Laos’ History Preview

Plain of Jar-ok

Plain of Jar




Mekong River

Stone tools discovered in Houaphanh and Luang Prabang provinces attest to the presence of prehistoric man in the hunter-gatherer stage in Lao territory from at least 40,000 years ago. Agriculturist society seemed to appear during the 4th millennia B.C. as evidence has been found by archeologists. Burial jars and other kinds of sepulchers have revealed a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 B.C. and iron tools were known since 700 B.C.


The proto-historic period is characterized by contact with Chinese and Indian civilizations. Between the fourth and eighth century, communities along the Mekong River began to form into townships, called Muang. This development culminated in the formation of the Lane Xang (million elephant) Kingdom in 1353 by King Fa Ngum and established Xieng Thong (now known as Luang Prabang) as the capital of Lane Xang Kingdom.


The Kingdom was further expanded by King Fa Ngum’s successors, one of the most notable being King Setthathirath who ruled from 1548-1571. He moved the capital to Vientiane and built the That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine, and a temple to house the Pra Keo, the Emerald Buddha.


In the 17th Century, under the reign of King Souliyavongsa, the Lane Xang Kingdom entered it’s most illustrious era. The country established first contacts with Europeans. In 1641, a Dutch merchant of the East India company, Geritt Van Wuysthoff, and later, the Italian missionary Leria de Marini, visited the Kingdom of Lane Xang and described Vientiane as the “most magnificent city of Southeast Asia”.


This golden age was followed by in-fighting for the throne, which led to the break-up of Lane Xang into the three kingdoms: Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champasack. All of these civil wars weakened the kingdom, thus creating opportunities for new foreign aggressors to invade.


The unsuccessful challenge of the Siamese by King Anouvong resulted in the virtual destruction of Vientiane. The Siamese took the Emerald Buddha to Bangkok where it remains today.


Laos was put under the French administration in 1893. To recover its full rights and sovereignty, the Lao people started fighting against the French regime. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of Indochina (founded in 1930), the struggle for self-determination and independence gained importance. Finally, the long period of military and political upheaval culminated with the International Conference and the Geneva Agreement on Indochina in 1954 where the independence of Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia were recognized.


The situation worsened during the Vietnam War, even though the Geneva Accord of 1962 had recognized the neutrality of Laos and forbade the presence of all foreign military personnel. By bombing the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail across Laos, US forces dropped more bombs on Laos than they did worldwide during World War II .


Laos remains the most heavily bombed nation in history. This was particularly the case in Houaphanh and Xieng Khouang Provinces, where international teams are still clearing the terrain of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) and people continue to suffer from the legacy of war.

In 1975, under the leadership of the Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party, victory was achieved. After the Lao people gained power in a bloodless take-over, establishing the People’s Democratic Republic on December 2nd. It was the culmination of a successful struggle for national liberation and a reinstatement of independence.


At present the multi-ethnic Lao people are making efforts to defendant develop Laos in line with the new policy of the Party and government in order to lead the country to progress and prosperity.


Research on Laos History




Southern Laos boasts one of the world’s largest deposits of dinosaur bones. During the 1930s French geologist Josué Heilman Hoffet discovered significant deposits of fossilised bipedal and quadropedal herbivores, freshwater molluscs, crocodiles and tortoises in the region of Ban Tangvai, 120 kilometres east of Savannakhet. No further research was undertaken on this important find until 1990, when a joint Lao-French paleontological team not only rediscovered Hoffet’s deposits, but also uncovered substantial new dinosaur remains in the area. Further joint field research in 1991 and 1992 revealed the well-preserved remains of sauropods, theropods and ornithopods. Today these important finds may be viewed at the Dinosaur Museum in Savannakhet.

Early in the 20th century homo erectus bones estimated to be between 500,000 and 300,000 years old were found in a cave in Houaphanh Province in north eastern Laos, but after being shipped to France they vanished without trace. More recently, stone implements and skulls were discovered in northern Laos during the Lao-Belgian Mekong River Valley Archaeological Survey of 1998-1999, testifying to the existence of human settlement there from as early as 40000 BCE. However, not until the neolithic period is it possible to shed significant light on Lao prehistory.


The discovery of elaborate burial sites in present-day Houaphanh, Luang Namtha and Xieng Khouang Provinces suggests that by the 1st millennium BCE sophisticated societies were flourishing in those regions.


In Houaphanh Province groups of hilltop standing stones or menhirs dating from around 1000-500 BCE mark the entrances to stone crypts containing human remains, ceramics, beads and bronze artefacts. Hintang Houamuang comprises some 20 menhir sites, the largest and best-known being those of San Kong Phanh. The latter comprises three main clusters, each linked to the other by isolated groups of menhirs. The menhirs themselves take the form of long and narrow blades of roughly-cut schist erected upright in the ground, one behind the other, with the tallest usually in the middle. They were erected over burial chambers excavated deep into the bedrock; access to the opening below was often through a narrow vertical chimney equipped with steps. Each of the burial chambers was covered by a large stone disc measuring up to two metres in diameter.


Believed to date from the same period as the menhirs of Hintang Houamuang, the standing stones of Hintang Nalae in a remote area of Luang Namtha Province are similar in shape but incised with various designs, underscoring their ritual importance.


However, perhaps the best-known ancient necropolis in Laos is the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang Province, where thousands of massive stone jars sculpted out of single pieces of stone have been found grouped in clusters across the Xieng Khouang Plateau, 1,000 metres above sea level. Scholars believe that the people who made the jars were the iron-using descendants of the people who created the standing-stone burials in Houaphanh Province; stone and bronze tools are not sturdy enough to carry out this kind of work, but the advent of iron forging in around the 4th century BCE would have offered new creative opportunities to the prehistoric necropolis builders.


To date some 50 jar fields have been identified, usually situated on promontories and other strategically high places; some sites contain more than 250 individual jars. At two of these sites earthenware jars have been found containing human bones. Scholars believe that the dead were first interred in the giant stone urns which were sealed with carved lids; the bodies were later disinterred, cremated and buried in earthenware jars. Both stone and earthenware urns were decorated with motifs such as cats, stars, or the raised-arm figure that the modern Lao call the ‘frog man’. Some of the grave-goods found in the jars indicate that the Plain of Jars civilisation engaged in international trade with China, India and neighbouring societies. The Plain of Jars is rich in salt, and it is likely that this commodity – highly valued at the time – secured its place on international trade routes.


In the early 1990s pots and other artefacts dating from the 2nd century BCE to the 3rd century CE were discovered during the construction of a tourist resort on small hill at Lao Pako on the Nam Ngum River near Vientiane. In 1995 a joint archaeological project with Sweden was set up, resulting in excavations in 1995-6 and 2002 and a site survey in 2002. Over 70 complete vessels were unearthed here, including jars, pots, bowls and plates; two of the vessels contained intact burials of young children, indicating the site to be yet another neolithic necropolis. In addition to pottery, excavations have revealed evidence of iron and textile production, which was believed to have been used for ritual purposes. Strong similarities have been noted between the decorative features of the pottery of Ban Pako and that of the pottery found at Ban Chiang and Ban Na Di in North East Thailand.


Mon-Khmer kingdoms


Mon-Khmer speaking peoples are believed to have migrated into mainland South East Asia from either south west China or north east India as early as 2000 BCE. At the start of the first millennium CE, both India and China began to establish trading contacts throughout the wider region; Indian influence was particularly strong in the Mekong basin area, and over successive centuries, as the Mon-Khmer peoples began to develop their own political institutions, Indian ideas and practices regarding kingship, law, religion, art, architecture, literature, language and writing were progressively assimilated.


The political entities which emerged during this period are generally referred to as kingdoms, but it would be more accurate to describe them as mandalas, constantly expanding and contracting spheres of influence based not on territorial boundaries but rather on the personal networks built up around the presumed sacred powers of each king.


By the 3rd century CE the Mon had established a major city-state at Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok, from which they gradually built up a large mandala known as Dvaravati (6th-11th centuries), which stretched from southern Burma across what is now central Thailand. In 769 Dvaravati extended its power northwards to the present-day northern Thai city of Lamphun near Chiang Mai, where it founded the kingdom of Haripunjaya. The proliferation of ancient Buddhist sites marked by Dvaravati-style bai sema (temple boundary stones) found along the middle reaches of the Mekong River in what is now central Laos suggests that during this very same period the Mon also extended their sphere of influence eastwards from Haripunjaya through the modern Lao provinces of Bokeo, Sayaburi, Vientiane, Saysomboun, Borikhamxai and Khammouane. Ancient urban centres in that region which are believed to have been established by the Mon include Souvannakhomkham in modern Bokeo Province, Candapuri (Chanthaburi, later the capital city of Vientiane) and Sayfong in present-day Vientiane Prefecture, Phainam (later Viengkham) in modern Vientiane Province and Sri Gotapura (later Sikhottabong) in present-day Khammouane Province. The Mon played a crucial role in the propagation of Therevada Buddhism throughout the wider region, laying the groundwork for its subsequent consolidation as the state religion under the Fa Ngum dynasty of Lane Xang.


Located on the banks of the Mekong River in what is now westernmost Bokeo Province, the ancient city of Souvannakhomkham is thought to have been one of the earliest Mon mandalas in what is now Laos, although much of the present remains are vestiges of a 16th century city established on the foundations of the earlier site by King Sai Setthathirat I (1550-1571) of Lane Xang.


Sri Gotapura (8th-11th centuries) is believed by Lao historians to be one and the same with the kingdom of Wen Dan which, according to Chinese annals, made four successive tribute missions to the Tang dynasty court during the 8th century. Sri Gotapura was based initially on the west bank of the Mekong in modern Thailand at the mouth of the Xebangfai River, but subsequently relocated eastward to the area six kilometres south of modern Thakhek, capital of Khammouane Province, where That Sikhottabong now stands. The mysterious Great Wall, which stretches 15 kilometres from northern Thakhek to rhe Xebangfai River, may well have been part of this city’s fortifications.


Some scholars believe that Candapuri (Chanthaburi), the earliest incarnation of the capital city of Vientiane, originated in the 8th century as a satellite kingdom of Sri Gotapura. The site on which Phra That Luang was later built may have been the spiritual centre of this Mon kingdom, the capital of which was probably situated in the area immediately to the west of the present-day monument where the earliest earthen city wall has been found (see Vientiane City Walls). Cultural links between Candapuri and its close neighbours Sayfong (present-day Hadsayfong District of Vientiane Prefecture) to the south and Phainam (present-day Viengkham District of Vientiane Province) to the north were to endure well into the Lane Xang era.


It has also been conjectured that Muang Sua (the earliest name of Luang Prabang) was originally established by the Mon, although as yet no firm evidence exists to support this theory.


Meanwhile in the south the Indianised Óc Eo civilisation, focused on modern Kiên Giang Province in the Mekong Delta region of southern Việt Nam, provided the cultural foundation for the proto-Khmer mandalas of Funan (1st-6th centuries CE) and Chenla (5th-8th centuries), the influence of which extended at least as far north as the present-day southern Lao provinces of Champassak, Attapeu and Sekong. Wat Phu in modern Champassak Province is known to have been a sacred Hindu site from at least the 5th century CE, when the nearby city of Setapura is believed to have served as an important political centre of Upper (Land) Chenla. In the centuries which followed, as Upper and Lower Chenla merged and developed into a unified Khmer kingdom, the magnificent temple complex of Wat Phu Champassak (7th-12th centuries) was constructed here to serve as the spiritual and intellectual centre of a new regional capital Lingapura, along with a Khmer road which linked the region directly to Angkor.


By the 11th century the Khmer had eclipsed the power of the Mon throughout the wider region. Some believe that by the 12th century the Khmer kingdom stretched as far north as Vientiane; the ruined prasat at the rear of Wat Simuang in central Vientiane, the hospital said in an inscription to have been founded at Sayfong (25 kilometres south of Vientiane) by King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), and the temple at Heuan Hin in Savannakhet Province may all have been rest houses (dharmasala) constructed along the roads which once criss-crossed the Khmer empire.While the true extent of Khmer control over central Laos during this period may never be known, what is certain is that during the following two centuries the region was steadily subsumed into a patchwork of Tai muang, laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Lane Xang kingdom.


Early Tai kingdoms


Tai-Kadai speaking peoples (of which the Lao are an ethnic sub-group) are believed to have begun migrating south from the Nan Chao kingdom of southern China by at least the 8th century.


While their initial rise to power was achieved under Khmer overlordship, the subsequent decline of the Khmer empire and a series of judicious alliances with the Mongols afforded the more powerful Tai rulers an opportunity to throw off the yoke of Angkor. The earliest Tai imperial mandalas to emerge in the wider region were Sukhothai and Lanna; other important Tai kingdoms of this period included Xiang Saen (Chiang Saen) the loose confederations of Sip Song Chu Tai (north west Việt Nam) and Sip Song Panna (Xishuangbanna in southern China). Meanwhile in what is now Lao territory Candapuri, Sayfong, Phainam, Sri Gotapura and Muang Sua became the Tai muang of Chanthaburi, Sayfong, Phainam, Sikhottabong and Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, setting the stage for the foundation of the kingdom of Lane Xang in the mid 14th century.


Lane Xang


During the late 14th century Muang Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (modern Luang Prabang) emerged from Khmer suzerainty to become the kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao (‘One Million Elephants under a White Parasol’).


Its founder was Fa Ngum (1353-1373), who had spent his early life in exile at the Khmer court and married Khmer Princess Keo Kaengnya. Dispatched at the head of a 10,000-strong Khmer army in 1351 to expel the forces of an ascendant Ayutthaya from the Khorat Plateau (now the Isaan or north eastern region of Thailand), Fa Ngum resolved instead to seize the region for himself. Subduing Muang Sikhottabong, Muang Chanthaburi (Vientiane), Muang Phainam and Muang Phuan (Xieng Khouang), he went on to recover his ancestral territory of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong and proclaim himself King of Lane Xang in 1353. After defeating the Siamese and concluding a treaty with the Việt king, Fa Ngum was left in control of a large area of peninsular South East Asia which stretched from today’s Chinese border in the north to modern Sekong Province in the south, and from modern Thailand’s Khorat Plateau in the west to the Annam Highlands in the east.


Adopting Therevada Buddhism, Fa Ngum requested the Khmer King in 1358 to send a religious and cultural mission to Lane Xang to help establish the Buddhist sangha. With the delegation came the pha bang, a sacred golden Buddha image which remains to this day the country’s most revered religious symbol. However, the pha bang was not brought immediately to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong but installed instead at a new sanctuary in Viengkham (Phainam), where it would remain until King Wisunarath finally transported it north in 1502.


The 16th century witnessed an extraordinary cultural flowering in Lane Xang, presided over by three illustrious kings – Wisunarath (1501-1520), Photisarath (1520-1550) and Sai Setthathirat I (1550-1571)


Xiang Dong Xiang Thong continued to function as the capital of Lane Xang until the mid 16th century, when King Sai Setthathirat I moved his palace south to Vientiane – partly to exploit the latter’s greater agricultural potential and partly in order to reduce the risk of attack by the Burmese. However, in honour of the sacred pha bang, the king changed the name of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong to Luang Prabang (Royal City of the Pha Bang), and in subsequent centuries, with its many important wats, the northern capital was to retain its importance as a religious and spiritual centre.


Following the mysterious death of King Sai Setthathirat I in 1571 while campaigning in the south, the kingdom of Lane Xang was plunged into a bloody 70-year war of succession, during which time it was relegated to the status of a Burmese vassal kingdom. Order was finally restored by King Suriyavongsa (1638-1690), whose long and peaceful reign is remembered as a second golden age of Lao culture during which Vientiane emerged as an important regional centre for Buddhist learning. However, Suriyavongsa’s death was followed by yet more internecine feuding, and in the face of repeated Burmese invasions Lane Xang broke up into three smaller kingdoms centred on Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak.


Three kingdoms


Following the division of Lane Xang into the three rival kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak, Siamese influence in the region grew steadily, and by the mid 18th century Ayutthaya was exacting tribute from all three. Notwithstanding the destruction of Ayutthaya by Burmese troops in 1767 (part of a campaign in which Luang Prabang was occupied for seven years by the Burmese), the Siamese quickly regrouped under General Taksin and reasserted their authority over the three territories. The sacred pha bang, which had been moved to Vientiane in 1707 following the breakup of Lane Xang, was captured by the Siamese and carried off to Bangkok in 1779, although it was returned a few years later when Nanthasaen (1781-1795) was installed as king of Vientiane by Siamese King Rama I, who believed that it had brought bad luck to Siam.


Nanthasaen was followed on the throne of Vientiane in 1795 by his younger brother Inthavong (Sai Setthathirat III), and subsequently in 1805 by his youngest brother Anou (Sai Setthathirat IV), who is regarded by the Lao people as a national hero for his valiant but ultimately disastrous rebellion against Siamese overlordship. Following Bangkok’s agreement in 1820 to install Anou’s son as king of Champassak, King Anou resolved to throw off the Siamese yoke, annex Luang Prabang and re-establish the kingdom of Lane Xang. Strengthening his ties with Việt King Minh Mạng, Anou mounted a three-pronged invasion of Siam in 1827, marching on Bangkok with armies from Vientiane, Roi Et and Ubon under the pretext that he was coming to help Siam resist a British invasion. As soon as the Siamese realised his true intentions, they assembled a large army to drive King Anou back to the Mekong River, where his troops suffered a resounding defeat. Following the fleeing Lao troops across the river, the Siamese captured and laid waste to Vientiane in 1828, incorporating it into their territory and forcibly resettling many thousands of its residents in Siam. In the subsequent conflict between Siam and Việt Nam over territory in the north east, these were joined by thousands more from Muang Phuan (Xieng Khouang), as a result of which there are today more Lao-speaking people in north eastern Thailand (Isaan) than there are in Laos itself.


Once again, the sacred pha bang was removed to Bangkok, remaining there until 1867 when it was finally returned to Luang Prabang. King Anou himself fled to Huế but was later captured and brought in a cage to Bangkok, where he died in 1835, bringing the Vientiane monarchy to an end.


Meanwhile in the south, following the death of King Pham Ma Noi (1813-1819), Champassak became a province of Siam. From 1826 until 1893 it was administered on behalf of Bangkok by a succession of governors drawn from the former Champassak royal family.


Consequently on the eve of the French colonial period the only distinct sovereign entity that remained of the former kingdom of Lane Xang was Luang Prabang, the rulers of which found themselves increasingly torn between the rival powers of Siam and Việt Nam.


Laos under the French

The colonial era began in the 1859 with the French conquest of Sài Gòn. In 1862 Việt King Tự Đức was forced to cede control of the south, which became the Protectorate of ‘Cochinchina’. Two years later King Norodom agreed to the establishment of the Protectorate of Cambodia, which was upgraded 20 years later to the status of a colony. By the late 1880s Protectorates of ‘Annam’ (central Việt Nam) and ‘Tonkin’ (north Việt Nam) had also been created. By this time the French had resolved to annex the Lao territories, believing they held deposits of precious metals and that the Mekong River offered a ‘back door’ into China. They were also concerned to prevent their imperial rival Britain from manipulating Siamese interests in the region and eager to pacify the mountainous north, which from the 1870s had been periodically disturbed by armed bands of renegade Black, Yellow and Striped Flag mercenaries from China.


In 1886 France signed a treaty with Siam establishing a vice consulate in Luang Prabang under Auguste Pavie, and in the following year the French staked their claim to the kingdom based on its status as a tributary of Việt Nam, which they already controlled. When Luang Prabang was sacked in 1887 by a joint force of Tai Khao and Chinese Black Flag rebels under Sip Song Chu Tai leader Kham Hum (Đèo Văn Trị), French troops rode in and rescued King Oungkham (1868-1895), who gratefully accepted French protection for his kingdom.


In 1893, with French gunboats menacing Bangkok, Siam reluctantly ceded all of the territories east of the Mekong to France. The central and southern provinces were initially incorporated as one of the five associated regions of Indochina, while the northern kingdom of Luang Prabang remained a French protectorate, but in 1899 all of the Lao territories became a single administrative unit. Further agreements with Siam in 1904 and 1907 added parts of Sayaburi and Champassak provinces west of the Mekong to French Indochina. The province of Houaphanh was appended to Luang Prabang in 1933.


The French approach to colonial administration in Laos has been described as one of ‘benign neglect’. Headed by a Résident supérieur based in Vientiane, the colonial government was staffed by only a few hundred French civil servants at any given time, and while the royal court in Luang Prabang continued to manage its own affairs, the day-to-day running of the territories was entrusted largely to Vietnamese civil servants in Vientiane. Meanwhile since there was no industry to speak of and agriculture was barely self-sufficient, there was little money for infrastructural development such as roads, schools and hospitals.


Ironically it was the French themselves who unwittingly sponsored the idea of modern nationhood amongst the disparate Lao territories, primarily in an attempt to remove the Lao people from the cultural orbit of neighbouring Siam, which increasingly aspired to the creation of a ‘Greater Siam’ made up of all the Tai-speaking territories. During the 1930s and 1940s, through the auspices of a small French-educated Lao elite, Lao language and literature was promoted and the first Lao-language Lao history books appeared in print. During this period too, in recognition of the central educational role of Buddhism in Laos, efforts were made to reorganise and give national character to the Lao Buddhist sangha through the establishment of Buddhist Institutes in Vientiane (1929) and Luang Prabang (1932), the restoration of Ho Phra Keo and the promotion of Vientiane’s Wat Sisakhet and Wat Ong Tu as centres of Buddhist ceremonial. In the early 1940s a Service de propagande Lao was set up to ‘awaken the Lao national spirit’, and in the so-called Samay Funefou Xat era which followed the French government launched a bi-weekly newspaper called Lao Nyai (‘Great Laos’), which ran poetry competitions celebrating Lao culture and history and contained features which sought to trace the ‘glorious lineage of the modern Lao’ back to the kingdom of Lane Xang.


The events of World War II forever shattered the image of French supremacy, giving fresh impetus to nationalistic sentiment in Laos. Following the Japanese occupation of French Indochina in March 1945, King Sisavangvong was obliged to declare an independent state, but when the Japanese surrendered five months later he quickly moved to re-establish the French protectorate. At this juncture Prime Minister and Hereditary Uparat (Viceroy) Prince Phetsarath took over leadership of Lao Issara (‘Free Laos’) – a resistance movement originally formed against the Japanese – and in open defiance of the king proclaimed an independent and unified Laos in September 1945. King Sisavangvong responded by dismissing Prince Phetsarath and was subsquently placed under house arrest and forced by the National Assembly to abdicate. However, in March 1946, at the request of Lao Issara, the king re-ascended the throne as constitutional monarch of all the Lao territories.


Notwithstanding these events, the Allies had decided that the French should return, and just a few days after the king’s coronation French paratroopers moved north from Champassak to Thakhek, where they defeated a joint Lao Issara-Việt Minh force led by Prince Phetsarath’s half-brother Prince Souphannavong. Re-occupying Vientiane and Luang Prabang in April 1946, the French endorsed the unity of Laos as a constitutional monarchy within the French Union, and in the following year elections were held which led to the appointment of the first Royal Lao Government. However, the Việt Minh subsequently stepped up their offensives against French rule in Việt Nam, and in the years which followed the French government realised that if it was to preserve any of its former empire it would have to lighten its colonial burden. Prince Phetsarath and his half-brothers Prince Souphannavong and Prince Souvanna Phouma, who had fled to Siam in 1946 to set up a Lao Issara government-in-exile, were therefore invited to enter into formal negotiations for the granting of greater autonomy to Laos. The more moderate Prince Souvanna Phouma subsequently returned under amnesty to Vientiane where he helped draw up the Convention of 1949, which recognised Laos as an ‘independent associate state’ within the French Union. However, neither Prince Phetsarath nor Prince Souphannouvong were satisfied with French conditions for independence; Prince Phetsarath subsequently made his home in Thailand, while Prince Souphannouvong returned to north west Việt Nam and in alliance with the Việt Minh established a resistance movement known as the Lao Patriotic Front (Neo Lao Hak Xat), which quickly established a firm foothold in the north eastern provinces of Houaphanh and Phongsali.


In 1953 the French government granted full sovereignty to both Cambodia and Laos. Early the following year French forces suffered a calamitous defeat at Điện Biên Phủ, obliging them to sue for peace at the Geneva Conference of 1954, the terms of which ended French involvement in South East Asia and effected the fateful division of neighbouring Việt Nam along the 17th parallel between the communist north and the capitalist south.


Royal Lao Government (RLG)

The Franco-Lao Treaty of 1953 created a sovereign, independent Laos, but failed to settle the issue of who would rule the country. Consequently the years which followed were marked by increasingly bitter rivalry between the neutralists under Prince Souvanna Phouma, the right wing under Prince Boun Oum of Champassak, and the left-wing, Vietnamese-backed Lao Patriotic Front (now known under the name Pathet Lao) under Prince Souphannouvong and future Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane.


During this period a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to establish coalition governments. A Government of National Unity was established in 1958 under Prince Souvanna Phouma, but this fell just a few months later. Then in 1960, amidst coups and counter-coups, fighting broke out between the Royal Lao Army and the Pathet Lao. A second Provisional Government of National Unity formed by Prince Souvanna Phouma in 1962 met the same fate as its predecessor, and thereafter the situation steadily deteriorated as the conflict in Laos increasingly became a focus for superpower rivalry.


Alarmed by the growing power and influence of the Việt Minh and fearing the so-called ‘domino effect’, the United States began in 1953 to dispense large quantities of aid to Laos, engendering in the process widespread corruption within the Royal Lao Government. American involvement increased further in the early 1960s when – in response to a perceived Soviet-backed communist attempt to take over Laos, and in direct contravention of the 1963 Geneva agreement (which among other things banned the use of foreign troops on Lao soil) – the US government launched a covert war in Laos. At the outset this involved indirect military support, including the training and supply of RLG General Vang Pao’s forces in Xieng Khouang Province by US Special Forces teams and the ferrying of men and equipment into Laos from Thailand by the CIA’s commercial airline, Air America. But in 1964 the Royal Lao Government gave the USA the green light to work independently, and in the following year, as the war in neighbouring Việt Nam began to escalate, American bombers began attacking the Hồ Chí Minh Trail in southern Laos. By 1968, as Pathet Lao and Việt Minh forces began to get the upper hand in the north east of the country, Xieng Khouang Province became a ‘free fire zone’ and bombing of the Hồ Chí Minh Trail increased in intensity. By the time the US bombing ended in 1973 over two million tonnes of ordnance had been dropped on Laos – including tens of thousands of bombs jettisoned on Xieng Khouang Province by B-52 crews returning to Thailand after abortive raids on Hà Nội. Thus was Laos assured the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation, on a per capita basis, in the history of warfare.


A ceasefire was finally agreed in February 1973 following the Paris Agreements between Washington and Hà Nội, and in April 1974 yet another Provincial Government of National Unity was established, once more with Prince Souvanna Phouma as Prime Minister. However, by this time Pathet Lao forces controlled large areas of the country, and following the fall of Sài Gòn in April 1975 they advanced on the capital. In December 1975 King Sisavangvathana abdicated and the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos was established with Prince Souphannavong as President and Kaysone Phomvihane as Prime Minister and Secretary General of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP).


Laos since 1975

In December 1975 the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) was declared the ruling party of
the newly-christened People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. The LPRP has governed the country ever since.


The first decade after 1975 was a period of considerable hardship for the people of Laos. About 10 per cent of the population had left the country, including many of the educated and skilled. From 1975 to 1985 the economy grew at less than three per cent each year, barely enough to feed the population, and an abortive attempt to collectivise agriculture in the late 1970s seriously disrupted production.


At the Party Congress of 1986 the leadership announced a series of economic and social reforms known collectively as chintanakan mai (‘new imagination’), which closely resembled the Vietnamese policy of đổi mới (‘renovation’). Central to these reforms was the adoption of the New Economic Mechanism (NEM), which was designed to shift the economy away from central planning and towards limited free enterprise, at the same time opening the doors to foreign investment. These reforms have had a positive impact on the development of private enterprises, foreign tourist arrivals, foreign trade and foreign investment, and over the past decade GDP growth in Laos has averaged six per cent. However, Laos remains dependent on support from international donors, notably for its budget deficit.


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  •   In THAILAND: No. 25/A2, Nak Niwat Soi 21, Lad Prao 71, Bangkok 10230

  •   In CAMBODIA: Sala Kanseng, Svay Dangkum, Siem Reap

      In MYANMAR: 109, Sinh-oo-dan Street, Latha Township, Yangon

      In LAOS: Hom 07 Ban Nasamphan, 13th North Road, Luangprabang


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