One of the key challenges for the current generation of Lao youth is understanding what many of the Lao provinces are like, beyond the abstract. So, I wanted to provide an overview that might begin a deeper conversation for those who are curious about their heritage and where many parts of our experience stand in relation to the modern world.
1. Attapeu ອັດຕະປື has a population of 112,097 people, which is close to the size of the city of Berkeley, California, or the capital city of Bridgetown, Barbados. Once part of the Lan Xang Kingdom under King Saysethathirath, Attapeu was a home to wild buffaloes. Locations of interest include Wat Sakae, which houses a particularly ancient Buddha. King Setthathirat of Lan Xang is buried at the temple of Wat Pha Saysettha. Tigers and Clouded leopard are known to prowl here. Alak, Katang, Kaleum, Katou, Suay, Nge, Lave, Tahoy, and Nyajeung can be found here.
2. Bokèo ບໍ່ແກ້ວ has a population of 145, 216, close to the size of Syracuse, New York, or the capital city of Port Louis, Mauritius. Previously known as Hua Khong, meaning "Head of the Mekong," Bokeo is the smallest and least populous province in Laos. Currently named after the sapphires mined in Houay Xai District. A stele dated to 1458 is located in Wat Jom Kao Manilat. The Bokeo Nature Reserve was created to protect the Black crested gibbon, previously thought to be extinct but rediscovered in 1997.
3. Bolikhamsai ບໍລິຄໍາໄຊ population is 225,272, or close to the population of Reno, Nevada, or the capital city of Gaborone, Botswana. Located in the middle of Laos, Bolikhamsai is home to the Nam Theun 2 Dam. The province endured many invasions throughout its history. The rare Saola (spindle horn) or Vii Quang Ox, is often reported here. At Wat Phabath a very large “footprint” of Lord Buddha and numerous murals can be found here.
4. Champasak ຈຳປາສັກ at 607,333 is close to the size of Seattle, Washington, or the United States capital city of Washington, D.C. With a rich cultural heritage dating back to the 9th century, Champasak has at least 20 wats are here including Wat Phou, Wat Lunag, and Wat Tham Fai. The ruins of Muang Sirichiempang are said to be here, named after the goddess Nang Inthasirichiempang. The Li Phi Falls alternate in the seasons between stunningly beautiful and scorching, and are believed to trap ghosts and spirits in the rapids. Many corpses floated through Li Phi Falls from the north during various wars.
5. Houaphanh ແຂວງ ຫົວພັນ with 280,898 almost the size of St. Paul, Minnesota, or the capital city of Ljubljana, Slovenia. This province is home to the Viengxay caves, an extensive network of caves, and fine textile traditions. The Viengxay caves are also referred to as a “Hidden Cave City.” Hintang Archaeological Park, is dotted with 2,000 year-old menhirs and megaliths considered "the Stonehenge of Laos,” referred to locally as Sao Hin Tang. Funerary burial sites with artifacts of ancient trinkets and other evidence of ancient rites have been unearthed here. Overall, these archaeological discoveries suggest cultures older than those found at the Plain of Jars. Local animists believe stone discs at the site once fed Jahn Han, a sky spirit.
6. Khammouane ຄໍາມ່ວນ population of 337,314 is almost the size of Honolulu, Hawaii and slightly larger than the capital city of San Jose, Costa Rica. Mostly forested mountainous terrain, many streams flow through Khammouane to join the Mekong River. Tham Khonglor Cave (meaning: “Beauty in the Dark”) is part of the Nation Protected Forest Area in Hinboun Mountain. A branch of the nomadic Tongluong forest people dwell here. That Phanom dates back to the 5th century.
7. Luang Namtha ຫລວງນໍ້າທາ with 145,289 is close to the size of Kansas City, Kansas, and slightly larger than the capital city of Podgorica, Montenegro. Literally "Royal Sugar Palm" or "Royal Green River," from 1966 to 1976 it formed the province of Houakhong with the province of Bokeo. The history of Luang Namtha Province is traced to inhabitants from 6,000 years ago, evidenced by archaeological finds of stone implements discovered from the Nam Jook River Valley in Vieng Phoukha. There are at least 20 temples in Muang Sing.
8. Luang Prabang ຫຼວງພຣະບາງ at 407,012 or the size of Omaha, Nebraska, and slightly larger than the capital city of Tallinn, Estonia. The capital of Lan Xang Kingdom during the 13th to 16th centuries, Luang Prabang is listed since 1975 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for unique architectural, religious and cultural heritage. It has a blend of the rural and urban developments over several centuries.
9. Oudomxay ອຸດົມໄຊ has 265,128, so it is a little bigger than Buffalo, New York, and slightly larger than the capital city of Paramaribo, Suriname. Long the home to many Khmu, Oudomxay has a highly revered Buddha image at Saymoungkhoune Rattana Stupa. Muang La is an important Buddhist pilgrimage for Theravada Buddhists in the province. It is 400 years old and reportedly has supernatural powers. Chom Ong Cave, the longest cave in Laos, was explored by a team of cave researchers during between 2009-2011 and reported to be 18.4 km long. The cave is considered the second longest in Laos and 9th longest in South East Asia.
10.Phôngsali ຜົ້ງສາລີ with 165,926 is close to the size of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and slightly larger than the capital city of Tiraspol, Transnistria. Over 28 different ethnic groups live in Phôngsali, notably Khmu, Phounoy, Akha, Tai Lue and Hor. Its culture is historically heavily influenced by China and was relatively untouched by the wars of the 20th century. Many undiscovered species are suspected to live here among the remote rugged mountains and lush forests. The Nam Ou is the largest tributary to the Mekong River. At 1,400 meters above sea level, Phôngsali Town is considered the highest town in the entire nation. The province is acclaimed for its green tea.
11. Salavan ສາລະວັນ with 324,303 is close to the population of Santa Ana, California, and close in size to the capital city of San Jose, Costa Rica. Significant mountains and wide valleys were formed by volcanic activity in ancient Salavan. It is home to the Bolaven Plateau, a key agricultural area with coffee as the dominant crop. Tahoy town is where 30,000 Tahoy reside, who practice shamanism and animism. Tigers are a common sight in the region.
12. Savannakhét ສະຫວັນນະເຂດ with 825,879 is close to the of Indianapolis, Indiana, and the capital city of Lome, Togo. The name is derived from Savanh Nakhone, "City of Paradise" or "Land of Fertility." Prehistoric culture is evidenced by stone tools dating between 100,000 and 12,000 years old, with bronze tools from 2000 BCE. The Pha That Sikhottabong stupa is situated on the grounds of a 19th century monastery. At least five fossil sites are in the province, including one dating back 110 million years ago.
13. Sainyabuli ໄຊຍະບູລີ at 388,833 is close to the size of Wichita, Kansas. It is slightly larger than the capital city of Bujumbura, Burundi.: The home to Laos’ majority of domesticated elephants, approximately 75% of the nation's 560 domesticated elephants work in Sainyabuli. Wat Simungkhun in Hongsa is reputed to have a hole "'leading to the end of the world". Rumors of “Yeti” similar to the Vietnamese Người rừng persist in the region.
14. Sekong ເຊກອງ at 84,985 is a little smaller than Las Cruces, New Mexico, and is comparable in size to the capital city of Nicosia, Northern Cyprus. The second smallest province in Laos and among the most remote areas of Laos. Many of Sekong’s largest villages are virtually inaccessible by road for at least half of the year. Home to the Dakchung Plateau, five Lao Teung cultures make their home here, many citing spiritual links to the land.
15. Vientiane ວຽງຈັນ The city itself has a population of 698,254 is close to the size of Detroit, and slightly smaller than the capital city of Astana, Kazakhstan. The District population of 388,833 is close to the size of Cleveland, Ohio and close to the capital city of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The great Laotian epic, Phra Lak Phra Lam, claims Prince Thattaradtha founded the city of Vientiane when he left the legendary Lao kingdom of Muong Inthapatha Maha Nakhone. The Vangxang Cave, also called the "Elephant Court," contains remnants of an ancient sanctuary of the Lane Xang Kingdom. The That Luang Stupa was initially built in 1566 during the reign of King Saysethathirath.
16. Xieng Khouang ຊຽງຂວາງ, with 229,521 people has a population comparable to Lubbock, Texas and somewhat larger than the capital city of Porto-Novo, Benin. The “Horizontal City" found on the Xieng Khouang Plateau, home to the Plain of Jars. The creators of the massive jars are unknown. Many ghosts reputedly reside here from various conflicts over the centuries. Some histories of Xieng Khouang suggests links with the Tai Phuan.
Laos is often referred to as a "tiny" kingdom: In terms of physical landmass, with 236,800 square kilometers, or 91,428.991 square miles, Laos is just slightly smaller than the United Kingdom, about the same size as the nation of Romania and just slightly larger than the state of Minnesota (225,181 km²). "Tiny," indeed.