The Early Years
The original inhabitants of Laos were Austroasiatic peoples, who lived by hunting and gathering before the advent of agriculture. They were skilled at river navigation using canoes, trading throughout the mountains, especially along the rivers. The most important river route was the Mekong because its many tributaries allowed traders to penetrate deep into the country, where they bought food and products such as cardamom.
A number of small kingdoms, based on wet rice cultivation and associated with the pottery and bronze culture of Ban Chiang, developed in the Middle Mekong Valley beginning in the first century AD. As a result, in the early years, no one kingdom had control over the Middle Mekong Valley, which is present-day Laos. These small kingdoms (or power centers) are often referred to as mandalas.
In the meantime, the Khmers set up an outpost at Xay Fong near present-day Vientiane, and the Champa expanded again in southern Laos, maintaining its presence on the banks of the Mekong until 1070.
Khun Cuang, a warlike ruler, probably reigned from 1128 to 1169. Under Khun Cuang, a single family ruled over a far-flung territory. At this time, Theravada Buddhism was subsumed by Mahayana Buddhism.
The last major influence prior to the founding of the Lan Xang kingdom was from the Mongols, operating out of Yunnan province in China. Obviously the early history of the region is convoluted.
The Lan Xang Kingdom
During its history Laos has been a subject state to the Cham, Khmer, and Sukhothai empires. Each of these left imprints on the culture, food, art, and architecture.
The “modern” history of Laos begins in the 13th century, when the rulers of what is now Luang Prabang (Louangphrabang) controlled a large, indigenous kingdom that was characterized by hierarchical administration. The rulers of this kingdom, the Lan Xang, actually controlled territory that included Laos, and areas far beyond its current borders, for about four centuries. It was not until the late 17th century that the Lan Xang internal power struggles caused the kingdom to split.
Fa Ngum was crowned king of Lan Xang at Vientiane in June 1354. Lan Xang extended from the border of China to Sambor and from the Vietnamese border to the western escarpment of the Khorat Plateau.
The Lan Xang kingdom was made up of Lao and Thai people and a number of hill tribes. It maintained its original (1354) borders for over 300 years and briefly reached farther across the northwest.
The Split of the Lan Xang Kingdom
In 1690 the Lan Xang ruler was involved in a series of power struggles. The result was the splitting of the Lan Xang kingdom into three smaller kingdoms: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak.
The Siamese (Thai) captured Vientiane for the first time in 1778-79, making it subject to Siam. Vientiane was finally destroyed in 1827-28 following efforts by its ruler, Chao Anou, to retaliate against the Siamese.
The 19th Century & the Influence of the French
The Siamese continued to control much of present-day Laos until the arrival of the French in the second half of the 19th century. During this time there were many conflicts between the Siamese and the various Lao kings, resulting in the destruction of Vientiane and the flight of the king of Vientiane to Hué in Vietnam. The Siamese army actually pursued the fleeing king to Vietnam; this did not sit well with the Vietnamese.
In the late 19th century the French imposed a treaty on Laos, essentially allowing the Thais to handle administrative functions in Laos but refusing to acknowledge any form of Thai political or military control in the area.
The arrival of the French probably prevented the political disintegration of Laos. Major elements of the country’s population were at risk of being absorbed by adjacent countries.
If any conqueror could be considered welcome, the French in Laos were certainly well-received. Amazingly, none of the Lao people were intentionally killed in the colonization process. In 1893 France took actions to ensure Laos would have an identity separate from the other countries in French Indochina (Vietnam and Cambodia). The royal family and home in Luang Prabang were preserved, and local governments were allowed to continue functioning.
However,.Laos was far down in the pecking order of French Indochina. The good jobs and training went to the Vietnamese; they were encouraged to migrate to Laos in large numbers to handle the administrative functions as mid-level civil servants and militia officers. Laos never got the railroads and other infrastructure France provided to Cambodia and Vietnam. This left the country ill-prepared for independence and difficult to defend when the Japanese came calling in the 1940s.
World War II
The French were able to keep relative peace in Laos until 1940, when the Japanese forced France to sign a treaty allowing Japan access to much of Indochina, although nominally leaving France in control. In 1945 the Japanese entered Laos and began imprisoning French officials and attempting to take control of the country. French rule was effectively over. When French control collapsed, the Vietnamese immigrant population tried to derail the actions of the “Free Laos” (Lao Issara) government. Vietnam continued to try to dominate Laos throughout the post-independence era, as evidenced by the armed insurgency called the Pathet Lao.
After the War
After 1945, the authority of the Lao Issara provisional government was extremely limited outside Vientiane. In January 1946 the Lao Issara again lost Xiangkhoang and the control of the Lao Issara government began to decline. The monarchy was briefly reestablished in 1946, but this also didn’t last long.
In 1947 a constitution was developed and accepted, making Laos an independent state within the French Indochina Union. At the same time, the French and Vietnamese began a war that evolved into the American-Vietnamese War and led to the departure of France from Vietnam in 1953. This gave rise to conditions that allowed the Pathet Lao and their Vietnamese communist backers to grow and eventually take over the country.
During 1959 the battles escalated all along the Laos/North Vietnamese border. Both the Lao King and the viceroy died in 1959, further extending the chaos that was starting to take over in the country. Over the next few years the controlling entities seesawed wildly. Then the war in Vietnam escalated, and things went downhill fast.
Negotiations in Paris in the autumn of 1972 between the United States and North Vietnam made a cease-fire agreement possible in Laos. The two sides signed the peace agreement in Vientiane on February 21, 1973. The ceasefire went into effect the next day.
By the time the cease-fire began, US aircraft had dropped almost 2.1 million tons of bombs on Laos, approximately the total tonnage dropped by United States air forces during all of World War II. Most bombs were dropped on the Laotian part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (in the vicinity of the Plain of Jars). It is amazing that so many of the Jars remain intact – they were often used as targets by US pilots to off-load unused bomb loads before returning to their bases in Thailand.
The Provisional Government of National Union (PGNU), Laos’s third and final experiment with coalition government, was finally constituted on April 5, 1974. It, too, was short-lived.
In 1975, after the fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam, the Pathet Lao (supported by the now-communist country of Vietnam) came to power in Laos. On March 27, 1975, North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao forces launched a strong attack against Vang Pao’s Hmong defenders. On August 23, 1975 the Pathet Lao completed its seizure of local power with the takeover of the Vientiane city administration by a revolutionary committee.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) was established by the National Congress of People’s Representatives at their meeting in the auditorium of the former United States community school on December 1, 1975.
Note: Even though Laos is a communist state, the royal family is still revered and respected. Please do not make negative comments about either the government or the royal family.
Under the Pathet Lao
Since the 1980s, Laos has become a more approachable country but the trappings of communism/socialism are everywhere. The improved relations between Laos’ chief supporter – Vietnam – and the rest of the world have helped, too. At the same time, Laos remains a Third-World country in many respects, dependent on other countries and non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) for much of its technology, infrastructure, farm improvement programs, and the like.
The Pathet Lao fought a border war with Thailand in 1988, and it took many months to resolve the actual border location
Tip: Although the presence of communism is everywhere in Laos, it is not domineering and oppressive as can sometimes be the case in northern Vietnam. Still, this is a communist country and the people know it. Trying to engage people in conversations about their government, their history, or world events calls for diplomacy and tact.