Until the advent of European colonialism, the history of Laos and its neighbors was largely defined by the ebb and flow of empires. Like the tides of the sea played out over the centuries, one ruling civilization broke the power of its predecessor, leaving its mark on culture, language, and buildings.
The earliest defined kingdom or state in Laos was Chenla, based in what is now Champasak in the south. There were other kingdoms, such as Sri Gotapura in central Laos around what is now Tha Khek and Chanthaburi in what is now Vientiane. The original Thai, Shan, and Lao people were migrants from southern China. They all practiced wet rice cultivation and they tended to settle along river valleys. Their gods in the form of powerful snakes called ngeuk were believed to live in these rivers. Many rural Lao people still believe in them.
Laos can trace its history as a unified state to the Kingdom of Lane Xang Hon Khao ("one million elephants under a white parasol"). Formed in 1353 by an exiled prince named Fa Ngum, its capital was Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, later renamed Luang Prabang, or "Great Prabang," in honor of a gold Buddha image (prabang) given to the kingdom by the court at Angkor. Fa Ngum ran into trouble with local nobles both because of his loyalty to Angkor and his habit of trying to seduce their wives and daughters. He was deposed in favor of his son, Samsenthai, and went into exile, dying 5 years later in the northern Thai town of Nan in what was then the Kingdom of Lanna. Samsenthai made overtures to the Thai kingdoms of both Lanna and Ayutthaya (the emerging power that supplanted Sukhothai), marrying princesses from both, thus reducing dependence on Angkor and consolidating independence within the dynastic shifts. Samsenthai was on the throne for 42 years and after he died the kingdom was less stable, with Queen Mathevi successfully murdering a procession of young kings before taking power herself. She was then deposed by nobles and finally drowned in the Mekong as a sacrifice to the snake god. After these dramatic events, Samsenthai's youngest son took the throne, modestly naming himself Xainya Chakkaphat, which means "Universal Ruler." To be fair he did live up to his name, and turned out to be a wise and decent monarch.
At the end of the reign of Xainya Chakkaphat, Lan Xiang suffered invasion at the hands of the Vietnamese under their emperor Le Thanh Tong. The Vietnamese forces captured and sacked Xiang Dong Xiang Thong. Xainya Chakkaphat took to the mountains and jungles with his remaining forces and, in a precursor to modern events, mounted a successful guerrilla campaign against the invaders who were beaten not only by the force of arms but also by malaria.
Renewal came under the rule of King Visoun, who arrived on the throne in 1501 having previously been governor of Viang Chan. This renewal gained momentum under his son Pothisarat, and reached its peak under his grandson Setthathirat. It was his reign that saw construction of Laos's most beautiful wats, including Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang.
Land in Turmoil
Around this time, the Burmese became a new and predatory power on the scene and the region was plunged into turmoil. King Setthathirat had cultivated ties with Lanna and Ayutthaya, both of which came under attack from the Burmese. He moved his capital to Vieng Chan in 1560. War against the Burmese was to be his downfall, eventually bringing in an era of defeat and turmoil for the next 60 years. Lan Xang became resurgent in 1638, with the ascent to the throne of King Suriya Vongsa. His 57-year reign marked a golden age of Lao history during which Lan Xang was not only politically and militarily powerful but was also a center of Buddhist learning and the arts.
In 1695, toward the end of Suriya Vongsa's reign, a succession crisis ensued. His son and heir was found guilty of adultery and the king made no effort to prevent a sentence of execution being carried out. After the king died, the fact that there was no heir caused Lang Xang to fracture into three disempowered kingdoms. All of them eventually came under the suzerainty of the now all-powerful empire of Ayutthaya. The Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in 1767, but under General and then King Taksin, they were driven out. By 1779, all the Lao kingdoms were once again paying fealty to the Siamese. In 1826, the new king of Vieng Chan, Chao Anou (who was originally Siamese educated and Siam sponsored), attacked the Siamese but was quickly driven back. Chao Anou died a captive in Bangkok and Vieng Chan was sacked while its population was driven into exile en masse east of the Mekong to Siam, large parts of which remain heavily Lao in character to this day. All of Laos was now under the Thai thumb, but there was also a new factor to be considered: the French.
The French Step In
In 1863, France declared Cambodia a protectorate and shortly afterward the new colonial power sent boats up the Mekong on an exploratory expedition. Twenty years later, Luang Prabang became the epicenter of an anarchic battle between Chinese warlords, Siam, and the French. The town was looted and burned by these Chinese interlopers and their allies in 1887. The King fled further into the arms of the French and they offered him their protection. At this time, confrontation between French colonial interest and Siamese power got nasty. The French sent gunboats to Bangkok. The Thais ceded all the lands east of the Mekong River to France and thus Laos became part of a new empire.
As with Cambodia, the French were most interested in using Laos as a buffer state to insulate their lucrative interests in Vietnam. They established their capital in Viang Chan, which they changed to the Francophone name of Vientiane. They certainly had their eyes set on further conquest, but that was checked by the buildup to World War I and a realignment in their old colonial rivalry with the British. Over the next 5 decades, the French built many of the things that give Laos so much of its character today. It also saw an influx of Vietnamese who actually outnumbered locals in some places and still define the character of towns along the Mekong.
The Emergence of French Indochina -- In this modern age, rampant imperialism is something that we would find very hard to justify. Good coffee, however, is not. France's interest in the Indochina region began in the 17th century with the mission of the Jesuit priest, Father Alexandre de Rhodes. Involvement was confined to trade during the 18th century. The French became more proactive during the 19th century, aiding Catholic missionaries in Vietnam who were under pressure from the ruling Nguyen dynasty. In September 1858, 14 French gunships, 3,000 men, and 300 Filipino troops provided by the Spanish under the command of Charles Rigault de Genouilly attacked the port of Tourane (present-day Da Nang), causing a lot of damage, and occupying the city. Heading south, De Genouilly then attacked and occupied the poorly defended city of Sai Gon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City). On April 11, 1862, the Vietnamese government was forced to cede the territories of Biên Hòa, Gia Dinh and Dinh Tuong to France. In 1862, France obtained further concessions from Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc, ceding huge amounts of territory to this newly rapacious aggressor. In 1863, the Cambodian King Norodom had requested the establishment of a French protectorate over his country. French Indochina came into being in October 1887, consisting of Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina (which together form modern Vietnam), and the Kingdom of Cambodia following the Sino-French War of 1884. Laos was added after the Franco-Siamese War of 1893. The union continued until 1954, when the French were forcibly ejected by the heroic efforts of the forces of Ho Ch Minh under the command of military genius General Giap at Dien Bien Phu. Although the French occupation of Indochina was short and often brutal, they left their mark in culture, food, language, and architecture. It was the French who recognized the beauty of Luang Prabang and enhanced it. It was they who rebuilt Vientiane after its was destroyed by the Thais, and it was they who attempted to restore many ancient monuments. Above all, it was the French who brought the humble baguette sandwich to Asia and some of the best coffee in the world. The Lao call baguette Khao ji, and this French legacy of superb breakfasts continues to this day.
World War II & After
With the advent of World War II, Siam was allied to Japan and went for an opportunistic land grab, taking western Cambodia and Xainaburi and Champasak in Laos. In response, the French actively encouraged Lao nationalism (even though Vichy France was pro-Axis after the fall of Paris), thus letting a genie out of the bottle that they would never be able to return. It prompted a massive and punitive response from the Japanese in 1945. After the defeat of the Japanese, there was turmoil as King Sisavang Vong veered wildly between independence and supporting a return of the French. After sacking his prime minister and cousin, Prince Phetsarath, he was deposed by the National Assembly. The French were largely behind this as part of De Gaulle's push to regain the lost colonies of Indochina. The British who were administering these countries acquiesced, not wishing to create a precedent in terms of their own colonial upheavals, particularly in India.
There had been contacts between the Lao freedom movement, or Lao Issara, and the Communist Viet Minh since 1945. In 1950, an offshoot of pro-Vietminh Issara came into being. It was dubbed the Pathet Lao. The main figure behind this was Lao Prince Souphanouvong, who became the focus of Lao resistance to the French and president of the Naeo Lao Issara or Free Laos Front. The real power, however, lay with hard-core Communists Kaysone Phomivane and Nouhak Phoumsavan. In 1953, the Vietnamese revolutionary forces of Ho Chi Minh entered northern Laos in a drive to take Luang Prabang, although they were stopped by the French. It was to prevent this happening again that the French built a remote military base at Dien Bien Phu in the mountains of North Vietnam and it was here that they were to meet their nemesis in Indochina. Surrounded by the Viet Minh under the military genius from Hanoi, General Giap, pounded by heavy guns dragged over incredibly rough terrain, supplied by intermittent airdrops, the French were beaten and surrendered.
Phomvihane, the Gentle Revolutionary -- Kaysone Phomvihane was a very low-key revolutionary. Born Nguyen Cai Song in what is now Savannakhet Province in southern Laos, his father was Vietnamese and his mother was Lao.
He went to law school in the 1940s in Hanoi, but dropped out early in order to join the struggle against the French. In 1955 he was an important figure in the creation of LPRP at Sam Nuea in northern Laos, and he then went on to serve as the Pathet Lao leader, although Souphanouvong, known as the "Red Prince," acted as the figurehead.
In the following years, it was Kaysone who led the Communist forces against the Kingdom of Laos and the Americans. The old regime fell without the same degree of bloodshed seen in Cambodia and Vietnam, a result of both his military and diplomatic skills. After the Pathet Lao victory, he served as Prime Minister from the founding of the Lao PDR in 1975 until 1991, when he became president.
Although Kaysone was a lifelong committed old-school Communist, he was also a pragmatist. It was he who initiated the necessary economic reforms at the end of the Cold War when Soviet power in the region ceased to be. Though revered in Laos, Kaysone has failed to receive the kind of posthumous international fame that sees the image of Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara printed on T-shirts. If you want to find out more about him, the National Museum in Vientiane displays plenty of black-and-white photos of him in action, both young and old.
Under the Geneva conference of 1953 France granted independence to the countries of Indochina, including Laos, with the Franco-Laos Treaty of Amity and Association. This set up the scene for conflict between the Pathet Lao and the newly formed Royal Lao Government. They came increasingly to rely on American support while the Pathet Lao retained close ties to, and were sponsored by, North Vietnam. The government was led by Prince Souvanna Phoumma while the Pathet Lao was led by his half bother, Prince Souphanouvong. They patched up an agreement on joint government, but it fell apart in 1958.
Bombing & War
The Americans installed a right-wing proxy regime and the Pathet Lao returned to war. The following years were marked by confusion, uncertainty, and conflict. In May 1961, a second conference was held in Geneva to hammer out a solution. Eventually the three protagonists, Sovanna Phouma for the neutralists, Souphanouvong for the Pathet Lao, and Prince Boun Oum of Champasak for the right wing, came to an agreement that established a government that balanced all factions. This quickly started to crumble as the pressures of increasingly ferocious conflict in Vietnam took its toll. As with Cambodia, North Vietnam used Laos as a place from which to arm and supply its army. And as previously for the French, the Plain of Jars was the Achilles' heel of Hanoi and it became a fierce battleground. While the fiction of neutrality was maintained, in 1964 the U.S. started a campaign of mass carpet-bombing and air-to-ground attacks on the Plain of Jars. This was soon repeated all up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. Air Force dropped more ordinance on Laos than it did on Germany in World War II; more than 2 million tons of it involving over 600,000 missions. No one knows just how many Lao villagers were killed or incinerated in this brutal but secret war, but what is certainly known is that North Vietnamese supply lines to the Viet Cong in the south remained intact. One-third of Lao people became internally displaced. By 1968, there were an estimated 40,000 North Vietnamese troops on Lao soil with an added 35,000 Pathet Lao. The Lao government fielded 70,000 soldiers supported by 30,000 U.S.-sponsored hill tribe Hmong mercenaries under the command of General Vang Pao. The battles raged until the Americans pulled American forces out of the Vietnam War in 1973.
The Pathet Lao Take Over
April 1975 marked the fall of both Saigon and Phnom Penh. The Pathet Lao instigated mass street protests against the Lao government and the Americans. After peacefully "liberating" town after town across the country, Pathet Lao forces marched into Vientiane in August 1975 and Souvanna Phouma stepped down to prevent bloodshed. This was essentially a North Vietnamese victory. Many prominent figures from the old regime, and many less prominent, were sent to remote camps for long periods of what both the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao termed "reeducation." Many Lao people voted with their feet and crossed the river to Thailand, while King Sisavang Vatthana was forced to abdicate and died 3 years later in a Pathet Lao prison camp. On December 2, 1975, the victorious Communists established the Lao People's Democratic Republic and the institutions that exist to this day.
Although by no means cuddly, the new regime was far more flexible than those in Vietnam or Cambodia. Its final victory was achieved by pressure and negotiation rather than direct military conquest. Although rigorously Communist, the Pathet Lao did not challenge Buddhism or the respect for the Sangha (the Buddhist clergy). The former Hmong mercenaries of Vang Pao were hunted down and continue to be persecuted, though they have also become a regional and international political football. The Lao government has also been relatively nimble on economic reform, instituting the "New Economic Mechanism" in 1986 to counter a crisis of lack of investment and foreign aid. With the death of the original leader, Kaysone Phomvihane, the party did not falter in maintaining its grip on power. It has successfully followed the Chinese model of liberalizing in terms of economic freedom and making the country more open, while still keeping an iron grip on political power. Close relations with Vietnam have been maintained but have become more balanced by a closer relationship with the Thais (who are, after all, ethnic cousins). There has been occasional dissent with some bombings and shootings, which the government blamed, almost certainly spuriously, on Hmong rebels.