Laos - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Laos: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Laos, officially Lao People’s Democratic Republic, independent state of Southeast Asia. Formerly part of the Indochinese Union, also known as French Indochina, Laos gained independence in 1953. The country was drawn into the Vietnam War (1959-1975), and in 1975 a Communist revolutionary movement overthrew Laos’s six-century-old monarchy and established a people’s republic. Laos is a mountainous, landlocked country, bounded on the north by China, on the east by Vietnam, on the south by Cambodia, and on the west and northwest by Thailand and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). It is rich in resources and has an ethnically varied population. The official language is Lao, and the capital and largest city is Vientiane (Viang Chan).


Laos has a total area of 236,800 sq km (91,400 sq mi). From northwest to southeast its maximum length is about 1,080 km (about 670 mi), while its narrowest width is about 120 km (about 75 mi).

Natural Regions in Laos

Topographically Laos has three distinct features. The first is the steep, heavily forested mountains that lie principally in the north but extend southeast as the Truong Son (Annam Highlands). The spine of this mountain chain forms the border between Laos and Vietnam. Elevations in the north reach 2,819 m (9,249 ft) at Phou Bia (Phu Bia), the country’s highest peak. In the south, heights reach about 1,980 m (about 6,500 ft), and the limestone terraces mounting to the east are more sparsely forested. Laos’s second distinctive topographic feature is the narrow but fertile floodplains of the Mekong River, which traverses Laos’s entire north-south length, and its tributaries. These plains are very narrow in the north but are wider farther south. Finally, three high plateaus are strategically situated through the country: the Plain of Jars in the north, the Khammouan Plateau in the center, and the Bolovens Plateau in the south.

Rivers and Lakes in Laos

Historically the Mekong River lay at the center of the Lao world. People living on both of its banks shared a common language and culture, and the river served as the major axis of communication for these societies. Now the river forms most of Laos’s western border, separating the Lao people on the east bank from their neighbors in Myanmar and Thailand on the west bank. Nevertheless, the river still serves as an important artery of transportation and communication. The river is navigable for most of its course in Laos, from where it emerges at the gorges of southern China to where it pours over the Khone Falls into Cambodia. Two series of rapids divide the middle Mekong into three reaches, each of which corresponds to a distinct region: the area centering on Louangphrabang in the north; the area around Vientiane and Muang Khammouan (Thakhaek) in the center; and the region around Champasak in the south. The Mekong is fed by a series of swift-flowing tributaries draining the mountains in the north and east of the country. Laos has only a few small lakes and natural wetlands, but hydroelectric dams form huge artificial lakes. A notable example is the Nam Ngum dam near Vientiane.

Plant and Animal Life in Laos

When Laos gained independence in 1953, about 70 percent of the land area was forested. Since then logging and slash-and-burn agriculture have reduced that to 68 percent. Forests are broadly of two kinds: dense tropical rain forests of broadleaf evergreens, and more open, mixed forests of evergreens and deciduous trees. The forests form a habitat for a great variety of animal life, including elephants and tigers, which are both threatened with extinction in the wild; several species of deer; pangolins (scaled anteaters); large rodents; snakes; and lizards.


Many of Laos’s environmental problems are related to the country’s rapid loss of natural forests. Commercial logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, fuelwood gathering, and population growth have contributed to the deforestation. The widespread clearing of trees has caused soil erosion, and the resulting silt accumulation in waterways and irrigation channels has polluted water resources. Deforestation is the most serious threat to wildlife habitats in Laos. Illegal animal poaching and commerce in the exotic meats market also threaten several animal species. In 2004, 91 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish were designated as threatened in the country.

The government has enacted legislation to protect wildlife and has established a number of natural heritage areas, but enforcement is limited. Officially, 16 percent (2007) of Laos’s total land area is protected.

Natural Resources of Laos

For centuries Laos’s most valuable resource has been its forests. They not only provide valuable timbers, such as teak, ironwood, and mahogany, but also serve as a source of forest products such as benzoin (used in making perfumes) and sticklac (used in varnish). Laos has substantial deposits of several minerals, including coal, limestone, and gypsum. There is also small-scale tin mining in central Laos. Agricultural resources are limited by the amount of arable land (only some 4 percent of total land area), but coffee is grown on the Bolovens Plateau, and pasturelands support a growing cattle industry. Laos also has plans to construct more dams in order to exploit its enormous potential for hydroelectric power.

Climate in Laos

Laos has a tropical monsoon climate, with a summer rainy season from May to October followed by a cool dry period from November to February, and a hotter dry period in March and April. Wide variations in temperature are due more to differences in elevation than to seasonal change. Temperatures range from as high as 40°C (104°F) in the Mekong lowlands in April to as low as 5°C (41°F) in the mountains in winter. In Vientiane, temperatures vary from an average of 29°C (84°F) in April to 22°C (72° F) in January. Rainfall varies regionally but averages about 1,780 mm (about 70 in) annually.


Laos has a population of 6,834,942 (2009 estimate), yielding a population density of 30 people per sq km (77 per sq mi). The population is increasing rapidly at a rate of 2.32 percent per year. Births, at 34 per 1,000, significantly exceed deaths, at 11 per 1,000, while life expectancy at birth is 57 years. These trends have created a youthful nation: More than 45 percent of Laos’s people are under the age of 15. If the current rate of growth continues, Laos will have a population of nearly 10 million by the year 2025. About one-quarter of Laos’s people live in mountainous regions. The rest live in upland valleys or on the flood plains of the Mekong and its tributaries. Just over three-quarters of the population live in rural areas, although the proportion of people living in urban areas is steadily increasing.

Vientiane is the capital and largest city of Laos. Louangphrabang, the former royal capital, is an increasingly popular tourist destination. Other major cities are the regional capitals of Savannakhét in central Laos and Pakxé in the south.

Ethnic Groups in Laos

More than a hundred indigenous ethnic groups and subgroups inhabit Laos, many spilling across borders into neighboring countries. Small minorities of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indians also live in Laos, mostly in urban areas.

The Lao government has classified Laos’s many indigenous groups into three broad categories: the Lao Lum, the Lao Thoeng, and the Lao Sung. The Lao Lum (lowland Lao) account for 66 percent of the population and comprise those groups who live at lower altitudes, speak Tai languages, and practice wet-rice cultivation. Major groups in this category include the ethnic Lao, who make up just over 50 percent of the total population of Laos; the Leu and the Phu-tai; and the Black Tai and the Red Tai, so called because of the colors of their traditional costumes. Modern Lao and Tai ethnic groups descended from Tai peoples who migrated to the Southeast Asian peninsula from the north, arriving in the area of present-day Laos by the 10th century.

The Lao Thoeng (Lao of the mountain slopes) make up 24 percent of the population, live at medium altitudes, speak Mon-Khmer languages, and practice slash-and-burn agriculture. They are believed to be Laos’s earliest inhabitants, having migrated to the area from the south in prehistoric times. The principal members of this group are the Khamu and the Lamet in northern Laos, and the Laven, Sedang, and Nyaheun of the Bolovens region in southern Laos.

The Lao Sung (Lao of the mountaintops), who make up the remaining 10 percent of the population, migrated to Laos beginning in the early 19th century, making them the most recent arrivals among the ethnic groups. They live at high altitudes in northern Laos, where they also use slash-and-burn methods of farming, and speak either Tibeto-Burman or Hmong-Mien languages. The Hmong (also known as the Meo or Miao) are the most numerous and politically influential of the Lao Sung. Others include the Mien (or Yao), Akha, and Phu Noi.

Language and Religion in Laos

The official language of Laos is Lao, which is written with an alphabet derived from a southern Indian script. The indigenous languages of Laos fall into four major groups: the Daic or Tai-Kadai languages, Mon-Khmer (a subgroup of the Austro-Asiatic languages family), Tibeto-Burman (a subgroup of the Sino-Tibetan languages family), and Hmong-Mien. A number of the languages and dialects spoken in Laos have never been properly studied by linguists. Some of these languages are spoken by only a few thousand people.

As a state that nominally embraces Communism, with its opposition to religion, Laos has no official religion. Nevertheless, a large majority of the population practices Theravada Buddhism. Even members of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party attend Buddhist ceremonies. The wat (Buddhist temple and associated monastery) forms both the religious and social center of most lowland Lao Lum villages. Animism (a belief in spiritual forces) was once practiced throughout Southeast Asia and is still practiced by many upland dwellers. Most Lao Thoeng and Lao Sung are animists, although some have converted to Buddhism. Among the Lao Lum, only a few Tai groups are animists. A few Lao practice Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, and there is a mosque in Vientiane for the tiny Indian Muslim community (see Islam).

Way of Life in Laos

Rural Lao Lum traditionally live in self-sufficient villages, typically made up of some 40 to 50 households. Houses of timber, thatch, and split bamboo are constructed on wooden piles, with the floor about 2 m (6 ft) above the ground. The agricultural year centers on the cultivation of glutinous (short-grain) rice, the preferred variety among the Lao Lum. Villagers use buffalo for plowing and oxen for pulling carts. Lao Lum form close-knit communities, but families are nuclear—consisting of two parents and their children—not extended. Marriage requires payment of a bride-price (a payment made by the groom to the bride’s family), and the groom normally resides at first with his wife’s parents. When the couple can afford it, they build their own house. Wealthier urban Lao Lum live in spacious villas. In the past, some Lao Lum men took two or more wives, a practice called polygyny, but this practice is now illegal and therefore less common.

Lao Thoeng villages are generally smaller than those of the lowland Lao but are constructed of similar materials. The Lao Thoeng are slash-and-burn farmers, who clear an area of the forest to build a village and plant crops. In 15 to 20 years, when the surrounding forest has been cut and the nutrients in the soil have been depleted, they may move the village to a new area. Lao Thoeng men must choose wives from a clan other than their own. After marriage, a wife resides with her husband’s family until the shared house becomes too crowded and the couple constructs their own. Polygyny is rare among the Lao Thoeng.

Lao Sung villages are similar in size to those of the Lao Thoeng, and like them may be relocated when soils are exhausted. Unlike other Lao, the Lao Sung construct their houses on the ground with a stamped earth floor. They raise numerous pigs and chickens and use hardy mountain ponies for transportation. Their principal cash crop traditionally has been opium, though production is now officially outlawed. Extended families made up of parents, sons and their wives, and grandchildren may number up to 20 people. Polygyny, while formerly widespread, is now illegal.

Education in Laos

Education for the Lao Lum traditionally took place in the wat, where Buddhist monks taught boys the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Other ethnic groups did not have traditions of formal education. Under French rule, from 1893 to 1953, education was limited to an urban elite. From 1953 to 1975, the royal Lao government developed a modern education system with a Lao curriculum, but even so it catered to only about one-third of the school-age population. When the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party came to power in 1975, it placed great emphasis on education, especially on eradication of illiteracy. It had few resources, however, and standards fell.

By 2007, the literacy rate stood at 73.2 percent. Almost all Lao Lum children of school age attend primary school for six years, and 44 percent continue on to secondary school for an additional six years. The school attendance rates for Lao Thoeng and Lao Sung children are considerably lower, however, and the goal of universal education is still some way off.

Laos has one university, the National University of Laos (1997), located in Vientiane. Regional technical colleges are located in Louangphrabang, Savannakhét, and Pakxé.

Health and Welfare in Laos

The infant mortality rate in Laos stood at 78 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2009, compared with 55 in Cambodia and 23 in Vietnam. Children who survived had a life expectancy of only 57 years, one of the lowest of any Southeast Asian country. Malaria is widespread in Laos, as are other diseases, parasites, and intestinal disorders such as diarrhea. The infection rate of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) increased in the 1990s. While the number of health-care professionals is increasing, the health infrastructure remains inadequate. There is only one doctor for about every 1,700 people. Hospitals are concentrated in urban centers, and village first aid posts lack proper resources.

Laos does not have a developed social welfare program. In rural areas the country’s bountiful climate ensures that no one starves, even in times of drought, as there are always wild tubers to eat and fish and small animals to catch. At times, people do experience real hardship and poverty for which there is no government relief. Welfare is communal, as people help each other to survive. The government pays a small pension to retired civil servants, but there are no unemployment benefits and only minimal disability payments for war veterans.


Ethnic Lao culture is closely entwined with Buddhism, but the country’s ethnic diversity produces a corresponding cultural diversity. Painting is not a highly developed art form, but music, dance, weaving, and embroidery are.

Literature and Poetry in Laos

Universal to the literature and poetry of Laos, as well as to its dance, music, and sculpture, are oral myths and legends based on the Phra Lak Phra Lam, the Lao version of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. This tale of Rama, a prince and the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, is known and loved throughout Southeast Asia. Other popular Lao literature includes the Jatakas, stories of previous incarnations of the Buddha. Both the Phra Lak Phra Lam and the Jataka tales contain moral metaphors enacted through rigorous battles in which good always triumphs over evil. Favorite stories tell how heroic princes defeat powerful demons. During the Vietnam War, popular literature told of love and the heroism of young soldiers. Since 1975 political censorship has limited the flowering of Lao literature.

Architecture and Sculpture in Laos

The precepts of Theravada Buddhism dictate the principles of Lao architecture and inspire the scenes that are often carved or painted in murals on temple walls. A typical temple compound includes a structure for ordaining new monks, a library for storing scriptures, living quarters for the monks, and various shrines for storing relics of the Buddha. Temples have high-peaked, tiered, outward-curving roofs, which in the northern style descend to within 2 m (6 ft) of the ground. The form of the Lao temple and its roof decoration reflect the influence of Thai architecture. Lao innovations include the tiered roof style that curves near to the ground, and a bronze roof ornament with five spires that symbolizes the Hindu Mount Meru. Laos’s most sacred Buddhist shrine is the 16th-century That Luang stupa in Vientiane.

Sculpture, too, has been mainly in the form of images of Buddha, from huge temple statues to small images done in gold or silver. While standing Buddha images assimilate Khmer (Cambodian) and Thai influences, seated images reveal characteristics that are uniquely Lao, such as extended earlobes, tightly curled hair, and long hands and fingers.

Arts and Crafts in Laos

For centuries Laos has been renowned for the fineness and intricacy of its silk weaving with its use of gold and silver threads. Hmong and Mien peoples produce embroidery with figured and geometric designs. Whole villages may specialize in a particular craft, such as making pottery or working silver. For example, people living in the mountains make an array of silver jewelry from coins to wear with their traditional dress, and people in the Vientiane region make silver boxes for betel chewing, bowls, and other items decorated with scenes from the Phra Lak Phra Lam.

Music and Dance in Laos

The classical music and dance of Laos was inspired by the court dances of India, Cambodia, and Thailand. Its themes draw from Hindu mythology, the Buddhist Jataka tales, and local legends. The royal entourage of Lao kings traditionally included musicians, and a typical orchestra improvised songs with sets of tuned gongs, xylophones, a bamboo flute, and other wind instruments.

Folk music and dance are favorite pastimes in rural Laos, and each ethnic group has its own folk dances, which frequently portray scenes drawn from daily life, nature, and love. Couples usually dance the slow and graceful lamvong, though young Lao prefer a faster beat. The most popular folk music instrument is the khaen, a large bamboo mouth organ.

Theater in Laos

Lao theater also reflects influence from India and Cambodia. Ballet for the court accompanied by an orchestra developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Dancers wearing elaborate costumes and headdresses with masks portrayed scenes from the myths and tales of the Phra Lak Phra Lam. Lao folk theater with narrative, singing, and music is popular at temple fairs.

Museums and Libraries in Laos

The former Royal Palace in Louangphrabang has been turned into a museum. It contains a collection of Buddha images from the 15th to the 17th centuries as well as personal possessions of the last Lao monarch. Ho Phakeo in Vientiane is the national museum and houses a collection representing the variety and originality of Lao culture from the 6th to the 20th centuries. Wat Sisaket in Vientiane also contains a collection of Lao art. The National Library in Vientiane is poorly stocked, although it does house a collection of palm-leaf manuscripts.


The traditional Lao economy was based on agriculture, handicraft production, and trade. Indeed, for centuries before Europeans arrived, flourishing local and long-distance trade networks had linked Southeast Asia with East and South Asia. It was the prospect of controlling the lucrative Asian trade in spices and other luxury goods that initially lured the French and other Europeans to Southeast Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries. Later they also hoped to exploit the region’s natural resources. However, French efforts to develop Laos economically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came to little, as they quickly concluded that Laos’s terrain made commercial agriculture and mining difficult. The civil war that followed independence in 1953 further impeded economic development. Even today, a large majority of Lao still engage in subsistence agriculture. Industry is limited to small-scale manufacturing of consumer products, though clothing and textile products have become a significant export. Government revenue is insufficient to cover expenditure and investment in infrastructure development, leaving the deficit to be met by foreign aid. The principal aid donors are Japan, France, Sweden, and Australia. In the late 1980s the government opened the economy to foreign investment. As a result, the average growth rate between and was percent, and by 2007 Laos’s gross domestic product (GDP) had climbed to $4.1 billion. Average GDP per capita rose to $701, compared to $806.10 in Vietnam and $578 in Cambodia. Like the economies of other countries in the region, the Lao economy suffered badly when the value of several Asian currencies fell sharply in the late 1990s.

Labor in Laos

Laos has a total labor force of 2.9 million, of whom 85 percent are in agriculture, 4 percent are in industry, and 11 percent are in the service sector. Rural underemployment and urban unemployment remain high, though statistics are not available. There is an official Federation of Trade Unions, but independent unions are banned.

Agriculture of Laos

Agriculture is the principal economic activity in Laos, contributing 42 percent of GDP. Only 4 percent of Laos’s total land area is cultivated, but 80 percent of the cultivated land is planted in rice (both glutinous and white). Other crops include corn, coffee (the only substantial export crop), soybeans, sugarcane, and sweet potatoes. Cotton, tobacco, and cardamom are also grown. The government encourages animal husbandry, and livestock numbers have steadily increased since the late 1970s. Lao farmers raise water buffalo, cattle, pigs, horses, goats, and poultry.

Forestry and Fishing in Laos

Timber is a major export for Laos, with production estimated at 6.1 million cu m (217 million cu ft) in 2007. Some timber is processed as sawn boards and plywood, but most is exported in the form of logs. Despite government attempts to regulate and manage the industry, illegal logging and smuggling of timber remain widespread. Fish is an important item in the Lao diet, but the catch of 107,800 metric tons (in 2007) is sufficient only for local consumption.

Mining, Manufacturing, and Energy in Laos

Laos produces few minerals, although mining yields small amounts of tin, gypsum, rock salt, and coal. Exploration has located reserves of coal, iron ore, lead, zinc, silver, and gemstones, as well as small deposits of other minerals. Manufacturing is limited to sawmilling, rice milling, brick making, and production of consumer products such as cigarettes, detergents, matches, plastics, beer, and soft drinks. Foreign investment spurred growth in the garment industry: In the 1990s more than 40 garment factories opened in the Vientiane area. Energy production offers the best prospect for increasing exports. Laos already exports to Thailand most of the 1 billion kilowatt-hours of power that it currently generates, 97 percent of it in the form of hydroelectricity.

Transportation and Communications in Laos

Laos has no railroads and an inadequate road system totaling only 31,210 km (19,393 mi). Maintenance is poor, and most roads are not paved. However, Laos is strategically situated in the middle of the Southeast Asian peninsula, and international funding is helping to upgrade roads linking Thailand with Vietnam and southern China through Laos. River transport remains important, and Laos has 4,620 km (2,870 mi) of navigable inland waterways. In 1995 Laos and Thailand opened the first bridge between their countries across the Mekong River. Air transport links all provincial capitals, and Lao Aviation offers a limited international service. Radio and television broadcasting are government monopolies, supplying programs to 145 radio receivers and 9 television sets per 1,000 people. The country’s three daily newspapers are state owned, with a combined circulation of only 14,558. Only 13 in every 1,000 people have telephones.

Tourism of Laos

Laos was virtually closed to foreign tourists from 1975 until the late 1980s, but then began to actively encourage tourism. Numbers of foreign visitors increased rapidly to more than 100,000 by the late 1990s. Favored destinations include Louangphrabang, Vientiane, and the southern part of the country.

Currency, Banking, and Trade in Laos

The unit of currency in Laos is the kip, which until the Asian financial crisis of 1997 was valued at 920 kip to U.S.$1. Laos has a central bank, the Bank of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and six state-owned commercial banks. Foreign banks have been allowed to operate in Laos since 1989. The Foreign Trade Bank handles foreign exchange and trade. Lao exports in 2007 were valued at $1,139 million, while imports stood at $1,010 million. Principal exports included timber, hydroelectricity, coffee, and tin; principal imports included food, petroleum products, vehicles, machinery, and steel. Laos’s most important trading partners are Thailand, Japan, and China. In 1997 Laos joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has a commitment to establish free trade among member states by 2008.


The present government of Laos is a republic, effectively controlled by the Communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The Lao People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed on December 2, 1975, replacing the Kingdom of Laos, which gained independence from France in 1953. From 1975 to 1991, power nominally resided in an interim Supreme People’s Assembly but was actually wielded by the Political Bureau of the LPRP. In 1989 national elections were held for the first time, and in 1991 Laos’s first constitution was enacted. All citizens who are aged 18 years or older may vote.

Executive of Laos

Under the 1991 constitution, executive power is vested in a president, who is chosen by the National Assembly for a five-year term. The president is assisted by a vice president. The president appoints a prime minister, whose cabinet must be approved by the National Assembly. The prime minister and his government also serve a five-year term.

Legislature of Laos

Legislative power rests with the National Assembly. Its 109 members are elected every five years. The National Assembly has the power to amend the constitution, pass laws, and approve the budget.

Judiciary in Laos

Justice is administered by the Supreme People’s Court and by provincial and district people’s courts. Both the president of the Supreme People’s Court and the public prosecutor general are appointed by the National Assembly. Judges are appointed by the Ministry of Justice.

Local Government of Laos

Laos is divided into 16 provinces, the special region of Xaisomboun, and the municipality of Vientiane. Provinces are divided into districts comprising towns and villages. All are administered by people’s administrative committees, whose activities are closely monitored at the district and provincial levels by parallel committees of the LPRP.

Political Parties of Laos

The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), known until 1972 as the Lao People’s Party, came to power in 1975. It is the only legal political party in Laos. The party president presides over the main organ of political power, the Political Bureau (or Politburo). The Central Committee, charged with leading the party between party congresses, elects the Politburo. Though nominally a Communist party founded on the principles of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the LPRP is more concerned with maintaining a monopoly of political power than with ideology. In 1990 the LPRP-dominated government stamped out attempts to establish an opposition party by giving ringleaders long prison sentences.

Defense of Laos

In 1976 the guerrilla forces that overthrew the royal Lao regime became the Lao People’s Army (LPA). In 2006 the LPA had 25,600 members, equipped with aging tanks and artillery. The air force numbered 3,500 men and also was equipped with aging equipment, including MiG-21 fighters, helicopters, and transport planes. A tiny 600-strong navy patrols the Mekong River. Lao men must serve in the military for a minimum of 18 months.

International Organizations in Laos

Laos became a member of the United Nations (UN) in December 1955. It joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July 1997.


The first inhabitants of Laos were early Stone Age people, who left the remains of their polished axes. By the middle of the 1st millennium BC, people on the Plain of Jars who probably spoke an Austro-Asiatic language created a flourishing Bronze Age culture. This culture was characterized by huge stone funerary urns (the ‘jars’ after which the plateau is named) and by bronze tools and weapons. Eventually its people learned to use iron smelted from ores mined nearby. Historians believe that Laos’s earliest inhabitants were the ancestors of the Lao Thoeng, who today live on Laos’s mountain slopes.

By the early centuries AD, small kingdoms were becoming established in mainland Southeast Asia. One of these, the kingdom of Zhenla, arose in the 7th century and extended from northern Cambodia into southern Laos. Later, small kingdoms were established in the regions of Vientiane and Louangphrabang and elsewhere on the middle Mekong.

In the meantime, the Lao and other Tai peoples had been slowly moving south and southeast from southern China and northwestern Vietnam, cultivating upland valleys and pushing out the Lao Thoeng. Lao myths tell of this expansion, which reached Louangphrabang perhaps as early as the 10th century. There the Lao established their first small principality in what is now Lao territory. In the 12th century this principality was absorbed into the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire (see Khmer Kingdoms), and in the late 13th century it came under the control of the Mongol Empire. During this turmoil, Tai peoples carved out their first substantial kingdoms, first in central and northern Thailand and then in Laos.

The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang

A Lao prince named Fa Ngum founded the kingdom of Lan Xang in the mid-14th century. The name Lan Xang, which means “a million elephants,” was chosen to inspire fear among lesser rulers at a time when elephants were the principal engines of war. Fa Ngum had been exiled by his grandfather, the ruler of the principality of Louangphrabang under the Mongols, and raised in the Cambodian capital of Ângkôr. In 1351 he was given a Khmer princess in marriage and a Khmer army with which to reconquer his rightful heritage. On his line of march, Fa Ngum drew together all the small Lao principalities (meuang) to form a powerful kingdom that could hold its own against the surrounding powers of Burma (now Myanmar), Vietnam, the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, and Cambodia.

Fa Ngum set about organizing and strengthening his kingdom. Theravada Buddhism, which was already known to the Lao, gained royal support from Fa Ngum’s Khmer queen, though animist cults worshiping local spirits (phi) were still strong. Buddhism legitimized kingship by characterizing the monarch as one having great merit, while kings reciprocated by endowing Buddhist monasteries. But Fa Ngum became too autocratic and demanding, and was deposed in favor of his son.

In the 15th century Lan Xang suffered from internal weakness, and in 1478 a Vietnamese army invaded Lan Xang, seizing and sacking the capital before being driven out. The kingdom was restored by King Vixun, a powerful and capable ruler. Vixun brought a golden Buddha image known as the Phra Bang to his capital city. The king’s Buddha became a symbol of the Lao state, and his capital came to be called Louangphrabang, or Great Phra Bang, in honor of the Buddha. Vixun was a great patron of the arts and of Buddhism. Poetry, literature, music, and dance flourished during his reign.

Briefly in the mid-16th century, the kingdom of Lan Na, centered on Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, was absorbed into Lan Xang. But the Lan Xang king at the time, Xetthathirat, was renowned more for his valiant defiance of the Burmese than for ruling Lan Na. Twice during Xetthathirat’s reign, Burmese armies ravaged Lan Xang, and twice they were driven from Lao soil. Xetthathirat moved the Lao capital south to Vientiane, a site more defensible than Louangphrabang and more central, for by this time Lao settlers had migrated into southern Laos (Champasak) and across the Khorat Plateau into what is now northeastern Thailand. Xetthathirat beautified his capital by building the great That Luang stupa and a temple to house his own favorite Buddha image, the Emerald Buddha. At the height of his power, however, Xetthathirat went too far in his military ambitions. He invaded Cambodia and disappeared when his army was routed. In the ensuing anarchy, Laos fell to the Burmese.

The Lao kingdom recovered in the 17th century under the great king Surinyavongsa. Early in his long reign, Europeans first visited Laos. A Dutch merchant and a Jesuit missionary both reached Vientiane and left admiring descriptions of the kingdom. Both Europeans were amazed at the wealth of the capital and the number of its monks, for Vientiane was a center of Buddhist studies. When Surinyavongsa died in 1695 without an heir, Lan Xang split into three separate kingdoms: Louangphrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak, all of which fell under the suzerainty of the kingdom of Ayutthaya (also known as Siam, later Thailand) during the next century.

In 1767 Burmese armies invaded Ayutthaya and seized and sacked the capital. The Siamese people rallied under King Phraya Taksin, who drove out the Burmese. Taksin was determined to increase the wealth and power of Siam, and to enforce his will over the Lao kingdoms. In 1778 he seized Vientiane and carried off the Emerald Buddha. Both Louangphrabang and Champasak agreed to pay Taksin tribute. When the last king of Vientiane, Chau Anu, tried to reassert his independence in 1827, Thai armies destroyed Vientiane.

French Colonization

France seized control of most of present-day Laos from Siam in 1893 and gained the rest in 1907. The French administered the kingdom of Louangphrabang indirectly through its king, while French officials directly administered the rest of the country. They did little to develop Laos, which became the sleepy backwater of Indochina.

During World War II (1939-1945) Japan stationed troops in Indochina under an agreement with the French, who maintained their administration throughout most of the war. In the last six months of the war the Japanese seized control of Indochina and interned French officials and troops. The Japanese granted Laos nominal independence in 1945.

After Japan and its allies lost the war, a nationalist movement known as the Lao Issara (Free Laos) formed an independent government in Laos. However, France reoccupied Laos the following year, and the nationalists fled to Thailand. The French unified their Lao territories into a single country with the king of Louangphrabang, Sisavang Vong, as head of state. Under French supervision, the new government adopted a constitution and joined the French Union. In 1949 France granted Laos partial independence and extended an offer of amnesty to the nationalists in exile, most of whom returned to the country. A few dissidents under the leadership of Prince Souphanouvong, however, allied themselves with the forces of the pro-Communist Vietnamese liberation movement known as the Viet Minh, who were still fighting the French. The Lao dissidents called their movement Pathet Lao (Lao State). When Viet Minh forces invaded Laos in 1953, they handed over large areas of the country to the Pathet Lao. France accorded Laos full independence in 1953 as a constitutional monarchy, the Kingdom of Laos. Delegates to the 1954 Geneva Conference, who were negotiating France’s withdrawal from Indochina at the end of the First Indochina War (1946-1954), endorsed the country’s independent status.

The Kingdom of Laos

By 1954 the Communist and non-Communist blocs of the Cold War era had begun to take shape. The United States, as the leader of the non-Communist countries, was particularly concerned with limiting the advances of Communism in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, France wished to maintain the power of the Lao elite who had cooperated with the French colonial government. Under the terms of the Geneva Accords, the Pathet Lao and the territories they controlled were to be integrated into the rest of the country under the rule of the royal Lao government. The accords declared a cease-fire between the forces of the French Union and those of the Pathet Lao, and called for the Pathet Lao to withdraw their forces to the two northern provinces under their control. An International Control Commission was set up to monitor the truce. Meanwhile, negotiations were begun to include the Pathet Lao in the political life of the country. In November 1957 the neutralist prime minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma, at last reached an agreement with his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, to form a coalition government that would include two Pathet Lao ministers. The two Pathet Lao provinces were returned to royal government administration. By this time French influence in Laos was waning, and the United States, opposed to any accommodation of the pro-Communist Pathet Lao, backed a right-wing, anti-Communist group that ousted Souvanna Phouma’s government and rigged new elections. The ouster led the Pathet Lao to resume guerrilla warfare in 1959.

In the renewed fighting, the Pathet Lao enjoyed the support of Communist bloc countries, while the United States supplied military aid to the right-wing forces. As the political situation deteriorated, a Lao army paratroop commander in the neutralist camp, Captain Kônglae, overthrew the U.S.-backed government and brought Souvanna Phouma back to power. The United States encouraged a rightist Lao military strongman, General Phoumi Nosavan, to drive Kônglae’s forces out of Vientiane and establish a rival government. Kônglae thereupon allied with the Pathet Lao, and together the neutralists and Communists soon gained control of more than half the country. Faced with this catastrophe, U.S. president John F. Kennedy agreed to accept the neutralization of Laos. A cease-fire was arranged, and a new 14-nation conference convened at Geneva in 1961. After prolonged negotiations the leaders of the three main Lao political factions (Pathet Lao, neutralist, and pro-Western) agreed to form a second coalition government led by Souvanna Phouma. The coalition government took power in 1962.

During the next two years Souvanna Phouma’s government came under increasing pressure from both the left and the right. Consequently, the neutralists themselves split, left-wing ministers left the government, and by 1965 the country had returned to civil war. As the war in Vietnam escalated, Laos became increasingly important to both North Vietnam and the United States. Both sides violated the neutrality of Laos: the North Vietnamese by infiltrating troops and supplies down the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail through eastern and southern Laos; and the United States by secretly bombing the trail and by recruiting, financing, and training a mercenary force of Hmong tribesmen to fight the Pathet Lao in northern Laos (see Secret Bombing of Cambodia). As the war dragged on, the bombing of Laos became heavier and the Hmong ‘secret army’ sustained terrible casualties and had to be reinforced by Thai mercenaries. Both North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces also suffered terrible losses.

As the United States sought a way to end the Vietnam War, the Pathet Lao strengthened their position in Laos and negotiations began for a cease-fire. Early in 1973 the Lao political factions agreed to a cease-fire and, in April 1974, formed a third coalition government, this time with equal representation from the right and left. Soon, however, the Pathet Lao gained political dominance. After Cambodia and South Vietnam fell to Communist forces in April 1975, the Pathet Lao used the opportunity to seize power in Laos.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic

In December 1975 the Pathet Lao made their move. They forced the king to abdicate and proclaimed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, modeled closely on other Communist states. Continuing the tradition of close cooperation between the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese, the new regime developed a “special relationship” with Vietnam, depending heavily on their larger neighbor for military and economic aid and closely coordinating their government policies. Vietnam also stationed troops in Laos to bolster the new regime. Souphanouvong became president, but real power lay in the hands of Kaysone Phomvihan, the secretary general of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), which had guided the Pathet Lao to victory. As prime minister, Kaysone moved quickly to create a one-party Communist state. The government collectivized agriculture and nationalized industry. As peasant resentment grew, tens of thousands of Lao fled to Thailand to be resettled in the United States, France, and Australia. With the economy collapsing, the government halted collectivization, and in 1981 it launched the country’s first five-year plan. The plan, however, failed to meet its targets, and in 1986, after intense Party debate, Laos decided to liberalize the economy and allow foreign investment. The Communist economic model of centralized planning gave way to an open-market economy in which the government did not control all prices and production.

In the late 1980s the LPRP was disconcerted by the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which had been an important ally, trade partner, and source of economic aid. Around the same time, Vietnam decided to withdraw its troops from Laos, due in part to reduced Soviet support and internal reforms. To secure new sources of aid and investment, Laos began working to improve relations with foreign countries such as Thailand, China, and Japan.

The LPRP, however, held firmly to power. In 1989 the government held the first elections for a National Assembly, whose first task was to endorse a constitution. After the new constitution came into effect in 1991, Kaysone gave up the office of prime minister for that of president. At the same time, the LPRP office of secretary general was abolished, and Kaysone became party president. When Kaysone died in November 1992, a smooth succession divided his power between Nouhak Phoumsavan as state president and Khamtai Siphandon as party president and prime minister. Sisavat Kaeobunphan was appointed vice president.

In the 1990s Laos freed itself from its “special relationship” with Vietnam. Laos continued its drive to open to the outside world, joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), normalizing relations with the United States, and participating in regional integration projects. The economy grew rapidly throughout most of the decade. In 1998 Khamtai replaced Nouhak as state president and Sisavat became prime minister. Only the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s marred an otherwise hopeful future.

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