Let's Learn About Laos - Get To Know Before You Go
Stretching from the rugged borders of China to the scorched shores of the Gulf of Thailand, Laos (and Cambodia) form the heart of old Indochina.
Approximately half of the Laos population is ethnic Lao (Lao Loum or Lao Tai); 10% are known as Lao Theung or “upland Lao” who are predominantly people of Mon or Khmer ancestry; another third of the population are Lao Sung or “mountain Lao,” and are also commonly referred to as “hill tribes.” Hill tribe people in Laos include the Hmong, Yao (Mien), Akha, and Lahu. Laos is also home to sizable communities of Vietnamese and Chinese who make up a small percentage of the remaining population.
Approximately one-quarter of the Laos population lives in and around the capital city of Vientiane. Most Lao people live in rural villages clustered around a temple (wat). Traditional Lao homes (heuan) are simple, often constructed entirely from woven bamboo thatching or wood, with few rooms. Homes are typically built on piers or stilts to provide ventilation and protection, and this is an important cultural distinction.
Fun Fact: Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in history. It’s estimated that more bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War than were dropped during the whole of the Second World War. Craters from the American airstrikes are often used as fishponds or for irrigating crops in rice fields in Laos. There are examples of excavated bomb casings being used in basic structures. The casings are also a form of valuable scrap metal.
Laos today has cultural influences from France, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Burma and Cambodia. The history of Laos is unique with a national character defined by its diversity in both culture and customs. Laos developed its culture and customs as the inland crossroads of trade and migration in Southeast Asia. Laos is geographically isolated and mountainous, bounded by the Annamite Range in the east, forming a traditional political and cultural boundary with Vietnam (a more Chinese influenced Sinitic culture). Much of the western borders of Laos are formed by the Mekong River which provided the major means of inland trade despite limited navigability along the river's length.
The streets abound with rich flavors, from the spicy sizzle of a Khmer barbecue to the steam rising from a hearty bowl of noodle soup. Out in the countryside, the natural beauty of the region reigns supreme. Approximately two-thirds of the Laos population are Theravada Buddhist, which roughly falls along ethnic lines with the majority of practitioners being Lao Loum. The remainder is largely animist, following their unique ethnic traditions and practices.
Fun Fact: 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 underwent several reconstructions to restore it to its old glory.
Special social attention is paid to monks and religious items. Touching a Buddha image or animist shrine is always offensive. Lao people will generally kneel when approached by passing monks. In respect for the monastic vows, it is considered an offence for women to touch a monk, his robes, or to hand anything to a monk directly. In many instances a male friend or family member will be used as an intermediary or lacking that a plate or some other item will be used and then placed on the ground for the monk to use. However, compassion is the guiding principle in such interactions and the exception is up to the monk to determine.
Lao people cherish many of the traditions that have disappeared in a frenzy of development elsewhere in the region. It's hard to believe somnolent Vientiane is an Asian capital, and there's a timeless quality to rural life, where stilt houses and paddy fields look like they are straight out of a movie set. Magical Luang Prabang bears witness to hundreds of saffron-robed monks gliding through the streets every morning in a call to alms, one of the region's iconic images.
Lao social status places an emphasis on respect for elders; religious images and clergy; family and village authority; and the Buddhist concept of dharma which emphasizes personal moral duty. Buddhist principles encourage stoic indifference and quiet reserve in dealing with disagreements. However, Lao people also have a strong concept of muan or “happy contentment” which encourages actions to not be taken too seriously or too quickly.
The family unit is the basis of much social interaction, and it is common for Lao people to refer to each other using familiar cognates such as “sister, brother, aunt or uncle” without an actual family tie to that person. Friendship falls between two categories, moo linh “play friends” are acquaintances and moo tai “die friends” who are considered family. It is not uncommon or even considered rude for moo tai to show up unannounced for an extended stay, or to share personal possessions. Personal face-to-face contact is considered the most-polite, and Western notions of invitations, letters and emails are viewed as foreign in the culture.
Traditional Lao are conservative about their appearance and personal space. Lao people are also generally sensitive about physical contact. The head is considered sacred, whereas the left hand and feet are ritually unclean. In keeping with social status, it is expected that younger people slightly bow or keep their heads lower than elders or clergy. Except among a parent-child relationship it is considered condescending to touch a Lao person's head. Pointing with the hands or fingers is also insulting, especially during a disagreement. The positioning of feet is highly important. Feet should never be pointed toward a Buddha image, member of the clergy, or elders. Shoes should always be removed when entering a temple or a Lao home. Not doing so will give serious offence.
Fun Fact: Traditional clothing serves as the key visual cue for establishing belonging among ethnic groups. The techniques, patterns and materials vary not only by region and ethnicity, but even by clan and family.
Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region, reflecting its geographic location as crossroads of Asia. The hardy Hmong people live off the land in the remote mountains of the north, Kahu and Alak elders in the south still have traditional face tattoos, and the Katang villagers of central Laos sleep with forests spirits. Whether it is the cities of the lowlands or the villages of the highlands, Laos offers wonderful opportunities for local interaction. However, change is coming as a new high-speed railway will cut across the country, criss-crossing some of these isolated communities.
With its dark and brooding jungle, glowing emerald rice fields, and glistening tea leaves that blanket the mountains, the landscape in Laos changes shades of green like a chameleon. But it's not just the luscious landscapes that are green: when it comes to ecotourism, Laos is leading the way in Southeast Asia. Protected areas blanket the landscape, and community-based trekking initiatives combine these spectacular natural attractions with the chance to experience the 'real Laos' with a village homestay, helping contribute to the local community and preserve the environment.
Fun Fact: A group of caves known as the Tham Ting and the Tham Theung overlooking the Mekong River in Laos is a major tourist destination. These caves are famous for their small Buddha sculptures. Hundreds of such sculptures, mostly made of wood, decorate shelves on the walls of these caves. The Buddha in these sculptures is represented in various positions including teaching, reclining, and meditating.
With around 20 National Protected Areas, Laos has more dense forest per square kilometre than anywhere else in Southeast Asia and is begging to be explored. Award-winning ecotreks take you deep into the jungle realm of the clouded leopard, wild elephant and Asiatic tiger.
More than 65 tribes compose the colorful ethnic quilt that is Laos. In the rugged north, rural home stay programs allow you to encounter animism and observe cultures that have changed little in the last century.
Fun Fact: Laos has a nationwide curfew where nearly all bars, restaurants and nightclubs are expected to close by midnight.
Weaving is the dominate form of artistic cultural expression in Laos, it is common across all ethnicities and is the most widely recognized cultural export abroad. Lao mothers will often pass their weaving skills on to their daughters as a sign of eligibility for marriage. Patterns, techniques and colors vary according to region or ethnic group. Each region and ethnic group has their own traditional weaving techniques. In the south weaving is characterized by intricate patterns of elephants, temples, khmer influenced designs and features intricate beadwork. The northeast is known for using raw silk and cotton, and tye-dying raw silk known as matmii or ikat. Central Laos runs along the Mekong River and is known for natural indigo dyes and diamond patterns which symbolize the protective scales of the mythical naga. In the former royal city of Luang Prabang embroidery using delicate gold and silver threads is also preserved.
Luang Prabang - This beautiful royal capital is the religious center of Laos. The old stupas and temples give the city a unique ambience, populated in part by hundreds of saffron-robed monks. Bordered by the Mekong River the Nam Khan (Khan River), this timeless city of temples is the stuff of travel legends: rich in royal history, saffron-clad monks, stunning river views, world-class cuisine and some of the best boutiques in the region. Luang Prabang slows your pulse and awakens your imagination with its combination of world-class comfort and spiritual nourishment. Sitting at the sacred confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan (Khan River), nowhere else can lay claim to this Unesco-protected gem romance of 33 gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas and exquisite Gallic cuisine.
Vientiane - Meandering along the banks of the Mekong, Vientiane is surely Southeast Asia's most languid capital. The wide streets are bordered by tamarind trees and the narrow alleys conceal French villas, Chinese shophouses and glittering wats. The city brews a heady mix of street vendors, wandering Buddhist monks, fine cuisine, boutique hotels; all creating a healthy vibe that sees visitors slinking off for spa treatments and turning their time to yoga and cycling. It may not have Luang Prabang's looks, but Vientiane has a certain charm all of its own. The Lao capital is home to some fine temples, including Pha That Luang, the golden stupa that is the symbol of a nation, and Wat Si Saket, which houses thousands of revered Buddha images.
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham - Wat Mai is one of the city's most sumptuous monasteries, its wooden sim sporting a five-tiered roof in archetypal Luang Prabang style, while the unusually roofed front verandah features detailed golden reliefs depicting scenes from village life, the Ramayana and Buddha's penultimate birth. It was spared destruction in 1887 by the Haw gangs who reportedly found it too beautiful to harm. Since 1894 it has been home to the Sangharat, the head of Lao Buddhism.
The Ing Hang - Built in the mid-16th century, this elegant thâat is one of the holiest religious structures in southern Laos.
Wat Xieng Thong – This is the jewel in Luang Prabang's crown with its roofs sweeping majestically low to the ground.
Pha Bang - No single treasure in Laos is more historically resonant than the Pha Bang, an 83cm tall gold-alloy Buddha.
Vang Vieng - The riverine jewel in Laos' karst country, Vang Vieng sits under soaring cliffs beside the Nam Song (Song River) and is the undisputed adventure capital of Laos.
Vieng Xai Caves - An area of outstanding natural beauty, Vieng Xai was home to the Pathet Lao communist leadership during the US bombing campaign 1964-1973. Beyond the breathtaking beauty of the natural caves, it is superb audio tour that really brings he experience alive.
Tham Kong Lor - A river cave beneath a towering limestone mountain-high ceiling of stalactites in this extraordinary 7.5km long underworld in remote Khammuan Province.
Wat Phu Champasak - Theancient Khmers once held sway over much of the Mekong region and Wat Phu was one of their hilltop temples. Not as majestic as the temples of Angkor, but just as mysterious, this mountainside Khmer ruin has both the artistry and the setting to impress. once part of an important city, it now sits forlorn on the side of Phu Pasak.
The Plain of Jars - These mysterious giant stone vats are a highlight of any trip to Laos. Their origins are obscure, though one legend suggests they were built by giants to store rice wine. Mysterious giant stone jars of unknown ancient origin are scattered over hundreds of hilly square kilometers around Phonsavan, giving the area the misleading name of Plain of Jars. Remarkably, nobody knows which civilisation created them, although archaeologists estimate they date from the Southeast Asian iron age (500 BC to AD 200).
The Mekong River - This mighty waterway is a thread that weaves its way through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is one of the planet's top areas of biodiversity and the 11th longest river in the world. The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Laos. It's like an artery cutting through the heart of the country, while other important rivers are the veins, breathing life into the landscape and providing transport links between remote landlocked communities. For many Laotians, the river is not just part of their life, it is their life.
Fun fact: Until the 1990s, riverboats were an essential form of intercity passenger transport in Laos. Today, villagers in roadless hamlets still travel by river, while several longer-distance routes remain possible thanks in significant part to tourist interest. On river-boats the journey is an attraction in itself.
Bolaven Plateau - Dramatic waterfalls cut through lush scenery and rich coffee plantations in southern Laos.
Fun Fact: The national animal of Laos is the Indian elephant. One of the world’s most dangerous snakes, the king cobra lives in Laos. The national flower of Laos is Plumeria rubra.
Lao food is traditionally eaten with sticky rice using fingers. In the countryside, people all eat as family style, sitting on the floor, sharing a few dishes. Lao traditional food is dry, spicy and very delicious based on fish, buffalo meat, pork, poultry and especially herbs.
Lao cuisine reflects the ethnic diversity of the country and its surrounding neighbors. Laos has strong regional variations even among common dishes, with sticky rice being the staple of most meals. Lao cuisine is 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 fresh water fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal in greater amounts to add bolder flavors to most dishes.
A common Lao meal would consist of sticky rice, a richly spiced minced fish or chicken salad or larb; a jaew or paste made of chili peppers for dipping; tam mak hung a fiery and sour fresh green papaya salad, a broth based soup like kaeng no mai (bamboo soup), ), which is eaten throughout the meal; fresh herbs and vegetables served raw; tropical fruit as a dessert; and is served with the local beer or lao-lao rice liquor.
Láhp is the most distinctively Lao dish, a deliciously spicy salad made from minced beef, pork, duck, fish or chicken. Another famous Lao specialty is dam màhk hung (known as sôm dam in Thailand); a salad of shredded green papaya mixed with garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, land crab or dried shrimp and, of course, chillies by the handful.
In villages and urban areas, noodles are more commonly found. The standard Lao breakfast is fēr (rice noodles), usually served floating in a broth with vegetables and a meat of your choice. Other popular noodle dishes are kòw pûn (thin rice noodles), generally eaten with a spicy curry-like broth or a clear pork broth, and kòw peeak (thick rice and tapioca-flour noodles), served in a slightly viscous broth with crispy-fried pork belly or chicken. Mee (traditional Chinese egg noodles) is another favorite, as is the Vietnamese ban kuan (freshly steamed rice noodles), filled with minced pork, mushrooms and carrots.
The country of Laos runs on sticky rice, and Lao people proudly refer to themselves as lòok kòw neeo (sticky rice children). Especially in rural areas, sticky rice forms the basis to just about every meal. The Laos people take a small amount of rice and, using one hand, work it into a bite-sized ball before dipping it into the food.
Fun Fact: The Laotians are the highest consumers of sticky rice (khao niaow) in the world.
In main centers, French-style baguettes (kòw jee) are a popular breakfast food. Sometimes they're eaten with condensed milk, or with kai (eggs) in a sandwich that also contains Lao-style pâté and vegetables.
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