Category Archives: Laos

Articles on Laos culture and people


The Early History of Laos

history of laosLaos has an epic history. Since the time of the Nanzhao kingdom in the seventh century, to 1975 when the communist party took over power, Laos has been a state of wars and of warriors.

Laos built with blood from the battlefields, oiled by the sweat of enemies and sustained by political and administrative intrigues sprinkled with spiritual Buddhism.

The Lao people have shared roots with the Thais. Occupying the southeast, Laos was part of the Nanzhao kingdom of the present day Yunnan, China.

The kingdom was famous for its control of important trade routes, especially the southern silk route. Many things originated in the Nanzhao kingdom that have influenced the modern day Indochina. The term ’Kien’ meant the ten prefectures of Nanzhao. Name places like Keng (Kengtung) and Xieng (Xieng Khouang) were later derived from it.

The organization of army personnel into units of 100, 1000 and 10,000, that was later found in Indochina, was started by the Nan—Chao army. Another likely title of Nanzhao origin is ’Chao’, which means prince.

The Lao legend of the creation of the world was associated with Khum Borom who gave Luang Phrabang (then Muang Sua) to his son Khum Lo.

Khun Lo conquered Muang Sua when the king of Nanzhao was busy fighting elsewhere. It was to the credit of Khum Lo that a dynasty of 15 rulers, who reigned for almost a century, was established.

Khun Lo conquered Muang Sua when the king of Nanzhao was busy fighting elsewhere. It was to the credit of Khum Lo that a dynasty of 15 rulers, who reigned for almost a century, was established.

The northward expansion of the Khmer Empire under Indravarman I (who reigned for twelve years 877—889) was stretched to the upper Mekong to the territories of Sipsong Panna.

This is likely to have happened after the occupation of Muang Sua by the Nanzhao. The Khmers established an outpost at Sayfong close to Ventientiane. This afforded the ruler of Sayfong, Chanthaphanit to move northwards to Muang Sua where he was acknowledged peacefully as their ruler following the departure of the Nanzhao princes.

Muang Sua became known by the Thai name Xieng Dong Xieng Thong during the long rule of Chanthaphanit and his son. As was typical of dynasties, Chanthaphanit became involved in the problems of some of the principalities and as a result of this Khum Chuang expanded his land and ruled from 1128 to 1169.

At the time that Theravada Budhism was replaced by Mahayana Budhism, Muang Sua was ruled by Sri Sattanak, a kingdom asssociated with the naga: mystical water dragon believed to have dug the Mekong river bed.

Muang Sua was next ruled by Jayawarman VII (from 1185 to 1191) of Khmer. Recent research shows that the Mongol named the province Yunnan when they made it their own after destroying Nanzhao in 1253.

During this period, Muang Sua became sovereign and was ruled by princes bearing the paya (lord) title.

The kingdom of a million elephants (Lan Xang) was established in 1353. The kingdom became wealthy and powerful and extended to north eastern region of today’s Thailand and Stung Treng of Cambodia.

In the 17th century, Lan Xang became involved in conflicts with its neighbours. This helped Siam be able to take over what was Laos in the 18th century. France came in from its colony in Vietnam and integrated all of Laos into the French Empire. Later, The Franco—Siamese Treaty in 1907 agreed on the present day Lao boundary with Thailand.


Vientiane Trip in One Day

Vientiane in one dayWhen you arrive in Vientiane (pronounced as Wieng Chan) be prepared for a shock, as this Capital city and port town on the Mekong River is unlike any other in South East Asia. In fact, what stuns most travelers when they first set foot in the city, is the sheer tranquility of the place — no mad honking, no swarming vendors, no sly cabbies vying for your business. In fact, Vientiane has the atmosphere of a sleepy, rural town, where the concept of tourism is still pleasantly innocent, and its modern buildings are few and far between.

Buddhism is very much the religion of the area, obviously displayed by the many monks strolling the tranquil streets, and the surprising ongoing construction of new temples around the city. Buddhist stupas and figures of all sizes are the highlight of this calm town and its environs, and the best way of seeing Vientiane, is to follow the locals’ example and hire a bicycle, which costs a mere $1.

First on the sightseeing list should be the oldest wat, or monastery in the capital, Wat Si Saket. Built in 1818 by King Anou, you’ll find literally thousands of ceramic and silver Buddha statues generously displayed inside the cloister wall of the main temple, the air enveloped with the unmistakable scent of incense. In front on the Si Saket temple is the Ho Pra Keo temple, built by the King Sayasetthirath in the 16th century.

This somewhat large structure was the original home of the famous Emerald Buddha, stolen in 1779 (now displayed in Bangkok) but the temple is still extraordinary in itself, with quite a few interesting things to see, as well as pretty manicured gardens and a small gift shop. About 4 km from the center of town, is the grand Pha That Luang, regarded as Laos’ greatest religious symbol and seen on its currency notes. The sight of this looming 150—foot golden stupa is an overwhelming one — especially on a sunny day.

To and from That Luang, you’re sure to pass the Pratuxai Monument, which when viewed from a distance strangely resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris (perhaps a nudge from its French colonial past?). This victory arch of Vientiane was built to commemorate Laos’ soldiers who fought during the war, and a climb to the top of this concrete monument can give you a good view of the city.

With so many of Vientiane’s attractions either rebuilt, reconstructed or under construction, it was a treat to find the That Dam or Black stupa on Chanthakoummane Road, which refreshingly was none of the above.

And although you cannot enter this ancient looking stupa in the midst of the city, one can snoop around it quite happily, envisaging the legendary seven—headed dragon who resided here.

Another place to see in the capital is the Laos National Museum and the Cultural Hall, which despite being small and relatively unsophisticated, has a decent collection which can give you a good idea of the history and culture of the area through artifacts, photographs and paintings.

If you still have time, it may be worth your while to visit the weird and wonderful Xieng Khuan or Buddha park, about 20 km from the city. This park has a bizarre collection of Buddhist and Hindu statues and a number of even stranger structures, such as a cavernous monster’s mouth one can enter to walk up its staircase as if rising from ’ hell to heaven’.

In summary, Laos’ unassuming capital city is a slow—pulsed town, where one can see practically all the sights in a day. And although Vientiane may not have the buzzing, exotic atmosphere seen in many cities in the region, this quiet haven has a charm of its own, where even the most jaded traveler can in all honesty say they experienced the true Asia.

Women of Laos

Laotian women are tough, industrious, creative and also possess a share of feminine beauty. Laos is a country that is gradually transforming from a socialist economy to a capitalist and a trade liberalization one.

Lao women enjoy the rights and privileges not quite common in the underdeveloped countries. There exists a matrilocal kinship and residence pattern, and matrilineal inheritance system for the majority of women. Adoption of the capitalist system of economy has not negatively affected these long-existing norms and values among the Lao people.

Lao women tend to enjoy economic freedom and self reliance. They have socio-economic leverage, which arises from their collective spirit and the series of chances for economic success available to them due to significant sectors of the economy being owned and managed by women. Based on this, the Lao women are more renowned for and seen as having more ideas toward money making and money management than the opposite sex. Women in the people&rsquos democratic republic have been able to maintain their economic independence and financial vibrancy in the face of daunting challenges such as war, political upheaval as well as economic liberalization and globalization. Nevertheless, there are many factors posing a threat to the enviable position of women in Laos. These include land reforms laws, ever growing competition between the homemade textile materials and the mechanically manufactured ones, standardization of agriculture and modernization of their entire socio-political system in the country. Having said that, these are not entirely gender specific threats.

Natural Weavers

Weaving is the major source of income for families in rural areas. People have started to patronize foreign imported materials, which has had an adverse effect on the rural women most of whom depend on the homemade textiles for economic survival. However, homemade clothes are still much provided and sold especially in places such as Vieng Xai.

Reverse Feminism

Another crucial factor which poses a danger to the economically independent Lao woman is the land reforms law embarked upon by the government. Communal lands are now being vested in private hands. The government intends to increase its revenues and so levy heavy taxes on land. In order to achieve this objective, lands are now officially acknowledged in the name of the family heads, the men.

The Lao-lum women have lost a great deal of economic freedom as a result of this policy. Women are gradually been denied ownership of land which they inherited from their mothers. This creates the problem of family breakup as many women do now realize that land ownership acknowledge by the government in the formers name grant them a more reliable economic independence. Otherwise it is only in the case of war-widows that their lands are registered in the name of the women.

The deforestation and resettlement programmes of the government have also negatively affected women especially the Lao Sung and Lao thung. Widespread commercial forest logging does not only reduce environmental friendliness but also puts to an end the benefits driven from forest produce by the women. The government itself understands the importance of the forests and therefore has embarked on resettlement to preserve them. This also creates the problem of resettlement of people to lowlands. It increases the workload of the women which in turn causes a rise in child mortality rates.

Finally, mechanization of the agricultural system has not advanced the economic resourcefulness of the Lao women. There is change from buffalo aided farming to the use of tractors or power tiller. This tilts the scale in favour of men as it is believed that only men can work with these modern farming machines.

Men are taught modern farming technological techniques while women continue to grapple with the use of beasts of burden in the traditional farming process. As one might expect, women having been voicing their displeasure with such an arrangement. For instance, in Khammuan province, the women have offered resistance to replacement of age-long traditional farming methods with modern sophistication and innovations.

Luang Prabang Laos

Life can be busy, life can be a hectic whirlwind. But not in Laos. Here the pace is slow, calm and serene, where a force known as ’kamma’ or ’karma’ has taken a grip. As Theravada Buddhists, the Lao believe that passionate emotion is destructive, and one must ensure one’s life is filled to the brim with buckets of fun (which they call ’muan’).

The former capital, Luang Prabang, once know as Muang Xieng Thong, is the ’City of Gold’. Sleeping where the Mekong and Khan rivers meet and surrounded by mountains, you approach the city by air and you’ll feel you have suddenly entered a theatrical setting where far below you glinting in the midday sun are hundreds of temples with gilded roofs. Once on dry land and meandering through the streets, you still feel like you are amidst a fairy tale. Traffic is virtually non existent and there are almost no tourist rip—offs.

The architecture is predominantly French colonial. There are 32 temples and a couple of palaces. Luang Prabang should be seen at an amble. Cafes spill out on to the pavements in a relaxed fashion � their ceiling fans turning slowly in the shady interiors and ice—cold beers beckon from the freezers! Bicycles are available to hire and since the city is fairly small it can be seen by foot with ease.

The former royal palace is worth a visit. Despite the last Lao king being deposed around 30 years ago, the palace still displays their royal couple’s jewellery, clothes and magazines. The Lao haven’t lost their love and affection for their royals. The palace also houses Pha Bang, the 33’ high image of Buddha made in the first century from gold, sliver and bronze alloy.

The most magnificent temple to visit is Wat Xieng Thong. The main hall was built in 1560 and is classic Lao style.

The food is wonderful everywhere, no matter where you are. Simple fresh ingredients are always used. If you happen to get to a restaurant called Tum Tum Cheng, not only will you sample exquisite food but also you can join a cookery class for a morning.

Another colonial favourite is a former royal palace called Villa Santi which has a first floor terrace to die for. Once it was the smartest place to stay but now has been superceded by two others, namely:

  • - The Orient Express Hotel Pausea Phou Vao which lies on the southern edge of the town in three acres of garden;
  • - Angsang Resorts Maison Souvannaphoum built by Prince Souvanna Phouma in 1960 in typical French colonial style. It has 24 rooms, faultless cuisine, white lace canopies flying high above guests’ beds, excellent service and a spa massage & beauty treatment pavilion set round a lotus pond.
  • Venturing out in the evening you’ll find the main street in Luang Prabang becomes a relaxed night market with people who’ve travelled from miles around to sell their wares. Bargaining isn’t on the agenda here, but prices are ridiculously low, by Western standards, anyway. If you’re looking for clubs and bars to stay open late then you’d better head back to Bangkok, for here the restaurants and bars have to shut by 10.30pm and everyone is usually in bed by midnight.

    Early mornings are a different thing however, as the hustle and bustle from 5.30am commences with the monks spilling out of the wats (temples) in single file holding out their bowls which the population will fill with their offerings for the day.

    September would be a good month to pay a visit to Laos as the rains are now over and the crowds have yet to emerge (which they do between November & February) and it is also slightly cooler.