Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Nearly three-quarters of Laos is covered in mountains and forested hills that are too steep to live on. Travel over the land is hard.
The Mekong River is vital as a transportation route for cargo and passengers, a source of electricity at dams, a water supply for crops, and a home to fish which are an important food in the diet of Laotian people. There are three plateaus between the mountains and the Mekong River—the Xiangkhiang, the Khammouan, and the Bolovens Plateaus.
The Xiangkhiang is the largest, while the Bolovens Plateau near Cambodia provides more fertile farmland where coffee, tea, rice, strawberries, and pineapples are grown. The lowland region is the most vital to the Lao. There the Mekong River floods the soil providing rich nutrients to grow enough rice and other crops to feed the whole country for one year.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
Most of the country's population lives along the river, which winds more than 2,600 miles (4,180 kilometers) from China through Laos to the ocean in south Vietnam. Only 10 percent of the country is below 600 feet, and the highest peak, Phu Bia is 9,242 feet (2,817 meters).
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Laos is one of the poorest countries on Earth. Although the Lao have few possessions beyond their food, their Buddhist beliefs help them to find happiness through a simple life. Most of the people live in small rural communities near the river.
The whole family works hard to grow enough food. Many people do not have running water and must carry water from the river to their small wooden houses for cooking, drinking, and washing.
In Laos and other Southeast Asian countries people play a sport called kataw. The game is a bit like volleyball, but players cannot use their hands and instead must kick or force a small hollow ball made of woven bamboo over a high net. The Lao also like the sport of rhinoceros-beetle wrestling. People bet on which beetle will stay standing the longest.
Soon after independence from France in 1953, the country fell into turmoil; in 1975 the communist Pathet Lao seized power with help from North Vietnam. Many fled and many resettled in the United States. Laos is one of the few remaining communist states. The economy is hampered by poor roads, no railroad, and limited access to electricity.
Monsoon winds blow through the country twice a year. From May to October, monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean bring heavy rains that wash over the warm, tropical country. Then the wind changes direction and brings a hot, dry wind from China to Laos from November to April.
The humid tropical weather, rugged terrain, and thick forest provide an undisturbed habitat for many animals. The red panda, which is related to raccoons and not giant pandas, lives in the forests of northern Laos.
Several species, such as the Asian elephant, red panda, giant Mekong catfish, tiger, and clouded leopard are at risk as more land, forests, and mines rich in resources are sold off to neighboring countries.The country is being deforested and only 42 percent of Laos is still forested, where once 70 percent of the country was forested. The largest protected area in Laos is the Nakai-Nam Theun, which covers 1,428 miles (3,700 square kilometers) and is home to rare creatures including Asiatic black bears, known as moon bears and the soala. The soala is a rare relative of sheep and cattle and looks like a deer.One of the world's most dangerous snakes, the 14-foot-long (4.2-meter-long) king cobra lives in Laos. Snakes are a part of daily life and people find snakes almost everywhere. The rare Irrawaddy dolphin is found in the southern stretches of the Mekong River, but the mammal is under threat due to pollution and fishing nets.About 2.5 million gallons (9.5 million liters) run over the Khone Falls near Cambodia each second—almost twice as much as flows over Niagara Falls.
People have lived in the lower Mekong basin for at least 10,000 years. The first settlers were related to the Khmer people who still live in Cambodia. In 1353, a Lao prince named Fa Ngum returned to the country and made himself king of a new country called Lan Xang, "the Kingdom of a Million Elephants."
In 1779, most of Laos was taken over by the Siamese people (Siam is now known as Thailand). French colonists took control and forced the Siamese to withdraw from the western part of the Mekong River in 1893, and the country was reunited and named Laos by the French.
The French maintained control of Laos until 1945, when the Japanese took over for a brief period. In 1953, the French made Laos fully independent and eventually French businesses were forced out. Many countries continued to influence Laos.
The United States believed that Laos was a key country in the battle between communism and capitalism. Members of a group called Pathet Laos rebelled against U.S. backing of the government and Pathet Laos fought with the communist North Vietnam against French-backed South Vietnam. Many people fled Laos during the Vietnam War as fighting spilled over from Vietnam into their country.