The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, known commonly as Laos, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordering Thailand, Burma, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Long an isolated country both geographically and economically, Laos has welcomed tourism and private enterprise in recent years. The New York Times rated Laos #1 in its list of “The 53 Places to Go in 2008“.

Despite its growth, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with a gross domestic product equal to less than 3% of neighboring Thailand, and less than 1% of the United States. About one-third of Laos’ population are living below the poverty line.

Laos was founded in the 14th century with the kingdom of Lan Xang, which means “Land of a Million Elephants.” The kingdom ruled until the 18th century, after which Laos came under Siamese (Thai) rule. After a period of French rule, Laos gained its independence in 1949.

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance over Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. The bombing was an effort to fend off the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army. It led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians within Laos.

In 1975, the Pathet Lao overthrew the Lao royalist government, establishing a communist regime and changing the country’s official name to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

The demographic makeup of the population is uncertain as the government divides the people into three groups according to the altitude at which they live, rather than according to ethnic origin. The lowland Lao (Lao Loum) account for 68%, upland Lao (Lao Theung) for 22%, and the highland Lao (Lao Soung, including the Hmong and the Yao) for 9%.

Ethnic Lao, the principal lowland inhabitants and politically and culturally dominant group, make up the bulk of the Lao Loum and around 60% of the total population. The Lao are a branch of the Tai people who began migrating southward from China in the first millennium A.D. In the north, there are mountain tribes of Miao–Yao, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman Hmong, Yao, Akha, and Lahu who migrated into the region in the 19th century. Collectively, they are known as Lao Sung or highland Lao.

In the central and southern mountains, Mon–Khmer tribes known as Lao Theung or upland Lao, predominate. Some Chinese minorities remain, particularly in the towns, but many Laotian Chinese were forced to leave during 1975-80 when Laos followed the anti-Chinese policy of Vietnam.

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

The official and dominant language is Lao, a tonal language of the Tai linguistic group. Midslope and highland Lao speak tribal languages. French, once common in government and commerce, has declined in use, while knowledge of English — the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — has increased in recent years.

- Source: Wikipedia

Laos National Flag

The flag of Laos consists of three horizontal stripes, with the middle stripe in blue being twice the height of the top and bottom red stripes. In the middle is a white disc, the diameter of the disc is 4⁄5 the height of the blue stripe.

Secret War

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period.

Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased. The wounds of war are not only felt in Laos. When the Americans withdrew from Laos in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country, and many of them ultimately resettled in the United States.

Legacies of War

Unexploded Ordnance

Unexploded ordnance (UXO) are explosive weapons (bombs, bullets, shells, grenades, land mines, naval mines, etc.) that did not explode when they were employed and still pose a risk of detonation, potentially many decades after they were used or discarded. About one third of Laos remains contaminated with UXO left behind from the Vietnam War, including about 80 million cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions

Cluster munitions are the small explosive devices released from cluster bombs. Although they are designed to explode on impact, cluster munitions have a significant failure rate (estimated at 30% in Laos during the Vietnam War). They are usually the size of an orange or soup can and can stay buried in the ground indefinitely. As a result, cluster munitions kill more civilians than enemy soldiers and prevent war torn countries from redeveloping bombed land.

Cluster munitions are also known as cluster bomblets, or, among many Laotians, as “bombies.”

See our page on cluster bombs »

Quick Facts

  • At least 20,000 people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in Laos since the Vietnam War-era bombings ended.

  • About one third of the land in Laos is contaminated with unexploded ordnance.

  • Many cluster bomblets became buried in the earth – waiting for an unsuspecting farmer to place a shovel in the earth or the monsoon rains to uncover them.

  • Many farmers in Laos know their land is contaminated but can’t afford another plot. They simply have no choice but to cultivate their land.

  • The most common injuries victims sustain from a UXO explosion include loss of a limb, blindness, hearing loss, shrapnel wounds, and internal shock wave injuries.

  • Over the past four decades, fewer than 1 million of the estimated 80 million cluster munitions that failed to detonate have been cleared.

Catch Our Adventures in Laos:

  1. Ride Lao 2015 -