Laos History

Laos, Lao PDR, the Lao P.D.R. or just Lao – which is correct? Although the name was changed officially in 1975, the country is still referred to as Laos by most other countries and the media. 

Lao PDR is the official short form for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, but locally the word ‘Lao‘ is used as both noun and adjective to describe the country, its people and traditions, as well as its produce and products. Learn more about political development in Laos and see current events calendar below.

Some Lao political history and background

The word ‘Laos’ originated as an abbreviation of the French Les Laos, plural of Lao,(referring to the people rather than a single person).

It was coined by the French in 1893 when they united and ruled over three small kingdoms of Les Laos (the Lao people) centred around Luang Prabang, several hundred kilometres north of the present capital Vientiane.

French colonial architecture, language, cuisine and a few ancient Renaults and Citroens may still be seen in most Lao towns and cities. 

After the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, the Geneva Agreement of 1954 gave the country its independence from colonial rule.

Following the end of the Indochina Wars and capitulation of South Vietnam to communist forces from the North and the creation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, December 1975 saw the creation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (celebrated on Dec 2, see below).

As the communist took control of the country, almost ten percent of the population fled to the United States where they were given refuge and eventually citizenship. Many still live in Lao communities there, but some have returned, either for family visits or to regain their citizenship permanently.

For insight into the Indochina war and the involvement of the US military, Air America (CIA) etc, “The Ravens” by Christopher Robbins (2012) is a compelling $4 Kindle read for anyone operating in the area at the time and curious about what was going on behind the scenes in the “Secret War” in Laos and Vietnam.  

This map shows the Lao PDR in relation to its surrounding neighbours.

The government of the Lao PDR comprises three branches: executivelegislative, and judicial. The executive branch consists of a president, vice president, prime minister, first deputy prime minister, two deputy prime ministers, and a cabinet, also called the Council of Ministers.

The National Assembly elects the president and vice president for a five-year term. The president, with approval of the National Assembly, appoints the prime minister for a five-year term. The prime minister appoints all the deputy ministers.

The Council of Ministers is appointed by the president; however it has to be approved by the National Assembly. The legislative branch is a unicameral National Assembly with 109 seats. All of the members serve a five-year term and are elected by popular vote.

The judicial branch consists of a People’s Supreme Court. The National Assembly, on the recommendation of the National Assembly Standing Committee, elects the president of the People’s Supreme Court.

The National Assembly Standing Committee appoints the vice president and the judges of the People’s Supreme Court.

In 2015 the single party government of the Lao PDR celebrated forty years in power. The single-party political doctrine follows the Vietnamese model. Lao is closely aligned with Vietnam both politically, militarily as well as for trade purposes.

It has strong and growing ties with China too. Relations are now friendly with its capitalist neighbour Thailand; trade is flourishing and disputes are centred mainly around border demarcation and repatriation of Lao, mainly Hmong, ethnic minority refugees living in Thailand.

Although the Lao government is socialist in style, many capitalist ideas such as private land and business ownership are encouraged.

Full and partially State-owned enterprises still exist, but the private and joint venture sector is expanding rapidly, especially in and around cities. 

Hydroelectric power projects financed via foreign aid contribute significantly to the Lao GDP and export income. Electricity is sold mainly to Thailand.

Development of the basic infrastructure is accelerating, being accomplished almost completely with financial aid and joint ventures with both Eastern and Western countries.

However, social development is slow in areas of education or medical care for the common people. Lao’s business development is also capitalist in nature.

There are only two real communist countries remaining in the world: Cuba, which apparently exists on the the pure charisma of its leader, and North Korea, which is in the grip of permanent famine and paranoia.

China, while calling itself communist, is in fact not that at all. As with Vietnam and the Lao PDR, they merely have single party authoritarian regimes, mere ghosts of old-style Stalinist and Marxist communism.

The Lao people by nature are friendly and sociable, and family considerations and needs are of paramount importance. Daily life is influenced by strong and traditional religious beliefs. Buddhist philosophy is fused with animistic beliefs which preceded Buddhism. 

Animism is still practised by Thai and Lao people, especially from mountainous regions. It is the belief that things in nature, like trees, mountains, the sky, even buildings, have souls or consciousness; belief in a supernatural force that animates and organises the universe, and the belief in the existence of a spirit than can exist separately from a body.

Other cultural similarities exist between the Lao and their Thai neighbours just across the Mekong River which forms the border between Thailand and Lao.

Vientiane has a partly colonial past, and French was the official language for some time. The influence is still evident in the form of some schools, restaurants and bilingual signs on older government buildings.

English is fast replacing French as a second language after Lao itself, but Chinese and Vietnamese influences are noticeable, especially in the developing business sector. Spoken Thai is understood by most Lao people in the regions bordering the two countries.

Although the Lao PDR has an area similar to Great Britain (or the US state of Utah), the population was estimated at 6.8 million in 2013.

By comparison, this is roughly only 10% of the UK, Thailand or Vietnam population. A landlocked country, Lao is surrounded by Burma (Myanmar), China and Vietnam to the north and east, and Cambodia and Thailand to the south and west.

The Mekong River, originating in China, flows through more of Lao than any other country. The river was used by the colonists to demarcate an arbitrary border with Thailand (still under dispute in parts), and the people living in the villages on the two sides of the river suddenly became nationals of different countries, but they still share a common culture and similar language, and many families have relatives on both sides of the river, some being Thai nationals and others Lao.

For about twenty years after independence Lao was an almost closed state, discouraging Western foreign aid and visitors. Foreign ties were mostly with the USSR and communist bloc. Many Lao people were sent to Russia for education, both political and industrial.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russian influence and aid diminished rapidly, and the economic advantages of tourism finally became obvious.

The government gradually relaxed its tight control, opened more border crossings, and three international airports of VientianeLuang Prabang and Pakse now serve visitors from neighbouring countries.

Foreigners still require entry visas, but they are readily obtainable at embassies or on arrival for 30 days at 14 road and river entry points.

Since the Lao PDR became a member of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, Vientiane frequently hosts international meetings, conventions and events. Tourist arrivals increase every year.

Public Holidays and Festivals of the Lao PDR in 2017

Jan 2: New Year’s Day Substitute Holiday

Jan 6: Pathet Lao Day (Victory 1975)

Jan 20: Lao People’s Army Day (established 1949)

Feb 28: Lunar New Year – China, Vietnam (unofficial)

Feb 22: Boun Khao Chi (Makhaboucha)

Mar 8: International Women’s Day

Mar 22: Lao People’s Revolutionary Party Day (since 1975)

April 14-16Lao New YearBoun Pi Mai, Pee Mai (the equivalent of Thailand’s Song Kran). Preparations, celebrations (parties and water-throwing) and business closures begin a few days before and often continue for several days after the official dates.

May 1: International Labour Day

May 3: Buddha’s Birthday (Boun Visakhabusa Festival)

June 1: Children’s Day, National Tree Planting Day

July 8:   Boun Khao Pansa; Buddhist Fast (Lent) begins on the Full Moon

July 13: President’s Birthday

Aug 13: Free Lao (Issara) Day

Aug 15: Constitution Day

Aug ?: Boun Ho Khaopadabdinh, Rice Festival; Boat Racing Festival in Luang Prabang

Sep ?: Boun Ho Khaosalak Festival

Oct 5: Bouk Ok Pansa – end of Buddhist Lent

Oct 6: Lao Boat Racing Festival Vientiane; other riverside towns have different dates for their annual boat racing festivals.

Oct 7: Teachers’ Day

Oct 12: Independence (Liberation) Day (from French rule)

Nov 14: That Luang Festival and Trade Fair in Vientiane Capital

Dec 2: Lao National Day (Lao PDR established 1975)

Dec 13: President’s Birthday (Kaysone Phomivhane 1920-1992)

December 31: Year End Holiday (Western New Year & Bank Holiday)

Jan 1: New Year’s Day, 2017

Others (substitute) days are taken as semi-official public holidays, extending to the following Monday if a holiday falls over a weekend. Government offices, and random shop and office closures occur, but it can be quite difficult to get details of dates much in advance. Teachers’ Day, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day and Children’s Day are celebrated. New Year celebrations start in December and often continue well into January, encompassing Western, Chinese and Vietnamese cultures.

Events in Laos (from Lao Tourism Office)

ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, currently comprises BruneiCambodiaIndonesiaLao PDRMalaysiaMyanmarPhilippinesSingaporeThailand and VietnamEast Timor (Timor Leste) is in the process of joining.

A pact was signed in July 2006 at an ASEAN meeting in Vientiane allowing at least two-week visa-free entry for all citizens of member countries. Some arrangements were already in place, but Myanmar was not included in reciprocal facilities.

However, according to travellers, this arrangement may not be fully in operation in 2017. See more on our Passport & Visas page.

Learn more about Lao – the country, its people and culture – by checking the menu on the left of this page. See Maps of Laos and All Asian Regions.

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