Laos: What to know?

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Laos is a Southeast Asian country with a rich history, including the formation of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the mid-14th century and French colonization in the 19th century. The country struggled for independence and neutrality during the Vietnam War, eventually falling to Communist control. Laos is known for its natural beauty and traditional way of life, but its infrastructure is not highly developed. Tourists can enter via flights, overland crossings, or scenic boat trips on the Mekong River.

Laos is a large country in Southeast Asia. It covers 91,400 square miles (236,800 square km), making it somewhat larger than the state of Utah. It shares borders with Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, China, Thailand and Vietnam.

The region has been populated by humans for millennia. The prehistoric period of this country is not as well known as that of some of the surrounding nations, and in fact in recent years there has been a push to de-emphasize this period to focus on the early kingdom period. A number of different groups are known to have settled in the area prior to the 14th century, however, with the Mon Kingdom ruling much of Southeast Asia controlling Laos for some time and the Khmer Empire holding parts of the country at different points.

The modern nation, however, considers its foundations to be rooted in Fa Ngum’s formation of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the mid-14th century. Prior to this, the country was already inhabited by Laotians, Mons and other ethnic groups. By the 16th century, Theravada Buddhism was well established as the dominant religion. From the mid-17th century, Laos began an economic and political decline and the state weakened considerably. By the late 18th century it had become weak enough that neighboring Thailand – then Siam – was able to conquer much of the country.

In the late 19th century the French, who had recently conquered Vietnam, negotiated ownership of Laos with the Thais, and by the early 20th century the country was entirely under French control. During World War II the Japanese occupied Laos and, as with neighboring Vietnam, following the Japanese defeat the Laotians declared independence. France responded by sending troops and regaining control of the region. However, the nationalist movement continued to push for independence and in the 19th the French declared them autonomous. In 20, the country was reconstituted as a fully independent constitutional monarchy.

From the outset, Laos had difficulty asserting its independence, in light of US interest in the region as a force to fight Vietnam. The first coalition government fell in 1958, and although another was formed soon after a coup in 1960, it fell almost immediately. The country declared neutrality in 1962, and the United States and North Vietnam responded by creating their own proxy armies in the region, effectively destroying the nation’s official position of neutrality.

Although the country continued to try to maintain its democracy, when the United States withdrew from the region and South Vietnam fell, the country was taken over by the Communist faction, with military support from North Vietnam. At the end of 1975 the king abdicated and the Communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established. As with neighboring Vietnam, which controlled much of Lao politics for the next two decades, Laos instituted a series of hard-line communist economic reforms and programs that slowly brought the country’s economy to the ground. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, the country began to open its economy more and allow for more capitalistic practices, paving the way for a slow road to economic recovery.

Laos is the most heavily bombed sovereign nation on Earth, and landmines and unexploded ordnance still litter the countryside. Visitors should take special care not to leave marked trails and heed all landmine warning signs.
Many people like to travel to this country. The Lao people are generally regarded as one of the most open and kindest people in the world. The country’s relative isolation has resulted in the village retaining much of its traditional way of life. Travelers looking for high-end accommodations probably won’t find what they’re looking for, as the country’s infrastructure is far from developed. Bumpy roads and guesthouses are the norm, but they are the price to pay for such untouched natural beauty.
Highlights of the country include Khone Phapheng, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, Pha That Luang, a beautiful Buddhist temple, and Pak Ou Caves. The Plain of Jars is also a fascinating place to visit, particularly for amateur archaeologists. These massive stone vessels can weigh more than six tons and are around 2,000 years old, but their purpose remains unknown. Hundreds of pots are scattered around the region.

Flights arrive in Vientiane fairly regularly via major Asian hubs. Overland crossings are possible from Thailand, Cambodia, China, Vietnam and Burma, but tend to be remote and on undeveloped roads. River crossings are one of the most popular ways for tourists to enter the country, traveling the Mekong on a scenic boat trip.

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