Geographical overview    

The Lao PDR is a landlocked country covering 236,800 square kilometres (km2) in the centre of the Southeast Asian peninsula. Surrounded by Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and China, its geographical position has often made it a buffer between neighbouring states, as well as a crossroads for trade and communication. The Lao PDR lies entirely within the tropical belt of the northern hemisphere and has a monsoonal climate. The Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand, while the mountains of the Annamite Chain form most of the eastern border with Vietnam. The Khong Falls at the southern tip of the country prevent river access to the sea, but north of the falls cargo boats are able to travel along the entire length of the Lao stretch of the Mekong for most of the year.

The topography of the Lao PDR is largely mountainous, with elevations above 500 metres, and is typically characterised by steep terrain, narrow river valleys and land of low agricultural potential. In the southern part of the country there are large level areas in the provinces of Savannakhet and Champasack.  These areas are well suited for extensive paddy rice cultivation and livestock rearing. The alluvial plains and terraces of the Mekong and its tributaries together cover only about 20% of the land area with the overall arable land being an estimated 4 - 5% of the country’s surface.
This atlas provides information on the population of the Lao PDR, depicting the different socio-economic characteristics reflecting various aspects of life. The picture presented can be considered as showing both the outcome of previous development and the initial situation for future development. However both of these perspectives should recognise that socio-economic aspects are closely interrelated with other factors; not only factors such as the environment, and the use of land and natural resources, but also the interests of the different actors shaping and guiding development through interventions and policies.

This first section therefore presents a selection of maps that are not directly related to the National Population and Housing Census of 2005 but rather draw on other data sources. They depict the natural resources and their current use, and the administrative divisions as well as some key features of the relief and the transportation network. Furthermore, we analyse the accessibility of the country and the people in terms of travel time from urban centres. This allows the assessment of not only the degree of access that rural people have to services and market opportunities in towns, but gives a picture of how these people can be reached in terms of service provision and policy implementation. Finally, the spatial targeting of the government’s strategy on the poverty alleviation of districts, the National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy (NGPES), is also presented as a reference.

We hope that the maps in this section will provide not only important background information but that they will also stimulate the interested reader to browse back and forth and compare the spatial patterns of socio-economic disparities with regard to these important aspects.