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The Lao people of Laos and Northeast Thailand share a long cultural history but have long been sundered politically - yet today links between the Lao on both banks of the Mekong are flourishing

  • By Andrew Forbes and David Henley

Five hundred years ago the Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang or 'One Million Elephants' spanned a broad swathe of mainland Southeast Asia, stretching from Vietnam in the east to Burma's Shan State in the west, and encompassing much of present-day Thailand.

In the following centuries Laos fell on hard times. Caught between Vietnamese hammer and Siamese anvil, the once powerful Kingdom of a Thousand Elephants was reduced to a shadow of its former self, forced to pay tribute to both Hue and Bangkok, in the derisory Siamese idiom a 'bird with two heads'.

The nadir came in 1827, when Prince Anu, the lord of Vientiane, attempted to march on Bangkok. His armies got no further than Khorat, where the local women, led by the wife of the governor, Khunying Mo, seduced the Lao soldiers with alcohol and feminine charms, and then slaughtered them whilst they slept. Chao Anu was captured, taken prisoner to Bangkok, and exposed in an iron cage over the Chao Phraya River until he died. The Siamese armies, meanwhile, captured Vientiane and destroyed the city in an orgy of looting and pillage.

Before the tables could be turned, French imperialism arrived on the scene, absorbing all the Lao territories east of the Mekong, whilst confirming Siam's possession of the Lao-speaking regions west of the river.

During the 20th century Laos experienced an extraordinary history. Occupied in turn by the French and then the Japanese, the country subsequently assumed a pivotal role in the Vietnam War, fought over by Viet Cong guerillas, their Pathet Lao allies, CIA 'secret warriors'  and right wing generals. Meanwhile the much larger Lao population of neighbouring Northeast Thailand came under increasing pressure to assume a Thai identity. For twenty years a bamboo curtain descended along the Mekong, dividing the Lao of Laos from the Lao of Northeast Thailand as Laos became the least likely front line in the Cold War.

All this was to change in 1989 with the break up of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Laos, deprived of its Soviet sponsors, turned to chin tanakan mai, or “new thinking”, gradually opening to free market forces and establishing friendly links with its neighbours across the Mekong, the Thais. Prominent in this friendship has been the re-establishment of contacts between the Lao of Laos and the Lao of Thailand, symbolised by the opening of the Australian-built Friendship Bridge between Vientiane and Nong Khai.

The study Laos and Isan: Collected Essays brings together a series of related cultural and historical essays examining the history, culture and traditions of the Lao, seeking to explore their past, rediscover their cultural identity, and celebrate their heritage.

  • Andrew Forbes and David Henley both know Laos and Northeast Thailand well. For many years David travelled to Isan on an annual basis updating the region for Reise Know-How Thailand Handbuch, and they have both contributed to guide books on Laos and Northeast Thailand for Insight Guides, Frommers, AAA and Dorling Kindersley. Andrew has written on the culture and politics of the region for the international press including Bangkok Post and The Nation. Both have lived in Thailand for more than two decades and speak Thai - as well as some Lao.

© 2012 CPA Media &  Cognoscenti Books. All Rights Reserved.