2017-02-10 / Travel

Laos, strangely wonderful

Part 1: A Little History
By Warner M. Montgomery


Laos is a land-locked nation in Southeast Asia. Laos is a land-locked nation in Southeast Asia. I have visited Laos twice, once as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1963, and again in 1970 as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Both visits were an escape from the chaos of Thailand where I was working.

Laos is a landlocked Southeast Asian nation twice the size of Pennsylvania squeezed in between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma. It is mostly mountainous with forested peaks rising above 9,000 feet. The Mekong River, Laos’ boundary with Burma and Thailand, flows south for 932 miles and exits into Cambodia.

The Lao nation dates back to the 14th century Kingdom of Lan Xang, but was under the domination of Siam (now Thailand) until the late 19th century when it became part of the French colonial federation known as Indochina.

The current population of Laos is approximately seven million, most of whom are ethnically related to the Thais, and the Lao language is a dialect of the Thai language.


Water buffaloes roamed the streets of Vientiane in 1970, but not now. Water buffaloes roamed the streets of Vientiane in 1970, but not now. The remaining population is made up of hill tribes such as the Khmou and Hmong. Virtually all of the people are Buddhists.

The Pathet Lao Communists seized control of the government in 1975, ended the monarchy, and instituted a strict socialist regime closely aligned with Vietnam. As the Vietnam War wound down, Laos gradually returned to private enterprise and became a member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the World Trade Organization.

Vientiane is the capital and largest city with a population of 700,000. Other major towns are Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, Pakse, Muang Xaignabouri, and Ban Houayxay. 70 percent of the population lives in 9,000 villages.

Next week: A Lao Dinner



Main Street Vientiane looked like this in 1970. Main Street Vientiane looked like this in 1970.

Main Street Vientiane now looks like this! Main Street Vientiane now looks like this!

Every Buddhist boy in Laos must spend a specified length of time as a Buddhist monk. Every Buddhist boy in Laos must spend a specified length of time as a Buddhist monk.

The Pha That Luang Buddhist temple built in 1566 A.D. is the proud symbol of Vientiane and a monument of Lao’s national pride. The Pha That Luang Buddhist temple built in 1566 A.D. is the proud symbol of Vientiane and a monument of Lao’s national pride.

Return to top