A short introduction to Southern Laos
Laos is a country rich in culture and nature. The South is particularly known for its geographic and ethnic diversity, historical heritage and for a traditional and laid-back atmosphere. Start your journey to Southern Laos here and now with some background information.
Location and Geography
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) is a landlocked Southeast Asian country bordered by Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Myanmar. The country covers some 236,800 square kilometres, while the four southern provinces Champasak, Salavan, Sekong and Attapeu cover an area of 44,091 square kilometres. Southern Laos has border crossings with Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and an international airport in Pakse. Infrastructure plans aim to further improve the South’s connectivity to the Greater Mekong Region in the future.
The natural environment of Southern Laos can be split into three main geographic sub-regions: the Plains of the Mekong River, the Highlands known as the Bolaven Plateau, and the Xe Khampo Wetlands.
Travel to Southern Laos is possible at any time of the year. The climate can be divided into three seasons: June to October is the rainy season, which can also be called the green season. The Monsoon rains refresh the lush vegetation of the forests creating numerous waterfalls, and the planting season brings an emerald green colour to the rice paddies. November to February is mostly dry, the vegetation is lush and green, and temperatures are cooler but slowly increase towards the end of this period. These months mark harvest season in the coffee plantations and on the rice fields. March to May are hot and dry with the Lao New Year celebrations, known locally as Pii Mai, bringing the only refreshing water in the form of water fights between local villagers. The Bolaven Plateau has a relatively mild climate due to its elevation and remains green due to regular rainfall throughout the year.
The history of Southern Laos goes back to pre-Angkorian times with Wat Phou being its most prominent legacy. In the 14th century, the first Lao kingdom, Lane Xang, or The Land of a Million Elephants was established under King Saysettirathat. In the 17th century, Lane Xang broke up into three kingdoms: Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champasak. The latter was ruled from Champasak by the royal family during the 18th and 19th century.
During the 19th and early 20th century, Laos became part of French Indochina. Champasak continued to be ruled by the royal family but under a colonial administrative system set up in Pakse. The 20th century was characterised by the Indochina wars impacting not only Laos but also other Southeast Asian countries. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, that led through Laos’ provinces of Attapeu, Sekong and Salavan bear testimony to the these times and large numbers of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) left over from those wars still pose a threat to people’s lives.
In 1975, the last Prince of Laos, Boun Oum, took refuge in France and left behind a palace that was still under construction which is today the Champasak Palace Hotel in Pakse. In the same year, Laos achieved independence and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established with the capital in Vientiane.
Laos is a multi-ethnic country with a total population estimated at 6.8 million in 2014. Of these approximately one fifth live in Southern Laos. The dominant ethnic group in the South is the Lao Loum, the so-called lowland Lao. Living mainly on the Plains of the Mekong River, their rhythm of life is still strongly connected to the rice farming cycles, fishing and weaving activities and the Buddhist calendar.
Other ethnic groups in the South with much smaller populations include the Alak, Kaleum, Katang, Katou, Lavae, Lavene, Ngae, Nyajeung, Pako, Phuthai, Souay, Ta-Oy, Talieng and Tong. Each group has its own traditions, language and dialects, housing style, handicrafts, ways of living, beliefs and rituals, including diverse practices of animism and ancestor worship.
Tourism is a major source of income for Laos. In 2014, the tourism sector generated about US$ 641 million and it is estimated that every seventh person is linked directly or indirectly to the tourism sector. Tourism contributes to the economy in the South where industrialization is still limited. Besides mining activities and hydroelectric power, major industries include the Beer Lao brewery, Dao-Heuang Group’s coffee processing plant on the road to the Bolaven, a pharmaceutical factory and a few assembly plants. The main agricultural items produced in the area include timber, coffee, tea, cardamom, and rattan.