Traveling in modern South East Asia can be confusing without having at least a basic understanding of the parties and forces that shaped the area in the last century. Laos was home to one of the most complex realities.
The Lao kingdom was divided into three principalities in the eighteenth century; in 1828, Vientiane - the central one - was ransacked by the Thais, who took away the Emerald Buddha. By the end of that century, the French colonized Laos by stages, since they considered it crucial in the protection of their Indochina colony from Siam. The Japanese conquered Indochina during WWII; after the war, independence was inevitable.
The Franco-Lao Treaty of 1953 gave Laos independence, and a unified kingdom was established for the first time in two centuries. Soon, struggle between the neutralist Prince Souvanna Phouma, the right wing Prince Boun Oum of Champosak, and the left-wing, Lao Patriotic Front under Prince Souphanouvong and future Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane appeared and led to a creation of a "tri-coalition" government was in Vientiane.
In those years, Vientiane was the administrative capital, while Luang Prabang was the Royal one. Champosak served as a center for right-wing princes. Thus, despite the formal re-unification of the kingdom, Laos maintained a political structure that was very similar to the three principalities that characterized it during the eighteen and nineteen centuries.
After the French withdrew from Indochina, they handled this hot potato to the Americans; an international conference in which all the interested sides participated was called. The Geneva Conference established Laos as a neutral territory, but all the sides to the agreement violated the decision and used Laos for their own interests.
The country deteriorated into a civil war between 1962 and 1975, a war that was heavily influenced by the events across the Annamite Mountains - the US-Vietnam War. The Communist Pathet Lao was supported by North Vietnam, while the Americans and South Vietnam supported the Royal Lao Government. The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao emerged victorious in 1975.
In what became known as the "Secret War," Laos became a clandestine theater of the Second Indochina War (another name for the US-Vietnam War). North Vietnam established the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which passed partly on eastern Laos and allowed contact with the National Liberation Front in Southern Vietnam. Moreover, they helped the Pathet Lao; the last had a stronghold near Xam Nua in the Viang Xai Caves, which was beyond the reach of their enemies and provided easy access to Vietnam.
In parallel, the CIA trained thirty thousand Hmong tribesmen led by Royal Lao Army General Vang Pao, a Hmong military leader. This army was supported by the CIA controlled Air America, which transported the Hmong's poppy seeds crops to finance the operation.
In 1968, North Vietnam launched a massive attack on the Royal Lao Army and took it out of the equation until the end of the war. Meanwhile, the USA carried massive bombings – mainly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Many of the bombs scattered Agent Orange – a defoliant – over the forests causing them a damage that can be seen even nowadays. Laos became the worst bombarded country in the history of the world – more bombs were dropped there than over the combined Germany and Japan during WWII. The Secret War was the largest American clandestine operation prior to the Afghan-Soviet War.
As predetermined by the Paris Peace Accord, the US withdrew from Laos in 1973. Pathet Lao – with the support of North Vietnam forces supporting it in Laos – got a place in the Laotian government side by side with the Royalists. In 1975 North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces began attacking government strongholds until a deal was achieved conceding the power to the Pathet Lao.
Once in power, the Pathet Lao cut its economical ties with all its neighbors with the exception of the now united Vietnam and signed a friendship treaty with that country. The Vietnamese kept troops and advisors within Laos. Only in the 1980s, Laos began opening to the outer world, tourism was re-established in the late 1990s.
Meanwhile, in Washington DC
On May 15, 1997, the US inaugurated a memorial in honor of the Hmong contributions to the Vietnam War on the grounds of the Arlington Cemetery between the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Many Hmong fled Laos to Thailand; many of them are concentrated in several locations within Isaan, where Lao is the main language. A few were granted refuge in the US.