Laos History

August 2, 2023

Paul Kay

What about Laos for an Asian vacation? How would you see it? We are all different. Some people work with a tour company, and they sign up to see all of the important sights in the allotted time in a country or region. What about you? Are you a tourist or a traveler? For many people, the words might seem the same. For me, a tourist comes with the idea of an organized tour to see places and to take photos. They take care of everything, and you have a schedule every day. A traveler wants to experience the culture and the history. Travelers want to see memorable sites and take tours as well, but they also want to meet and experience people and learn their customs and be a welcome visitor. There is nothing wrong with using a tour company. We use Viator quite frequently for specific tours. But we also like to explore on our own. If you are lucky, you can strike up a friendship with a tour operator and really get to know some interesting history about a culture and its practices. So, Madeline and I are travelers, and we are in search, like you, for destinations and vacations. Here are some fun facts about Laos.

Madeline and I have not been to Laos yet. I always do research on a country before visiting. Now that I have done so, we are very interested in this small but diverse country. is sometimes referred to as the "Land of a Million Elephants." Elephants hold cultural significance in Laos, representing strength, power, and good fortune. However, the elephant population has significantly declined in recent years. If you like food, have you tried sticky rice? It is known as "khao niao," and it is a staple food in Laos. It is traditionally eaten with hands, rolled into small balls, and dipped into various dishes. This method of eating sticky rice is unique to Laos and some neighboring countries. For sightseeing, you should add the Plain of Jars to your list. The Plain of Jars is a mysterious archaeological site in Laos. It features thousands of ancient stone jars scattered across the landscape. The purpose and origin of these jars, which date back over 2,000 years, remain a subject of speculation and research. I will tell you more about the jars later. Let’s move on some Laos history so you can understand more about this fascinating country.

Lan Xang Laos Map

Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by five countries: China to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the southeast, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest.

The history of Laos is complex and varied, shaped by the country's geography, culture, and relationship with neighboring countries. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have inhabited the region now known as Laos for tens of thousands of years. The early inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, who were later displaced by people who migrated from China and Southeast Asia. By the eighth century, the Kingdom of Lan Xang had emerged, which united several ethnic groups and established Buddhism as the dominant religion. 

The Kingdom of Lan Xang, also known as the Lan Xang Laos Map, was a powerful state in Southeast Asia that existed from the 14th to the 18th century. It was located in what is now modern-day Laos, and at its height, it encompassed parts of present-day Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China.

The origins of the Kingdom of Lan Xang can be traced back to the late 14th century, when Fa Ngum, a prince from the Khmer kingdom of Angkor, gathered a group of followers and established a state in the region. He formed an alliance with the local Tai people and successfully conquered neighboring states, including the Khmer kingdom of Champa and the Dai Viet kingdom.

Chao Fa Ngum Statue in Vientiane giant memorial in Chao Anouvong park Laos

Under Fa Ngum's leadership, the Kingdom of Lan Xang became a powerful and prosperous state, with a highly centralized government and a complex social hierarchy. He established Theravada Buddhism as the dominant religion and built numerous temples and monuments throughout the kingdom. Lan Xang was a major center of trade, with a well-developed network of roads and waterways that facilitated commerce with neighboring states.

King Setthathirath Laos

Following Fa Ngum's death, his son Oun Heuan succeeded him to the throne. However, Oun Heuan's reign was marked by internal strife and conflict with neighboring states. Lan Xang suffered a period of decline but was eventually restored to power under King Setthathirath in the mid-16th century. Setthathirath oversaw a period of cultural and architectural flourishing, with the construction of the That Luang stupa in Vientiane, which became a national symbol of Laos.

The Kingdom of Lan Xang continued to thrive under subsequent kings, including Souvanna Phouma and Souligna Vongsa. However, by the 18th century, the kingdom had declined in power and was increasingly vulnerable to invasion by neighboring states. In 1707, it was invaded and conquered by the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya. Lan Xang was subsequently divided into three separate states, which were later re-unified by the Lao monarchy in the 19th century.

In the late 19th century, Laos came under French colonial rule. France's interest in Laos was because the European powers were competing for influence and control over Southeast Asia. The French, in particular, were interested in expanding their colonial empire and securing access to the region's natural resources.

In 1893, France established a protectorate over Laos, which was then a collection of small, independent states. This gave the French control over the country's foreign affairs, while leaving the Lao monarchy in place as a puppet government.

Mekong River is the border between Thailand and Laos

The French were primarily interested in Laos for its natural resources, including timber, rubber, and minerals. The Mekong River, which flows through Laos and creates a border for Thailand, was also seen as a potential route for French traders to access China, which was a major market for European goods. The French established administrative control over the region, building roads, railways, and other infrastructure to facilitate trade and commerce.

The French had a significant influence in Asia, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were one of several European powers that sought to establish colonies and control over territories in the region.

In Southeast Asia, the French established a colony in Vietnam in the mid-19th century, which they later expanded to include Cambodia and Laos, creating the region known as French Indochina. The French were primarily interested in exploiting the natural resources of the region, particularly rubber, tin, and rice. They also saw the Mekong River as a potential trade route to China.

Unusual Boat on Mekong river in Luang Prabang, Laos

Some of the boats that are used in the Mekong River do not look familiar. The above photo shows an example of how the Lao people are creative enough to carry cargo and people along the river. There were plenty of watercrafts because the French wanted trade routes.

In addition to economic interests, the French also had a cultural and political influence on the region. They introduced Western-style education and institutions, including schools and universities, and promoted French language and culture. They also supported the establishment of a small, French-educated elite, who were trained to work in government and business.

Overall, the French influence in Asia was characterized by a focus on economic and political control, as well as the introduction of Western-style education and culture. This legacy continues to shape the political and economic landscape of many countries in the region today.

The French established administrative control over the region but allowed the Lao monarchy to continue as a puppet government. Laos was made part of French Indochina, along with Vietnam and Cambodia, and was used primarily for its natural resources, such as timber and rubber. During World War II, Laos was occupied by Japan.

After World War II, Laos declared independence from France in 1949. However, the country was soon engulfed in a civil war, as communist and non-communist factions vied for control. The Pathet Lao, the communist faction, received support from North Vietnam, while the non-communist faction received support from the United States. The war lasted until 1975, with the communist Pathet Lao emerging victorious.

After taking power in 1975, the Pathet Lao established the Lao People's Democratic Republic, a socialist state modeled after the Soviet Union and China. The new government implemented policies that aimed to redistribute wealth and improve the standard of living, but also resulted in economic stagnation and political repression. Many people fled the country, and the government faced international criticism for its human rights record.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Laos began to open up its economy and political system, adopting a market-oriented approach and introducing democratic reforms. However, the country remains a one-party state, with the Lao People's Revolutionary Party maintaining a firm grip on power. The government has pursued policies aimed at attracting foreign investment and promoting tourism, leading to some economic growth. However, the country remains one of the poorest in Southeast Asia, with many people living in rural areas and lacking access to basic services.

In spite of these impediments, Laos is a country that is rich in natural and cultural attractions, making it an appealing destination for tourists who are interested in history, adventure, and scenic beauty. Over the past few decades, Laos has developed a growing tourism industry, although it is not as well-established or as developed as some of its neighboring countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam.

Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple) in Luang Prabang

In recent years, the number of tourists visiting Laos has been increasing, with over four million international visitors in 2019. The country's top tourist destinations include the UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang, with its temples and traditional architecture, and the Champasak Cultural Landscape, which features ancient Khmer ruins. The above photo is of the Golden City Temple in Luang Prabang. The native name is Wat Xieng Thong. 

Ancient stone jars in a Plain of Jars near Phonsavan, Xienghouang province, Laos

Other popular attractions include the Plain of Jars, which contains thousands of ancient stone jars, and the Bolaven Plateau, which is known for its stunning waterfalls and coffee plantations. Laos also offers a range of outdoor activities for tourists, including trekking, kayaking, and cycling. The country's scenic landscapes, including its rivers, forests, and mountains, provide a wealth of opportunities for adventure tourism.

While Laos' tourism industry has been growing, it still faces a number of challenges, including underdeveloped infrastructure, limited transportation options, and a shortage of trained personnel. The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a significant impact on the industry, with travel restrictions and lockdowns affecting both domestic and international tourism. Nonetheless, Laos remains an attractive destination for travelers seeking an authentic, off-the-beaten-path experience.

Many travelers go to Laos because of its proximity to Thailand and Cambodia. There is much to see in Laos for everyone. I hope you get a chance to see it soon. It is on our list!

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