic groups. For an in-depth overview of Laos, check out Geography Now’s video below.
The topography of Laos is largely mountainous, with elevations above 500 metres typically characterised by steep terrain, narrow river valleys, and low agricultural potential. This mountainous landscape extends across most of the north of the country, except for the plain of Vientiane and the Plain of Jars in Xiangkhoang Province. The southern ‘panhandle’ of the country contains large level areas in Savannakhét and Champasak provinces that are well suited for extensive paddy rice cultivation and livestock raising. Much of Khammouan Province and the eastern part of all the southern provinces are mountainous. Around 68% of the country is covered in tropical rainforests. While together, the alluvial plains and terraces of the Mekong and its tributaries cover only about 20% of the land area.
Much of northern Laos is mountainous, difficult to cross and thinly populated. The majority of Laos’ agricultural and livestock production takes place in the country’s south or along the Mekong River on its western border. The Mekong River flows from its headwaters in Tibet through Laos to its mouth in the south of Vietnam. One of the world’s great rivers, it forms the country’s western boundary for the greater part of its length and is the cradle of Laotian culture. It is known as ‘the Sea of Laos’ and more than 1,000 local species of fish live in the Mekong and its tributaries. Most major Laotian towns are on its banks, but the Laotian Government has encouraged the establishment of new towns and villages in the country's interior.
Natural resources include timber, hydropower, gypsum, tin, gold and gemstones. Previously, only about 4% of the total land area was classified as arable. However, the forested land area has declined significantly since the 1970s because of commercial logging, expanded swidden (slash-and-burn) farming, and removal of unexploded ordnances. Now the total land area suited to agricultural use is closer to 11%.
The climate is mostly tropical savanna and influenced by the monsoon pattern. There is a distinct rainy season from May to November, followed by a dry season from December to April. Local tradition holds that there are three seasons – rainy, cool, and hot – as the latter two months of the climatologically defined dry season (March and April) are noticeably hotter than the earlier four months. The primary natural hazards are floods and droughts, but other environmental issues include unexploded ordnances, deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, and the low rate of accessible potable water.
The Plain of Jars is a remarkable historic site scattered throughout the Xiangkhoang Plateau’s central plain in northern Laos, specifically the lower foothills and upland valleys. The province has about 90 jar sites, with each site containing about 400 stone jars, most of which are broken or have fallen over. Though Xiangkhouang Plain is the main site of the stone jars, clusters of such stone structure form a linear path to northern India. Additionally, only three of the megalithic jar sites have been extensively studied, with Site 1 listed as a World Heritage Site.
Some jars are as high as three metres and weigh as much as one tonne. Most stone jars have lid rims, with most jars believed to be originally covered by lids. However, it is believed that most lids were made of perishable material since only a few stone lids have been discovered on most sites. Some stone lids discovered in sites like Ban Phakeo contain carvings of animals like tigers, monkeys, and frogs.
No one knows for certain who made the jars or why, but many researchers theorise it was a burial site used 2,000 years ago. According to various sources, the stone jars were used to store dead human bodies for their flesh to rot away, leaving behind their bones for burials. This use is supported by the Japanese and Laos archaeological excavations that have led to the discovery of burial goods and human remains. However, a local Laotian legend suggests the jars may also have been used as food storage. According to the legend, an ancient giant king called Khun Cheung created the stone jars to brew Lao Lao rice wine to celebrate a victorious battle. Also, it is unclear who made the jars since little is known about those who lived in the area during prehistoric times. However, these elements are popular evidence of Iron Age civilisation. The Plain of Jars is associated with overland activities because the sites are located in an area that facilitated movement across the region.
The U.S. Air Force bombed the Plain of Jars between 1964 and 1969 while fighting Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communist forces. The U.S. forces dropped over 260 million cluster bombs on the plains, more than it dropped during World War II. However, close to one-third dropped unexploded, making the area dangerous and limiting movements. To learn more about the Secret War in Laos access the #KYR Laos – Special Issues. Then for more information on the Plain of Jars, watch the ABC Science report on discoveries by Australian researchers below.
Explore the following resources to learn more about Laos.
- Blast World Mysteries | New discoveries in Laos deepen the ancient mystery of the Plain of Jars
- DW News | Are dams killing the Mekong rivers?
- CNA | Laos, Myanmar becoming hotspots for illegal wildlife trade
- Soukthavone Panaphone | Laos Climate Change
- National Geogaphic | The Fight to Stop Illegal Bear Trafficking in Southeast Asia
- Go Laos Tours | Mekong River in Laos - The Legend River of Land-Blocked Country
- Lowy Institute: The Interpreter | Another dam on the Mekong
- Popular Science | Laos's Plain of Jars revealed to be a burial site
- Phnom Penh Post | Laos reinforces protected forest area management
- Laotian Times | Laos Commits to Addressing Climate Change at COPS26 Conference
People and Society
Laos seems at last to have achieved stable relations with its neighbours. Centuries-old conflicts that had repeatedly seen foreign invaders trampling Laotian soil with their elephants or tanks, Laotians conscripted by this or that pretender to the throne, pagodas built and then destroyed, and the countryside laid waste, had receded. This peace that came after the Communist takeover settled in 1979 brought the prospect of a better life in Laos, if not yet participation in a multiparty democracy. After so much suffering Laotians turned inward, seeking the fulfilment that had always come from their families, their villages, their sangha, and their pride in the moments of glory in their country’s long history.
The population of around 7,574,000 means its overall density is considered one of the lowest in Southeast Asia. Its most densely populated area is in and around the capital city of Vientiane, with large communities primarily found along the Mekong River along the southwestern border.
Laos is incredibly diverse in terms of ethnic and linguistic groups. Nonetheless, most Laotians share common values, attitudes, and collective experiences. For example, many Laotians have a collectivistic outlook and seek to maintain harmony and honour among their family, friends, and communities. Additionally, most Laotians have experienced hardships resulting from the events of the Indochina Wars. Despite adversities on a national or local level, Laotians are often warm and modest people who find contentment in their day-to-day lives. Other core cultural concepts are politeness, modesty, face, harmony, respect and diversity. The following video puts a spotlight on Laos to piece together the people and society.
On the use of the terms Lao and Laotian: the term Lao refers to people who are ethnic Lao; it is not used to refer to those living in Laos who are members of other ethnic groups, for example: Vietnamese, Chinese, or Hmong. The term Laotian is used to refer to all the people living in Laos, regardless of ethnic identity. While the Laos Government officially recognises 49 ethnic groups, the total number is estimated to be well over 200, many of whom speak their own languages and dialects (some have no written form). Typically, the people of Laos are categorised by their distribution in elevation – lowlands, midlands, and upper highlands – as this somewhat correlates with ethnic groupings.
The Lao Loum (‘lowlanders') consists of those who are ethnically Lao, with most Lao Loum occupying the lowlands of the country. The Lao Loum generally reside on the banks of the Mekong. It is believed that many of the ethnic groups under Lao Loum are descendants of the Tai people. Ethnic Lao is the largest ethnic group found in Laos, making up just over half of the total population (53.2%).
The second largest ethnic category in Laos is the Lao Theung (‘midlanders’), located in the central and southern mountains of Laos. This ethnic category contains those of Austroasiatic origin and belongs to the Mon-Khmer language family. The largest ethnic group within the Lao Theung is the Khmu (11%), located primarily in northern Laos. Along with the Khmu, there are over 20 other ethnic groups such as the Makong (2.5%) and Katang (2.2%). The Lao Theung have been experiencing changes to their lifestyles and cultures due to increasing pressure from recent land reform programmes.
The Lao Sung (‘highlanders’ or ‘mountain people') is the smallest ethnic category, made up of more than 30 tribes located in the mountainous regions of Laos. The two principal groups are the Hmong (at times referred to as Meo or Miao, 9.2%) and the Yao (sometimes known as lu Mien, Man or Mien). It is believed that the Hmong and Yao are descendants of ethnic groups once located in southern China. Many Hmong live in hiding in the jungles of Laos in fear of being persecuted for their grandparents’ decision to support the U.S. army during the Second Indochina War. Many Hmong have attempted to flee over the border into Thailand. Nevertheless, relations between the current Lao government and the Hmong are improving, as seen from the greater representation of Hmong men and women in the political sphere.
While much of the population fits into one of the three ethnic categories of Lao Loum, Lao Theung and Lao Sung, there are several other ethnic groups in the country. Complicating matters further, the geopolitical position and borders of Laos are creations of centuries of colonialism, regional conflicts, foreign interventions, and revolutions. The boundaries of the ancient kingdoms throughout the Southeast Asia region have disappeared for the most part so modern-day borders do not reflect the ethnic dispersion of people in the region. Indeed, the northeast region of Thailand was once a part of Laos. Today, there is an ethnic group known as ‘khon Isan’ (‘people of the Isan region’) who communicate in Lao and are ethnically similar to ethnic Lao. To learn more about the minority groups of Laos, check out the following video by the Asian Development Bank.
The official and majority language is Lao, part of the Tai-Kadai language family. However, only slightly more than half of the population speaks Lao as their first language. The Lao alphabet was derived from ancient Khmer script and is very similar to Thai script. Lao and Thai share a significant portion of core vocabulary, with many Lao speakers being able to understand or even speak their neighbour’s language with ease.
Languages like Khmu (Austroasiatic) and Hmong (Hmong-Mien) are spoken by minorities, particularly in the midland and highland areas. Other minority languages include Arem, Hung, Khmer, Maleng, Pacoh, Lamet, Phai, Akha, and Kim Mun. Yet, the Vientiane Lao dialect helps people from the many ethnic communities interact with one another and in doing so serves as the lingua franca of Laos.
French is occasionally used in government or commerce, and is preferred by elite classes. The country is home to Southeast Asia’s second largest Francophone population and is a member of La Francophonie. Some Lao words have been incorporated into French giving it a unique local flavour. English, the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has become increasingly studied in recent years. It is threatening the dominance of French as the preferred foreign language, as seen in Laotian schools where classes normally conducted in Lao and French are increasingly being taught with English as the second language. The younger generations of Laotians are particularly eager to learn English.
Approximately two-thirds of the Lao population identify as Buddhist (64.7%). Buddhism was once the state religion of Laos, and while this is no longer the case in contemporary Laos, Buddhism remains a dominant cultural force. Indeed, public signs of reverence for the religion are evident throughout the country and culture. The second-most identified affiliation in Laos is ‘none’ (31.4%). Of the remaining population, 1.7% identify as Christian while 2.1% identify with ‘other’ or do not specify their religious affiliation.
Buddhism was the state religion of the Kingdom of Laos, and the organisation of the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), paralleled the political hierarchy. The faith was introduced beginning in the eighth century by Mon Buddhist monks and was widespread by the fourteenth century. A number of Laotian kings were important patrons of Buddhism. Virtually all lowland Lao were Buddhists in the early 1990s, as well as some Lao Theung who assimilated to lowland culture. Since 1975, the Revolutionary Party has not opposed Buddhism but rather attempted to manipulate it to support political goals, and with some success. Increased prosperity and a relaxation of political control stimulated a revival of popular Buddhist practices in the early 1990s. In political seminars at all levels, the government taught that Marxism and Buddhism were basically compatible because both disciplines stated that all are equal, and both aimed to end suffering. Whilst the state also undercut the authority and moral standing of the sangha by compelling monks to spread party propaganda and by keeping local monks from their traditional participation in most village decisions and activities.
The Buddhist temple complex (wat) is central to community life. Each Lao Loum (ethnic Lao) village has its own wat, which usually becomes the focal point of village festivities and rituals. Most Lao visit their local wat during special holidays and ask for blessings from monks in the event of a wedding, birth or funeral. If unable to visit a wat on important religious days, many Lao will pray at a small Buddhist shrine in or near their home. Even if one is not deeply religious, they will often worship at a wat or seek counsel from a Buddhist monk or priest.
To learn more about Laotian culture, including naming etiquette where a child's name can be changed if it is thought to be spiritually incompatible with their personality, check out the SBS Cultural Atlas.
Access the resources below to learn more about Laotian society.
Until fairly recently, Lao history was passed on from generation to generation by balladeers and monks. The whole concept of Laotian nationalism is kind of a novel idea and was not really developed until around the time of World War II and still has not been embraced by other ethnic groups. Since 1975, the government has expended considerable energy and resources on national unification, so that even isolated villages recognise the role of local government and consider themselves at some level to be part of a Laotian state.
Laotian society is above all else characterised by semi-independent rural villages engaged in subsistence agricultural production. Ethnic, geographic, and ecological differences create variations in the pattern of village life from one part of the country to another, but the common threads of village self-reliance, limited regional trade and communication, and identification with one's village and ethnic group persist regardless of the setting. Rural trade networks, however, have been a part of life since the 1950s. Except for near the larger towns and in the rich agricultural plains of Vientiane and Savannakhét, villages are spaced at least several kilometres apart and the intervening land variously developed as rice paddy and swidden fields or maintained as buffer forest for gathering wild plants and animals, fuelwood, and occasional timber harvest.
The ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country has played a significant role in shaping contemporary Laos. Throughout Lao history, ethnic diversity has produced, at times, a turbulent relationship among ethnic groups. These complex relations remain a crucial part of the national identity of Laos.
Furthermore, the political history of Laos has been complicated by frequent warfare and colonial conquests by European and regional rivals. As a result, Laos today has cultural influence from France, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia. The history of Laos is unique with a national character defined by its diversity in both culture and customs. Such as the perception of time as flexible. Reflected in the Lao expression, “koi koi pai” (meaning ‘slowly, slowly’). In turn, the pace of life in Laos is much slower. For example, people may arrive late to events, and invitations to weddings and parties are often given a day before the event.
Sticky rice is a staple food and has cultural and religious significance to the Lao people. Sticky (glutinous) rice is generally preferred over jasmine rice, and sticky rice cultivation and production is thought to have originated in Laos. There are many traditions and rituals associated with rice production in different environments and among many ethnic groups. For example, Khammu farmers in Luang Prabang plant the rice variety khao kam in small quantities near the farmhouse in memory of dead parents, or at the edge of the rice field to indicate that parents are still alive.
Lao cuisine reflects the ethnic diversity of the country and its surrounding neighbours. Laos has strong regional variations even among common dishes, with sticky rice being the staple of most meals. A common Lao meal would consist of a richly spiced minced fish or chicken salad or larb, served with sticky rice; a jaew or paste made of chili peppers for dipping; tam mak hung a fiery and sour fresh green papaya salad called tam mak hung, a broth-based soup like kaeng no mai (bamboo soup); fresh herbs and vegetables served raw; tropical fruit as a dessert; and is served with the local beer or lao-lao rice liquor. Similar to Thai, but with several notable differences. The Lao meal as a whole generally appeals to more extremes of sourness, bitterness, and spice than in Thai cuisine. Lao cooking uses copious amounts of mak phaet (chilies), pa daek or fermented freshwater fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal in greater amounts to add bolder flavors to most dishes.
The Lao also have a greater consumption of wild game and insects known commonly as ‘jungle food.’ Freshly killed game is sometimes eaten raw in richly spiced dishes and is seen as a delicacy. Insects can be eaten in a variety of forms, with the more pungent types being used as spices or substitutes, such as common red fire ants for lemon-like sourness in southern soups. Smaller game is typically barbecued and sold at roadside stands.
The years of French colonialism have also given Laos a number of food items including the baguette or khao jii, as well as omelets, pâté and croissants. The French also introduced coffee cultivation, with the strong variety found in southern Laos near Ban Paxong as the most desired. The common Lao breakfast reflects French influence and is a simple affair of strong coffee served hot or iced, taken with a baguette or other pastry which is dipped in condensed milk. Watch the following video to be introduced to five Lao dishes.
A common Laotian saying is: "When a tiger sleeps, don't wake him up. When an elephant sleeps, don't feed him." This is similar to the English expression, "Let sleeping dogs lie." There are also a few Laotian customs found across the country. Greeting are usually accompanied by the gesture known as a ‘nop’, which is the placing of two hands together in a prayer position at chest level. A nop indicates the level of respect for another person and is an acknowledgement of seniority. A nop may also be used as an expression of thanks or regard. Sometimes the nop is accompanied with a slight bow.
The national symbol is the elephant. Additionally, the Pha That Luang is a Buddhist stupa that is located in the Vientiane city of Laos. It serves as a major national symbol of the country. The stupa was possibly built in the 3rd century and is covered by gold. It was the target of many invaders throughout the history of Laos who caused significant damage to the stupa. Thus, the structure has undergone several reconstructions to restore it to its old glory.
The national anthem is ‘Pheng Xat Lao’ which translates to the ‘Hymn of the Lao People’. While adopted in 1945, the lyrics were changed following the 1975 Communist revolution that overthrew the monarchy. The country comes together to celebrate independence from France every year on Republic Day (National Day) on 2 December.
While the colours of red, white, and blue are represented in three horizontal stripes and a centred disk on the Laotian flag. The red bands recall the blood shed for liberation, the blue band represents the Mekong River and prosperity, and the white disk symbolises the full moon lighting the country’s bright future and also signifies the unity of the people under the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The flag of Laos is one of the only two communist countries that does not use any of the communist symbols (the other is the Cuban flag). To learn more about Laotian national identity, watch the Ted Talk by Anoulak Kittikhoun and other resources below.
Media and Communication
All newspapers are published by the government, including two foreign-language papers: the English-language daily Vientiane Times and the French-language weekly Le Rénovateur. Additionally, the Khao San Pathet Lao, the country's official news agency, publishes English and French versions of its eponymous paper. Laos has nine daily newspapers, 90 magazines, 43 radio stations, and 32 TV stations operating throughout the country. Nhân Dân ('The People') owned by the Communist party of Vietnam and the Xinhua News Agency founded by the Communist Party of China are two of the few foreign media organisations permitted to open offices in Laos. Both opened their bureaus in Vientiane in 2011.
The government controls all aspects of the media, including the press, broadcasting, and the Internet. The largest-circulating daily newspaper is Pasaxon ('The People'), published in Vientiane; it is the official organ of the ruling party. Also published in Vientiane is the party’s quarterly journal Aloun Mai ('New Dawn'). The official news agency is Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL). Lao National Radio broadcasts in a number of languages – principally Lao, English, Hmong, and French; a few small stations broadcast locally. Not subject to government control are the broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia, which include news of events in Laos. Resistance forces have been broadcasting antigovernment programs illegally in Lao and Hmong since the late 20th century. The government fully owns and operates Lao National Television, and a second station, Laos Television 3, is owned jointly by the government of Laos and a Thai corporation.
The visual, dramatic, musical, and literary arts of Laos draw primarily from religious and local traditional sources. However, in contemporary times many towns – especially those along the Mekong River – have been exposed to other cultures and traditions, largely through Thai mass media. In the south, Khmer influences on the peoples of Laos are strong; in the north, Myanmar and Thai influences are readily apparent. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, religious symbols, stories and themes have been modified and localised. For example, the snake, representations of which adorn religious and royal buildings, symbolises the benevolent spirit of the water and the protector of the king. The following video presents an overview of Laotian media and influences.
- A significant amount of UXO remains in Laos, a remnant of the Vietnam War. What would significant efforts from previous war’s belligerents to rectify this mean to relationships noting the Diplomacy of Laos? What second-order benefits might be gained by conducting a large-scale clearance of UXO’s to Laos and the region?
- Laos has been a remarkable example of an ethnically diverse nation achieving relative unity and peace after decades of conflict and suffering. How has this been achieved? What are the current external influences that might undermine and threaten this? What does this mean to ADF socio-emotional understanding when working in the Indochina peninsula?