The rudimentary structures of a multiethnic state existed before the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the thirteenth century. These prethirteenth-century structures consisted of small confederative communities in river valleys and among the mountain peoples, who found security away from the well-traveled rivers and overland tracks where the institutions and customs of the Laotian people were gradually forged in contact with other peoples of the region. During these centuries, the stirring of migrations as well as religious conflict and syncretism went on more or less continuously. Laos’s shortlived vassalage to foreign empires such as the Cham, Khmer, and Sukhothai did nothing to discourage this process of cultural identification and, in fact, favored its shaping.


The earliest inhabitants of Laos were migrants from southern China. From the 11th century onward, parts of Laos fell under the Khmer Empire, and later under Siamese influence from the Sukhothai dynasty. The history of Laos truly begins the first unified kingdom to be established by Fa Ngun, a Lao prince who brought up in the court of Angkor Wat. As the Khmer Empire crumbled, Fa Ngum welded together a new empire, which he modestly christened ‘Lan Xang’ – the Land of a Million Elephants. Lan Xang covered the whole of present-day Laos plus most of Issan (northeast Thailand). Fa Ngum declared himself king of the realm in 1353. Fa Ngum was unable to subdue the unruly highlanders of the northeast regions; these remained independent of Lan Xang Rule. Upon Fa Ngum’s marriage to a Cambodian princess, the Khmer court gave the Lao king a sacred gold Buddha called Pra Bang. Fa Ngum made Buddhism the state religion, and Pra Bang became the protector of the Lao kingdom. Nobility pledged allegiance to the king before the statue. Named after Pra Bang was the city of Luang Prabang, the cradle of Lao culture and the centre of the Lao state for the next 200 years.Fa Ngum’s son, Samsenthai, who reigned 1373-1416, consolidated the royal administration, developing Luang Prabang as a trading and religious center. His death was followed by unrest under a swift succession of lackluster monarchs. Luang Prabang came under increasing threat from incursions by the Vietnamese and later the Burmese. In 1563, King Settathirat declared Vientiane the capital of Lan Xang, and built Wat Pra Keo to house the Emerald Buddha, a gift from the king of Ceylon, as a new talisman for the kingdom. Settathirat is revered as one of the great Lao kings because he protected the nation from foreign subjugation. When he disappeared in 1574 on a military campaign, the kingdom rapidly declined and was subject to Burmese invasion. There was a quick and lackluster succession of kings after Settathirat. King Souligna Vongsa, who ruled 1633-94, brought stability and peace back to the kingdom – a period regarded as Lan Xang’s golden age.


The kingdom initially prospered, but internal divisions and pressure from neighbours caused it to split in the 17th century into three warring kingdoms centred on Luang Prabang, Vieng Chan (Vientiane) and Champasak. The seventeenth century saw the new kingdom enter its golden age with European traders exclaiming the capital, Vientiane, to be one of the most beautiful cities in southeast Asia. However, this was all to come to an end in less than a century as feudal lords fought over an empty throne and eventually brought about the kingdom’s downfall. An unstable three way division of the kingdom, into Luang Prabang, Vieng Chan, and Champasak, left none with sufficient power to repel the ambitions of the new Siamese kingdom of King Thaksin. Luang Prabang fell to Siamese rule and Vientiane and Champasak were reduced to vassal status. After years of paying vassalage to the Siamese kings, an ill-fated war against their rule in 1820 was the undoing of both these kingdoms, and also brought about the total destruction of the once beautiful city of Vientiane.


The European ambitions in the region, at the end of the nineteenth century, were of serious concern to the Siamese kings for many years. In 1893, to guarantee that the French colonialists would not challenge the country’s sovereignty, Siam gave them Laos. The French – soon realising that the colony was not quite the grand acquisition they had hoped, and that the Mekong River’s potential as a backdoor trade route into China had been vastly over estimated – made Laos a protectorate and left much of the running of the country to the Lao people.

The fall of France to Germany and the Japanese occupation of Indochina during World War II, helped to foment a new breed of nationalism among the Lao people. The situation was exacerbated when Japanese troops forced the pro-French King Sisavang Vong to declare independence from the French in the waning months of the war. With the August 14 1945 surrender of Japan, a power vacuum was left in Laos that the French were at that time unable to refill. For a little over six months Laos was independent, but, with the help of British and Pro-French Lao forces, the colonialists were able to re-occupy Vientiane in April 1946. However, the seeds of liberty had already been sown. In October 1953, the French – their resources already seriously stretched by the war in Vietnam – finally ceded full independence to Laos.

The political situation, however, was to remain unstable for many years, eventually leading to civil war between the North Vietnamese backed Pathet Lao (Land of the Lao) and the US-financed Royalist forces.

The January 1973 Paris Accords – which saw the end of US involvement in the Vietnam conflict was followed a month later by a cessation of hostilities between the opposing Lao factions, leading at last to the formation of a coalition government. It was not to last.


With the fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon to Communist forces in April 1975, many Royalists saw the eventual takeover of the country by the Pathet Lao as a forgone conclusion and fled to France. That August, in a symbolic gesture, a force of fifty female Pathet Lao soldiers marched into and liberated Vientiane. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic was born on December 2, 1975.

Laos entered a period of isolation throughout the rest of the seventies, maintaining diplomatic and economic relations with only Vietnam and the USSR. After failing to establish a successful socialist state modeled on Eastern Bloc collectivization, the Lao government moved towards a more flexible form of socialism – dismantling agricultural co-operatives in 1979, and installing economic reforms in 1986 that opened the way for the introduction of a market economy.

In the last few years, Laos has made further strides towards international acceptance and integration into the global economy. The 1994 opening of the Australian-financed Friendship Bridge – linking Vientiane with Nong Khai in Thailand – and the country’s 1997 ASEAN membership are both seen as positive moves towards this goal.

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