Despite its mineral resources, Laos is one of the least developed countries in Asia. The vast majority of Lao people, approximately 75%, depend on subsistence agriculture. Traditionally there is only one rice harvest a year, compared to the three that one often sees in Vietnam. For most people life tends to be simple. It's early to rise, planting or harvesting rice or fishing, then maybe a drop of rice whiskey and fairly basic food which will almost certainly center around sticky rice. Families tend the fields together. Men plow and prepare the ground, control the irrigation to the paddies, and thresh the crop; women perform the transplanting of the seedlings, weeding, and carry the harvested rice to be threshed.

Villages consist of collections of basic wooden houses, stretched along one street. Education is very basic. In the evening, families will often gather around the communal TV to watch Thai soap operas or premier league football (that's if the village has electricity, which many don't).

Buddhism and Theravada Buddhist ritual is central to life in Laos. The Communist Pathet Lao wisely never made any attempt to suppress the religion after taking power in 1975, and from the 1950s actually attempted to co-opt the Buddhist clergy to their cause. Almost every Lao male will spend some time as a monk at some point in his life. Monks remain revered and anywhere near a wat or temple you will see people making their early morning food donations as the monks go on their alms round. Unlike in neighboring countries, in Communist Laos monks are required to work, taking on the role of physicians and teachers.

Laos is very much a one-party state, ruled by an all-powerful and largely aging elite with absolute power to crush any dissent. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) is led by President Chummaly Sayasone as the head of state, while Bouasone Bouphavanh is the prime minister and head of government presiding over the National Assembly, elected with no legal opposition in 2006. The real power is the 10-member Politburo, and to some extent the 52-member Central Committee, all of whom are appointed and operate behind firmly closed doors.

Foreign aid, whether European, Japanese, or Chinese, is what funds development here. There is no taxation since the country is too poor to afford it or implement it. The politics of donor countries and the concessions they try to wring out of the recalcitrant Politburo -- be that trade, human rights, or future access to natural resources -- remains a dance of competing agendas at which the Lao authorities have become very adept. The more they interact politically and commercially with the outside world, including other ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), the more sophisticated they are forced to become in ensuring they maintain what they see as social order. They have had a lot of success, as dissent in Laos is rarely seen.

There are big hydroelectric projects afoot in Laos to dam the Mekong, which would free Laos from donor control to some extent. This move is causing regional panic since it would severely affect other countries farther downstream.

Laos today is a curious mixture of the ancient and the modern and the deprived and the fortunate. Although the cities are modernizing fast and infrastructure all over the country is improving, education levels remain low to nonexistent while rural poverty remains high. Laos is certainly moving into the 21st century in its cities along the Mekong, while many remoter areas have yet to experience electricity.

Lay of the Land -- Laos is a landlocked nation that covers 236,800 sq. km (92,352 sq. miles), roughly the size of the state of Utah or Great Britain. The country is divided into 16 provinces. It is bordered by Burma to the northeast, Cambodia to the south, China to the north, Thailand to the west, and Vietnam to the east. Its location has often made it a buffer between neighboring states and empires, as well as a crossroads for trade and communication.

Laos is mostly mountainous, with steep terrain, narrow river valleys, and little agricultural potential. Seventy percent of its land is mountain ranges and plateaus. These mountains extend across most of the north of the country, except for the plain of Vientiane and the Plain of Jars in Xiangkhoang Province. The south of the country contains large level areas in Savannakhet and Champasak provinces that are well suited for extensive wet rice cultivation and livestock. Much of Khammouane Province and the eastern part of all the southern provinces are mountainous. Together, the alluvial plains and terraces of the Mekong and its tributaries cover only about 20% of the total land area. Only about 4% of the total land area is classified as arable. Forests have declined dramatically in the last 40 years due to logging and slash-and-burn agriculture.

With an estimated population of nearly 5.7 million, Laos is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Asia. Natural landmarks include the Annamite Mountains along the border with Vietnam, as well as the Mekong River, which flows from China and along Laos's border with Thailand. About 55% of the landscape is pristine tropical forest, sheltering such rare and wild animals as elephants, leopards, the Java mongoose, panthers, gibbons, and black bears.

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