The Lao are a strand of the Tai people of South East Asia; the Al Lao were mentioned as long ago as the Hang Dynasty in China and Vietnam in what is now Yunnan Province. There was a great deal of movement of people in South East Asia and those occupying lowland Laos today are closely related, including linguistically with the Tai and share many common cultural habits. They can understand each other despite some differences in dialect and vocabulary.
That movement of people began in the 7th Century and lasted for the next few centuries as the Chinese expanded but also as a reaction to Mongol invasion. They found land suitable for growing rice and their influx resulted in the displacement of existing inhabitants. At the same time influences from as far west as India permeated into the region.
The Lao have identified their emergence with the fall of the Khmer Empire; many landmarks, temples and monuments date back this far and those enjoying Laos tour packages will see more as they travel around. There were two states effectively, the Chao Phraya River Valley, then Siam and now Thailand and Lan Xang, (Land of a Million Elephants), now Laos, which was a kingdom that began in the middle of the 14th Century when Somdej Phra Chao Fa Ngum chose what is now Luang Prabang as his base.
The borders of the kingdom stretched far beyond today’s Laos borders and it grew rich on trading. When the kingdom split into three it was weakened and fell under the control of Siam. When the French arrived in the middle of the 19th Century the land had been de-populated with today’s capital Vientiane in a very poor state. One of the main appeals of the area was the Mekong and so the French ensured that any influence from Siam waned quickly. The French were to stay until the middle of the 20th Century. Since that time the Lao have suffered and yet today is seeing growth, albeit from a low start. The increased number of Laos travel packages being sold by good Laos tour operators make quite a contribution to that.
The Lao Loum make up around two thirds of the national population with around half a million now resident abroad in places as diverse as the USA, France, Australia and Japan. They are commonly described as the lowland people of Laos. Culturally and politically, the Lao Loum are the dominant force in the country though there is no question of anything other than mutual tolerance.
Lao Theung are by far the largest sector in the central and southern mountains while the Lao Soung live in the remote mountainous regions of the north. They represent just 10% of the total population. The latter are regarded as the highland people, the former the midland people.
The people of Laos are naturally friendly people. Life is not easy and tourists on a Laos holiday will certainly enjoy interacting with them both in urban and rural areas.