Laos has a tropical monsoonal climate with annual average temperatures ranging from 26°C in the north to 28°C in the south. Rainfall varies considerably according to elevation and exposure to the southwest monsoon, but most areas receive 1,500-2,500 mm annually.
Laos has three seasons: a hot, wet season (June-October), when the country is under the influence of the southwest monsoon; a cool, dry season (November-February), when the monsoon comes from the northeast; and a transitional hot, dry season (March-May).
More than two-thirds of the country is covered with dense subtropical forests. In the north high altitude montane species of trees predominate, but lower slopes in the south have deciduous broadleaved varieties. In drier areas such as the Xieng Khouang and Bolovens plateaus the forests give way to savanna-like vegetation. Sayaboury province on the Thai border has valuable teak forests and there are commercially exploitable dipterocarp forests in the south. Large areas of forest, however, are being destroyed by shifting cultivation.
In 1995 a census was held and the population was numbered at 4,574,848. A 2009 estimate puts it at 6,800,000.
So with an average of 26.7 persons per km2 (69.2 per square mile), Laos is a very thinly populated country. Heavier concentrations are found only in the small areas of lowland. About one-third of the population is under 15 years of age, and the annual rate of increase is about 2.4%.
Ethnically about 60% of the population are Lao, the descendants of the Lao-Thai tribes that migrated southward from China, probably during the 13th century. Sino-Tibetan peoples such as the Meo and Yao predominate in the mountainous areas, where they live by slash-and-burn agriculture. The Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai minorities are concentrated in the towns.
The population is predominantly rural, living in small communities of up to 120 families. Nestling in dense bamboo groves, the villages are surrounded by extensive paddy (rice) fields. Towns are few and usually small. The largest is Vientiane, the capital (754,000 in 2009). Other towns include Savannakhet (about 120,000), a transshipment town on the Khong and the commercial center of south central Laos; Pakse (about 70,000), the marketing center of the south; and Luang Prabang, the former royal capital. Thakhek (Muang Khammouan) is a market center on the Khong and has a cement plant.
Beliefs and Culture
Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism is the national religion, and Buddhist shrines and temples abound. Both Vientiane and Luang Prabang are sometimes called the "Cities of a Thousand Temples." In the north, ancestor worship survives, and many of the mountain tribes are animist. There is a small Christian (Roman Catholic) community.
Lao is the official language, but French is also spoken. Pali (Nang Xu Tham) is the language of the priests. Education has still to reach the mass of the people, but the minimal literacy rate is rapidly increasing- 73% is officially claimed.
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