Relief and transportation    

This map presents the relief and transportation situation of the Lao PDR in 2007. The brown areas in the north represent these mountainous areas, while the remaining green areas show the Mekong floodplains and other river valleys to the south. Since the Lao PDR is both scarcely populated and landlocked, transport and communications are an important challenge to development.

The north of the Lao PDR is dominated by high mountains. At 2,818 metres above sea level, Phou Bia is the highest while the average heights in this region are about 1,500 metres. The Phou Luang (the Annamite chain) stretches from the Phouane Plateau along the Vietnamese border down to the Cambodian border. In the north of the central region of the country, there is the Xiengkhuang Plateau or the Plain of Jars, an area of extensive rolling grasslands rather than a true plain. Caverns and eroded limestone pinnacles are found in the central provinces of Borikhamxay and Khammuane while the Boloven Plateau in the south, at an elevation of about 1,100 metres, is covered by open woodland and fertile soils allowing for intensive agriculture.

The only extensive lowlands lie along the eastern bank of the Mekong River, 1,835 km of which flows through the country from north to south, undergoing major changes in direction. The tributaries of the Mekong generally flow from the north-east to the south-west while the Nam Ma flows in the opposite direction of north-west to south-east. There are about 4,587 km of navigable water routes primarily in the Mekong and its tributaries, but the differences in relief between the plains along the Mekong disrupt navigation. Transport is markedly restricted by the rapids of Khemmarat, south of Savannakhet, and blocked altogether by Khone Falls in the province of Champasack.

Although a modern transportation system including highways, bridges, and airports is growing in the Lao PDR, international river navigation still experiences many constraints. There is a short railway, a 3.5 km extension of the Thai railway network, running across the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to the Lao PDR. A 12 km extension to Vientiane Capital will be completed in the near future. The country has 21,716 km of main roads, of which 9,673.5 km are paved. A new main road has recently been constructed connecting Lao Bao at the Vietnamese border with Savannakhet as part of the new Economic Special Zone.

It stretches further across the country to the recently opened Second Friendship Bridge to Thailand which is the third bridge over the Mekong.  The first was the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge near Vientiane and the second the Mekong bridge in Pakxe. An additional four bridges across the Mekong are currently being planned.
There are 52 airports, of which nine have paved runways. In addition to Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, direct international flights operate from Luangprabang and from Pakxe to neighbouring countries.
In summary, the landlocked and mountainous geography of the Lao PDR has historically contributed to its weak socio-economic position in the region. However, current developments seem to be turning this historical disadvantage into an advantage since the country lies at the heart of mainland Southeast Asia which means that it could become an important hub of communication, transport, and services for the entire region.



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