The first extended Lao kingdom dates from the mid-14th century. Laos was first unified in 1353 by Fangum, a Lao prince, who established his capital around the northern town of Luang Prabang and brought together several scattered Lao fiefdoms into the kingdom of Lan Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants) after a rebellion by Tais against the Khmers. Whether the Tai groups in the rebellion were essentially Thais or Laos or both or neither is still a matter of some debate. However, the name Lan Xang still carries associations of cultural kinship among the Lao.

Lan Xang was a large but thinly populated kingdom and regarded by many historians as a Khmer client state. It embraced all of present-day Laos and northeast Thailand and parts of Vietnam and had its capital in Luang Prabang. King Fangum made Theravada Buddhism the state religion and declared that the Pra Bang (also spelled Pha Bang), a gold Buddha made in Sri Lanka as the state’s symbol (it was as also the source of the name Luang Prabang). It its height Lan Xang covered most of today's Laos and extended into present Thailand and Cambodia—and then fell to the Burmese, the Vietnamese, and the Thai.

Lan Xang was established in the context of a century of unprecedented political and social change in mainland Southeast Asia. At the beginning of the 13th century, the great Khmer king Jayavarman VII, who had re-established Cambodian power and built the city of Angkor Thom, sent his armies north to extend the Khmer empire to include all of the middle Mekong region and north-central Thailand. But the empire was overstretched, and by the mid-13th century the Khmer were in retreat. At the same time, the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China lost interest in further conquest in Southeast Asia. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

This left a political vacuum in central Thailand, into which stepped Ramkhamhaeng, founder of the Tai-Syam kingdom of Sukhothai. To his north, his ally Mangray founded the Tai-Yuan kingdom of Lanna (meaning ‘a million rice fields’), with his capital at Chiang Mai. Other smaller Tai kingdoms were established at Phayao and Xiang Dong Xiang Thong. In southern Laos and southern Thailand, however, the Khmer still held on to power. We know that at this time Viang Chan was tributary to Sukhothai, and it may well be that Xiang Dong Xiang Thong was too. As the power of Sukhothai grew, it exerted more pressure on the Khmer. The Cambodian court looked around for an ally, and found one in the form of a young Lao prince, Fa Ngum, who was being educated at Angkor. =

The kingdom, made up of Lao, Thai, and hill tribes, lasted in its approximate borders for another 300 years and briefly reached an even greater extent in the northwest. Fa Ngum's descendants remained on the throne at Muang Sua, renamed Louangphrabang, for almost 600 years after his death, maintaining the independence of Lan Xang to the end of the seventeenth century through a complex network of vassal relations with lesser princes. At the same time, these rulers fought off invasions from Vietnam (1478-79), Siam (1536), and Burma (1571-1621).

Names for Laos and the People of Laos

Country name: conventional long form: Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Conventional short form and commonly used in general: Laos. Local long form: Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao. Local short form: Pathet Lao (unofficial). Lao is used by Lao people (the 's' is dropped in Lao language). [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress]

The name Laos originated with the French who coined it in the late 19th century as a convenient way to collectively refer to the various Lao kingdoms. The word “Lao” is derived from a Chinese word meaning “great” or civilized.” The ancient kingdom of Laos was known as Lan Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants). The traditional Lao name for the country is Pathet Lao, meaning “the country of the Lao.” U.S. President John F. Kennedy pronounced the name of the country “Louse.” Many Americans pronounce the name “Lay-os.”

On the use of the terms Lao and Laotian: the term Lao refers to people who are ethnic Lao; it is not used to refer to those living in Laos who are members of other ethnic groups, for example, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Hmong. The term Laotian is used to refer to all the people living in Laos, regardless of ethnic identity. *

In Travels in Indo-China and the Chinese Empire (1867). Louis de Caene wrote: “ It has been predicted that we should spend some months in Laos—a region of evil name, protected by the rocks with which its river bristles, and still more by the miasma exhaled by the sun’s heat, from the curiosity to ambition of its neighbors.” The Lao writer Mayoury Ngaosyvathn said: “For the Lao people, the invisible link with the nation, the nationhood, is inborn and transmitted from generation to generation.

Themes in the History of Laos

Modern-day Laos has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, established in the 14th century under King Fa Ngum. For 300 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as over all of what is now Laos. After centuries of gradual decline, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century until the late 19th century when it became part of French Indochina. The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907 defined the current Lao border with Thailand. In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of the government ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict socialist regime closely aligned to Vietnam. A gradual, limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws began in 1988. Laos became a member of ASEAN in 1997 and the WTO in 2013. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

The history of Laos has been characterized by 1) the efforts to create first a kingdom and then a nation-state from a jumble of kingdoms, tribes, ethnic groups, family clans, fiefdoms with an area characterized by porous borders and captured, lost and recaptured territory; and 2) the tenacity of the Lao people is the face of waves of invaders and the fractured geography and culture of Laos itself.

Laos has traditionally played the role of a buffer zone between Vietnam, China and Thailand. Northern Laos has traditionally had links with the cultures of peoples of China while southern Laos was more closely linked to cultures in the south like the Khmers. The Lao people are essentially the same ethnic group as the people that live in northeast Thailand. In recent decades Laos has served as buffer between the rival Communist states of Vietnam and China and the capitalist states in Southeast Asia.

Until fairly recently Lao history was passed on from generation to generation by balladeers and monks. The whole concept of Lao nationalism is kind of a novel idea and was not really developed until around the time of World War II and still has not been embraced by Laos’s other ethnic groups.

Brief History of Laos

Historical research shows that the rudimentary structures of a multiethnic state existed before the founding of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the thirteenth century. These prethirteenth-century structures consisted of small confederative communities in river valleys and among the mountain peoples, who found security away from the well-traveled rivers and overland tracks where the institutions and customs of the Laotian people were gradually forged in contact with other peoples of the region. During these centuries, the stirring of migrations as well as religious conflict and syncretism went on more or less continuously. Laos's shortlived vassalage to foreign empires such as the Cham, Khmer, and Sukhothai did nothing to discourage this process of cultural identification and, in fact, favored its shaping. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In the thirteenth century--an historically important watershed- -the rulers of Louangphrabang (Luang Prabang) constituted a large indigenous kingdom with a hierarchical administration. Even then, migratory and religious crosscurrents never really ceased. The durability of the kingdom itself is attested to by the fact that it lasted within its original borders for almost four centuries. Today, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos) covers only a small portion of the territory of that former kingdom. *

Internecine power struggles caused the splitting up of Lan Xang after 1690, and the Lao and the mountain peoples of the middle Mekong Valley came perilously close to absorption by powerful neighboring rivals, namely Vietnam and Siam (present-day Thailand); China never posed a territorial threat. Only the arrival of the French in the second half of the nineteenth century prevented Laos's political disintegration. In a "conquest of the hearts" (in the words of the explorer and colonist Auguste Pavie)--a singular event in the annals of colonialism in that it did not entail the loss of a single Lao life--France ensured by its actions in 1893 that Laos's separate identity would be preserved into modern times. During the colonial interlude, a few French officials administered what their early cartographers labeled, for want of a better name, "le pays des Laos" (the land of the Lao, hence the name Laos), preserving intact local administrations and the royal house of Louangphrabang. *

However, Laos's incorporation into French Indochina beginning in 1893 brought with it Vietnamese immigration, which was officially encouraged by the French to staff the middle levels of the civil services and militia. During the few months in 1945 when France's power was momentarily eclipsed, the consequences of this Vietnamese presence nearly proved fatal for the fledgling Lao Issara (Free Laos) government. The issue of Vietnamese dominance over Indochina remained alive into the postindependence period with the armed rebellion of the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation), who proclaimed themselves part of an Indochina-wide revolutionary movement. The Royal Lao Government grappled with this problem for ten years but never quite succeeded in integrating the Pathet Lao rebels peacefully into the national fabric. *

By the 1960s, outside powers had come to dominate events in Laos, further weakening the Vientiane government's attempts to maintain neutrality in the Cold War. For one thing, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the most powerful entity left in Indochina by the 1954 Geneva armistice and the exit of France, cast a large shadow over the mountains to the west. Also, the United States, which had exerted strong pressure on France on behalf of the independence of Laos, became involved in a new war against what it regarded as the proxies of the Soviet Union and China. Even then, however, high-level United States officials seemed unsure about Laos's claim to national identity, and Laos became the country where the so-called "secret war" was fought. *

In late 1975, months after the fall of Cambodia and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to the communists, the Pathet Lao came to power in Laos, proclaiming that Laos's territorial integrity as well as its independence, sovereignty, and solidarity with other new regimes of Indochina, would be defended. In a demonstration of this determination, Laos fought a border war with Thailand in 1988, and protracted negotiations were necessary to demarcate the border between the two countries. Internally, the regime proved ruthless in stamping out political and armed opposition. Only since the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism in 1986 has the government made some headway in the long and difficult process of bettering the lives of its citizens. *

Mongol Influence on Laos

Recent historical research has shown that the Mongols, who destroyed Nan-chao in 1253 and made the area a province of their empire--naming it Yunnan--exercised a decisive political influence in the middle Mekong Valley for the better part of a century. In 1271 Panya Lang, founder of a new dynasty headed by rulers bearing the title panya, began his rule over a fully sovereign Muang Sua. In 1286 Panya Lang's son, Panya Khamphong, was involved in a coup d'état that was probably instigated by the Mongols and that exiled his father. Upon his father's death in 1316, Panya Khamphong assumed his throne. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Ramkhamhaeng, an early ruler of the new Thai dynasty in Sukhothai, made himself the agent of Mongol interests, and in 1282- 84 eliminated the vestiges of Khmer and Cham power in central Laos. Ramkhamhaeng obtained the allegiance of Muang Sua and the mountainous country to the northeast. Between 1286 and 1297, Panya Khamphong's lieutenants, acting for Ramkhamhaeng and the Mongols, pacified vast territories. From 1297 to 1301, Lao troops under Mongol command invaded Dai Viet but were repulsed by the Vietnamese. Troops from Muang Sua conquered Muang Phuan in 1292-97. In 1308 Panya Khamphong seized the ruler of Muang Phuan, and by 1312 this principality was a vassal state of Muang Sua. *

Mongol overlordship was unpopular in Muang Sua. Internal conflicts among members of the new dynasty over Mongol intervention in their affairs resulted in continuing family upheavals. Panya Khamphong exiled his son Fa Phi Fa and most likely intended to leave the throne to his younger grandson, Fa Ngieo. Fa Ngieo, involved in various coups and coup attempts, in 1330 sent his two sons to a Buddhist monastery outside the Mongol realm for safety. The brothers were kidnapped in 1335 and taken to Angkor, where they were entrusted to King Jayavarman Paramesvara, whose kingdom had acknowledged Mongol suzerainty since 1285. *

Lan Na Kingdom

Lanna, Lan Na or Lannathai, was a prosperous self-ruling kingdom, once the power base of the whole of Northern Thailand as well as parts of present-day Myanmar and Laos. Its name means "Land of a Million Rice Fields.” Lanna extended across northern Thailand to include Wiang Chan (present-day Vientiane in Laos) along the middle part of the Mekong River. In the 14th century Wiang Chan was taken from Lanna by Chao Fa Ngum of Luang Prabang, who made it part of his Laotian Lan Xang (Million Elephants) kingdom. Wiang Chan prospered as an independent kingdom for a short time during the mid-16th century and eventually became the capital of Laos. After a period of dynastic decline, Lanna fell to the Burmese in 1558. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Thai historians have long painted Lanna as a kingdom that was destined to be part of Thailand, but in reality it had little to do with Siam before the late 19th century other than fighting a few battles in the 15th century and conducting a couple of expeditions in the 17th and 18th centuries. Historian Chris Baker said they “had about the same level of contact, as between, say, France and Sweden. Very little in the way of language, culture administrative practices or whatever seems to have been exchanged.”

The rich culture and history of Lan Na (and northern Thailand today) owe much to the influence of Burma and, to a certain extent Laos. Still found in northern temples is the script of Lanna, which is probably the original Thai script and thought to be based on Mon. A similar script is still in use today by the Shan people. Today Lan Na is completely different from other provinces of Thailand in cuisine, culture and custom.

Chris Baker wrote in the Bangkok Post: “the topography of narrow valleys separated by north-south hill ranges shaped the social geography” of Lan Na. “For safety people coagulated in mueang centres and surrounding clusters of villages. Each mueang was relatively independent, and the population sparse. Lan Na emerged under Phraya Mengrai and his successors, from the late 13th century onwards. But it did not suddenly pop up in 1296 with the founding of Chiang Mai, Mengrai had been greatly elevated by later historiography, because that is what happens to founders. But his main contribution was to establish some warrior domination over the nueang in the Kok, Ping and Wang rivers. Lan Na became something than just a loose and limited confederation over the following century...The term “Lan Na” was first used under Mengrai’s successor, Kuena, in the mid-14th century, and only in general use in the mid 15th century. [Source: Chris Baker, Bangkok Post, March 2006]

“The factor which transformed warrior politics into something more like statehood seems to have been Buddhism. The process began when Mengrai seized the established Mon Buddhist center of Hariphunchai (Lampun) in 1287 for reasons which had nothing to do with religion: ‘We have heard the news that Haribhunjaya is very rich—richer than our own domain. How can we make it our own? The process gathered more momentum after proselytizing monks brought the Lankan version of Buddhism north from Sukhothai over the next century . Along with the teaching came writing, literacy, learning and art. The city’s monks wrote scriptures and chronicles, and the city’s foundries turned out huge beautiful Buddhist images. Chiang Mai became a center of culture which elevated the city above other mueang, its ruler gaining prestige and legitimacy as the protector of this resplendent place.” [Ibid]

But politics lagged behind culture. The political structure remained fairly simple. Succession was by openly contest within the ruling clan. The four key government posts were occupied by members of the ruling family . A truculent council of nobles provided some checks and balances. Taxation was mostly by a levy on people’s labour. Outlying mueang were integrated by the personal fealty of ruler to ruler which broke down at every succession. [Ibid]

See Thailand

Book: History of Lan Na by Sarassawadee Ongsakul (Silkworm Books, 2005]

Fa Ngum

Fa Ngum is considered by Laotians as being the founder of Laos and the first person to recognise the word of Buddha for the whole country, (the equivalent of our William the Conqueror) as well as the person who gave the country its historical borders, which are recognised, even today, by most Laotians. It all started at the beginning of the 14th century. At that time, a King (Chao Phi Fa) reigned in Luang Prabang (then called Xieng Dong-Xieng Tong) and its immediate area, just like many other small Kings which were dispersed all over the area of what would soon become known as Laos. Like all the kings at that time, Chao Phi Fa had many women around him, and a throng of children. He was the sole ruler over his realm. [Source: LuangPrabang-Laos.com]

Lan Xang was founded as a result of these family conflicts. Prince Fangum (Fa Ngum) was brought in the household of a Khmer king after he and his father had been expelled from their muang (Muang Sawa, present-day Luang Prabang) because the father had an affair with one of his own father’s concubines. So Fa Ngum was in direct line for the throne. [Source: Library of Congress, Lonely Planet *=]

Fa Ngum, married one of the king's daughters and in 1349 set out from Angkor at the head of a 10,000-member Khmer army. His conquest of the territories to the north of Angkor over the next six years reopened Mongol communications with that place, which had been cut off. Fa Ngum organized the conquered principalities into provinces (muang), and reclaimed Muang Sua from his father and elder brother. In the process of doing this wrested the middle Mekong from the control of Sukhothai, and weakened the Tai-Syam kingdom. Sikhottabong acknowledged Fa Ngum’s suzerainty. So did Xieng Khuang and a number of other Lao meuang. Only Viang Chan held out. *=

After conquering Muang Sawa the prince declared himself King Fangum. Fa Ngum was acclaimed king in Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, then brought Viang Chan into his empire. Fa Ngum was crowned king of Lan Xang at Vientiane, the site of one of his victories, in June 1354. He named his new kingdom Lan Xang Hom Khao, meaning ‘a million elephants and the white parasol’. His dynasty endured for over 600 years until it was abolished in 1975. Its symbol was a three head elephant. Lan Xang extended from the border of China to Sambor below the Mekong rapids at Khong Island and from the Vietnamese border to the western escarpment of the Khorat Plateau. *=

Legend of Fa Ngum

Legend tells us that this King had a child, with one of his wives (around 1316.) This child was special at birth : he was born with 33 teeth. The animist mandarins of the region, when they heard about it, came to see the baby, to check this spectacular event for themselves. Faced with such a freak of nature, they were unanimous : something very bad would happen to the realm, if the King didn’t take the necessary steps to get rid of the child. The father was obliged to comply, quickly : the omen was final and the sentence had to be carried out. In spite of this catastrophic prediction, the King just couldn’t kill the new-born baby. He let the mother bring him up normally : what could he be afraid of from a baby? Fa Ngum could live, at least until the age of seven. [Source: LuangPrabang-Laos.com ////]

The child quickly showed many signs of precociousness. He was a brilliant pupil, better by far than all of the other children of his age, which made his father very proud. The King would watch the amazing progress of his son in all the domains essential to the education of high dignitaries. He was also an excellent horse rider and had a lovely character. He was more and more loved by the King, who never stopped regretting the fact that his son was the object of a divine curse. As each day passed, the boy became more handsome, more intelligent and more loveable as well. ////

Unfortunately, the mandarins were there to remind the King of his duty and the weight of his responsibilities to the spirits who, according to them, were asking for the young Prince’s soul. The fateful day of Fa Ngum’s seventh birthday arrived, much too soon for the distraught and desperate father, who couldn’t push the execution date of his son any further. He had to obey the spirits and rid the town of the problem. Being as he couldn’t take the decision to kill his child, who was so good and obedient, so intelligent and loving, he had a junk built, so as to abandon his son to the Mekong river. This was in 1323, the large junk was fastened to the quay. 30 of the King’s most faithful servants installed the prince comfortably in what was supposed to be his last abode. ////

Legend tells us that it was because of a dental problem that the Prince was sent away from his realm; history tells us another story : Fa Ngum, as a child, was a particularly precocious and beautiful boy, who, very young, got out of hand with one of the King’s mistresses, who fell under his charm. It was that, which caused his disgrace . Whatever the real story be, the young Fa Ngum didn’t die on the river Mekong as the animist priests had hoped. His boat sailed peacefully on and arrived one morning at the mouth of the Mekong river, where the Khmer realm was situated (actual Cambodia). The Khmer King took the child in, and recognising the child’s royal blood, welcomed him into the realm of Angkor. The child refused, claiming to be the victim of a curse and told his story to the King. The King was Buddhist and didn’t believe in the primitive superstitions in which Xieng Dong-Xieng Tong was still steeped. ////

The Khmer King decided to bring the child up like one of his own sons. Fa Ngum turned out particularly talented, obedient, faithful and trustworthy. As time passed, complicity and love grew between the young Prince and the old King. Fa Ngum never disappointed his new protector : he was a good scholar, a quick and visionary fighter, and was sensible enough to become a man with all the necessary qualities to govern. The King, who loved this young Prince very much, gave him the hand of one of his daughters, Nang Kaew Kaeng Nya. ////

Past master in the art of war, skilled horseman, and awesome strategist, Fa Ngum wanted to go back to the country of his birth to reclaim the throne that should have been his. In 1340, when he was 24 years of age, he felt ready to leave with his soldiers to conquer all the small realms along the Mekong River. He left with an army of 10 000 men given to him by the King. As a Palladium for the new realm that he intended conquering, the King gave him a statue of Buddha in gold and emeralds, the Pha Bang, which became the palladium of the Lao Realm. ////

On the way to his birthplace, Fa Gnum defeated the 5 small states north of the Mekong capital, including the Khorat plateau, and finally took over the realm of Muang Seua and its capital Mouang Soua. It is said that his father, seeing his son’s victorious arrival, left him the throne and died of sorrow because he had listened to the mandarins. In 1353, Fa Ngum declared himself King of the three territories which, united, formed "The Realm of a Million Elephants and a White Parasol". Being as the animists had banished him with their obscure predictions, and because he had converted to Theravada Buddhism, Fa Ngum introduced this religion to the realm, and had temples built. In one of these temples he installed the golden statuette that his adoptive father had given him (the Pha Bang, of which a copy exists in the Old Royal Palace of Luang Prabang). Mouang Soua then became Mouang Xieng Thong (which ended up by being called Luang Prabang, in 1563.) ////

Lan Xang Under Fa Ngum

Fa Ngum built a fine capital at Xiang Dong Xiang Thong and set about organising his court and kingdom. In this new capital, he installed a Khmer colony, made up of scholars, artists and Buddhist monks. That was the beginning of Laos. But Fa Ngum was impatient to leave again on his quest for peace and unity. In 1354, even though Nang Kaew Kaeng Nya was 3 months pregnant, he became master of the Thai state of Lan Nan. Then he came back to Luang Prabang where the Queen, who had ruled in his absence, had given birth to a son, Oun Heuane (Happiness of the House). [Source: LuangPrabang-Laos.com]

The first few years of Fa Ngum's rule from his capital Muang Sua were uneventful. The next six years (1362-68), however, were troubled by religious conflict between Fa Ngum's lamaistic Buddhism and the region's traditional Theravada Buddhism. He severely repressed popular agitation that had anti-Mongol overtones and had many pagodas torn down. In 1368 Fa Ngum's Khmer wife died. He subsequently married the ruler of Ayuthia's daughter, who seems to have had a pacifying influence. For example, she was instrumental in welcoming a religious and artistic mission that brought with it a statue of the Buddha, the phrabang, which became the palladium of the kingdom. [Source: Library of Congress, Lonely Planet *=]

Fa Ngum appointed his Khmer generals to positions of power, even though this antagonised the local aristocracy. Tributary rulers had to journey to the capital every three years to renew their vows of fealty and present tribute. Fa Ngum performed sacrifices to the traditional spirits of the kingdom, and to the ngeuk of the Mekong. But he also acquiesced to his wife’s request to introduce Khmer Theravada Buddhism to Lan Xang. Here, according to the Lao chronicles, he began to run into problems. The Cambodian king despatched a large contingent of monks and craftsmen up the Mekong, but they only got as far as Viang Chan. There the image they were escorting, the famous Pha Bang, magically refused to move, and had to be left behind. Its reason for refusing to go on to the Lao capital was that it knew that Fa Ngum was not morally worthy. And it seems the Pha Bang was right. Fa Ngum began to seduce the wives and daughters of his court nobles, who decided to replace him. *=

Popular resentment continued to build. King Fangnum was ultimately ousted by his ministers because of his ruthlessness and obsession with conquest. In 1373 Fa Ngum Fa Ngum was sent into exile in Nan (now in Thailand), where he died within five years. His son, Oun Huan, who had been in exile in southern Yunnan, returned to assume the regency of the empire his father had created. Oun Huan ascended to the throne in 1393 when his father died, ending Mongol overlordship of the middle Mekong Valley. Fa Ngum has stood the test of time. The Kingdom of Lan Xang remained a power in mainland Southeast Asia until early in the 18th century, able to match the power of Siam, Vietnam and Burma. *=

Conquests Under Fa Ngum

Not long after taking the throne, Fa Ngum prepared new expeditions into the Central and Southern regions, who had never acknowledged his authority. In 1356, he besieged Vientiane, which was called Vieng Nham (Golden Beech) at the time. It is said that, at that time, Vientiane was an extremely developed and rich town, fortified by impassable bamboo walls. Fa Ngum didn’t want to lose too many men by attempting an attack if he wanted to accomplish his dream. Instead he used cleverness to overcome the capital of this small realm. [Source: LuangPrabang-Laos.com ////]

Knowing that the town’s strength rested in this thick barricade of bamboo, Fa Ngum had some small pieces of gold shot into it so that they got caught up in the bamboo. He then started a rumour in the town, saying that the bamboo was special and that there was gold in it. When the villagers found out that there really was gold in the bamboo, they started to rip it apart, frantic and blinded by the idea of gold. Even the soldiers couldn’t resist the temptation of getting rich. Fa Ngum had only to wait, in order to take the town which no longer had any defences. ////

During the first 20 years of his reign, Fa Ngum extended his realm to the East by taking Champa, as well as the mountain range bordering Vietnam, with whom he signed a treaty for peace and for the sharing of the territory. He regularly provoked the King of Ayuthaya and seized many Siamese muongs ... Tired of the endless wars by this man called "The Conqueror", and also tired of his high-handed behaviour and his loose way of living since the death of his wife in 1368, his ministers deposed him in 1371. He died 2 years later, and was replaced by his son, Oun Heuane, who reigned for 40 years and who was nicknamed the Chief of the SamSenThai (the "three hundred thousand Lao-Thais", half-casts of Thai-Lao origin counted in the census of 1376.) The period between 1353 and 1416 (date of the end of the SamSenThai reign) was marked as one of the most prosperous in Lao’s history. This period between 1353 et 1416 (end of the reign of SamSenThai) was recognised as one of the most prosperous periods in the history of Laos. ////

After Fa Ngum

Fa Ngum was succeeded by his son Un Heuan, who took the throne name Samsenthai, meaning 300,000 Tai, the number of men, his census reported, who could be recruited to serve in the army. He married princesses from the principal Tai kingdoms (Lanna and Ayutthaya, which had replaced Sukhothai), consolidated the kingdom and developed trade. With his wealth he built temples and beautified his capital. Samsenthai was greatly influenced by Siamese culture and adopted a Siamese style of administration and built many Thai-style wats (temples) and schools. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

After the death Samsenthai in 1421, Lan Xang was divided by warring factions. Twelve rulers preside over Kan Xang for the next 100 years. One of them, Samsenthai’s daughter, Nang Laew Phimpa, was Laos’s only female ruler. In 1520 King Phothisarat came to the throne and moved the capital to Vientiane to avoid Burmese aggression and was crushed to death while trying to rope an elephant.

According to Lonely Planet: “Following Samsenthai’s long and stable reign of 42 years, Lan Xang was shaken by succession disputes, a problem faced by all Southeast Asian mandala (circles of power). A scheming queen, known only as Mahathevi (Great Queen), is said to have set on the throne, and then killed off, a succession of youthful kings before ruling herself. But she was overthrown by the nobility and sacrificed to the ngeuk (by being chained to a rock in the Mekong and drowned). The throne then passed to Samsenthai’s youngest son, who took the throne name Xainya Chakkaphat (Universal Ruler). It was an arrogant claim, but he ruled wisely and well. =

Invasions of Lan Xang

At its heigh Lan Xang covered most of today's Laos and extended into present Thailand and Cambodia—and then fell to the Vietnamese, Burmese and Thais.

At the end of Xainya Chakkaphat’s his reign, when Lan Xang suffered its first major invasion. This was by Vietnam, whose emperor wanted revenge for a perceived insult. The story in the Lao chronicles is that a rare white elephant, a symbol of power and kingship throughout Southeast Asia, was captured and presented to Xainya Chakkaphat. Vietnamese emperor Le Thanh Tong asked for proof of its colour, so hairs were despatched in a fine box. Unfortunately, however, it was sent via Xieng Khuang, whose ruler wanted to thumb his nose at the Vietnamese. So he replaced the hairs with a small piece of dung.

Infuriated, the Vietnamese emperor sent a large invasion force against the Lao. After a bitter battle (recounted at length in the Lao chronicles, which even give the names of the principal war elephants), the Vietnamese captured and sacked Xiang Dong Xiang Thong. Xainya Chakkaphat fled and the Lao mounted a guerrilla campaign. Eventually the Vietnamese were forced to withdraw, their forces decimated by malaria and vowing never to invade Lan Xang again.

Lan Xang was weakened in the late 16th century by Burmese invasions and conflicts with highland tribes in northern Laos that the early Lao kings were never able to subjugate.

Consolidation of the Lan Xang Kingdom and the Burmese Threat

The Lao kingdom recovered under one of its greatest rulers, who came to the throne in 1501. This was King Visoun, who had previously been governor of Viang Chan. There he had been an ardent worshipper of the Pha Bang Buddha image, which he brought with him to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong to become the palladium of the kingdom. For it he built the magnificent temple known as Wat Wisunarat (Wat Visoun), which though damaged and repaired over the years, still stands in Luang Prabang. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

Visoun developed close relations with Chiang Mai, and enticed Lanna monks and craftsmen to his capital. He ordered a new version of the Lao chronicles composed, which he personally edited, and his reign marked a cultural renaissance for Lan Xang. Friendly relations with Lanna continued under Visoun’s successor, his son Phothisarat. His grandson, Setthathirat, married a Lanna princess and briefly ruled over both kingdoms. But Lanna wanted its own king, and Setthathirat had trouble enough shoring up support in Lan Xang. =

By then a new power had arisen in mainland Southeast Asia, the kingdom of Burma. It was the threat of Burma that in 1560 convinced Setthathirat to move his capital to Viang Chan. Before he did so, he built the most beautiful Buddhist temple surviving in Laos, Wat Xieng Thong. He also left behind the Pha Bang, and renamed Xiang Dong Xiang Thong Luang Prabang in its honour. With him he took what he believed to be an even more powerful Buddha image, the Pha Kaew, or Emerald Buddha, now in Bangkok. Other reasons for the move included population movements (both the Khorat Plateau and southern Laos were by then Lao) and to seek improved trade links. =

Setthathirat was the greatest builder in Lao history. Not only did he construct or refurbish several monasteries in Luang Prabang, besides Wat Xieng Thong, but he also did the same in Viang Chan. His most important building projects, apart from a new palace on the banks of the Mekong, were the great That Luang stupa, a temple for the Emerald Buddha (Wat Pha Kaeo), and endowment of a number of royal temples in the vicinity of the palace. The city was surrounded by a substantial wall and moat, 8km long. =

When a Burmese army approached Viang Chan, Setthathirat abandoned the city to mount guerrilla attacks on Burmese supply lines. When the Burmese were forced to withdraw, he returned to celebrate his victory by building yet another temple (Wat Mixai). Burmese hostility disrupted Lao trade routes, so Setthathirat led an expedition down the Mekong to open a new route through Cambodia. But the Cambodians objected. In a great battle the Lao were defeated, and in their chaotic retreat Setthathirat disappeared. =

Suriya Vongsa

It was over 60 years before another great Lao king came to the throne, a period of division, succession disputes and intermittent Burmese domination. In 1638 Suriya Vongsa was crowned king. He would rule for 57 years, the longest reign in Lao history and the ‘golden age’ of the kingdom of Lan Xang. During this time, Lan Xang was a powerful kingdom, and Viang Chan was a great centre of Buddhist learning, attracting monks from all over mainland Southeast Asia.

Suriya Vongsa had only been on the throne three years when there arrived in Viang Chan the first European to have left an account of the Lao kingdom. He was a merchant by the name of Gerrit van Wuysthoff, an employee of the Dutch East India Company, who, like Setthathirat, wanted to open a trade route down the Mekong. He and his small party were royally accommodated and entertained during their eight-week stay in the Lao capital. =

Van Wuysthoff has more to say about the prices of trade goods than about Lao culture or religion, but he was followed a year later by a much more informative visitor. This was the Jesuit missionary, Giovanni-Maria Leria, who stayed in Viang Chan for five years. During that time he had singularly little success in converting anyone to Christianity, and eventually gave up in disgust. But he liked the Lao people (if not the monks), and has left a wonderful description of the royal palace and the houses of the nobility. He was also much impressed by the power of the king. =

Suriya Vongsa must have been stern and unbending in his old age, because he refused to intervene when his son and heir was found guilty of adultery and condemned to death. As a result, when he died in 1695 another succession dispute wracked the kingdom. This time the result was division of Lan Xang. First the ruler of Luang Prabang declared independence from Viang Chan, followed a few years later by Champasak in the south. =

Division of Lan Xang

Internal dissension after the death of King Soulingna Vongsa resulted in the kingdom being divided into three parts. the Kingdom of Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center and Champassack in the south. After this time Laos remained divided variously under Thai, Burmese and Vietnamese control until the French arrived in 1893.

In 1690, however, Lan Xang fell prey to a series of rival pretenders to its throne, and, as a result of the ensuing struggles, split into three kingdoms (four with Xieng Khuang)--Louangphrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. Muang Phuan enjoyed a semi-independent status as a result of having been annexed by a Vietnamese army in the fifteenth century, an action that set a precedent for a tributary relationship with the court of Annam at Hué. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The weakened once great kingdom of Lan Xang was thus fatally weakened. In its place were three weak regional kingdoms, none of which was able to withstand the growing power of the Tai-Syam kingdom of Ayutthaya. The Siamese were distracted, however, over the next half century by renewed threats from Burma. In the end Ayutthaya was taken and sacked by a Burmese army. Chiang Mai was already tributary to Burma, and Luang Prabang also paid tribute.

Successive Burmese and Siamese interventions involved Vientiane and Louangphrabang in internecine struggles. In 1771 the king of Louangphrabang attacked Vientiane, determined to punish it for what he perceived to be its complicity in a Burmese attack on his capital in 1765. The Siamese captured Vientiane for the first time in 1778-79, when it became a vassal state to Siam. Vientiane was finally destroyed in 1827-28 following an imprudent attempt by its ruler, Chao Anou, to retaliate against perceived Siamese injustices toward the Lao. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The disappearance of the Vientiane kingdom and the weakened condition of Louangphrabang led to a period of direct Siamese presence on the left bank of the Mekong and to the virtual annexation of Xiangkhouang and part of Bolikhamxai by the Vietnamese. The Siamese also soon became more directly involved with the Kingdom of Louangphrabang, whose ruler, Manta Thourath (r. 1817-36), had sought to preserve neutrality in the conflict between Siam and Vientiane. The Siamese intervention was caused by an appeal by King Oun Kham (r. 1872-94) for help in clearing his northeastern territories of the Hô (Haw), bands of armed horsemen who had fled the bloody Manchu campaign to pacify Yunnan. *

Thai Invasion of Laos

The inspiring leadership of a young military commander called Taksin, son of a Chinese father and a Siamese mother, rallied the Siamese and drove the Burmese out not just of central Siam, but from the north too. Chiang Mai became tributary to Siam. After organising his kingdom and building a new capital, Taksin sought new fields of conquest. The Lao kingdoms were obvious targets. By 1779 all three had surrendered to Siamese armies and accepted the suzerainty of Siam. The Emerald Buddha was carried off by the Siamese. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

His success went to his head, however, and three years later Taksin, suffering delusions of spiritual grandeur, was deposed by his leading general. The new king, founder of the current Thai Chakri dynasty, titled himself Rama I. He too built a new palace and capital at Bangkok, and quickly consolidated his power over tributary rulers. All Lao kings had to be endorsed by their Siamese overlord before they could assume their thrones, and all had to present regular tribute to Bangkok. =

The Thai-Lao conflict had a long history. At the time of Siam's retributive campaigns against Vientiane in 1827-28, relations between Vientiane and Annam were good. The Vietnamese called Vientiane Van Tuong (the Kingdom of Ten Thousand Elephants). But when Vientiane's ruler, Chao Anou, sought refuge in Hué following Siam's destruction of his capital, it caused serious embarrassment to the Vietnamese. King Rama III of Siam wrote to the Vietnamese emperor, Minh Mang, explaining that Chao Anou had refused obedience to him and had started hostilities. Minh Mang, pursuing a consistently cautious policy toward Rama III, lent Chao Anou two companies of men to escort him back to Vientiane, instructing them to return immediately after accomplishing their mission. Siamese and Vietnamese sources--the Laotian primary sources having for the most part disappeared--give conflicting versions of what happened next. In any event, in mid-October 1828, Chao Anou found himself once again engaged in hostilities with a stronger Siamese force. He again fled to safety, this time to Muang Phuan because a Siamese force was encamped at Nakhon Phanom, blocking the Mekong downstream. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The arrival of Chao Anou on their doorstep with a Siamese army in pursuit confronted the leaders of Muang Phuan with a dilemma. When the Siamese commander issued an ultimatum to surrender Chao Anou under penalty of an attack on Xiangkhoang, the leaders of Muang Phuan quickly accepted. The Siamese took Chao Anou to Bangkok and kept him captive. What followed was illustrative of the consequences of the constant meddling in each other's affairs that went on among the Laotian principalities. The reigning prince of Muang Phuan was Chao Noi, son of the ruling family. Vientiane had attempted to take advantage of Chao Noi's youth when his father died to install Chao Xan, the head of a rival family from Muang Kasi. The Phuan elders of Xiangkhoang refused to accept this candidate, so power was shared under a compromise arranged with help from Hué. Chao Xan, however, led a delegation to Hué, where he accused Chao Noi and his cousins of bringing dishonor to the emperor by surrendering a vassal prince to another king, of obstructing passage of a tribute mission from Louangphrabang across the territory of Muang Phuan to Hué, and of negotiating to acknowledge Siamese suzerainty. In 1827 Thai king Rama III told his general Mom Ghao Thap “to return Vientiane to the wild animals and leave nothing behind but weed and water.” *

Chao Noi was accordingly summoned to Hué to explain himself but sent his eldest son, Po. Angered by this flagrant disregard of a direct order, Minh Mang took no action, awaiting news of the fate of Chao Anou, who was the nominal suzerain and ordinarily would have dealt with the Phuan on behalf of Hué. Once word was received that Chao Anou had died, Minh Mang sent a Vietnamese detachment to Muang Phuan and arrested Chao Noi and most of his family. In May 1829, the prisoners were taken to Annam, where Chao Noi and his cousin were executed in January 1830. Chao Noi's young sons and their mothers were kept in exile in Nghe An. The Muang Phuan succession thus fell to Chao Xan. Minh Mang, however, posted a quan phu (commissioner), supported by a garrison of 500 soldiers who were rotated seasonally, to reside permanently at Chiang Kham (Khang Khay), at the headwaters of the Nam Ngum, as a precaution against a recurrence of conflict with the Siamese king. *

Rama III sent a further letter to Minh Mang in early 1829 outlining his view of Chao Anou's treachery and thanking the emperor for his presents. But the king failed to provide an explanation for a serious incident at Nakhon Phanom in which three Vietnamese mandarins had been killed. In November 1829, Siamese envoys returned home with a letter from Hué reiterating earlier demands for punishment of those people responsible. When it became obvious that Rama III would not revert to the old arrangement of joint administration, Hué gave administrative control over the entire eastern half of the former kingdom of Vientiane to Vietnamese officials in Annam and Tonkin. The territory was virtually annexed by Hué in 1831 under the name Tran Ninh Phu Tam Vien. The Vietnamese presence at Khang Khay continued until the mid-1850s. *

Chao Anou's wars with the Siamese had stirred massive disruptions of villages on the right bank. Terrified Lao fled every which way. When the Siamese arrived at Nakhon Phanom in 1827 they found the town deserted, the officials having fled across the river to Mahaxai. In the aftermath of the war, however, the Siamese established new towns--Chiang Khan, Nong Khai, Mukdahan, and Kemmarat--at key points on the Mekong to serve as administrative centers and as logistical bases for expeditionary forces operating across the river toward the mountains. *

Thailand and Laos

In the 14th century what is now northeastern Thailand was part of a Lao kingdom, which partly explains why so many Lao live there now, and was fought over by Lao and Thai dynasties. The Emerald Buddha, the most revered image in Thailand, was kept for many years in the Lao Kingdom and it was returned to Thailand in 1778. Carved from a single piece of green jasper, not real jade, this 2½-foot-high Buddha is mounted on multi-tiered golden altar. Thais say that as long as the Emerald Buddha stays in Thailand, Thailand will remain independent.

By the end of the 18th century Thailand had taken over much of the territory in northeast Thailand previously occupied by Lan Xang (the Lao kingdom). The Lao king in Luang Prabang gave the Thai king a tribute of gold flowers and silver and many members of the Lao royal family were educated in Bangkok.

In 1826 the Lao king Chao Anou suddenly declared war on Thailand. Before that time he had been an advocate of Thai rule. The rebellion was short lived. Chao Anou was captured by the Thai army and taken to Bangkok, where he was displayed in a cage before the Thai public. The Thai heroine Yo Ma has been lionized for leading Thai warriors to victory over an invading army from Laos on the early 19th century

As punishment for the rebellion, the Thais razed over 6,000 wooden houses and temples in Vientiane and forcibly moved almost the entire population of the city to Bangkok, where they were put to work building canals and other public works projects.

Laos Under Thai Control

Most of Laos fell under Siamese suzerainty in 1828 and became a Siamese tributary state. Thousands of Lao were resettled on the west bank of the Mekong River in what is now northeastern Thailand as part of an effort to boost the population of that area. Similar resettlements took place with Lao in the Laotian provinces of Luang Prabang and Champassak.

The Thais depopulated many Lao regions and required that all the Lao males to be tattooed in a campaign comparable to Jews being forced to wear stars by the Nazis. The decimation of the Lao kingdom paved the way for incursions from other directions. Chinese mercenaries and French deserters moved in from the north. Vietnamese took control of much of the mountain territory in the northeast.

On the left bank, where the writ of Siam ran as far south as Stung Treng, the Siamese followed a policy of depopulating the country. This policy had actually been initiated as early as 1779; the first Phuan carried off by the Siamese arrived in Bangkok around 1792, where they were used as workers in the fields of the official classes. By removing people from the left bank, the Siamese deprived any invader from Annam of food supplies, transport, and recruits. Sporadic resistance, however, led for some time by the latsavong (first prince), of the old Vientiane kingdom continued at Mahaxai until 1835, when the leading Lao official there agreed to become governor of Sakon Nakhon on the right bank, and the Siamese resettled there. From 1837 to 1847, the Siamese carried out depopulation raids annually during the dry season in Khamkeut and Khammouan and in the valley of the Xé Banghiang. Entire Lao villages were uprooted.[Source: Library of Congress]

According to Lonely Planet: Lao chafed under Siamese rule. When Chao Anou succeeded his two older brothers on the throne of Viang Chan, he determined to assert Lao independence. First he made merit by endowing Buddhist monasteries and building his own temple (Wat Si Saket). Then in 1826 he made his move, sending three armies down the Mekong and across the Khorat plateau. The Siamese were taken by surprise, but quickly rallied. Siamese armies drove the Lao back and seized Viang Chan. Chao Anou fled, but was captured when he tried to retake the city a year later. This time the Siamese were ruthless. Viang Chan was thoroughly sacked and its population resettled east of the Mekong. Only Wat Si Saket was spared. Chao Anou died a caged prisoner in Bangkok. For the next 60 years the Lao meuang, from Champasak to Luang Prabang, were tributary to Siam. At first these two remaining small kingdoms retained a degree of independence, but increasingly they were brought under closer Siamese supervision. One reason for this was that Siam itself was threatened by a new power in the region and felt it had to consolidate its empire. The new power was France, which had declared a protectorate over most of Cambodia in 1863.[Source: Lonely Planet]

Laos Under Vietnamese Control

Meanwhile, the leaders of Houaphan principality, fearing that the example of Muang Phuan might be applied to them, submitted to the suzerainty of Bangkok through the intermediary of Louangphrabang. Events were not going well for the Siamese in Muang Phuan. After the Siamese removed Chao Xan and some of the elders to Bangkok in 1836, the Vietnamese in effect ruled the state directly, appointing local officials as administrators. The depopulation activities the Siamese carried out on the Plain of Jars and elsewhere in Xiangkhoang caused the remaining population to migrate eastward and southward, forming new villages in the upper reaches of the Nam Mat and around the northern extremities of the Nam Kading basin, around Muang Mo, Muang Mok, and Muang Ngan. This expansion of the Phuan state was encouraged by the Vietnamese in their administrative reorganization. Some of the Phuan, however, perhaps enticed by Lao governors acting for the Siamese, moved down the river valleys toward the Mekong. There, new towns such as Bolikhamxai and Pakxan were founded and given satellite status by the Siamese in the 1870s. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Tu Duc, on his accession as Vietnamese emperor at Hué in 1847, allowed the sons of Chao Noi to return home with their families and to reestablish Xiangkhoang as the Phuan capital. They were given administrative responsibilities and the eldest, Prince Po, at last was permitted to replace the commissioner. Meanwhile, King Tiantha Koumane of Louangphrabang (r. 1851-69), one of three sons of Manta Thourath who succeeded to the throne in succession, while in Bangkok to receive the investiture, quickly arranged with the new Siamese king, Rama IV, to become once again the suzerain over the Phuan state. The Vietnamese had no objection to vassal relations of the Phuan with Louangphrabang. But Rama IV was deeply suspicious of the Phuan elders and set as a condition for accepting this arrangement that the Phuan send an annual tribute mission to Louangphrabang. Tiantha Koumane hence was able to reestablish his authority over Muang Phuan. *

Problems with the Ho in Thai-Controlled Laos

A new element—the Hô—entered the picture, further complicating the situation in northern Laos. The Hô first appeared in mid-1869 in the upper valley of the Nam Ou, where they made common cause with some Lu dissidents displaced from the Sipsong Panna during a civil war lasting twenty-five years. An army from Louangphrabang attacked these bands and withdrew with prisoners. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The Lao and Siamese were ill prepared to face up to the new danger of anarchy in their domains. Tiantha Koumane was dying of malaria, and the Siamese, preoccupied with preparations for the cremation of their own monarch, Rama IV, demanded that a tribute mission from Louangphrabang arrive in Bangkok in time for the ceremony. Many princes and senior officials had to absent themselves from Louangphrabang at this critical time and had to remain in Bangkok afterward for audiences with the new monarch. Oun Kham, who was already fifty-eight years old, did not receive his crown from the Siamese until 1872. *

It was not until 1873 that the Siamese sent an army up the Nam Ou to attack the Hô and drive them out. Some Hô retreated into Houaphan, while others overran the Plain of Jars, where Chao Hung had succeeded his brother Chao Pho as ruler of the Phuan state, which became the main theater of conflict. The Hô camped at Chiang Kham and demanded "tax" payments from the local population, threatening to kill anyone who resisted. Chao Hung raised a small army and led it to assist the beleaguered governor of Chiang Kham in 1874, but a fatal bullet wound prompted the withdrawal of his army. Chao Hung's son, Prince Khanti, appealed to Annam for aid. A joint attack was made on Chiang Kham but was also repulsed. *

Early the following year, the Hô began plundering the lowlands along the Mekong as far upriver as Chiang Khan and as far south as Nakhon Phanom, directly threatening Siam's security. The teenage King Rama V was unable to mount an effective response. The governor of Khorat took a force of men across the flooded Mekong at the height of the monsoon and attacked the Hô encamped in the ruins of Vientiane, killing their warlord and forcing the others to retreat to Muang Phuan. A concerted campaign against the Hô in their stronghold was finally put in motion in 1876, but it resulted more in pillaging and looting the inhabitants than in stopping the Hô, who, with their horses, were more than a match for the Siamese and Lao foot soldiers. Rama V blamed the Phuan for having brought trouble on themselves by giving rice, silver, and horses to the Hô, which in fact they had done in a desperate effort to appease them. He rejected further appeals for aid on the grounds that the local leaders would prove incapable of dealing with the situation after the army withdrew. *

Meanwhile, the troubles in the upper valley of the Nam Ou continued. Siamese commissioners had to assist Oun Kham in restoring order in 1876 and to prod him into reorganizing the towns under his rule. Affairs remained in a state of flux for the next six years, and when in late 1882 Oun Kham appealed again to Bangkok for help against the Hô, the Siamese sent a major military mission. Subsequently, the Siamese maintained a permanent garrison at Louangphrabang.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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