The religious practices of the earliest known inhabitants of Laos are entirely unknown, yet their enigmatic legacy is strewn across the Plain of Jars in the plethora of Iron Age stone sarcophagi dating from around 500 BC. 

The early civilisations that inhabited the area now known as Laos were the Hindu kingdoms of Funan to the far south and Chenla, formerly part of the Champa civilisation in central Vietnam, who were driven north by the Funan peoples into occupation of the majority of what is now Laotian territory in the sixth century AD.

By the eighth century, the Mon Kingdom, overlapping areas of Burma, occupied Northern Laos, and were early adherents of Buddhism in that region. 

Also at this time, the rise of the Hindu Empire in Angkor Cambodia would subsume most of these neighbouring territories as its influence spread into throughout Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, with its Hindu culture responsible for the great temples of the region, and the extraordinary flowering of architectural endeavour. 

The decline and diminution of the Angkor Empire also marked the increasing influence of Buddhism, which the Khmer had themselves begun to adopt, modifying some of their sacred structures with Buddhist themes. 

In Laos, the Buddhist Lan Xang Kingdom came to ascendancy from 1354, which also occupied areas of northeast Thailand, surviving invasions from the Dai Viet and Burmese before its eventual collapse in 1707, resulted in the splitting of Laotian territory into regional states. 

However, the legacy of Lan Xang would remain in the firm establishment of Theravada Buddhism as the commonly held practice in Laos, which has since overwhelmingly dominated the popular culture of the country from then to the present day. 

Within all the complex twists and turns of history that have affected the development of Laos, the many minority tribes which have coexisted within the passing of political control have maintained their intrinsic adherence to ancient animist beliefs, known in Laos as Satana Phi, reflecting the beliefs in spirits and underpinned by shamanic practices. 

As is the case elsewhere, many of the common ritual practices of animism have coloured the practical rituals of Buddhist worship, which it has assimilated over time. 

Christianity had first come to minimal Laotian consciousness in 1642 during the Lan Xang era, at the hands of a Jesuit missionary, Giovanni Maria Leria, who spent five years evangelising to little effect, before finally being evicted. 

It was not until the arrival of the French in 1887, and the gradual colonisation of the country from 1893 – 1907, that Christianity was given a platform from which to proselytise. However, as with neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia, also under the French yoke at that time, Christianity was of little interest to the Laotian people and remains only a minority religion in the country. 

In 1975, the Pathet Lao Communists took power and began to exert influence upon Buddhism in Laos, extolling the virtues of Marxism as being entirely compatible with the beliefs of the Buddha, a process it had already begun during the Second Indochina War in an effort to galvanise support for its cause.

In practice, however, many Buddhists were irked at being used as a tool to spread communist propaganda among the populace and fled the country for Thailand, which in turn led to a decline in ordination, resulting in many of the country’s Wats being abandoned. 

In 1979, the government relaxed its stance and Buddhism began slowly to re-emerge in prominence, and in the economic reforms of the 1980’s began again to flourish. 

In 1991, the right to religious freedom was established, officially recognising the religions of Buddhism, Islam, the Baha’i faith and certain branches of Christianity including Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism, but many Christian evangelical groups are denied recognition. 

Buddhism is officially supported by the government as the main Laotian belief system.