Laos is a country in Southeast Asia, and used to be part of the former French Indochina, which also included Vietnam, and Cambodia. The country is traversed by the Mekong River, and known for its mountainous terrain, French colonial architecture, hill tribe settlements and Buddhist monasteries.
- Total area: 236.800 km2 (84th)
- Population: 7 million (104th)
- Capital: Vientiane
- Largest city: Vientiane
- Official languages: Lao
- Official scripts: Lao
- Religion: Buddhism
- Ethnic groups: 54 (Lao: 55%)
- GDP per capita: $1.700
- Currency: kip (LAK)
- Time zone: Indochina Time (UTC+07:00)
- Drives on the: right
- Calling code: +856
- Internet TLD: .la
Prehistory in Laos
In 2009 an ancient skull was recovered from Tam Pa Ling cave in the Annamite Range of northern Laos which was dated between 46,000 and 63,000 years old, making it the oldest fully modern human remains found to date in Southeast Asia. The findings are critical to understanding the migration patterns of early humans, who traveled in successive waves moving west to east following the coastlines, but also moving further inland and further north than previously theorized.
Archaeological exploration in Laos has been limited due to rugged and remote topography, a history of twentieth century conflicts which have left over two million tons of unexploded ordnance throughout the country, and local sensitivities to history which involve the Communist government of Laos, village authorities and rural poverty. The first archaeological explorations of Laos began with French explorers acting under the auspices of the École française d’Extrême-Orient.
However, due to the Lao Civil War it is only since the 1990s that serious archaeological efforts have begun in Laos. Since 2005, one such effort, The Middle Mekong Archaeological Project (MMAP) has excavated and surveyed numerous sites along the Mekong and its tributaries around Luang Prabang in northern Laos, with the goal of investigating early human settlement of the Mekong River Valleys.
Archaeological evidence suggests that agriculture and later metallurgy developed in Laos during the Middle Holocene (6000-2000 BCE). During this period the first evidence of ceramics, and farming practices emerged. Hunting and gathering Hoabinhian societies began to settle and rice cultivation was introduced from southern China.
The earliest inhabitants of Laos were hunter-gatherers, later they became farmers growing rice and pulses. The first farmers in Laos used stone tools during the stone age about 5000 year BC, ancient Laotian use bronze from about 2,000 BC, and iron from about 500 BC.
Unlike the Vietnamese, the Laos people were influenced by Indian rather than Chinese culture. From the 1st century AD, Indian merchants introduced Theravada Buddhism into Laos. From the 9th to the 13th century, the Khmers from Cambodia ruled much of what is now Laos.
In the 14th century, the ancestors of today’s Laotians founded a kingdom called Lan Xang, its first king was the ambitious Chao Fa Ngum, who was later succeeded by his son Phaya Samsenthai in 1373. Phaya Samsenthai ruled Laos until 1421, made Lan Xang a prosperous kingdom. However, his successors were less skillful rulers.
In the 16th century, Lan Xang was threatened by Burma but it managed to retain its independence.
In the 17th century, Lan Xang was powerful and prosperous under the reign of Sourinyavongsa. However, when Sourinyavongsa died in 1694, he did not leave an heir.
In the early 18th century, Lan Xang split into 3 regions, with Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the middle, and Champasak in the south. In 1779, Siamese forces occupied Vientiane, those three Laotian states were dominated by Siam (Thailand).
In 1804, Anuvong became the king of Vientiane, who overthrew Siamese domination and restore the kingdom of Lan Xang in 1825. In 1827, he was captured by the Siamese (Thais) ending all hope of a restored Lan Xang.
When French got bigger influence in the area, the Siamese formally surrendered all territory in the east of the River Mekong to the French in 1893. Laos became part of the French empire in Southeast Asia. However, the French took little interest in Laos and few French people lived there.
Laos never had any importance for France other than as a buffer state between British-influenced Thailand and the more economically important Annam and Tonkin. During their rule, the French introduced the corvée, a system that forced every male Lao to contribute 10 days of manual labor per year to the colonial government. Laos produced tin, rubber, and coffee, but never accounted for more than 1% of French Indochina’s exports. By 1940, around 600 French citizens lived in Laos.
During World War II in Laos, Vichy France, fascist Thailand, Imperial Japan, Free France, and Chinese nationalist armies occupied Laos. On 9 March 1945, a nationalist group declared Laos once more independent, with Luang Prabang as its capital but on 7 April 1945 two battalions of Japanese troops occupied the city.
The Japanese attempted to force Sisavang Vong (the King of Luang Phrabang) to declare Laotian independence, but on 8 April he instead simply declared an end to Laos’ status as a French protectorate. The King then secretly sent Prince Kindavong to represent Laos to the Allied forces and Prince Sisavang as representative to the Japanese.
When Japan surrendered, some Lao nationalists (including Prince Phetsarath) declared Laotian independence, but by early 1946, French troops had reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos.
During the First Indochina War, the Indochinese Communist Party formed the Pathet Lao resistance organization. The Pathet Lao began a war against the French Colonial forces with the aid of the Vietnamese independence organization (the Viet Minh).
In 1950, the French granted Laos semi-autonomy as an “associated state” within the French Union. France remained in de facto control until 22 October 1953, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy.
The First Indochina War took place across French Indochina and eventually led to French defeat and the signing of a peace accord for Laos at the Geneva Conference of 1954.
In 1955, the US Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the US containment policy.
In 1960, amidst a series of rebellions in the Kingdom of Laos, fighting broke out between the Royal Lao Army and the communist North Vietnam-backed, and Soviet Union-backed Pathet Lao guerillas. A second Provisional Government of National Unity formed by Prince Souvanna Phouma in 1962 proved to be unsuccessful, and the situation steadily deteriorated into large scale civil war between the Royal Laotian government and the Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao were backed militarily by the NVA and Vietcong.
Laos was a key part of the Vietnam War since parts of Laos were invaded and occupied by North Vietnam for use as a supply route for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese positions, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported South Vietnamese incursions into Laos.
In 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack to help the Pathet Lao to fight the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing, leaving the conflict to irregular ethnic Hmong forces of the “U.S. Secret Army” backed by the United States and Thailand, and led by General Vang Pao.
Massive aerial bombardment against the Pathet Lao and invading People’s Army of Vietnam forces were carried out by the United States to prevent the collapse of the Royal Kingdom of Laos central government, and to deny the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to attack US forces in the Republic of Vietnam.
Between 1964 and 1973, US bombing raids made Laos the “most heavily bombed country on earth,” where American B-52s dropped an average of one bomb-load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, totaling more ordinance than was dropped during the whole of World War II.
In 1975 the Pathet Lao, along with the Vietnam People’s Army, and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Lao government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on 2 December 1975. He later died in prison.
Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, and it lies mostly between latitudes 14° and 23°N (a small area is south of 14°), and longitudes 100° and 108°E. Laos can be considered to consist of three geographical areas: north, central, and south.
Laos’ thickly forested landscape consists mostly of rugged mountains, the highest of which is Phou Bia at 2,818 meters (9,245 ft), with some plains and plateaus.
The Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand, whereas the mountains of the Annamite Range form most of the eastern border with Vietnam and the Luang Prabang Range, the northwestern border with the Thai highlands. There are two plateau, the Xiang Khoang in the north and the Bolaven Plateau at the southern end. The climate is tropical and influenced by the monsoon pattern.
There is a distinct rainy season from May to November, followed by a dry season from December to April. Local tradition holds that there are three seasons (rainy, cold and hot) as the latter two months of the climatologically defined dry season are noticeably hotter than the earlier four months.
The capital and largest city of Laos is Vientiane and other major cities include Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Pakse.
In 1993 the Laos government set aside 21% of the nation’s land area for habitat conservation preservation. The country is one of four in the opium poppy growing region known as the “Golden Triangle”.