Located in Southeast Asia, Laos shares its borders with Vietnam, China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Cambodia. Laos, measuring 236,800 square kilometers, has 16 provinces, with the capital located in Vientiane (Viangchan). The country’s estimated population in 2009 was more than 6.8 million. According to the 2005 census, the ethnic make-up of the Laotian population includes Lao, Khmou, Hmong, and more than 100 other minor ethnic groups. Linguistically diverse, Laotians speak Lao, English, French, and numerous ethnic languages. Regarding religion, the majority of the population (67%) identifies itself as Buddhist.
The Laotian people can trace their ancestry back to prehistoric times, based on the findings of archaeologists who have uncovered ancient bronze and iron artifacts in the area. Beginning in the mid-1300s, kingdoms ruled Laos for hundreds of years. King Setthathirath established the capital in Vientiane in the 1500s. Due to internal conflict and all-out civil war, Laos later found itself vulnerable to outside aggression, especially from Thailand, and it eventually faced European dominance. The land became a French colony in 1893 but, once World War II ended, Laos gained its independence from France on July 19, 1949. The monarchy was overthrown once and for all by the Communists in 1975. The current heads of state include the President and Vice President, with a Prime Minister and a Deputy Prime Ministers as the heads of government.
Eighty percent of the Laotian population works in agriculture, primarily in rice cultivation. Other important agricultural products are vegetables, coffee, tea, tobacco, and livestock. The remaining 20% of the labor force works in industry and services, including mining, construction, and tourism. Thailand is the country’s most important trading partner.
In addition to the capital city of Vientiane as an obvious tourist destination, other popular places to visit include wildlife habitats, especially those with elephants. A popular ecotourism destination, Laos offers numerous opportunities to experience nature by offering activities such as swimming, boating, hiking, and camping. There are beautiful waterfalls, lakes, hot springs, caves, and other pristine natural wonders to see as well.
Famous archaeological sites such as the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan also attract international visitors. There are many temples and other wonderful cultural landmarks to explore. Laos offers countless opportunities to shop for handmade clothing and local crafts like pottery and jewelry. Visitors also can experience rural village life firsthand by staying with local families, who are known for their openness and hospitality. In the homes, guests can learn all about Laotian traditions and customs, and take advantage of the area’s varied culinary offerings.
December to February is Laos’ peak tourist season. It has four international airports, and visitors can travel by car or boat into and throughout the country. May to October is considered the rainy season, while the rest of the year is relatively dry with the exception of occasional monsoons. Temperatures vary widely depending on location, from humid and hot in the low-lying Mekong River area, to cold in the higher altitudes of the mountainous regions.
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