May 24, 2012, 1:11 pm
Source: CIA World Factbook
Content Cover Image

Mekong River at Luang Prabang. Source: Allie Caulfield

Laos is a landlocked nation of nearly six-and-a-half million people in southeastern Asia, northeast of Thailand, west of Vietnam. Most of the country is mountainous and thickly forested. The Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand.

Its major environmental issues include:

  • unexploded ordnance;
  • deforestation;
  • soil erosion; and,
  • most of the population does not have access to potable water

Laos is susceptible to floods and droughts.

Modern-day Laos has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, established in the 14th Century under King Fangum.

For 300 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as over all of what is now Laos.

After centuries of gradual decline, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century until the late 19th century when it became part of French Indochina.

The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907 defined the current Lao border with Thailand.

In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of the government ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict socialist regime closely aligned to Vietnam.

A gradual, limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws began in 1988.

Laos became a member of ASEAN in 1997.

Southeast Asian states have enhanced border surveillance to check the spread of avian flu.

Laos talks continue on completion of demarcation with Thailand but disputes remain over islands in the Mekong River. There is concern among Mekong Commission members that China's construction of dams on the Mekong River will affect water levels. Cambodia is concerned about Laos' extensive upstream dam construction.


Location: Southeastern Asia, northeast of Thailand, west of Vietnam

Geographic Coordinates: 18 00 N, 105 00 E

Area: 236,800 sq km(land: 230,800 sq km; water: 6,000 sq km)

Land Boundaries: 5,083 km (Myanmar (Burma) 235 km, Cambodia 541 km, China 423 km, Thailand 1,754 km, Vietnam 2,130 km)

Natural Hazards: floods, droughts

Terrain:  mostly rugged mountains; some plains and plateaus. The highest point is Phu Bia (2,817 m) and the lowest point is the Mekong River (70 m).

Climate: tropical monsoon; rainy season (May to November); dry season (December to April)


Topology of Laos. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Ecology and Biodiversity


  1. Northern Indochina subtropical forests
  2. Northern Thailand-Laos moist deciduous forests
  3. Luang Prabang montane rain forests
  4. Northern Khorat Plateau moist deciduous forests
  5. Northern Annamites rain forests
  6. Central Indochina dry forests
  7. Southern Annamites montane rain forests
  8. Southeastern Indochina dry evergreen forests

See also:

People and Society

Population: 6,586,266 (July 2012 est.)

Laos' population is dispersed unevenly across the country. Most people live in valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries. Vientiane prefecture, the capital and largest city, is estimated to haveabout 853,000 residents in 2012. The country's population density was 27/sq. km.

About half the country's people are ethnic Lao, the principal lowland inhabitants as well as the politically and culturally dominant group.

Source: World Wildlife Fund

 The Lao are descended from the Tai people who began migrating southward from China in the first millennium A.D. Mountain tribes of Hmong-Yao, and Tibeto-Burman (Kor and Phounoy) as well as Tai ethno-linguistic heritage are found in northern Laos. Until recently, they were known as Lao Sung or highland Lao. In the central and southern mountains, Austro Asiatic (Mon-Khmer and Viet-Muong) tribes, formerly known as Lao Theung or mid-slope Lao, predominate. Some Vietnamese and Chinese minorities remain, particularly in the towns, but many left in two waves--after partial independence in the late 1940s and again after 1975.

The predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism. Animism is common among the mountain tribes. Buddhism and spirit worship coexist easily. There also are small numbers of Christians and Muslims.

The official and dominant language is Lao, a tonal language of the Tai linguistic group. Minorities speak an assortment of Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Yao, and Tibeto-Burman languages. French, once common in government and commerce, has declined in usage, while knowledge of English--the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--has increased in recent years. The government is encouraging officials and students to learn English. High school students are required to take either French or English; the majority today choose English. The government introduced English at the primary school level in 2010.

Pha That Luang, the Great Stupa in Vientiane, is considered a national symbol of Laos. It was built in the 16th century on the ruins of a 13th century Khmer temple, which in turn was built on the ruins of a 3rd century Indian temple built by Buddhist missionaries. The stupa is said to contain a relic of the Buddha.

Ethnic Groups: Lao 55%, Khmou 11%, Hmong 8%, other (over 100 minor ethnic groups) 26% (2005 census)

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 36.7% (male 1,197,579/female 1,181,523)
15-64 years: 59.6% (male 1,908,176/female 1,950,544)
65 years and over: 3.7% (male 107,876/female 131,513) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 1.655% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 25.68 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 7.99 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: -1.14 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 62.77 years 

male: 60.85 years
female: 64.76 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 3.06 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Lao (official), French, English, various ethnic languages

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write)73% (2005 Census)

Urbanization: 33% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 4.9% (2010-15 est.)


Laos traces its first recorded history and its origins as a unified state to the emergence of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (literally, "million elephants") in 1353. Under the rule of King Fa Ngum, this powerful and wealthy kingdom held suzerainty over much of what today is Thailand and Laos. His successors, especially King Setthathirat in the 16th century, helped establish Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country.

By the 17th century, the kingdom of Lan Xang entered a period of decline marked by dynastic struggle and conflicts with its neighbors. In the late 18th century, the Siamese (Thai) established suzerainty over much of what is now Laos. The region was divided into principalities centered on Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center, and Champassak in the south. Following their colonization of Vietnam, the French supplanted the Siamese and began to integrate all of Laos into the French empire. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand.

During World War II, the Japanese occupied French Indochina, including Laos. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang was induced to declare independence from France in 1945, just prior to Japan's surrender. During this period, nationalist sentiment grew. In September 1945, Vientiane and Champassak united with Luang Prabang to form an independent government under the Free Laos (Lao Issara) banner. The movement, however, was short-lived. By early 1946, French troops reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos following elections for a constituent assembly.

During the first Indochina war between France and the communist movement in Vietnam, Prince Souphanouvong helped form the Pathet Lao (Land of Laos) resistance organization committed to the communist struggle against colonialism. Laos was not granted full sovereignty until the French defeat by the Vietnamese and the subsequent Geneva peace conference in 1954. Elections were held in 1955, and the first coalition government, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma, was formed in 1957. The coalition government collapsed in 1958, amidst increased polarization of the political process. Rightist forces took over the government.

In 1960, Kong Le, an army captain, seized Vientiane in a coup and demanded the formation of a neutralist government to end the fighting. The neutralist government, once again led by Souvanna Phouma, was not successful in holding power. Rightist forces under Gen. Phoumi Nosavan supplanted it later that same year. Subsequently, the neutralists allied themselves with the communist insurgents and began to receive support from the Soviet Union. Phoumi Nosavan's rightist regime received support from the United States.

A second Geneva conference, held in 1961-62, provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos. Soon after accord was reached, the signatories accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement, and, with superpower support on both sides, the civil war soon resumed. Although Laos was to be neutral, a growing American and North Vietnamese military presence in the country increasingly drew Laos into the second Indochina war (1954-75). For nearly a decade, Laos was subjected to extremely heavy bombing as the U.S. sought to interdict the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through eastern Laos. Unexploded ordnance, particularly cluster munitions, remains a major problem.

In 1972, the communist People's Party renamed itself the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). It joined a new coalition government in Laos soon after the Vientiane cease-fire agreement in 1973. Nonetheless, the political struggle among communists, neutralists, and rightists continued. The fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh to communist forces in April 1975 hastened the decline of the coalition in Laos. Several months after these communist victories, the Pathet Lao entered Vientiane. On December 2, 1975, the king abdicated his throne and the communist Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) was established.

The new communist government imposed centralized economic decision-making and broad security measures, including control of the media and the arrest and incarceration of many members of the previous government and military in "re-education camps." These draconian policies and deteriorating economic conditions, along with government efforts to enforce political control, prompted an exodus of lowland Lao and ethnic Hmong from Laos. About 10% of the Lao population sought refugee status after 1975, many of whom resettled in third countries, including the United States. From 1975 to 1996, the U.S. resettled some 250,000 Lao refugees from Thailand, including 130,000 Hmong. The last major resettlement to the United States of about 15,000 Hmong from the Wat Tham Krabok camp was in 2004.

The government that assumed power in December 1975 aligned itself with Vietnam and the Soviet bloc and adopted a hostile posture toward the West. In ensuing decades, Laos maintained close ties with the former Soviet Union and its eastern bloc allies, and depended heavily on the Soviet Union for most of its foreign assistance. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Laos has sought to improve relations with its regional neighbors. Laos was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July 1997 and applied to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1998. The government hopes to accede to the WTO by 2013. Currently, Laos' foreign policy concentrates on its immediate neighbors. Laos generally maintains a low profile in the larger international arena, although it has been playing an increasing role in activities of the Non-Aligned Movement and hosted the First States Party of the Cluster Munitions Convention in 2010. In 2011, Laos accepted the statutes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Over time, the Lao Government closed the re-education camps and released most political prisoners. By the end of 1999, more than 28,900 Hmong and lowland Lao had voluntarily repatriated to Laos--3,500 from China and the rest from Thailand. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) monitored returnees for a number of years and reported no evidence of systemic persecution or discrimination against returnees per se. UNHCR closed its Laos office at the end of 2001. Today, Laos is a country in transition and has set a goal of graduating from Least Developed Country status by 2020. While the Lao political system remains firmly in the control of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), the forces of globalization and regionalization continue to drive the Lao government to open the economy to market forces. Laos increasingly shows a willingness to engage in international fora on governance issues as well.

Laos maintains a "special relationship" with Vietnam and formalized a 1977 treaty of friendship and cooperation that created tensions with China. Although the two were allies during the Vietnam War, the China-Vietnam conflict in 1979 led to a sharp deterioration in Sino-Lao relations. These relations began to improve in the late 1980s, and in 1989 China and Laos normalized relations. Today China is becoming a major player in Laos; Chinese investment in Laos is increasing at a rapid rate, bringing with it a growing number of Chinese workers. China isthe second largest single foreign investor in Laos behind Vietnam. In 2003, Laos and Thailand signed agreements to cooperate on cross-border, labor, and counternarcotics issues. Laos and Thailand signed a joint communique in March 2007, the first in 20 years, covering infrastructure development, avian influenza, border control, and Hmong migration issues.


Government Type: Communist state

The only legal political party is the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The head of state is President Choummaly Sayasone. The head of government is Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong. Government policies are determined by the party through the powerful 11-member Politburo and the 50-member Central Committee. Important government decisions are vetted by the Politburo.

Laos adopted its Constitution in 1991, amending it most recently in 2003. The National Assembly, which has added seats at every election, approves all new laws, although the executive branch retains the authority to issue binding decrees. The most recent elections took place in April 2011, when the National Assembly was expanded to 132 members. Laos has enacted a number of new laws in recent years, but the country is still governed largely through the issuance of decrees. Many new laws are being passed at this writing. They are designed to bring Laos into compliance with WTO requirements as Laos aspires to become a member in the near future.

A small-scale insurgency against the regime that continued since the end of the Indochina conflict has essentially ended. Past incidents included attacks in 2003 and 2004 against various types of land transportation and public markets. There were reports of clashes in 2005 and 2007. In late 2006 and 2007, more than 1,000 former fighters and family members were estimated to have surrendered to Lao authorities, and there were no credible reports of clashes in 2010 or 2011. The United States opposes any acts of violence against the Lao Government.

Capital: Vientiane - 799,000 (2009)

Administrative divisions:

16 provinces (khoueng, singular and plural) and 1 capital city* (nakhon luang, singular and plural);

Provinces (except 15 - Capital City):

  1. Attapu
  2. Bokeo
  3. Bolikhamxai
  4. Champasak
  5. Houaphan
  6. Khammouan
  7. Louangnamtha
  8. Louangphrabang
  9. Oudomxai
  10. Phongsali
  11. Xaignabouli
  12. Salavan
  13. Savannakhet
  14. Xekong
  15. Viangchan (Vientiane)*
  16. Viangchan
  17. Xiangkhoang

Independence Date: 19 July 1949 (from France)

Legal System: civil law system similar in form to the French system. Laos has not submitted an International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdictiondeclaration; and, is a non-party state to the International criminal court (ICCt).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

International Environmental Agreements

Laos is party to international agrements on: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Law of the Sea, and Ozone Layer Protection.


Total Renewable Water Resources: 333.6 cu km (2003)

Freshwater Withdrawal3 cu km/yr (4% domestic, 6% industrial, 90% agricultural)

Per Capita Freshwater Withdrawal: 507 cu m/yr (2000)

Access to improved drinking water sources: 57% of population

Access to improved sanitation facilities: 53% of population

See: Water profile of Laos


Agricultural products: sweet potatoes, vegetables, corn, coffee, sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, tea, peanuts, rice; water buffalo, pigs, cattle, poultry

Irrigated Land: 3,000 sq km (2008)


Natural Resources:  timber, hydropower, gypsum, tin, gold, gemstones

Land Use:

arable land: 4.01%
permanent crops: 0.34%
other: 95.65% (2005)


Laos is a landlocked country with an inadequate infrastructure and underdeveloped human resources. The country's per capita income in 2011 was $1010. Agriculture, mostly subsistence rice farming, dominates the economy, employing an estimated 75% of the population and producing 33% of GDP. Laos to relies heavily on foreign assistance and concessional loans as investment sources for economic development. In 2010, donor-funded programs accounted for approximately 8.5% of GDP and 90% of the government’s capital budget. In 2010, the country's foreign debt was estimated at $5.8 billion.

Following its accession to power in 1975, the communist government imposed a harsh, Soviet-style command economy system until 1986, when the government announced its "new economic mechanism" (NEM). Initially small in scale, the NEM was expanded to include a range of reforms designed to create conditions conducive to private sector activity. Prices set by market forces replaced government-determined prices. Farmers were permitted to own land and sell crops on the open market. State firms were granted increased decision-making authority and lost most of their subsidies and pricing advantages. The government set the exchange rate close to real market levels, lifted trade barriers, replaced import barriers with tariffs, and gave private sector firms direct access to imports and credit. These economic reforms led to increased availability of goods and economic growth that has continued to the present day.

The government of Laos, one of the few remaining one-party Communist states, began decentralizing control and encouraging private enterprise in 1986. The results, starting from an extremely low base, were striking - growth averaged 6% per year from 1988-2008 except during the short-lived drop caused by the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997. Despite this high growth rate, Laos remains a country with an underdeveloped infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. It has a rudimentary, but improving, road system, and limited external and internal telecommunications. China has signed a deal with the Lao to build a high speed rail system in the country. Construction on the $7 billion project is slated to begin in April 2011 and will take five years.

The economy of Laos is essentially a free market system with active central planning by the government, similar to the Chinese and Vietnamese models. However, unlike China or Vietnam, Laos has negligible industrial capacity, an undeveloped and underproductive system of agriculture, and increasingly relies on its rich natural resources to earn much needed-foreign reserves. In particular, the hydropower, mining, precious metals, and timber sectors have attracted major investment from Thailand, Vietnam, and in the last decade, China. Vietnam is now the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Laos.

Electricity is available in urban areas and in many rural districts.

Subsistence agriculture, dominated by rice cultivation in lowland areas, accounts for about 30% of GDP and 75% of total employment.

The government in FY09/10 received $586 million from international donors. Economic growth has reduced official poverty rates from 46% in 1992 to 26% in 2010. The economy has benefited from high foreign investment in hydropower, mining, and construction.

Laos gained Normal Trade Relations status with the US in 2004, and is taking steps required to join the World Trade Organization, such as reforming import licensing. Related trade policy reforms will improve the business environment.

On the fiscal side, Laos initiated a VAT tax system in 2010. Simplified investment procedures and expanded bank credits for small farmers and small entrepreneurs will improve Lao's economic prospects.

The government appears committed to raising the country's profile among investors. The World Bank has declared that Laos's goal of graduating from the UN Development Program's list of least-developed countries by 2020 is achievable.

The seventh 5-year plan (2011-15) calls for a budget of U.S. $5 billion for public investment, U.S. $3.8 billion (76%) of which would come from foreign assistance. Tourism remains a bright spot of the Lao economy, offering real future potential, solid growth, and substantial job creation.

International indices rate Laos poorly on transparency and ease of doing business. Endemic corruption and poorly developed commercial law continue to hamper economic development. Laos has begun the World Trade Organization accession process, with the intention of joining that organization as soon as possible.

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $17.44 billion (2011 est.)

GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $7.9 billion (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $2,700 (2011 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 27.8%
industry: 34.8%
services: 37.4% (2011 est.)

Industries: copper, tin, gold, and gypsum mining; timber, electric power, agricultural processing, construction, garments, cement, tourism

Currency: Kips (LAK)




Agency, C., Fund, W., & Department, U. (2012). Laos. Retrieved from


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