Laos (officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic) is a land-locked country in South East Asia, and one of the three former French colonies of Indochina. Since 1989, when it was opened to foreigners, there has been an influx of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and tourists. From 1998 tourist numbers have increased every year, and Laos has become the ‘must see’ destination in a travel industry that craves the exotic. It has an old and rich culture with a diverse population. The climate is tropical, with a cool dry season and a hot wet season, when temperatures reach 38°C.
Laos is bordered by five countries: China, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is equal in area to the UK. The country was subjected to heavy bombing during the Vietnam War, which has left a legacy of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in many rural areas. NGOs undertake the decommissioning of UXO. Some 10% of the population emigrated during the Vietnam War.
It is the poorest country in the region and 80% of its population of 5.9 million live in rural areas (World Bank, 2006). Life expectancy is 59 years (UK 78 years) and the child mortality rate is 83 per 1000 (UK 5 per 1000) (World Health Organization, 2006).
Lao people adhere to the principles of Buddhism (60%) and animism (40%). Traditionally, people have gained most social support from their families and Buddhist monks. With economic development, these supports are under threat from the many social changes taking place in the country.
Economic and social changes
Laos is a one-party, communist state established in 1975. It is one of the 50 poorest nations in the world and is described as one of the ‘least developed countries’ by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (2002). Since 1998 economic and social change has been rapid, especially under the influence of neighbouring Thailand. Inevitably, changes are having an impact on the lives of the people. Telecommunications technology has transformed a society that once cultivated isolation from the outside world. Changes on the land have included deforestation and the creation of dams for hydroelectricity. Migration from rural to urban areas, with the displacement of people, especially the minority ethnic groups, has affected social networks, which in turn has had an effect on the mental health of Lao people (Bertrand & Choulamany, 2002).