The People's Democratic Republic of Laos, also known as Lao PDR, is situated in the heart of Southeast Asia and shares borders with Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Laos is predominantly mountainous with lowlands occupied by the fertile floodplains of the Mekong River. The Mekong is the principal river of Laos, entering the country in the northwest from Thailand and flowing south along the Laos-Thailand border before exiting in Cambodia. Rivers and tributaries serve as essential links among the countries isolated towns and villages. Laos bears the infamous distinction of being part of the Golden Triangle, an area along the Mekong where the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and northwest Thailand converge with that of Laos. Owing to a weak economy, highland farmers in the 1950s and 60s produced poppies-many of which were golden in colour-for use in the illegal opium trade. Since the 1970s, efforts on behalf of the USA, Thailand and the United Nations (UN) have succeeded in aiding farmers to switch to legal export crops. War disrupted trade along the Mekong for years, but since the 1991 peace accord in Cambodia, activity has resumed between capitalist Thailand and Communist Laos. A bridge built over the Mekong 1994, is the first such structure linking these two countries. Laos is one of the poorest and least visited countries in the world despite recognition of Lao people for their gentle and polite nature, and for their charming hospitality. The capital, Vientiane, is a small city sitting on the banks of the Mekong. To the north, the old Royal city of Luang Prabang is home to dozens of temples and a way of life that has changed little over the years. In the south, the Angkor era temple of Wat Phu is one of the highlights of the Mekong.
Once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lane Xang, Luang Prabang became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Though little remains of the magnificent 14th century capital, ravaged by time and numerous invasions, the city is still a treasure trove of beautiful temples and historical monuments from kingdoms that rose and fell in the centuries that followed.
Situated on the banks of the Mekong River, the Royal Palace was built according to French designs for King Sisavangvong between 1904 and 1909. Now the country has found a new role for the former palace: a National Museum. Not only does it house the Royal throne of the Kingdom of Lane Xang and other religious treasures, such as a vast assortment of gifts and paraphernalia collected by former kings and queens, but it also contains a replica of the country's palladium, the golden Pra Bang.
With its golden facades and murals, Wat Xieng Thong is a tour de force of 16th century Buddhist architecture. The temple was the venue for the highest royal ceremonies and temporarily housed the bodies of deceased kings.
About 35 km from Luang Prabang, the beautiful, multi-level Kuangsi falls are popular as picnic grounds and for photo opportunities among tourists and locals alike. The falls tumble down over 60 metres, through a series of pools, and the spray keeps the surrounding picnic grounds cool throughout the hottest times of the year.
A repository for old or damaged Buddha images that once graced household shrines, the caves of Tham Ting and Tham Phoum have become venerated sanctuaries. During Lao New Year, boatloads of Luang Prabang residents make the 25 km pilgrimage up the Mekong River to the caves to wash the Buddha images, thus 'making merit'. On the opposite bank of the Mekong from the caves sits the village of Ban Xang Hai. For centuries the village made its living by crafting stoneware jars, more recently, however, it has become famous for brewing a particularly fiendish liquor called 'lao-lao', which is made from fermented sticky rice. Most boatmen running tours to the Pak Ou Caves include a stop at the 'Whisky Village' seeming to appreciate that a quick drink is required after viewing all those damaged Buddha images.
Though archaeologists have unearthed stone tools and other artefacts at numerous sites around Laos indicating human settlement in the region dates back as far as 10,000 years, the history of the country actually begins with the first unified kingdom to be established there. Lane Xang, established by Fa Ngoum in 1349 brought together the incongruent townships that had sprouted across the land. Fa Ngoum also installed Theravada Buddhism as the principle religion of the country. From his capital at Luang Prabang, the charismatic king expanded his dominion throughout present-day Laos and into northern and eastern Thailand.
Threatened by Siamese, Burmese and Chinese invaders in the 16th century, the capital of the faltering Lane Xang dynasty moved to Vieng Chan (Vientiane) by King Setthathirat in 1560. The Burmese were not duped by this tactical manoeuvre and finally succeeded in taking the city in 1575. They held sway for several years ending the era of Lane Xang rulers.
In the wake of the Burmese retreat, at the end of the 16th century, the kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vieng Chan filled the void once occupied by the Lane Xang rulers. In 1591, under the leadership of King Nokeo Koumane, these two upstarts were once again united. The 17th century saw the new kingdom enter its golden age. The capital, Vieng Chan, was celebrated as one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia. This was short lived however, for in less than a century, feudal lords fighting over the throne eventually brought about the kingdom's demise. A tenuous three-way division of the kingdom, into Luang Prabang, Vieng Chan, and Champasak, left neither with sufficient power to repel an invasion by the ambitious new Siamese kingdom of King Thaksin. Luang Prabang fell to the Siamese and Vieng Chang and Champasak were reduced to vassal status. After years of paying homage to the Siamese kings, an ill-fated war in 1820 brought about the undoing of both these kingdoms and, in the process, decimated the once beautiful city of Vieng Chan.
Festival procession, Laos
European encroachment in the region by the end of the 19th century was seen as a threat by Siamese kings. To ensure French colonialists would not challenge Siam's sovereignty, Laos was handed over in 1893. The French soon realised the colony was not quite the grand acquisition they had hoped; the Mekong River's potential as a backdoor trade route into China had been vastly overestimated. Laos became a protectorate and the country was left to its own devices.
The fall of France to Germany coupled with the Japanese occupation of Indochina during World War II, helped to stimulate a new sense of nationalism among the Lao people. The situation was exacerbated when Japanese troops forced the pro-French King Sisavang Vong to declare independence from France in the waning months of the war. With the surrender of Japan in August 1945, a power vacuum resulted that the French were unable cope with at the time. For a little over six months, Laos was independent, but with the help of British and pro-French Lao forces, the colonials were able to re-occupy Vientiane in April 1946. The taste of freedom had been sweet. In October 1953, the French, their resources already seriously stretched by the war in Vietnam, finally ceded full independence to Laos.
The political situation remained unstable for many years, eventually leading to civil war between the North Vietnamese backed Pathet Lao (Land of the Lao) and the US-financed Royalist forces. The January 1973 Paris Accords, which saw the end of US involvement in the Vietnam conflict was followed a month later by a cessation of hostilities between the opposing Lao factions, leading at last to the formation of a coalition government. It was not to last.
With the fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon to Communist forces in April 1975, many Royalists saw the eventual takeover of the country by the Pathet Lao as a forgone conclusion and fled to France. That August, in a symbolic gesture, a force of fifty female Pathet Lao soldiers marched into and liberated Vientiane. The Lao People's Democratic Republic was born on December 2, 1975.
Laos entered a period of isolation throughout the rest of the seventies, maintaining diplomatic and economic relations with only Vietnam and the USSR. After failing to establish a successful socialist state modeled on Eastern Bloc communism, the Lao government moved towards a more flexible form of socialism by dismantling agricultural co-operatives in 1979, and by installing economic reforms in 1986, which paved the way for the introduction of a market economy.
In the last few years, Laos has made further strides towards international acceptance and integration into the global economy. The 1994 opening of the Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane with Nong Khai in Thailand, and the country's 1997 acceptance into the ASEAN membership, are both seen as positive moves towards this goal.