Archaeological evidence shows that Laos has been inhabited for over ten thousand years. Their religious origins were animist, which is the attribution of conscious life to objects of nature. Theravada Buddhism is believed to have first reached Laos during the seventh and eighth centuries AD, via the kingdom of Dvaravati.
During the seventh century, tantric Buddhism was also introduced to Laos from the kingdom of Nan-chao, an ethnically Tai kingdom centered in modern day Yunnan, China. The Nan-chao kingdom also likely introduced the political ideology of the king as defender and protector of Buddhism, an important ideological tie between the monarchy and the Buddhist monks in much of Southeast Asia.
During the 11th and 12th Centuries, Khmer rulers took control of Muang Sua, the historical region of the kingdom of Luang Prabang, still the perfect ideal of a jungle kingdom and a UNESCO site in northern Laos. During this period, Mahayana Buddhism replaced Theravada Buddhism as the dominant religious ideology of the ruling classes.
Historically, the Lao state is regarded as beginning in 1353 AD with the coronation of Fa Ngum at Luang Prabang. Fa Ngum brought his Khmer Theravada teacher with him to act as adviser and head priest of the new kingdom. This unnamed Khmer monk also brought to the kingdom a revered image of the Buddha that became known as the Phra Bang, the namesake of the city of Luang Prabang and the symbol of the Lao kingdom. Subsequent alliances with Burma and Thailand helped cement the primacy of Theravada Buddhism in the Lao kingdom. Faced with rugged, isolating geography and the absence of a strong central government, Theravada Buddhism became one of the primary unifying features of Lao culture.
In the 14th Century, Laos was center of the kingdom of Lan Xang, or Land of a Million Elephants. At this time, the kingdom also included large parts of present-day Cambodia and Thailand.
The Kingdom of Lan Xang began its decline in the 17th Century coming under Siamese (Thai) influence in the 18th Century. Following colonization of neighboring Vietnam, the French began to incorporate Laos into French Indochina. Laos became a French Protectorate in 1893.
In 1950 Laos gained semi-autonomy within the French Union. Full independence was achieved in 1954. The U.S. and the Vietnam War had a detrimental affect on the people of Laos, which many are still recovering from. The Lao People's Front took control of the country in 1975 proclaiming the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
Following the 1986 reforms introduced by Gorbachev in the U.S.S.R., Laos began a process of decentralization. Eyeing the economic changes in China and Vietnam and the shift toward a market economy, Laos is following suite and recently joined the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). This has brought many economic opportunities along with benefits from the International Monetary Fund and other international sources like Japan and China. These associations are bringing swift changes in the infrastructure and local economies of the country. New opportunities are being presented to the Lao people, along with new challenges in dealing with the rapid lifestyle and cultural changes.
The people of Laos are warm and welcoming, always honoring a guest and each other with a respectful “Sabbai Dee” greeting. It doesn’t take long to make friends in Laos and you will take away many happy memories of the people you meet when traveling the country. The Lao make up 70 percent of the population of the country with the rest being hill tribes who migrated from China centuries ago. The hill tribes occupy the mountainous regions of the country and have their own style of traditional silver jewelry.
Laos has a strong oral tradition of passing on history and culture. Epic poems take many hours to recite like the popular story of the early life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha.
Traditional music is played on the khene, a bamboo instrument, composed of a number of pipes. The national dance is the Lamvong (Circle Dance).
Crafts are weaving, bamboo and rattan products, woodcarving, and silver and gold work.