Laos History, Language and Culture
History of Laos
In ancient history, Laos was a collection of scattered tribal communities and little written record of this early period survives. Most of what we know follows the Chinese invasion of Laos during the 4th and 5th centuries. After the Chinese, the next foreign power to gain influence over Laos was the Hindu Khmer Empire, which spread across the country before founding its capital at Angkor in neighbouring Cambodia.
During this period, the previously dominant Chinese were displaced by a massive influx of ethnic Tai peoples from Thailand and Hinduism slowly gave way to Buddhism. The Khmer Empire eventually collapsed into warring city-states, paving the way for the independent kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in 1353 at Luang Prabang.
Populated by a mixture of ethnic Laos, Thais and various hill tribes, the Lan Xang Empire lasted for three centuries, fighting off successive invasion attempts from Vietnam, Siam (Thailand) and Burma. Internal power struggles in the 18th century were exploited by its neighbours, notably Thailand, which finally conquered Vientiane in 1779, absorbing southern Laos into the Kingdom of Siam.
The Siamese were the dominant power until the arrival of the French in the 1870s. Joining Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos became part of French Indo-China, and colonial administration saw plantations established across the country. The Japanese occupation in WWII weakened French control and Laos finally achieved independence in 1953.
The restoration of the monarchy under King Sisavang Vong was initially welcomed, but resistance grew, spearheaded by the fighters of the Pathet Lao and the Laotian Patriotic Front (LPF) the Pathet Lao, who were allied to communist forces in Vietnam. The Lao Civil War mirrored the Vietnam War, and vast quantities of ordnance were secretly dropped on Laos by the US military to weaken the communist uprising.
When Vietnam adopted communism in 1975, Laos followed suit, abolishing the monarchy and redrawing the economy along austere communist lines. Laos became dependent on military and economic assistance from Vietnam, and other neighbours closed relations with the Lao regime, leading to more than a decade of isolation.
Tensions finally began to ease in the late 1980s, and Laos slowly opened up to the outside world. Today, the country is mostly at peace and the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) remains firmly in control, though some rebel groups are still active. Despite limited political reforms in the 1990s, Laos still languishes behind its neighbours on most economic indexes.
Did you know?
• Although Laos was never officially at war with America, more than 2 billion tons of bombs were dropped on the country by the US.
• Vientiane’s famous Patuxai archway was funded by an American donation that was actually intended for the construction of a new airport!
• The biggest Lao export is coffee, a legacy of the coffee plantations founded in the French colonial period.
Religion in Laos
The majority of the Lao people are Buddhists. The Laos-Lum (Valley Laos) people follow the Hinayana(Theravada) form of Buddhism. The religions of the Laos-Theung (Laos of the mountain tops) range from traditional Confucianism to animism and Christianity.
Social Conventions in Laos
Religious beliefs should be respected. Lao people should not be touched on the head and women should not touch monks. Handshaking is not that usual; Lao people greet each other with their palms together and a slight bowing of the head. Take care when discussing politics and related subjects in conversation so as not to cause offence.
Laos is a Buddhist country and guests should dress accordingly. Shorts or revealing clothes are never acceptable. For women, sarongs work well in the heat as do long-sleeved light cotton shirts. Shoes must be removed when entering a religious building or somebody's home. It is a legal requirement to carry an ID document or a passport, and fines for not having one for presentation on demand can be high. The Lao government prohibits sexual relationships, including sexual contact between foreign citizens and Lao nationals, except when the two parties have been married in accordance with Lao family law. Penalties for failing to register a relationship range from fines to imprisonment.
Language in Laos
The official language is Lao; however, many tribal languages are also spoken. French, Vietnamese and some English are spoken.