In the early 1990s, over 85 percent of the Laotian population was rural, typically living in villages ranging from ten to 200 households, or up to about 1,200 persons. Towns grew during the Second Indochina War as villagers fled to escape United States bombing. After 1975 many rural migrants returned to farming. Most of the sixteen province capitals or centers can be considered towns, although a few, such as Phôngsali, Attapu, and Xiangkhoang, are not much more than market centers with populations well under 5,000 surrounded by a somewhat denser network of neighboring villages. In 1985 Vientiane had a population estimated at about 250,000, with municipal water and electricity systems, a variety of housing, and more developed educational and health facilities than were available elsewhere in the country.
The major provincial centers are Louangphrabang--the former royal capital--Savannakhét, and Pakxé, with populations ranging from 20,000 to 109,000 and a range of services and urban amenities. The other provincial capitals are distinguished by several government buildings, a regular market--although not always daily-- at least one hotel and restaurant, and occasional air service. Towns are primarily administrative and market centers, with little or no industrial manufacturing outside of Vientiane. Aside from Vientiane and a few other provincial towns, growth was limited, and the general pattern of existence held over many generations. Most of the 121 district centers were little more than large villages with the addition of a middle school and a few score officials.
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