The human history of Laos stretches back more than 10,000 years as stone tools and skulls unearthed in Huaphan and Luang Prabang provinces can confirm. The famous giant jars in Xieng Khouang province and stone columns in Huaphan province date from the neolithic period.
The Laotian history
Over centuries, rural settlements grew slowly to ‘muang’ (townships) along the Mekong River. The charismatic King Fa Ngoum (1349-1357) began grouping the muang into a unified Lan Xang Kingdom, basing the capital at Xiengdong Xiengthong, now known as Luang Prabang. Fa Ngoum was also a warrior, and between 1353 and 1371 he invaded and conquered territories that include all of present-day Laos and much of what makes up northern and eastern Thailand. Under his fierce and dynamic rule, construction, development and national defence were organised.
The capital was moved to Vientiane in 1560 during the reign of King Setthathirath, who erected the That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine which is a well known symbol of the Laos nation. The warring Burmese occupied the capital for seven years from 1575, reflecting their dominance over Southeast Asia at that time.
In 1591 the two Laotian kingdoms in Luang Prabang and Vieng Chan were reunited under King Nokeo Koumane. In the 17th century, under the region of King Souliyavongsa, the Kingdom entered its ‘golden age’ and gained increasing attention from Europe. Reports written by Dutch merchants from the East Indian Company describe a land of magnificent palaces, temples, and awe-inspiring religious ceremonies. Vientiene was then considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia.
At the end of the reign of King Souliyavongsa, feudal lords challenged the throne, which in 1713, led to the division of the country into three Kingdoms: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassack. This rift and disunity created excellent opportunities for invasion, in particular, from Siam.
By the end of the 18th century, most of Laos was under Siamese (Thai) domination, leading to a costly war with Siam in the 1820s that ended in all three Kingdoms being ceded to the Thais. However, with the expansion of French Indochina in yhe late 19th century, the Thais eventually relinquished Laos to the French and in 1893, Laos became a French colony. The French organised this territory as a protectorate, with its administrative centre at Vientiane, and granted it autonomy in local matters. The catalyst for change was the WW2 Japanese occupation of Indochina, when a Lao resistance group named Lai Issara was formed to prevent the return of the French.
Independence was granted in 1953, but internal feuding between neutralist and communist factions was to continue for several years. When the USA bombed North Vietnamese troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos in 1964, it fomented the conflict between the royalist Vientiane government and the communist Pathet Lao who supported the North Vietnamese.
A coalition government was formed, but with the fall of Saigon in 1975, most of the royalists fled to France. The Pathet Lao took control of the country and the Laos People’s Democratic Republic was established in December 1975.
Throughout the 1980s Laos maintained friendly relations with the Vietnamese Communists. Since 1989, there has been a move towards a market economy, and a general relaxation of restrictions, including the emergence of a fledgling tourism industry. In a landmark event, Laos joined hands with its neighbors and became a member of Asean in July 1997.