|Background: In 1975 the communist Pathet Lao took control of the
government, ending a six-century-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to
Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private
enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and the admission into
ASEAN in 1997.
Government type: Communist state
Currency: 1 kip (LAK) = 100 at
Geography of Laos
Location: Southeastern Asia, northeast of Thailand, west of Vietnam
People of Laos
Laos' population was estimated at about 5.6 million in 2001, dispersed unevenly across the country. Most people live in valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries. Vientiane prefecture, the capital and largest city, had about 569,000 residents in 1999. The country's population density is 23.4/sq. km.
About half the country's people are ethnic Lao, the principal lowland inhabitants and politically and culturally dominant group. The Lao are descended from the Tai people who began migrating southward from China in the first millennium A.D. Mountain tribes of Miao-Yao, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman--Hmong, Yao, Akha, and Lahu--and Tai ethnolinguistic heritage are found in northern Laos. Collectively, they are known as Lao Sung or highland Lao. In the central and southern mountains, Mon-Khmer tribes, known as Lao Theung or midslope Lao, predominate. Some Vietnamese and Chinese minorities remain, particularly in the towns, but many left in two waves--after independence in the late 1940s and again after 1975.
The predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism. Animism is common among the mountain tribes. Buddhism and spirit worship coexist easily. There also 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 an assortment of tribal languages. French, once common in government and commerce, has declined in usage, while knowledge of English--the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--has increased in recent years.
Population: 6,217,141 (July 2005 est.)
SOURCES: The World Factbook, U.S. Department of State
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