Indochina: Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam


1.      Regional Characteristics

o    Relative Location

o    Physical Environment

o    Culture, Language, and Religion

o    Persistent Poverty

o    Conflict

2.      Demographic Analysis based on Population Data Sheet 2007

o    Population mid 2007

o    Percent Under 15 / Over 65

o    Population Natural Growth

o    Projected Populations – 2025/2050

o    Population Density

o    Infant Mortality

o    GNI PPP

3.      Countries

o    Cambodia Killing Fields

o    The Lao Way

o    Vietnam Today

4.      References

5.      Review questions

Regional Characteristics

The three countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam represent Indochina, located in Southeast Asia to the south of China and to the east of Thailand.  Like much of this part of the world Indochina was colonized by Europeans.  The French occupied Indochina for most of the nineteenth century and for the first half of the twentieth century.

The physical environment of Indochina is mostly mountainous.  Climate, the Indochina peninsula as a whole experiences a monsoon tropical climate type of environment.  The summer rains are brought by winds from the oceans leaving the peninsula subjected to typhoons during the late summer period.  The winters are cooler and drier, and are dominated by winds blowing outward from Asia’s interior.  Cambodia experiences a tropical savanna climate and tends to receive about 60 to 80 inches of average annual rainfall.  Cambodia is mostly plains along and to the west of the lower Mekong River with mountain fringes to the northeast and southwest.  Vietnam has two different climates in the north and south.  North Vietnam experiences a humid subtropical climate while South Vietnam tends to have a tropical rainy climate.  Vietnam receives the most rain on the Indochina Peninsula averaging over 80 inches annually.  Laos also has two different climates because like Vietnam is an elongated country that stretches between two climates.  North Laos has a humid subtropical much like that of North Vietnam.  South Laos, however, is much like Cambodia in that it experiences a tropical savanna climate.  Laos also receives averagely 60 to 80 inches of rainfall with some parts reaching over 80 inches.  Laos is mountainous, sparsely populated, and landlocked between Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.  These three countries are each very different and a particular culture dominates each country.

The religions of Indochina are numerous, but the main religions are prevalent throughout the region.  Indian traders brought Hindu and Buddhist religions across the ocean from the west.  The distinctive Indian culture and architecture, reflected in temples of Angkor, Cambodia, led to the area that includes Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam being called Indochina.  People known as Mon and Khmer occupied the Cambodian area from the North and between A.D 800s and 1200s it was the center of the Khmer empire.  The language of Cambodia is Khmer while the religion is Buddhism.  Except for about a half million people which are Vietnamese, almost all 14 million people are ethnic Cambodian.  Vietnamese and Lao arrived in the territories that now form their national centers.  There are about 68 different ethnic groups in Laos with the largest of the groups being Lao.  They are linguistically and culturally related to the Thais and their religion along with Cambodia is Buddhism.  Almost nine-tenths of Vietnam’s people are ethnic Vietnamese.  They are closely related to the Chinese in many cultural aspects, including language and shared religious elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, and ancestor veneration.  Large Chinese minorities live in major countries in each of the three countries of Indochina.

Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam remain poor.  Vietnam was catching up having a 2000 economy of $31 billion which was up four times since 1990.  Cambodia and Laos had 2000 total GNIs of less than $4 billion each.  The three countries of former French Indochina have experienced relatively little economic expansion.  This area seems to have had almost continual warfare between 1941 and 1975, and fighting persisted until the late 1990s in Cambodia.  Of these three countries, Vietnam is the most prosperous; however it is still among the world’s poorest countries.  Conditions grew worse after the fall of the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s main supporter and trading partner.  Vietnam still has overcome these conditions though by following the Chinese model.  However, Laos and Cambodia face more serious problems.  In Cambodia, ravages of war exacerbated an already unstable situation, while Laos faces special difficulties owing to its rough terrain and relative isolation.  Laos and Cambodia are also hampered by lack of infrastructure; outside the few cities, paved roads and reliable electricity are rarities.  Economies of both remain largely agricultural in orientation.  The Laotian government is pinning its economic hopes on hydropower development.  The country is mountainous and has many large rivers and could generate large quantities of electricity, which is in high demand in neighboring Thailand, if it can find funding for the necessary dams to build.  Despite the lack of development, Cambodia and Laos are not as miserable as one might expect.  Both countries have experienced an upsurge of economic activity in the early and mid 1990s.  Although the three countries have lower GNI figures, few people are seriously malnourished.

There have been a number of conflicts on the Indochina Peninsula and it seems when one country has a problem it drags one of the other two along with it.  The French occupied Indochina during the 1800s and early 1900s.  They had built roads and railroads and encouraged manufacturing.  In the 1950s and 1960s, communists had advanced and overtook continental Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  In World War II, Nazi Germany occupied France and persuaded the French colonial government to allow Japanese forces to pass through Indochina.  After the war ended, the French tried to reestablish control of the area, but communist groups forced them to leave northern parts of Vietnam in 1954.  During the Vietnam War, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was ill-defined network of forest passages through Laos and Cambodia, thus steadily drawing these two countries into the conflict.  After several years, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and installed a communist regime.  Also, Vietnam had stationed significant numbers of troops in Laos.  The divided country, with a communist north and free-market south, was subject to further warfare.  In 1975, North Vietnam was victorious over the United States and reunified the country.  Laos went through much strife along its border with Vietnam, slowing economic development.  Cambodia became independent in 1953, but suffered 30 years of civil war and invasions by Vietnamese.  By the 1990s, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) switched from political to economic objectives and embraced its former “opposition” of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam as new members.

Demographic Analysis based on World Population Data Sheet 2007



(in millions)

% Under


% Over


Rate of Increase

Proj. Pop. for 2025*

Proj. Pop. for 2050*





GNI PPP (for 2006)































* In millions.  Numbers projected are from 2007 Population Data Sheet

** Infant deaths per 1000.  From 2007 Population Data Sheet

Vietnam has by far the largest population than its two neighboring countries in Indochina.  The three countries are not really stable as can be seen by the percent of persons aged less than 15 is greater than percent of persons aged over 65.  Cambodia and Laos have higher natural rates of increase, but because they have such high infant mortality rates, Vietnam grows faster in terms of population than these two countries as can be seen by the projected populations.  All three countries are fairly small in size and because of Vietnam’s greater population it also has a high population density.  As for the low GNI figures, these countries are not as miserable as one might expect.  They all have experienced upsurges of economic activity and few people are seriously malnourished.


Cambodia has suffered the worst of the catastrophes.  A communist insurgency overcame the American-backed military government in 1975.  Known as Khmer Rouge and led by Pol Pot, this organization had ruled for four years with exceptional savagery.  In 1973, the population was about 7.5 million, but by 1979 it was down to only about 5 million.  A third of their population had basically been murdered.  Some of the intended victims managed to escape as refugees from Cambodia’s Killing Fields to adjoining Thailand.  There were also escalating border conflicts with Vietnam, and in 1979, Vietnamese quickly conquered most of Cambodia and installed a puppet Communist government.  The Khmer Rouge, supported by China, began guerilla resistance against Vietnamese.  Peace negotiations among Cambodia’s contending factions led, in 1991, to an agreement resulting in the restoration of democratic government under United Nations (UN) supervision.  Cambodia is very poor, but more stable conditions have helped the economy improve recently.  Garment manufacturing is the largest industry, but there are fears that Cambodia will prove unable to compete with growing exports of cheaper clothing from China.  Tourism is the fastest growing industry, with more than a million visitors arriving in 2004.  Few visitors miss Angkor, Wat, still coveted by some in Thailand because it once stood within that country’s borders.  Cambodians resent Thai claims to the site which has led to riots in 2003.  Even in this relatively peaceful time, the people of Cambodia must deal with a persistent scourge for war: landmines.  Sown by hostile forces during years of warfare, the antipersonnel explosives remain active indefinitely.  Mines have maimed more than 35,000 Cambodians, and about 50 more casualties occur each month.  People sow new mines, imported mainly from China and Singapore, to protect their property in Cambodia.

Laotians also suffer from ordnance dating to the Vietnam War.  Between 1964 and 1973, U.S. warplanes dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs – more than the United States dropped on Germany in World War II – on the Laotian frontier with Vietnam in an effort to disrupt communist supply lines on nearby Ho Chi Minh Trail and to prevent communist troops from entering Laotian cities.  This plain of Jars region retains the distinction of being the most heavily bombed place on Earth.  An estimated 30 percent of the bombs failed to detonate, and today, millions of unexploded American cluster bombs remain.  About 200 people are killed or maimed yearly by these explosives.  Of Lao’s 17 provinces, 15 contain unexploded ordnance, according to the UN, creating a serious deterrent to farming in a country with inadequate food supplies.  Efforts are underway to clear the explosives and hoping to de-mine enough land to produce ten thousand tons of rice yearly, which would feed fifty thousand people.  Despite gambling revenues, landlocked Laos is now one of Asia’s least developed countries, ranking 135th of 177 countries.  About 80 percent of its people are peasant farmers.  Gold and copper mining, which began in 2002, may bring much needed revenue to Laos.  Given the conditions of warfare, political turmoil, and inefficient economic systems, their outlook seems to be improving as tensions relax, supply of goods and services improves, and the number of returning refugees exceeds emigrants.

Vietnam is now restoring its war-torn landscape through large-scale reforestation, agricultural reclamation, and nature conservation programs.  Vietnam’s economy has improved markedly.  Poverty fell by more than half in 1990s and again in 2004.  Vietnam had Asia’s second fastest growing economy after China.  They have become a major exporter of rice which is second in the world only to Thailand.  Vietnam is also pinning hopes on exports of its proven reserves of six hundred million barrels of oil, especially to oil-hungry China.  In addition to joining ASEAN, Vietnam in 1995 restored full diplomatic relations with the United States.  They signed a trade agreement in 2000; Vietnam began exporting shoes, finished clothing, and toys to the U.S.


Bradshaw, Michael J.  White, Dymond.  (2004). Contemporary World Regional Geography: Southeast Asia and South Pacific.  New York.  McGraw-Hill.

Gabler, Robert.  (1993). Physical Geography.  Brace College.

Hobbes, Joseph.  Salter, Christopher.  (2006). Essentials of World Regional Geography: Southeast Asia: From Slash-and-Burn to Semi Conductors.  California.  Thomson Learning Inc.

Rowntree.  (2000). Diversity Amid Globalization: Southeast Asia.  New Jersey.  Prentice Hall Inc.

World population data sheet (2007). Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.

Review Questions

1.  Which of the following countries has a Buddhist Religion?

            A. Cambodia;  B. Laos;  C. Vietnam;  D. All of the Above

2.  The country that was ruled by the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnam War and experienced a reign of terror and destruction including the death of a third of the population?

            A. Laos;  B. Cambodia;  C. Vietnam;  D. Thailand

3.  Which three Southeast Asian countries, collectively termed Indochina, were once occupied by the French?

            A. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos;  B. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam;  C. Laos, Vietnam, China;  D. Myanmar, Laos, Thailand

4.  The largest Indochina country in population is?

            A. Vietnam;  B. Laos;  C. Cambodia;  D. Thailand

5.  What climate does Cambodia experience?

            A. Humid Subtropical;  B. Tropical Rainy;  C. Desert;  D. Tropical Savanna

6.  Which of country has no coastline?

            A. Cambodia;  B. Thailand;  C. Laos;  D. Vietnam

7.  What form of development is Laos hoping for to improve their country?

            A. Paved Roads;  B. Hydropower;  C. Electricity;  D. Running Water

8.  What is the largest industry in Cambodia?

            A. Garment Manufacturing;  B. Tourism;  C. Gold Mining;  D. None of the Above

9.  What area retains the distinction of being the most heavily bombed place on Earth in an attempt to disrupt supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail?

            A. Border between Cambodia and Vietnam;  B. Border between Cambodia and Laos;  C. Border between Laos and Vietnam;  D. None of the Above

10.  What is helping Laos bring in much needed revenue?

            A. Gold Mining;  B. Silver Mining;  C. Copper Mining;  D. Both A and C

11.  Which country has the world’s second fastest growing economy?

            A. Cambodia;  B. Laos;  C. China;  D. Vietnam

12.  Which country is the world’s second most exporter of rice?

            A. Vietnam;  B. Thailand;  C. Laos;  D. China

13.  Which country has the largest infant mortality rate?

            A. Cambodia;  B. Laos;  C. Vietnam;

14.  Which country is the most prosperous?

            A. Cambodia;  B. Laos;  C. Vietnam

15.  Which country has a population growth of 1.7 percent?

            A. Cambodia;  B. Laos;  C. Vietnam

First submitted by Jason Jurey on Mar 8,1996.  Then by Rachel Schuette on Nov 8,1996.  Updated by Alena Kaplun on Apr 8,1997.  Updated by Robert Distefano on 11-20-98.  Updated by Stephen Kingston on April Fools Day, 2001.  Edited by Karen Oyler on 10. Oct.’03.  Updated by Hisa Shimizu and Britney Wesson on Apr 8, 2007.  Resubmitted by Keith Janssen on April 30, 2008.