The History of Laos from Ancient Times to the Lan Xang Kingdom

The History of Laos from Ancient Times to the Lan Xang Kingdom

This article provides a brief history of the landlocked country of Laos (Lao) in South East Asia, from the prehistoric era to the heights of the Lan Xang Kingdom and its conquest by Siam. From a geographical point of view, the countries surrounding Laos are Thailand (formerly Siam), China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the culture and history of Laos have been very much influenced by its neighbors and the ancient civilizations of the region.

History of Laos from Ancient Times

A brief summary encapsulating some of the history of Laos follows:

  • human occupation of Laos has been dated back at least 40,000 years following the discoveries of prehistoric remains and stone age tools and implements
  • the influence of the ancient civilizations of India and China has been vital to the progress, culture and development of Laos
  • originally, the area now known as Laos consisted of a scattering of independent states, principalities and kingdoms
  • the Lan Xang kingdom unified Laos and established several hundreds of years of dynastic rulership.

The history of a unified Laos traces its origins back to the 14th century kingdom of Lan Xang and the rulership of the Lao Kings. Lan Xang translates as Land of a Million Elephants or Grazing Ground for Elephants, and the naming probably relates back to the wild elephant grazing fields which used to surround the Lan Xang capital city of Luang Prabang.


Lan Xang Kingdom (or Laos) Under the Rulership of the Lao Kings (1353-1705)

Following a series of conquests, a territory which was very similar in composition to modern Laos was established by King Fa Ngum as the Lan Xang kingdom. The Lan Xang dynasty consolidated many of the diverse principalities of the Mekong Delta and ruled this area from the 14th century to the early 18th century.

Lan Xang prospered under the Lao kings and expanded into Southern China, Siam and areas of Vietnam and Cambodia throughout the early 17th Century. Dynastic struggles and a long period of confict between the Lao kings and Siam began towards the end of the 17th Century and eventually, by the late 18th Century, Siam had conquered much of Lan Xang and deposed the Lao kings.

Brief Timeline Dates for Lan Xang Kingdom

A simple timeline with some of the important dates in the history of the Lan Xang Kingdom is as follows:

  • 1353 – King Fa Gnum (1316-1357) a Lao KIng, succeeded in conquering and unifying the Lao kingdom
  • 1560 – capital city moved to Ventiane
  • 1638 – King Souriyavongsa’s 57 year reign was considered the golden age for the Lan Xang Kingdom with expansion into part of China, Siam, Vietnam and Cambodia
  • 1695 – Dynastic struggles lead to division of Lan Xang into three states

Modern Laos

Although the country name of Laos has persisted in the West it was actually derived in error during the 20th Century period of French colonization where the name Lao was transmuted to Laos. Proximity to Vietnam, colonization by the French and incorporation into French Indochina and heavy influences from America during the Vietnam War were to ensue and unstable Laos is now a communist country, known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

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