Prehistory & Tai-Lao migration

The appearance of first modern humans in Southeast Asia was around 50,000 years ago. They had used stone-age technology for daily life and only evolved to a new Neolithic culture about 10,000 years ago. The representative for this culture was the Hoabinhian, who were hunter-gathers spreading throughout much of Southeast Asia, including Laos. Besides hunting, fishing and gathering by horticulture, their successors produced the first pottery in the region, later bronze metallurgy, even doing rice cultivation, originating from southern China. They were the ancestors of the present-day upland minorities, known as the Lao Thoeng (Upland Lao), the largest group of which is the Khamu of northern Laos.

Other Lao Thoeng groups live in southern Laos, speaking Austro-Asiatic languages like their northern cousins and the Khmer. Southern Laotian people are also believed to the ancestor of Cambodian one, who migrated southward to establish the Kingdom of Funan by 2nd century CE. The earliest kingdom in southern Laos was Chenla as Chinese texts, dating from the 5th century with the capital near Champasak and the later Khmer temple of Wat Phu. On the middle Mekong, Mon people (speaking another Austro-Asiatic language) established Sri Gotapura Kingdom with its capital near Tha Khaek and Chanthaburi kindome near present-day Vientiane.

In about the 8th century, Tai or modern-day Thai people began migrating out of southern China. They included the Tai-Lao of Laos, the Tai-Siam and Tai-Yuan of central and northern Thailand, and the Tai-Shan of northeast Burma. The Tai-Lao or Lao had moved slowly down the rivers of northern Laos, finally they came the Mekong River.

Based on their local lifestyle and effect of Mekong River, there were division among Tai-Lao people. They included Lao Loum (Lao of the valley), Lao-Thoeng (Lao of the mountain slopes) and Lao-Soung (Lao of the mountain tops). Lao-Lum flourished the most among Thai-Lao ethnic groups thanks to good agricultural land and waterway development. Although this classification is officially abandoned today but it still has left a significant mark on Lao history until now, some ethnic minority from the Lao-Thoeng and the Lao-Soung has had little loyalty with the Lao-Loum, making up over 68% of Lao population.

The development and collapse of Lao nations is only existed on legend. The first Lao kingdom was established in the vicinity of Luang Prabang by Khun Lo in 12th century. Because of Mekong River slope, there were three distinct water transportation regions: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Savannakhet. Three cities became three separately typical center of the Lao-Loum. This model was only abandoned until Mongolia Yuan troops’ invasion took place in 1253, when Kublai Khan moved to downstream Mekong River to attack Khmer kingdom. After Mongolia Yuan dynasty’s withdrawal, a new kingdom called Sukhothai was founded by Tai-Siam while the Tai-Yuan kingdom of Lanna with capital in Chiang Mai also was established at that time.

The leader of the Tai-Lao in present-day Luang Prabang or Xiang Dong Xiang Thong also established a new country, which nominally still depended on Mongolia Yuan dynasty, ruled by Phraya Dynasty. In 1350, Fa Ngum, a prince of Phraya Dynasty escaped to Angkor because of his father’s disunity with Phraya kingdom, and got marriage with a princess of Khmer empire. In 1353, Fa Ngum attacked Xiang Dong Xiang Thong and established a new kingdom – the Lan Xang, meaning the land of a million elephants.

The Kingdom of Lan Xang

The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao existed as a unified kingdom from 1353 to 1707. The founder, Fa Ngum was born into the royal family in Muang Sua, the capital of a small state ruled by King Souvanna Khampong. But his grandfather, the reigning king, believed that his father failed to live up to his princely responsibility and expelled him. So Fa Ngum and his family sought refuge at Angkor and thus Fa Ngum was raised in the cradle of Khmer empire.

Thanks to Khmer army, Fa Ngum returned Muang Sua to regain his father’s throne, finally establishing a unified Lao Kingdom – Lan Xang Hom Khao, which means “the Land of a Million Elephants and the white parasol”. In an attempt to unite the various ethnic groups under the kingdom, he introduced Theravada Buddhism into Laos. As a result, the Khmer King, his father-in-law sent Buddhist scholars and scriptures as well Pra Bang statue – a sacred golden Buddha. This Buddha was placed in the capital, Muang Sua, later named Luang Prabang to honor this sacred image. For the next 200 years Luang Prabang was the religious and cultural center of the kingdom. During 600 years for existence, the kingdom of Lan Xang had to struggle with the invasion from Dai Viet (1478 – 1479), Siam (1536) and Burma (1571 – 1621).

A Collapse of Kingdoms

Over the years, Lan Xang armies won and lost territory from the Khmer, Burmese, Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese in Yunnan. 17th century was considered as the flourishing period of Lan Xang kingdom. However, its power entered the period of decline when King Souligna Vongas passed away without an heir. Internal struggle, consolidated by various neighbors divided Lan Xang into three kingdoms: Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the centre and Champassak in the south. Finally, the Siamese had taken the control on most of present-day Laos and Cambodia by the end of the 18th century.

Because of the invasion of the French, Siam had to cede the territory of Lan Xang and of Khmer to the French to maintain its own independence. To easily rule Indochina, the French reunited the three territories into Laos, under its own protection. Instead, Siam retained Northeast Thailand or Issan, where many Lao people lived then and still work.

French Colonization 

Under the French, Laos was sweated seriously with little real development. Few roads were built, no universities were opened and health service was little improved. There were a lot of drawbacks for Lao development: the mountains make difficulty for plantation farming while the Mekong River was not suitable for merchant vessels. The only real commercial activity was the export of opium. There was only a few hundred French in whole Laos because these colonizers preferred using the Vietnamese for administrative staffs while the Chinese took part in trade. Consequently, Lao farmers experience little change in the life.

Three Indochina countries of French belonged to the Japanese in World War II. When Japan was defeated in 1945, the king’s nephew leading an independence movement called “the Lao Issara or Free Laos” and declared independence in Laos. Unfortunately, the King sided with the French and let the French grant independence to the Royal Lao Government in 1953. However, an offshoot of the Lao Issara, called Pathet Laos, felt it was only a puppet government so it created a resistance group backed by communist North Vietnam. When the French was defeated in Vietnam in 1954 and withdrew from Indochina, the U.S. started supplying the Royal Lao Government with arms.

Role in the Vietnam War

At the second Geneva conference in 1961 – 1962, Laos declared itself neutral to avoid international conflicts in the future, but it didn’t work. By the 1960s, Laos was put into the Cold War because of its geopolitical position, the neighbor of Vietnam.

While the entire world watched the U.S – Vietnam war, few know that Laos suffered the heaviest bombings of any country in history since Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through northern Laos.

At the end of the wars, the Paris Peace Accords led to the withdrawal of U.S forces from Vietnam, and a ceasefire between the Pathet Lao and the government led to a new coalition government. However, in April 1975, the fall of South Vietnam gave the chance to the Pathet Lao, backed by North Vietnam, taking total power with little opposition. On December 2, 1975, the king was forced to abdicate from Luang Prabang, Buddhism was removed as the state religion and the communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established and remains the only party. In the 1990s, Buddhism was reformed and reinstated as a way to promote Lao nationalism.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (1975–present)

The new communist government led by Kaysone  Phomvihane conducted centralized economic decision-making and put many members of the previous government and military into “re-education camps”, also including the Hmongs. Consequently, 10% of the Lao population left the country. Laos depended heavily on Soviet aid until the Soviet collapsed in 1991. In the 1990s the communist party gave up centralized management of the economy but still has a monopoly of political power.