As a small landlocked area bordered by much large countries like China, Vietnam and Thailand, historically Laos has very much been at the mercy of its big neighbors. Once part of French Indochina, it was heavily bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, Lao people do not hold grudges and visitors will enjoy the laid-back attitude of the locals.
Originally, Laos is believed to have been inhabited by people migrating from southern China. The country’s population grew around the abundance and fertility of the land surrounding the Mekong and Me Nam Rivers. The first King of Laos was King Borom and legend has it that he had seven sons, with whom he divided up his land. In the 14th century, Prince Fa Ngum, who had been exiled to Cambodia, returned after converting to Buddhism and established the Lang Xang Kingdom (“kingdom of million elephants”). He was suceeded by his son, Ou Heuan, who established Laos as a major trading region. After his death in 1421, the Lang Xang Kingdom slowly eroded and the country was torn by internal turmoil.
The country was again united under Photisarath rule in the early 16th century, who moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, primarily to protect the ruling family from Burmese incursions. He was followed by Setthathirat, who became famous for building Wat Pha That Luang. In 1637, Sourigna Vongsa took over the throne and expanded the Lang Xang Kingdom, which was considered to be Lao’s Golden Age, when arts and music flourished. He died without leaving an heir and subsequently the country was divided into three, leaving it vulnerable to Burmese and Thai attacks.
The 19th century saw Laos annexed as part of French Indochina and it remained under French rule until 1945. In between, there was a short period when the Japanese occupied Laos during WWII. After the war, the Americans helped establish the Royal Lao Army as the ruling entity, primarily to counter the rise of the communist Pathet Lao. However, the 1960’s saw the country descend into civil war and subsequently, Laos became embroiled in the Vietnam War. This led to heavy bombing by the US, leaving behind undiscovered explosives even today. Visitors can go to the COPE Visitor Center (Khouvieng Road, Vientiane), which explains the history of the conflict.
In 1975, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established and the king forced to abdicate. Kaysone Phomvihane became the leader under the Pathet Lao government. In 1991, the Lao Constitution was implemented, which moved the country away from orthodox socialism to more political and economic liberalization.
The biggest influence on Lao culture is Buddhism, which plays a role in the country’s arts, music and literature. Buddhism remains an integral part of daily life and religious festivals are important events throughout the year. Every day, people can be seen giving alms to monks and going to temple to pray and give offerings.
The minorities of Laos are also part of the country’s culture. Although 60 percent of the country is made up ethnic Lao, there are 49 other groups present. Of these, the Hmong hilltribes, who had been marginalized in the past, are growing in importance. Many were persecuted by the government after the Vietnam War for helping the US, and many opted to move to America. Today, some hold high political offices and they have their own culture and traditions.
A very important Lao tradition is the baci. It is a ceremony that is expected to enrich the spirit and usually entails tying white string around people’s wrists. Baci ceremonies are held for a range of events, including birthdays, farewells, weddings, births and so forth.