Forty thousand years ago, hunter-gatherer tribes wandered in vicinity of modern day Laos.

By 8,000 BC, these peoples had settled into a farming lifestyle, and achieved by around 2,000 BC great advances in bronze working, among the earliest found anywhere on Earth, progressing to the use of iron by 500BC. The plain of Jars is an enigmatic legacy left from the people of this time.  

The early Lao civilisations of the region, developing between the first and eighth centuries AD, were governed by the influence of Hinduism from India, in common with, and through absorption into the neighbouring Funan and Chenla Kingdoms, which were later themselves fused into what would eventually become known as Kambuja (Cambodia), passing into the age of the Angkor empire, which would dominate much of Southeast Asia for centuries.

The first kingdom to emerge, broadly consistent with the territory of modern day Laos, grew out of the vacuum of power left by the gradual decline of the Angkor empire following successive Thai invasions, and the rulers of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (now Luang Prabang) successfully carved out a state for themselves, ruled by the Phraya dynasty from 1271 AD.


A Phraya prince, Fa Ngum, who had been exiled to the weakened Khmer kingdom of Angkor, returned with an army and Khmer support in 1353, declaring in his victory a new kingdom known as Lan Xang (Kingdom of a million elephants), a loose decentralised federation of Lao groups. The emerging influence of Theravada Buddhism, spreading first through Kambuja, then among the Lao peoples, soon became the dominant force in Lan Xang.

Initially prosperous, Lan Xang was riven with internal strife following the death of Fa Ngum’s son and successor, Oun Heuan, in 1416, and was dealt a further blow with the invasion of 1479 by Vietnam. The kingdom survived however, eventually driving out the Vietnamese by the following year.

With a series of powerful kings, the fledgling kingdom, over most of the next century, again grew prosperous in wealth and culture, with many fine and intricately ornamented temples being built during this time.

In 1558 AD, the Burmese began what would become a series of invasions, which, though initially repelled, eventuated in Lan Xang becoming a vassal state of, and occasionally occupied by, Burma.

In 1637, Lan Xang’s King Surinyavongsa, ascended the throne and was able, through a series of strategic marriages, alliances and appeasements, to regain administrative control of the Kingdom, preserving Lan Xang’s security during his 57 year reign.

His strong rule was exemplified by the execution of his only heir for adultery, which upon the King’s own death in 1694, unsurprisingly unravelled his legacy in the fractious power struggle that ensued, which eventuated in the final break-up of the Lan Xang into three separate Laotian states (Luang Prabang, Vieng Chan (Vientiane) and Champasak, all of which would become vulnerable to foreign ambitions.

After the fall of Lan Xang, Burma began to reassert its power, and, in 1763, invaded all of the former Lan Xang lands as well as venturing to the Siamese (Thai) capital of Ayuthaya, which today still bears the scars. The Siamese quickly regrouped after this shock and, not content with wresting back their own lands, by 1776, went on to annexe Champasak and Vieng Chan. As with their Cambodian neighbours at this time, the Laotian peoples were subject to the vagaries of fortune being played out between Siam and Vietnam.


European travellers had first arrived in Lan Xang, during the reign of Surinyavongsa, and had increasingly been trading with all the nations of Southeast Asia, influencing local political balances with trade, particularly in the supply of modern weaponry, but now these kingdoms would become pawns in a wider game of struggle between rival western powers.

The British had increasingly encroached into Burma from 1824, which, as part of their Indian expansionism, was declared a state of India in 1886. The French had taken Vietnam between 1858-1885, Cambodia in 1862 and secured Laos in 1863, and collectively ruled all three as the French colony of Indochine (Indochina).

Unlike its neighbours, Cambodia and Vietnam, the French rule of Laos was more relaxed, largely because the difficulties presented by its geography and a perceived lack of resources to exploit, though they were perfectly happy to establish a monopoly on Opium.

Indochina would remain under French control until the Second World War, which, owing to the fall of France in Europe, led to Vichy administration in Indochina, and thereafter slipping into the hands of the Japanese.  

Largely marginalised resistance to French Indochina began to ride the change of era, especially in Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh began to shape his destiny in that country’s history, actions which would affect and inspire much nationalist activity throughout Indochina.  

New hope of an independent future led in Laos to the drafting of a new constitution and a declaration of Independence in October of 1945.  

France, having been rescued in Europe from the clutches of the third Reich, was initially determined to re-establish order on its colonies, and succeeded in their suppression of Laotian nationalists, but nevertheless conceded autonomy in 1946, and full independence 1953. France was by this time preoccupied with trying to hold Ho Chi Minh at bay in Vietnam.


The successes and the influence of the communist movement in Vietnam, was to have profound effects on the future of both Cambodia and Laos, in both cases exacerbated by CIA meddling.

After several dissolute attempts at government, followed by many military coups, and set against the backdrop of the illegal secret American bombing of Vietnamese hideouts in Laos, the communists rode the prevailing tide of resentment and became an irresistible force.

1975 was a momentous year for Indochina, and would see communist governments installed in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The Laotian king and his family were deposed and imprisoned in a cave prison where they eventually died from neglectful treatment. In common with the communist fashions of the time, much of the population’s elite were assigned for “re-education”.

In 1999, Laotian students attempted to galvanise the country to support their democracy protest, but were quickly dispersed and their leaders rounded up and imprisoned. The following year a minor armed insurrection in southern Laos was likewise crushed.

In recent years Laos, as with Vietnam, has had to re-evaluate its governance following the failure of Soviet economic policies, and although Party rule remains sacrosanct, liberalisation of the economy and tourism has gone a long way to hold the promise for the Laotian people of a peaceful and prosperous future.