On his encounter with Laos, the Dutch explorer Gerrot van Wuystoof wrote in 1641: “The mountains that surround it on every side fortify the land marvelously against the enterprises of foreigners...While forests of full grown timber grow at the foot of these mountains seeming to have planted intentionally to serve as a rampart against the great falls of rain which would cause great damage if there were not this natural obstacle.”

Henri Mouhot was the first European to visit this fabled royal Laotian city of Luang Prabang. He arrived there in 1861, In 1867 a French expedition sent to explore and map the Mekong River arrived in Luang Prabang, then the largest settlement upstream from Phnom Penh. In the 1880s the town became caught up in a struggle that pitted Siamese, French and roving bands of Chinese brigands (known as Haw) against each other. In 1887 Luang Prabang was looted and burned by a mixed force of Upland Tai and Haw. Only Wat Xieng Thong was spared. The king escaped downstream. With him was a French explorer named Auguste Pavie, who offered him the protection of France. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The French, in their early forays into the interior of Indochina, had stuck mainly to the rivers, looking for access routes to China. An April 1867 expedition led by Ernest Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier visited the ruins of Vientiane. In 1869 an expedition led by Rheinart and Mourin d'Arfeuille traveled up the Mekong without penetrating the mountains. Although another explorer, Jules Harmand, a French army physician, reached Attapu on the Xé Kong, these forays provided the French with only a superficial knowledge of the peoples of the interior. What these early French explorers and scientists did find, however, were the Siamese and the Vietnamese already contesting for suzerainty over the territory between the mountains and the Mekong. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The last major migration into Laos in the nineteenth century was that of the Hmong. Accustomed to growing crops of dryland rice and maize at the highest elevations in mountainous southern China, where they had lived for centuries, the Hmong practiced a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors at lower elevations. Their major interaction occurred in selling their chief cash crop, opium. *

Khone Falls and Limits of the Mekong River as a Transport Route

Khone Falls (on the Mekong River along the Laos-Cambodian border) is the widest waterfall in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. The series of rapids and falls are 6.7 miles wide, with a drop of 70 feet. The falls are most impressive at the end of the rainy season when the flow is 1.5 million cubic meters per second. This is more than any other fall in the world, and twice as much as Niagra Falls.

Known properly as Khônephapheng Falls, Khone is six mile chain of cataracts. There are two main cascades: Phapheng and Somphamit Falls and several smaller sets of rapids. In some places some flimsy bamboo platforms have been set up for fishermen to use. Don’t try to use them yourself. The magic manikhot tree that sits in the middle of the falls is said to have never been touched by human hands. The river cruise to the falls passes by numerous islands and temples with saffron-robed monks.

The falls are one of the reasons why the Mekong River was one of the last rivers to be explored and developed. Fish amazingly can make their way up the falls but boats can’t. It dashed the hopes of French hoping to use the Mekong River as a transportation link to China.

The French built a 14-kilometers railway so that goods could be moved across two islands to bypass the falls. Cargo at one end of the railway was hoisted from boats and placed on railcars and unloaded back onto to boats at the other end of the line. Sometimes entire boats were lifted and put on railway cars The railroad operated until the end of World War II and was the only railroad built in Laos. After the war the rails were carried away by villagers. All that remains really are two piers, a bridge between the two islands, remains of sleepers and gravel and a rusting steam locomotive. On Khone Island you can hike on part of the old railway bed.

Siamese Evicted from Laos with French Help

The French, meanwhile, had imposed a treaty of protectorate on Annam in 1884. This treaty implied a French interest going beyond exploratory involvement in the affairs of Laos. In June 1885, the French consul general in Bangkok notified the Siamese government that a vice consulate would be established in Louangphrabang under terms of a most-favored-nation clause contained in a Franco-Siamese treaty of 1856. A new Franco-Siamese convention of May 1886 acknowledged the role of Siamese officials in Laos for the conduct of administrative matters but avoided implying French recognition of Siamese claims to sovereignty there. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Auguste Pavie arrived at Louangphrabang in 1887 to assume his post as vice consul. Pavie played a key role in saving Oun Kham's life from raiders from Lai Chau, earning the king's gratitude and a promise that he would place his kingdom under France's protection. Incidents between Siamese and French officials on the left bank, where the French had made themselves advocates of Vietnamese claims to suzerainty, continued in 1887-93. Finally, in March 1893, the French government, acceding to a campaign by the colonial lobby in Paris, decided to send three French commissioners, each with a small armed force, to evict the Siamese from outposts they had established in central and southern Laos. The commissioners had secret orders to avoid exchanges of fire if at all possible; ironically, the Siamese were under identical orders from their government. *

In the end French rule was imposed through gunboat diplomacy. The French government dispatched two warships to the Gulf of Siam, and, in what became known as the Paknam incident, forced the passage of a fort at the mouth of the Menam River on July 12, 1893 and anchored in the river with their guns trained on the royal palace. On July 20, the French gave an ultimatum to the Siamese government to recognize the rights of Annam to the left bank territories and to meet a list of other demands within forty-eight hours. The Siamese replied on July 22, accepting the first demand in central and southern Laos but rejecting the rest. The French declared a blockade of Bangkok, whereupon the Siamese accepted the rest of the French demands. By terms of the treaty concluded on October 3, 1893, between the Government of the French Republic and the Government of His Majesty the King of Siam, Siam renounced all claims to territories on the left bank and to islands in the river. *

French Colonization of Laos

In the late 19th century, the French established themselves in what is now Vietnam (see Vietnam) and set up in consulate in Luang Prabang with Siamese permission. Between 1893 and 1907, they took control of Laos—incorporating it into French Cochin China along with Vietnam and Cambodia—through a series of treaties with the Siamese, British and Chinese. Despite several armed revolts, Laos continued as a French colony until the Japanese occupation during World War II.

By virtue of the Franco-Siamese treaty of 3 October 1893, signed in Bangkok and ratified by the French Parliament in January 1894, Laos became the fifth province of French Indochina. Laos was a protectorate like Tonkin (north Vietnam), Annam (central Vietnam) and Cambodia, but Cochin-china (south Vietnam) was the only province with the status of colony. Laos entered the Union of French Indochina from a position of disadvantage, with no defined status of its own but often thought of as an extension of Vietnam. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website]

The French gave Laos its name and its present borders. They helped unify the Lao provinces on the east side of the Mekong River while their treaties with the Siamese gave the Thais control over Lao regions on the west side of the Mekong River, a move that significantly weakened Laos.

The French never cared much about Laos other than as a buffer state between their colonial possessions and British-influenced Thailand and Burma. They re-established and propped up the monarchy and made Luang Prabang was the royal capital of Laos and made Vientiane the administrative center for the French protectorate of Laos with Vietnamese filling most of the positions in the civil service. The French expedition on the Mekong River in 1866 revealed that the Mekong was not navigable into China as they had hoped, that there were no easy-to-exploit mineral resources and that and the terrain was too mountainous for plantation agriculture.

The Kingdom of Louangphrabang became a protectorate and was initially placed under the governor general of Indochina in Hanoi. Pavie saw to the officialization in Hanoi of the titles of King Oun Kham, his eldest son who assumed the duties of king under the name Zakarine — also known as Kham Souk (r. 1894-1904) — and the viceroy, Boun Khong. The French originally divided central Laos into two administrative districts. By April and May 1894, however, the initial organization was already being modified, and a new plan was put into effect a year later. In 1899 Upper Laos was integrated with Lower Laos under one administrator. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In 1904 and 1905, Laos was deprived of southern plateaus that were previously part of its territory. Under the February 13, 1904, Convention Modifying the Treaty Concluded on October 3, 1893, Siam ceded to France control of the right-bank portion of Louangphrabang (present-day Xaignabouri Province) and part of the right-bank territory of Champasak. The French governor general, by a decree of March 28, 1905, fixed the border between Laos and Cambodia at the Tonle Repou River. Under the March 23, 1907, Treaty Between France and Siam, the French retroceded the territory of Dan Sai, southwest of the "elbow" of the Mekong, to Siam. *

The French thus reestablished a political entity in the middle Mekong Valley extending from China to the Khong falls on the Cambodian border that owed allegiance to neither Vietnam nor Siam, thereby eluding Vietnamese claims to Laos, whose historical basis they had verified in the archives in Hué. Detachment of the administration of the left-bank territories from Annam was justified on grounds of budgetary necessity in the new French Indochina. *

Laos as a French Protectorate

In 1900 Viang Chan (which the French spelled as Vientiane) was re-established as the administrative capital of Laos, though real power was exercised from Hanoi, the capital of French Indochina. In 1907 a further treaty was signed with Siam adding two territories west of the Mekong to Laos (Sainyabuli province, and part of Champasak). Siem Reap and Battambang provinces were regained by Cambodia at the same time. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The territory of Laos consisted of the Kingdom of Louangphrabang, under French protection, and the provinces south of the Nam Kading, which were administered directly by a résident supérieur in Vientiane. The latter had direct authority over the provincial résidents, who were on an equal footing with the Lao chao khoueng (provincial governors). The résident supérieur also acted as the representative of the French state to the king of Louangphrabang and supervised the administration of the kingdom through provincial commissioners. The affairs of the kingdom were conducted by a four-member council headed by the viceroy. The résident supérieur also coordinated the activities of the public services of the Indochinese Federation, which operated in both the north and the south, and employed French, Vietnamese, and Lao civil servants. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The treaty also reinstituted the position of viceroy, which had been abolished by the French at the death of Boun Khong in 1920. Boun Khong's son, Prince Phetsarath, became one of the major figures of modern Laos. Among his accomplishments were the establishment of the system of ranks and titles of the civil service, promotion and pension plans, the organization of a Laotian consultative assembly consisting of district and province chiefs, the reorganization of the king's Advisory Council along functional lines, and the establishment of a school of law and administration. Phetsarath also reorganized the administrative system of the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), and established a system of schools for educating monks in which the language of instruction was Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism. *

French authorities in Saigon had hoped that their Lao territories would become the springboard for further expansion, to include all of what is today northeast Thailand. This whole area had been settled by Lao and ruled from Vientiane. By the early 20th century, however, French attention had shifted from Indochina to Europe, and from competition with Britain to friendship in the lead-up to WWI. This left up to 80 percent of all Lao still within the borders of Siam, while in French Laos, ethnic Lao comprised less than half the population. The rest were tribal minorities. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Over the next few years the French put into place the apparatus of colonial control. They built a mansion for the résident-supérieur (governor) on the site of the former royal palace, barracks for a small military detachment, a court house, a prison, and housing for interpreters and civil servants, most of whom were Vietnamese. Later came a hospital, covered market and schools. The sites of ancient monasteries were preserved, and in time new temples were constructed by the Lao population. Chinese shopkeepers and Vietnamese artisans arrived, along with a few French merchants. As they took up residence in the downtown area, near the Mekong, Lao villagers were pushed out. Even so, the town grew slowly, and by 1925 the population was still only around 8000. =

Life in French Laos

Only a few hundred French lived in Laos at any given time. Early colonists believed that the Mekong River was filled with gold and they would get rich by panning it out. Things didn't pan out and many people came down with malaria. People that decided to stay on headed to the malaria-free highlands and turned to growing coffee on plantations and teaching hill tribes how to produce opium. Opium was the most lucrative crop.

The French in Laos were known as decadent “lotus-eaters” by the French in other colonies. "Laos was always a popular posting for French colonials—especially men," wrote British journalist Donald Wilson, "It's very name seemed to conjure up visions of long afternoon siestas spent with an accommodating Lao or Annamite mistresses. The scent of opium fumes mingled with the heavy perfume of jasmine never seemed far removed.”

Except for people living around Vientiane and Luang Prabang, most Laotians were little affected by French rule. Those that did fall under French control were for forced to contributed several days of labor a year, through the “covee” system, to the French colonial government.

In Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Pakse town planning and services were slow to be introduced. In time spacious villas were constructed for senior French officials, and the Lao towns were graced by colonial French architecture. A heavily subsidised riverboat service linked the Lao Mekong towns to Phnom Penh and Saigon. Nevertheless Laos remained a backwater. Despite French plans for economic exploitation, Laos was always a drain on the budget of Indochina. Corvée labour was introduced, particularly to build roads, and taxes were heavy, but the colony never paid its own way. Some timber was floated down the Mekong, and tin was discovered in central Laos, but returns were meagre. Coffee was grown in southern Laos, and opium in the north, most of it smuggled into China. The French tried hard to direct trade down the Mekong to Vietnam, but traditional trade routes across the Khorat Plateau to Bangkok were quicker and less costly. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

The French introduced a three-tier system of administration into Laos. Ethnic minorities retained traditional links with local Lao leaders, who were supervised by Vietnamese civil servants, who were answerable to French officials. Taxes had traditionally been paid in the form of forest or agricultural products, but the French demanded cash. This introduced a market economy, but caused resentment. A series of anti-French rebellions broke out, first in the south and then in the north, led by traditional leaders who resented loss of authority. It took the French years of military campaigns to suppress them. =

French Colonial Engineer in Laos

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “Along the sandy banks of the Mekong, across the Bolaven Plateau, rich with coffee plantations and stunning waterfalls, and down through the well-peopled villages and towns of central Vietnam, I spent a week following in the footsteps of Antoine Fayard, my maternal great- grandfather who built and designed roads, dams and canals across colonial Indochina. Two journeys a century apart.[Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 29, 2009 |=|]

“Colonialism is a malevolent concept in this part of the world, where Europeans drew many of the modern-day borders. The European conquerors are remembered for their postwar defeats and retreats, their often-racist policies and their economic self-interest. This trip offered a look at the beneficial legacies of the colonial empires, some of which are well appreciated today: the roads, railways and dams, the obscure villages that became prosperous trading centers, and the anonymous troves of engineers who carried out the work. |=|

“Antoine Fayard had servants carry him by palanquin or rode his white horse with a retinue of 25 coolies, often hacking his way through the jungle and carrying a revolver as protection against bandits. I took crowded buses and taxis and rode a motorcycle through the rolling hills of the Vietnamese hinterland. He brought along a cook, bottles of rum, ham, condensed milk, salted butter and red wine — he was French after all. |=|

“Fayard wrote that when he visited the hill tribes of the region, many of which have since dwindled away or were forcibly relocated, he was offered chicken blood and rice wine, beverages that a French missionary advised him to quaff enthusiastically lest he offend the hospitality of his hosts. “I am already half Annamite,” he wrote his mother in June 1904, using the word the French used to describe the inhabitants of what is now southern Vietnam. “I eat rice, walk barefoot in the house and dress like them.” |=|

Travels of a French Colonial Engineer in Laos

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “As his great-grandson, I was drawn to Fayard as a foreigner in an exotic land, a young man from Burgundy who had traveled wide-eyed by steamship from Marseille through the Suez Canal, to Colombo, Singapore and finally to his posting in Indochina. His sojourn here was not the history-book version of colonialism: the wars, treaties and “la mission civilisatrice.” He was an everyday French civil servant recruited by a government that at the time was desperate to send more officers to its colonies. Fayard had inquired about postings in Indochina and received an unexpected reply: Thank you for volunteering; your ship leaves Feb. 23.[Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 29, 2009 |=|]

“On the Lao side of the border, it was not difficult to understand the pioneer ethos that motivated the French to explore what had been a black hole in the knowledge of European travelers until the mid-19th century. The forests are still thick enough that it seems plausible to hunt for wild boar, deer and more ferocious animals, as Fayard did. “If I kill a tiger I will try to keep the hide for you,” Fayard wrote to his mother from what is now southern Vietnam in a letter dated April 1904. “At the very least a claw.” |=|

“But in the valley near the coast of the South China Sea, where Fayard had designed a large irrigation system, humanity was packed in more tightly. Colorful villages were separated by rice paddies where, during every daylight hour, farmers stooped over green stalks. Soon after he had settled into a small village called Phu Sen, Fayard, who was in his mid-20s and still single, drew up plans for a dam on the Ba River that would feed two winding canals, one on each side of the river. Although he was skeptical that the project would go forward — it was too “huge” for such a poor country, he wrote his mother — the dam was completed around 1930, after he had moved to Morocco, where he designed the port of Tangiers and raised his family. |=|

Positive Impact of a French Colonial Dam on Laos

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “Today, the Dong Cam Dam, as it is known, delivers water to 19,000 hectares, or 73 square miles, of vibrantly verdant rice fields. Nguyen Dinh Sum, an 85-year-old rice farmer, described how the completion of the dam and canal system had changed the lives of villagers, because they no longer needed to forage in the mountains for wild animals and edible roots. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 29, 2009 |=|]

“What about the humiliation of being ruled by foreigners? I asked. “To be honest, many people didn’t feel comfortable being under the authority of the French,” Mr. Nguyen said, “but they admired them for what they did.” He glanced over at the canal. “The French built this,” he said, “and it brought us prosperity.” Nguyen Phuc, an 86-year-old farmer with only two front teeth, told me that the rice harvest in the valley increased fourfold when the canal came into operation because plentiful water meant they could plant several times a year.As a child, he had gawked at French people, he said, because he thought they looked bizarre — especially their light-colored eyes. |=|

“Tran Chu, a 91-year-old farmer who lived in Phu Sen, the village where my great-grandfather had settled for about a year, recalled attending the opening ceremony of the dam, full of pomp and men in uniform. “Before the canals we only had water from heaven,” Mr. Tran said. The French and the Vietnamese lived in separate worlds, he said. “The French spoke French, and I spoke Vietnamese,” he said. “We just smiled at each other.” |=|

“When I told him about my great-grandfather, he requested a photo of Fayard and invited me to return the following day. The next morning, a long table was set with soups and piles of steamed chicken and cans of beer. A dozen officials from the water utility gathered as Mr. Tran offered a toast to the “French people who built the good facilities here.” He filled my bowl. “This rice is thanks to the water from the Dong Cam Dam,” he said. For a few moments, I set aside my journalistic skepticism. We were celebrating water and emerald-green rice stalks. The politics of colonialism were never mentioned. |=|

“The day before, at dusk, I had stood beside the Ba River and dialed my grandmother in France on my mobile phone. I described the dam and the canals, which she has never seen, and told her about the farmers I had met who had been so complimentary about the construction of the project. Thousands of families had benefited, I told her. I stretched out my arm and pointed the phone toward the rushing waters. “Do you hear that?” I said. “I am standing on your father’s dam.” |=|

Brutal Side of French Colonization of Laos

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “Alas, if only the entirety of France’s colonial history had been written in this valley. It was not, of course. At the time that the dam was being completed, the French authorities were suppressing uprisings in the northern provinces partly brought on by famine. Fayard’s pictures offer a measure of the brutality of the time: he photographed an execution by sword. Another photo shows a man’s decapitated head placed on a pike with a sign detailing his crime. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 29, 2009 |=|]

Premature death was common among the ruled and the rulers. Of a small group of young colonial officers Fayard befriended in Indochina, one died of the “plague”; another stepped on a tiger trap and died from an infection. Fayard himself was badly weakened by malaria and other mysterious tropical diseases. There was death, too, during the construction of the dam: Fifty-two workers perished from malaria, drowning and an explosion, said Tran Tien Anh, the head of the utility charged with running the irrigation system today. On the eighth day of the first month of every lunar new year, villagers come to the dam to give thanks and remembrance to those who built it, Mr. Tran said. |=|

Laos Before World War II

The French presence in Laos was sufficient to preserve internal peace and cope with sporadic localized revolts among some of the mountain tribes in the years 1900-40. These revolts owed their origin to resistance to paying taxes and supplying corvée labor or to outbreaks of messianic hysteria. [Source: Library of Congress]

According to Lonely Planet: “In the interwar years the French cast around for ways to make Laos economically productive. One plan was to connect the Lao Mekong towns to coastal Vietnam, by constructing a railway across the mountains separating the two colonies. The idea was to encourage the migration of industrious Vietnamese peasants into Laos to replace what the French saw as the indolent and easy-going Lao. Eventually Vietnamese would outnumber Lao and produce an economic surplus. The railway was surveyed and construction begun from the Vietnamese side, but the Great Depression intervened, money dried up, and the Vietnamisation of Laos never happened. Even so, in all the Mekong towns, with the exception of Luang Prabang, Vietnamese outnumbered Lao until most fled the country after WWII. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

The French population in Laos was still only around 600 by 1940, more than half living in Vientiane. Most were officials for whom a posting in Laos was no more than a step on the ladder of promotion. For many their term of service was tedious, if undemanding. They ‘kept up appearances’, socialised and gossipped. A few succumbed to the charm of the country and made Laos their home. =

Nationalism was slower to develop in Laos than in Vietnam. The French justified their colonial rule as protectors of the Lao from aggressive neighbours, particularly the Siamese. Most of the small Lao elite found this interpretation convincing, even though they resented the presence of so many Vietnamese. The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1930, managed to recruit its first two Lao members only in 1935. Most ICP members in Laos were Vietnamese civil servants or workers in the tin mines. =

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress,, 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.

Last updated May 2014

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