Laos: Facts and History

aerial shot of town in Laos

Image by Nonac_Digi for the Green Man / Getty Images

  • Capital: Vientiane, 853,000 population
  • Major cities: Savannakhet, 120,000; Pakse, 80,000; Luang Phrabang, 50,000; Thakhek, 35,000


Laos has a single-party communist government, in which the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) is the only legal political party. An eleven-member Politburo and a 61-member Central Committee make all laws and policies for the country. Since 1992, these policies have been rubber-stamped by an elected National Assembly, now boasting 132 members, all belonging to the LPRP.

The head of state in Laos is the General Secretary and President, Choummaly Sayasone. Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong is the head of government.


The Republic of Laos has approximately 6.5 million citizens, who are often divided according to altitude into lowland, Midland, and upland Laotians.

The largest ethnic group is the Lao, who live mainly in the lowlands and make up approximately 60% of the population. Other important groups include the Khmou, at 11%; the Hmong, at 8%; and more than 100 smaller ethnic groups that total about 20% of the population and comprise the so-called highland or mountain tribes. Ethnic Vietnamese also make up two percent.


Lao is the official language of Laos. It is a tonal language from the Tai language group that also includes Thai and the Shan language of Burma.

Other local languages include Khmu, Hmong, Vietnamese and over 100 more. Major foreign languages in use are French, the colonial language, and English.


The predominant religion in Laos is Theravada Buddhism, which accounts for 67% of the population. About 30% also practice animism, in some cases alongside Buddhism.

There are small populations of Christians (1.5%), Baha'i and Muslims. Officially, of course, communist Laos is an atheistic state.


Laos has a total area of 236,800 square kilometers (91,429 square miles). It is the only land-locked country in Southeast Asia.

Laos borders on Thailand to the southwest, Myanmar (Burma) and China to the northwest, Cambodia to the south, and Vietnam to the east. The modern western border is marked by the Mekong River, the region's major arterial river.

There are two major plains in Laos, the Plain of Jars and the Plain of Vientiane. Otherwise, the country is mountainous, with only about four percent being arable land. The highest point in Laos is Phou Bia, at 2,819 meters (9,249 feet). The lowest point is the Mekong River at 70 meters (230 feet).


The climate of Laos is tropical and monsoonal. It has a rainy season from May to November, and a dry season from November to April. During the rains, an average of 1714 mm (67.5 inches) of precipitation falls. The average temperature is 26.5 C (80 F). Average temperatures over the year range from 34 C (93 F) in April to 17 C (63 F) in January.


Although the economy of Laos has grown at a healthy six to seven percent annually almost every year since 1986 when the communist government loosened central economic control and allowed private enterprise. Nonetheless, more than 75% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, despite the fact that only 4% of the land is arable.

While the unemployment rate is only 2.5%, approximately 26% of the population live below the poverty line. Laos's primary export items are raw materials rather than manufactured goods: wood, coffee, tin, copper, and gold.

The currency of Laos is the kip. As of July 2012, the exchange rate was $1 US = 7,979 kip.

History of Laos

The early history of Laos is not well-recorded. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans inhabited what is now Laos at least 46,000 years ago, and that complex agricultural society existed there by about 4,000 BCE.

Around 1,500 BCE, bronze-producing cultures developed, with complicated funeral customs including the use of burial jars such as those on the Plain of Jars. By 700 BCE, people in what is now Laos were manufacturing iron tools and had cultural and trade contacts with the Chinese and Indians.

In the fourth to eighth centuries CE, people on the banks of the Mekong River organized themselves into Muang, walled cities or petty kingdoms. The Muang were ruled by leaders who paid tribute to more powerful states around them. Populations included the Mon people of the Dvaravati kingdom and proto-Khmer peoples, as well as forebears of the "mountain tribes." During this period, animism and Hinduism slowly mixed or gave way to Theravada Buddhism.

The 1200s CE saw the arrival of ethnic Tai people, who developed small tribal states centered on semi-divine kings. In 1354, the kingdom of Lan Xang united the area that is now Laos, ruling until 1707, when the kingdom split into three. The successor states were Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak, all of which were tributaries of Siam. Vientiane also paid tribute to Vietnam. 

In 1763, the Burmese invaded Laos, also conquering Ayutthaya (in Siam). A Siamese army under Taksin routed the Burmese in 1778, placing what is now Laos under more direct Siamese control. However, Annam (Vietnam) took power over Laos in 1795, holding it as a vassal until 1828. Laos's two powerful neighbors ended up fighting the Siamese-Vietnamese War of 1831-34 over control of the country. By 1850, the local rulers in Laos had to pay tribute to Siam, China, and Vietnam, although Siam exerted the most influence. 

This complicated web of tributary relationships did not suit the French, who were accustomed to the European Westphalian system of nation-states with fixed borders. Having already seized control of Vietnam, the French next wanted to take Siam. As a preliminary step, they used Laos's tributary status with Vietnam as a pretext to seize Laos in 1890, with the intent of continuing on to Bangkok. However, the British wanted to preserve Siam as a buffer between French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) and the British colony of Burma (Myanmar). Siam remained independent, while Laos fell under French imperialism.

The French Protectorate of Laos lasted from its formal establishment in 1893 to 1950, when it was granted independence in name but not in fact by France. True independence came in 1954 when France withdrew after its humiliating defeat by the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu. Throughout the colonial era, France more or less neglected Laos, focusing on the more accessible colonies of Vietnam and Cambodia instead.

At the Geneva Conference of 1954, the representatives of the Laotian government and of Laos's communist army, the Pathet Lao, acted more as observers than participants. As a sort of afterthought, Laos has designated a neutral country with a multi-party coalition government including Pathet Lao members. The Pathet Lao was supposed to disband as a military organization, but it refused to do so. Just as troubling, the United States refused to ratify the Geneva Convention, afraid that communist governments in Southeast Asia would prove to correct the Domino Theory of spreading communism.

Between independence and 1975, Laos was embroiled in a civil war that overlapped with the Vietnam War (American War). The famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vital supply line for the North Vietnamese, ran through Laos. As the US war effort in Vietnam faltered and failed, the Pathet Lao gained an advantage over its non-communist foes in Laos. It gained control of the entire country in August 1975. Since then, Laos has been a communist nation with close ties to neighboring Vietnam and, to a lesser degree, China.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Laos: Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 28). Laos: Facts and History. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Laos: Facts and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).

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