A Stormy History

The regions of present-day Laos were politically united by the Kingdom of Lan Xang (also Lane Xang) for the first time in 1353, when Fa Ngum was crowned its king and Luang Prabang became its capital.

Lan Xang was, however, surrounded by mightier neighbours, such as the Khmers, Chinese, Vietnamese, Siamese (Thai), and the Burmese. Many of them invaded the kingdom, as was also to be the fate of Laos later. Theravada Buddhism was established as the religion of the ruling class, at the latest, by the founding of Lan Xang.

In 1694, after half a century, which is regarded as the golden age of Lao culture, Lan Xang split into three smaller kingdoms, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassak. These kingdoms, which were rivals, had, in turn, stormy relationships with their neighbours, particularly the Northern Thai Kingdom of Lanna and the Burmese.

At the end of the 18th century the Siamese invaded the territory. They conquered and destroyed Vientiane. Laos became a tributary of Siam, and Thai influence dominated the culture of Vientiane until the 1890s, when Laos gradually came under French control as its protectorate.

Vientiane was the official capital while the French kept the Lao monarchs on the throne in Luan Parabang. In the early 20th century the Lao elite and the princes were educated in France. This again created a new stratum in Lao culture, that of French influence.

The fall of France to the Germans during World War II changed many things in Laos. The small and isolated country became a playground of the superpowers of the Cold War. The Japanese occupied Laos. After the surrender of Japan, in 1947, the newly constituted, yet seriously fractionised, Kingdom of Laos started to take shape.

Laos was dragged into the Indo-Chinese Wars and the Vietnam War, which resulted in the occupation of Lao territories by Vietnamese troops and finally in the Laotian Civil War between the Lao royalists and the communists. In the 1960s and 1970s the United States carried out massive aerial bombardments. Laos became the most widely bombed country in world history.

The gradual withdrawal of American troops led to the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975. Thus Laos, together with North Vietnam, was drawn into the Soviet sphere of influence. Eastern bloc models dictated the culture. Animistic practices, traditional literature, and the performing arts were strongly discouraged, if not totally banned, and the majority of the educated class was lost.

By the beginning of the 1980s a less rigid form of socialism was adopted. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and in Vietnam further opened up Laos to new international contacts and in the 1990s it gradually reopened its doors to the outside world.

Traditional texts, such as the Phra Lak Phra Lam, the localised version of the Indian epic Ramayana, were revived. In 1995, Luang Prabang, the royal capital, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and the city’s former royal palace has been reopened as the National Museum.

Although Laos is still one of the poorest countries in the world, its culture is at the moment going through a process of revival, partly boosted by international assistance and partly by its ever-growing tourist industry.