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History of Laos

The nation-state of present-day Laos emerged in the 20th century, but the region has been populated for thousands of years. Laos had had a long history of invasions and wars until it became politically stable in 1975.

Being a land of rich ethnic diversity and historical ruins, thousands of tourists visit Laos each year.

Quick Facts

  • 500 BC – The Plain of Jars, one of the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia, dates from between 500 BC and 500 AD
  • 400 AD – Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Laos
  • 900-1300 AD – Most of Laos is subordinate to the Khmer Empire at Angkor.
  • 1353 – Lan Xang (Million Elephants) Kingdom, founded in the 14th century by Fa Ngum.
  • 1893-1953 – Laos was ruled by the French
  • 1975 – Laos becomes a communist country

Ancient Laos

The history of Laos can be traced back to over 46,000 years ago. An ancient human skull was found, dating back to that period, at the Tam Pa Ling Cave in the Annamite Mountains. Laos’ first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers. Later they became farmers growing rice and pulses.

2,000 BC - Stone tools used by farmers. Bronze was used in Laos (when??) and from about 500 BC iron was used.

500 BC - The Plain of Jars, one of the most significant prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia, dates from between 500 BC and 500 AD.

1st century AD - The ancient people of Laos were influenced by Indian culture. Indian merchants later introduced Theravada Buddhism to Laos.

400 to 800 AD - People living on the Mekong River formed small cities and kingdoms called Muang. During this period, Theravada Buddhism gradually came to overshadow Hinduism and Animism.

1200 AD - Tai people entered the kingdom and introduced small tribal states, led by kings believed to be partly divine.

The Lan Xang Kingdom (Million Elephants)

The Khmer from Cambodia ruled Laos from the 9th to the 13th century.

In the 14th century, Laotians founded a kingdom called Lan Xang. The first king was Chao Fa Ngum, who was succeeded by his son Phaya Samsenthai in 1373. He ruled until 1421 and under him Lan Xang became a prosperous kingdom. However, those who succeeded him were less skillful rulers.

In the 16th century Lan Xang was threatened by Burma but it managed to retain its independence.

In the 17th century greatness was restored to Lan Xang by Sourinyavongsa (1637-1694). His long reign is seen as a golden age, during which Lan Xang was powerful and prosperous. However when Sourinyavongsa died in 1694, he did not leave an heir.

This prosperous kingdom has left Laos with many impressive religious buildings and historical sites at Luang Prabang and Vientiane. This history of Lan Xang Kingdom is sacred to Lao people who believe it will bring prosperity to their country.

The Kingdom divided

The kingdom of Lan Xang in 1354 united the area that is now Laos. This lasted for over 350 years, until 1707, when the kingdom split into three separate states controlled by Siam. They were called Vientiane, Champasak and Luang Prabang.

When it was divided in that way, Laos was weakened and fell prey to Siam (Thailand). Burma invaded Laos and conquered Siamese Ayutthaya in 1763. Siamese retaliation came in 1778 when Taksin’s army defeated the Burmese. This meant that Siam’s control over Laos became even more entrenched.

However, Annam (Vietnam) took control over Laos in 1795, and kept it until 1828. In 1804 Anuvong became king of Vientiane. By 1825 Anuvong had become determined to overthrow Siamese domination and restore the kingdom of Lan Xang.

In 1827 he advanced into Siam but was defeated and forced to retreat. Anuvong fled to Vietnam. Several months later he returned to Vientiane but was captured by the Siamese (Thai), which ended all hope of a restored Lan Xang.

Between 1831 and 1834, Vietnam and Siam fought the Siamese-Vietnamese War for control of Laos. Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam then took over much of the Lao territory that is now Northern Laos.

By 1850, Laos’ rulers were forced to pay tribute to Siam, China, and Vietnam. However, Siam maintained the most influence and control.

French Rule

From 1893 to 1953 Laos was ruled by France. In that period, the country manufactured tin, rubber and coffee.

The French colonial period remains influential in contemporary Laos. The French cuisine brought croissants, café au lait, freshly baked baguettes, pâté, and wine to Laos.

French architecture is also prominent in parts of Laos, including small residences, mansions, and tourist attractions.

Although the French occupied Laos, they had little interest in the country. However, In 1941 France and Thailand fought over Laotian territory. The Japanese intervened by forcing an armistice, which meant that Thailand acquired parts of Laos.

Towards the end of World War II, the Japanese forced King Sisavang Vong to declare independence from France. When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in September 1945, prince Phesarath was prime minister of Laos, and led a government called Lao Issara (free Lao).

However, Laotian independence did not last long. The French invaded Laos in 1946 and resumed their control of the country.

The Independence of Laos

Five years after the end of World War II, Prince Souphanouvong formed an organisation called Paphet Lao, or ‘Land of the Lao’.

A few years later, in 1953, France began to lose control of Southeast Asia and withdrew completely from Laos in 1953. After French rule, Laos became an independent, constitutional monarchy.

Although independent, Laos remained politically divided between a royalist government supported by the USA, and the pro-communist Paphet Lao assisted by their allies, the Viet Minh.

The Vietnam War (Second Indochina War)

The Asian War marked the 1960s, and politically unstable Laos became involved. For 9 years, from 1964 to 1973, America tried but failed to defeat Paphet Lao and reclaim their territory.

When in 1975 the communists assumed control of South Vietnam and Cambodia, the royalists left Laos, and Paphet Lao took leadership. They founded The Lao People's Democratic Republic the same year and began a communist regime.

Revolution and Reform

In 1986, Laos implemented a comprehensive renovation policy, which entailed changing from a centralized to a market-oriented economy, opening up the country to tourism and cooperation with foreign countries, and restoring democracy.

Laos joined ASEAN in 1997, and the WTO in 2013. With foreign investments in projects like electric power and public transportation increasing, the economy started to bloom. Visitors could choose many different forms of transportation, various styles of hotels and high-end restaurants with local cuisine.

Today, Laos has political stability, constant economic growth and favorable investment conditions, strengthening and promoting the country.

Visit Laos with Asia Highlights

Laos has many culturally significant tourist attractions. Among them is the delightful city of Luang Prabang, which was once the capital and was influenced by the French occupation of the country. Patuxai Victory Monument is dedicated to the people killed in the fight to gain independence from France, Japan and Siam.

With our experienced guide, you can fully enjoy not only the beautiful scenery but also the rich history of this land. Check these links for more information.

14- Day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Tour: Sync with Indochina's Heartbeat

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