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History of Laos

"Introduction to Laos history
and Laos Culture"

"History of Laos" was last updated on Feb 24, 2012

In this article you'll find:
So are you ready for some Laos history?

Laos is a beautiful Asian destination, but fortunately it has gone through a lot in terms of history.

Battles and wars are some of the things which have been ravaging the country for centuries.

This is only a simplified version of their history, and does not cover a lot of details.


800-1400 centuries

map of ancient laos
History of Laos: Map of Southeast Asia in the old days
During the 8th and 10th centuries, a Lao-Thai state existed in south China. Here the inhabitants spoke Lao. From this state, Lao-speaking migrants settled down in the areas of Mekong River.

The Mon-Khmer kingdom in pre-Cambodia settled down in what is today south Laos. Between 8th to 12th century, the Mon-Khmer established further north all the way to Muang Sawa (today's Luang Prabang).

From 12th to 13th century, small Lao kingdoms were incorporated into the Angkor empire. This led to Lao and northern Thai rebellions. Then in 1238 the Sukhotai kingdom was established (Thai kingdom). Sukhotai kingdom incorporated areas of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and parts of today's north Thailand.

In the 13th century, a Lao prince called Chao Phi Fa was expelled by his father for sleeping with one of his wives. The son, Chao Fa Ngum, fled as a refugee to Angkor. Fa Ngum then married the Angkor king's daughter.

With Khmer troops, Fa Ngum seized Luang Prabang, which would be an important trading center afterward. They also seized parts of Thailand (Khorat).

View of Luang Prabang in Laos
History of Laos: Luang Prabang
Chao Fa Ngum is famous in Laos because he's seen as a liberator and perceived as the founder of the Lao nation.

After sitting on the throne for a while, Fa Ngum went to exile as a result of a coup arranged by his ministers. The ministers installed Fa Ngum's son - Oun Heuan - on the throne.

Luang Prabang was during this time not only an important trading center, but also center of Buddhism which became the state religion. A number of wats were built during this period.

But in the beginning of 1400s, struggles between factions began and would continue 100 years later.

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1500s-1900 centuries

That luang temple in Vientiane, Laos
History of Laos: That Luang Temple
In the 1500s, Laos was ruled by king Phothisarat. During this time, Laos was afraid of Burmese invasions. He died and his son king Setthathirat was at the throne.

King Settathirat built the largest Buddhist stupa in Laos, which is called That Luang. That Luang remains the national symbol of Laos.

King Setthathirat disappeared in 1571 and Lao factions destabilized the country, and made it vulnerable to Burmese armies. The Burmese came and went several times over the next 60 years. This also led to the decline of Laos (Laos was called Lane Xang at that time).

In 1637, king Suriya Vongsa took the throne and ruled for almost 60 years. These years were peaceful and he recovered Laos' territories and power.

When Suriya died in late 1600s, Laos was split into factions again.

During the 1800s, Burma annexed Luang Prabang and Champasak (south Laos) was taken by Siam (today's Thailand) in 1778. By the end of 1800s, the Siamese was the dominating power in Laos.

Siam installed Lao prince Chao Anou as their vassal in Vieng Chan (today's Vientiane). But he got a taste of power and didn't follow the guidelines of his masters. He gave life to Lao culture and extended his influence to Luang Prabang. In 1820s, Chao Anou rebelled against his Siamese masters and invaded the northeast of Siam. But unfortunately, he was chased back to Vieng Chan.

The Lao-Siam war ended in 1828, and the Siamese control extended into the 1900s. The King of Luang Prabang agreed in the late 1800s to become a French protectorate.

The French had plans of annexing Siam, but failed. So the French eventually lost interest in Laos.

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1900 and onwards

King Sisavangvong in Laos
History of Laos: King Sisavangvong
Sisavangvong became king in Laos in 1904. Much of the supervision and control of Laos was made by the French from their offices in Hanoi. While the French ruled in Laos, they built the National Route 13 which started from Pakse and all the way to Vientiane.

Because of the country's isolation and difficult terrain, Laos was never seen as profitable from a colonialist point of view. This would probably explain some of the slow growth in Laotian economy compared to its neighboring countries.

The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was established by Ho Chi Minh in 1930. During this time, the party recruited Laotians and the numbers grew. They even established a 'Laos section' inside the Party in 1936. This 'section' would eventually become the reigning government in Laos (LPRP). The ICP established the Laos Issara - a nationalist resistance movement.

Communists in Laos
History of Laos
When France fell to Germany in 1940, they could no longer 'protect' Laos, so Laos became prone to attacks from Siam once again.

During Second World War, the Thai with the help of the Japanese, occupied Laos. In 1944, France was liberated and this time it was Charles de Gaulle who came into power.

French armies were chased by the Japanese. The Japanese occupied Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Lao and French soldiers fought side by side against the Japanese, and there were a lot of casualties.

Later on the Japanese surrendered.

Laos became an independent country in 1953, and independence was declared by king Sisavangvong (main street in Luang Prabang bears his name).

During the Vietnam war in Laos
History of Laos: During the Vietnam war
During the Vietnam war, Laos was severely bombed by US soldiers since the US wanted to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail in the country. On top of this, Laos was several times invaded by Vietnam.

So you can say that Laos has had some rough centuries.

In 1975 the king was forced to abdicate his throne and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was established. Since then, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has been in control of the country. They signed a peace contract with the Vietnamese.

The LPRP isolated Laos and cut off trade with its neighboring countries except for Vietnam.

In the 1980s, Laos made some economical reforms and there has been some economical growth. The investment in the tourism industry was made in late 1990s, making Luang Prabang a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Today, Laos is still run by one of the few Communist governments in the world.

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