The Lao People's Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR, is a country that moves to its own measure of time. Life flows along at a languid pace which mirrors the waters of the Mekong River that flows through the country. Towns are less hectic than elsewhere in Asia and the countryside is a rare combination of beauty and tranquillity.
Compared to the rest of Indochina, Laos remained largely hidden to the rest of the world for much for the 20th Century. Visitors today encounter an unfussed society with a strong spiritual tradition where the cacophonies of the modern world seem irrelevant.
Despite increased international interest, Laos remains the undiscovered gem of Asia. This landlocked nation of six million people exudes a delightful, almost other-worldly, charm and reminds visitors of a simpler, less harried past.
Laos is a landlocked country covering 236,800 square kilometers and shares its borders with China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. 70% of its total land area is comprised of mountains and plateaus. The Mekong River is Laos' primary geographical feature, running the entire length of the country and serving as a natural border with Thailand.
Laos Climate & Seasons
Laos has a tropical monsoon climate with wet and dry seasons. May is very hot with occasional rain; June to October is the humid and wet monsoon season; and November to April is the cooler, dry season.
Laos' population of 6.7 million consists of more than 68 different ethnic groups, with most falling into three main categories: The Lao Loum who inhabit the lowlands, the semi-nomadic Lao Theung who live in the lower mountain ranges and the Lao Soung hill tribes originating from Burma, Tibet and southern China.
The Lao language has varying dialects throughout the country. Interestingly, many ethnic groups don't speak any Lao. Other languages used in Laos are French, English, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.
The great majority of the Lao people are Theravada Buddhists. Many Laotian men attend Buddhist monasteries for training before entering secular life. Other religions practiced include various Christian denominations, Baha'I Faith and Islam. Animism is widely practiced among ethnic groups.
Laos Festival & Holidays
The vast majority of Laos’ festivals are linked to the seasons or Buddhist holidays. Pimai, the Lao New Year, is the country's most important holiday. The three-day celebration usually takes place in mid-April and is characterized by the ceremonial washing of Buddha statues in temples. Other noteworthy festivals include:
- January - Bun Pha Wet. Falling on different dates throughout the month the festival commemorates the Jataka, the life story of Lord Buddha as Prince Vestsantara. The story is recited in temples throughout the country and this is considered a particularly auspicious time for ordination as a monk.
- February - Magha Puja - Held on the night of the full moon to commemorate the original teachings of Lord Buddha given to over a thousand monks who came spontaneously to hear him speak. The festival is marked by grand parades of candle-bearing worshippers circling their local temples and much religious music and chanting. - Vietnamese Tet & Chinese New Year - Celebrated in Vientiane, Pakse and Savannakhet by the Vietnamese and Chinese communities who close their businesses for several days during this period.
- March - Boun Khoun Khao - A harvest festival celebrated at local temples
April - Boun Pimai - This is the celebration of the Lao New Year and is a combination of merriment and meditation. Similar to other festivals at this time, in particular Thailand, Boun Pimai is celebrated with parades, dancing, singing and enthusiastic water-throwing. At Luang Prabang water pouring ceremonies are performed on Buddha statues. Temple compounds are further decorated with small sand Stupas, offered to bring good fortune and health.
- May - Labor Day 1st May - public holiday. Boun Bang Fai (rocket festival) - With its origins in pre-Buddhist rain-invoking ceremonies, this festival now coincides with the Lao Visakha Puja celebrations. Parades, songs and dances all lead to an explosive climax as huge, ornate, homemade bamboo rockets are blessed and fired into the skies to invite the rains.
- June/July - Children's Day (1st June - public holiday). Khao Phansaa - Marking the beginning of the three-month Buddhist Lent, which commences at the full moon in July and continues until the full moon in October.
- August - Haw Khao Padap Din - Devoted to remembering and paying respect to the dead, it is marked by the macabre ceremony of exhuming previously buried bodies, cleaning the remains and then cremating them on the night of the full moon. Relatives then present gifts to the monks who have chanted on behalf of those who have passed away.
- October - Awk Phansaa (Awk Watsa) - Marking the end of Buddhist Lent on the day of the full moon. Monks are at last permitted to leave the temple and are presented with gifts. Bun Nam (water festival) - In riverside towns such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet, the highly competitive Bun Nam boat races (suang heua) are held during the same time as Awk Phansaa.
November - Boun That Luang - Though celebrated at many temples around the country this festival is traditionally centered at That Luang in Vientiane. Fairs, beauty contests, music and fireworks take place throughout the week of the full moon and end with a candlelight procession (wien thien) around the temple of That Luang.
December - Lao National Day (2nd December - public holiday) - Streets strewn with national flags and banners, processions, parades, and speeches are the highlights of this celebration for the victory of the proletariat in 1975.
Laos Handicrafts & Souvenirs
Laos has a strong tradition of cotton and silk weaving. In fact, several renowned European designers have recently started coming to Laos to purchase elaborate weavings. The weavings display a level of skill and artistry not seen anywhere else in the world. Artists from each province incorporate distinctive colors and patterns into their work. Such pieces can be bought in all the major markets, or directly from makers in silk weaving villages in Luang Prabang.