History & Tradition

The official History of Laos as introduced in government books is conventionally traced to the establishment of the kingdom of Lan Xang by Fa Ngum in 1353. This is a relatively conservative date to begin the history of the nation, providing a contrast to the course taken by Thai historiography (which reaches back implausibly far into proto-history). By the 14th century, when this "official history" begins, the speakers of early Lao-related languages had probably developed a reasonable base of population among the prior inhabitants of (what is now) Laos over the prior century or two. The borders of the modern state of Laos were established by the French colonial government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


In 2009 an ancient skull was recovered from a cave in the Annamite Mountains in northern Laos which is at least 46,000 years old, making it the oldest modern human fossil found to date in Southeast Asia. Archeological evidence suggests agriculturist society developed during the 4th millennium B.C. Burial jars and other kinds of sepulchers suggest a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 B.C., and iron tools were known from 700 B.C. The proto-historic period is characterized by contact with Chinese culture and the civilizations of Greater India. From the fourth to the eighth century, communities along the Mekong River began to form into townships or Muang as they were called.


Early History
The known history of the region follows from the Tai migration. In the 13th century, Tai people constructed their first states, drawing together different tribal communities under rulers claiming quasi-divine authority and kingly status.

The earlier inhabitation of the land by peoples such as the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati and Proto-Khmer peoples was given a great deal of emphasis in the histories of Laos written during the French colonial period. However, post-colonial historiography has instead sought to represent all peoples of Laos as equally "indigenous", relating the early history in terms of a complex interaction with the (admittedly more ancient) Cambodian kingdoms to the south, and praising the Proto-Khmer as Lao nationalists for their heroism and modern struggles against the French and .

Both French colonial history and post-colonial (Communist) history sought to reverse the obvious racism of earlier, popular accounts that when the Lao migrated into the country, they simply conquered and enslaved the native. This traditional view has almost no factual basis, but remains a commonly heard pseudo-history, and a special concern for teachers to address (or redress) in the classroom. Vatthana Pholsena provides a survey of the historiography on this point in Post-War Laos, 2006, Silkworm Books.

The earliest Laos legal document (and the earliest sociological evidence about the existence of the Lao people) is known as "the laws of Khun Borom" (also spelled "Khun Bulom"), still preserved in manuscript form.

This set of memorizer laws is composed in a type of indigenous blank verse, and reflects the state of proto-Lao society as early as the 9th century, possibly prior to their adoption of Theravada Buddhism, and prior to (or coeval with) their southward migration into the territory now comprising modern Laos (from North-Western Vietnam).

While some Lao people regard Borom/Bulom as a subject of myth only, Western scholars regard him as an historical figure, albeit there is very little factually known about him aside from the fact of his bare existence and the description of a very primitive kingdom in his laws.

In general terms, these ancient laws describe an agrarian society in which life revolves around subsistence agriculture with domesticated water-buffaloes (the gayal). The strict punishments set down for stealing or killing a neighbor's elephant reflect that these were (evidently) an expensive and important possession of the time.


Unitary States
It is generally assumed that, as late as the 16th century, King Photisarath helped establish Theravada Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country. However, this aspect of official history may now have to change given recent archaeological discoveries in Cambodia and Vietnam, showing intact Pali inscriptions as early as the 9th century.

While there can be no doubt that animism and fragments of Shiva-worship were popular in ancient Laos, evidence increasingly indicates a long, gradual process leading to the ascendancy of Buddhism (rather than a single king converting the country). The reverse also did occur, as with the historical layers of statuary and inscriptions at Wat Phu Champassak; the oldest are in Sanskrit, and worship Shiva, while the later evidence is Buddhist, subsequently reverting to animism (with the most recent statues simply depicting giant elephants and lizards, with no references to the organized religions of India, and neither Sanskrit nor Pali text).

It is significant to note that all of these official histories exclude the influence of Chinese folk religion in the region. In fact, the ancient Lao calendar and Thai calendar are both of Chinese origin (adapted from the "Heavenly Stem Branch Calendar"), and do not reflect Indian cosmology. These calendars were both part of the royal religion (preserved in epigraphy) and, apparently, part of popular religion (fortune telling) for centuries.


Before full independence in 1953
In the 17th century Lan Xang entered a period of decline and the late 18th century Siam (now Thailand) established control over much of what is now Laos. The region was divided into three dependent states centered on Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center, and Champassak in the south. The Vientiane Lao rebelled in 1828 but were defeated, and the area was incorporated into Siam. Following its occupation of Vietnam, France absorbed Laos into French Indochina via treaties with Siam in 1893 and 1904.

During World War II, the Japanese occupied French Indochina. When Japan surrendered, Lao nationalists declared Laos independent, but by early 1946, French troops had reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos. During the First Indochina War, the Indochinese Communist Party formed the Pathet Lao resistance organization committed to Lao independence. Laos gained full independence on 22 October 1953.


The period of the Kingdom of Laos
Elections were held in 1955, and the first coalition government, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma, was formed in 1957. The coalition government collapsed in 1958 under pressure from the United States. In 1960 Captain Kong Le staged a coup when the cabinet was away at the royal capital of Luang Prabang and demanded reformation of a neutralist government. The second coalition government, once again led by Souvanna Phouma, was not successful in holding power. Rightist forces under General Phoumi Nosavan drove out the neutralist government from power later that same year.

A second Geneva conference, held in 1961-62, provided for the independence and neutrality of Laos, but the agreement meant little in reality and the war soon resumed. Growing North Vietnamese military presence in the country increasingly drew Laos into the Second Indochina War (1954-1975). As a result for nearly a decade, eastern Laos was subjected to the heaviest bombing in the history of warfare, as the U.S. sought to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail that passed through Laos and defeat the Communist forces. The North Vietnamese also heavily backed the Pathet Lao and repeatedly invaded Laos. The government and army of Laos were backed by the USA during the conflict and the United States formed and trained irregular forces.

Shortly after the Paris Peace Accords led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, a ceasefire between the Pathet Lao and the government led to a new coalition government. However, North Vietnam never withdrew from Laos and the Pathet Lao remained little more than a proxy army for Vietnamese interests. After the fall of South Vietnam to communist forces in April 1975, the Pathet Lao with the backing of North Vietnam were able to take total power with little resistance. On December 2, 1975, the king was forced to abdicate his throne and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was established.


The Military Regions Laos was divided into five military regions:

Military Region I at Luang Prabang was dominated by the royal family and the former commander in Chief of the Royal Laos Army, General Oune Rathikul. The region commander was Brigadier General Tiao Say Vong, a half-brother of the king. The region was located in northwest Laos and covered four provinces are Phong Saly,Houa Khong, Sayaboury and Luang Prabang.

Military Region II, in the northeastern section of Laos, was under Major General Vang P.ao, the Meo guerilla war hero of Laos. It covered two provinces are Houa Phan (Samneua), and Xieng Khouang. The headquarters was at Long Cheng, northwest of the Plain of Jars.

Military Region III in central Laos was headquartered at Savannakhet and covered two provinces; Khammouane(Thakitek) and Savannakhet. This region was commanded by General Bounpon and later by Brigadier General Nouphet Dao Heuang, in July 1971. The real power in this region was the Insixiengmay family led by Minister Leuam Insixiengmay, Vice Premier and Minister of Education.( his wife is elder sister of Mom Bouanphan who is a wife of Chao Boun oum na champasack)

Military Region IV, with headquarters at Pakse, included the six provinces of southern Laos are Saravane, Attopeu, Champassak, Sedone,Khong Sedone, and Sithandone (Khong Island). It was dominated by the Nachampassak family led by Prince Boun Oum Nachampassak. The commander of Military Region IV was Major General Phasouk S. Rassaphak, a member of the Champassak family. He commanded this area for almost a decade and a half until finally replaced by the author, Brigadier General Soutchay Vongsavanh, in July 1971.

Military Region V contained Borikhane and Vientiane Provinces, the capital province of Laos, was headquartered at Chinaimo Army Camp and was led by Major General Kouprasith Abhay until he was replaced by Brigadier General Thongligh Chokbeng Boun in July 1971. 


The period of the Communist government/contemporary period
The new communist government led by Kaysone Phomvihane imposed centralized economic decision-making and incarcerated many members of the previous government and military in "re-education camps" which also included the Hmongs. While nominally independent, the communist government was for many years effectively little more than a puppet regime run from Vietnam. The government's policies prompted about 10 percent of the Lao population to leave the country. Laos depended heavily on Soviet aid channeled through Vietnam up until the Soviet collapse in 1991. In the 1990s the communist party gave up centralized management of the economy but still has a monopoly of political power.


Lao Fesetivals/Traditions


TakBaat  (Alm-giving)
TakBaat is an ancient Buddhist tradition, wherein people prepare sticky rice and other small snacks to give to the monks and novice monks, in order to gain merit for themselves and their families. The ceremony is very meaningful to the people involved. Women and men giving alms should be dressed properly according to tradition, in long skirts, or pants for men and shirts with covered shoulders plus a silk scarf laid diagonally across the shoulders. Women must take care not to touch the monks while giving, as all monks and novices have taken a vow not to touch women.  This centuries-old tradition is followed by young and old, men and women alike.


The ritual known to the Lao as "phithi Soukhouane" or "phithi baci " is a ritual call back, welcome, and unite the "khouane" with the physical body.  It is the ubiquitous of all Lao functions and celebrations, and integral part in Lao family life.  A ceremony can be held for a farewell, welcome, birth of a baby, birthdays, house warming, job promotions, harvest, new car, marriage and a new year celebration.  The Soukhouane ritual is not a seasonal and does not follow any official calendar of ceremonies and rites in Laos. Although this ritual is not unique to the Lao, it has been said that is a Lao ceremony "par excellence".  It contains an amalgam of the many religious and culture traditions that have influenced Lao culture and it continues to adapt itself to political and culture values.  The ceremony celebrates, in essence, important family occasions as well as communal events of significance and in an integral part of the life of the Lao.  It is a key element of Lao culture, being a microcosm of Lao values.


There are three ritual elements crucial to the staging of the Soukhouane:

1.     The Fai Phouk Khene literally is the cotton thread for tying on someone's wrist to symbolize the unity of the Khouane and the body. The threads should usually already be blessed by either monk in a religious ceremony or by a Morphone  at the Soukhouane   ceremony.

2.      A word or two to call back the Khouane, and blessing to bestow on the Khouane and the person, said in the invocation performed by the Morphone .

3.     A gift to entice the Khouane  and keep the Khouane  in the body, arranged around and as the PhaKhouane.


Lamvong (Lao dance)
Lamvong is a typical Lao folk dance, meaning circle dance or to dance in circle. It is a famous dance and greatly enjoyed during parties, weddings, festivals and other local celebrations. Lamvong is a very easy dance that does not require any special skills and it is a great fun. If you spend more time on the sidelines than on the dance floor at lao parties and celebrations then you probably have missed out all the fun.  To dance the Lamvong, you basically move continuously around a large circle, moving your arms, legs and bending your fingers somewhat in rhythm to the music being played, but you should never be touching your dance partner. Lamvong is typically performed to lao country music.  Guests are requested to participate in the Lamvong dance so as to make them enjoy and feel at home at the party. If you are having a lao engagement or wedding ceremony, the bride and groom will be required to dance the Lamvong together then they will dance with guests.  If a Lamvong is not performed then it is definitely NOT a traditional Lao engagement or wedding ceremony.


Boon Makkha Bu-saa
Boon Makkha Bu-saa festival is the day that honors the event when 1,250 of Lord Buddha's Sangha disciples assembled without previous agreement. On this day, about nine months after his enlightenment, Buddha gave an important sermon. These followers were then ordinated and enlightened by Buddha.

The festival is celebrated with candle light processions. In the evening, devotees gather in temple complexes to form a procession. Buddhists carry flowers, lighted candles and joss sticks during this procession of Makkha Bu-saa Festival. These people walk around a Chedi at the temple three times under the full moon.


Boon Pimai (Lao New Year)
This is to celebrate Lao New Year. The first month of the Lao New year is actuallyDecember but the festivities are delayed until April when days are longer than nights.

By April it is also hotting up, so having hoses leveled at you and buckets of water dumped on you is more pleasurable. The festival also serves to invite the rains. Pimai is one of the most important annual festivals, particular in Luang Prabang.    Water is perfumed with flowers or natural perfumes for washing homes, Buddha images, monks, and soaking friends and passers-by. During the New Year water-throwing frenzy everyone throws and sprays water at each other.  Staying dry is not an option.  Water symbolizes the washing away of the previous year's bad luck and sins.The theory of watering came from the legend of King Kabinlaphom, whose seven daughters kept his severed head in a cave. The daughter would visit their father's head every year and perform a ritual to bring happiness.  Sand is brought to the temple grounds and is made into pagodas or mounds, then decorated before being given to the monks as way of making merit.    The Sand pagoda symbolizes the mountain where the King Kabinlaphom's head was kept by his seven daughters.  Other activity to make merit at this time is to set animals free. The Lao people believe that even animals need to be free. The most commonly freed animals are tortoises, fishes, crabs, birds, eels and other small animals.

Many families will hold a Baci at their houses to welcome Lao New Year as well as to wish their elders good health and long life. Some might respectfully ask for forgiveness from their elders for things that they did in the past year that might have hurt their feelings unintentionally, and at the same time they give the elders new year gifts.


Boon Bang Fai
Boon Bang Fai takes place after Pimai.  During the festival, homemade rockets of all shapes and sizes are launched throughout the country. Rockets which fail to launch can bring mockery to the owner,while the one which rises the highest will be seen as the victor. The owner of this rocket will be carried by the crowd and very often thrown into the river. The rocket launching is an attempt to fertilize the clouds in order to bring rain to irrigate the newly-planted wet season rice crop.


Boon Phra-Vet
Phravet is the prior name for Lord of Buddha before he was born as Thao Siddhartha.  He was born as the prince in Seta-Outtalanakorn Palace and named Vetsantala .   He was the son of "Phra Nha Sisonsay and Phranang Phoudsadee" to the Seta Outtalanakorn capital.  Since his birth he decided to donate everything including the silver, gold, elephants, his children.  When he was grown up, he married with Nang Mathi and got two children named Thao Saly and Nang Kanha.

After he was on the throne to replace his father.   He had one white elephant.  There were eight brahman from Kalingka city to request his white elephant and this made his people felt very angry and driven him out of the palace.  He guided his wife and children to live in the forest for 7 month.  There was another brahman to request for his children.   He finally was invited back to his home town. 

Lao people called him  Phra Vetsandone.  The festival for his life is called "Boon Phravet". When speaking about "Boon Mahaxat" it is meant to tell about the ten lives of Lord Buddha.


Boon Visakhabusa
It is one of the most important days for Buddhists because on this day the Lord Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and died. All three of these significant events fell on the same day.  Boon Visakhabusa is usually celebrated with a public sermon during the day and beautiful candle lit procession to pay respect to Lord Buddha during the night.                   


Boon Khao Pansa
The beginning of the three-month long Buddhist Lent.  At this time, all monks and novices must remain in their temples. They should not travel or spend the night in any other place except in cases of extreme emergency and, even then, their time away must not exceed seven consecutive nights. This is a time for serious contemplation and meditation for both monks and laymen alike. Traditionally, it is also important for laymen to ordain their sons into the monkhood on this day to get maximum benefit from Buddhist teachings.              


Boon Haw Khao Padap Din
This is a somber in which the living pay respect to the dead.  Many cremations take place -- bones being exhumed for purpose -- during the time, and gifts are presented to the Sangha so the monks will chant on behalf of the deceased.   In Luang Prabang, Boon Haw Khao Padap Din is also known as Boon Boat Racing Festival.   


Boon Haw Khao Salark
The offering (good deeds) is to be dedicated towards the ancestors' spirit on their last day journey back to the Dukha-Bhuni so they can tale the offerings with them on their return to where they belong serving their life kamma.


Boon Oak Pansa
Marking the end of Buddhist Lent.  Monks are permitted to travel. In the evening, lighting of candles in and around the temples pays respects to Buddha.  It is also time for people making new vows, praying for forgiveness for sins committed in the past year and to get rid of bad luck or disease. Small ornamental floats decorated with flowers, candles lit and money are floated along a river bank, in a celebration similar to the Thai Loy Kra Thong.  This signifies that it'll take away any troubles of the owners.      


Tod Kanthin
The Tod kanthin Ceremony is an annual religious event where Buddhists present monks with new yellow robes and make merit. Every year, each temple may allow only one "Kanthin " ceremony to be held and the period in which this function can be held is restricted to one month of the year ---  from start of the end of Lent to the 15th night of the 12th lunar month.

Buddhist people regard the "Tod Kanthin " ceremony as the most significant form of merit-making next to the ordination of their close kin.  The word "Tod " means "making an offering to the monk" and the word "Kanthin " literary means the "embroidery frame" used in sewing the yellow robes which, in the old day, were collected from rags on dead bodies in the jungle since clothes were not available in plenty as nowadays and there was no machine to help in the sewing or embroidering work. Wooden frames were therefore used to help stretch the materials.  

Today, however, the ritual ceremony has evolved dramatically in a grand celebration where hundreds & thousands of people join in the merit making. It is an important occasion for the temple to raise funds.


Boon That Luang
The 45 meters high That Luang Stupa or Pha That Luang was originally built during the ancient Khmer civilization, when Vientiane was inhabited by people known as the ‘Cham’. The site was built as a place for people to worship and pray to idol.  The structure was renovated during the reign of King Saysetthathirath in the 16th century when the original site was covered with a larger stupa. From then on the monument took the name That Luang, or Grand Stupa.  The festival pays tribute to the beautiful, towering Golden Stupa, the most important religious symbol in Laos, which, according to belief, enshrines a relic of Buddha. The Laotians begin their celebration with three days of processions and religious ceremonies, followed by seven days of revelry (all day and all night), including a carnival with bands, rides, the Miss Laos beauty contest, and oh-so-yummy street food . People pay tribute by walking around the temple three times, primarily during the initial religious processions, but also during the festival.