The early history of Laos is sketchy. The original inhabitants of the area were the Mon-Khmer. The Lao and other Tai peoples gradually moved south from present-day Yunnan Province, China.
The “Kingdom of a Million Elephants” was founded in the mid-14th century when the Khmer king at Angkor married his daughter to a Lao prince, Fa Ngum. After him, the kingdom had a long period of peace. It expanded to control parts of North Thailand, was beaten back by the Burmese, ruled by the Vietnamese and eventually split into three states in 1713.
Hostilities between Thailand and Vientiane led to the conquering of the latter in 1778, and the other two states were forced into line. When Vientiane tried to reassert its independence in 1827, Thai forces completely destroyed it.
During the second half of the 19th century the French began to make their presence felt. A French military expedition in 1893 occupied the most important towns, and by 1904 they controlled the whole country.
During World War II the Japanese occupied Indochina. After a brief period of independence, the French reoccupied the region in 1946.
In 1949 Laos became an independent state within the French Union, but dissidents allied themselves with the pro-Communist Vietminh forces fighting the French in Vietnam. They invaded Laos in 1953 and quickly gained control of large areas.
The Geneva armistice ended this war in 1954. A coalition government was formed and in 1955 Laos joined the UN.
The U.S. and USSR supported different factions in the inherently unstable government. Civil wars alternated with tentative governments and splits alternated with coalitions.
In the mid-1960s Laos was drawn into the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese troops used jungle trails in eastern and southern Laos as routes to supply their forces fighting in South Vietnam, and U.S. warplanes carried out increasingly heavy bombing attacks on the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, dropping two million tons of bombs.
Following Communist victories in Cambodia and Vietnam in 1975, the Laotian monarchy was abolished and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed. The [Communist] Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is still the only legal political party in Laos. Most opposition leaders fled the country in the 1970s. Vietnamese troops remain in Laos to bolster the regime.
The country has struggled economically. Subsistence agriculture accounts for 25 percent of the GDP and provides 75 percent of total employment. Recently the government has moved towards an open-market economy, with significant success. Large investments have been made by international businesses and countries. The result is that Laos is experiencing its first-ever economic boom. Inflation is about 6 percent and return on investments are beginning to pay dividends.
At the same time, there are still many problems. Corruption is rife. Laos has very poorly organised social services. The country still has has a high infant mortality rate [5.5 percent], and many urban areas lack modern sewage and water facilities. Malaria, dysentery, parasitic diseases and respiratory infections are a major problem, and there is only one doctor for every 5,000 people.