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Lao or Laos – what’s that little country called again?

A history of the various names given to this small, remote, mountainous country

Visitors frequently get confused between Cambodian and Khmer, aren’t always sure whether they should be saying Burma or Myanmar and we’ve also even heard people referring to the inhabitants of Thailand as Thailandese. However, the small, land-locked and mountainous country of Lao or Laos probably comes out on top of the name confusion charts.

The iconic That Luang in Vientiane
The iconic That Luang in Vientiane

The country’s official name is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, LPDR or Lao PDR. (Due to the residents’ reputation for being particularly laid-back and easy-going, you’ll often hear the PDR part amended to Please Don’t Rush.) Lao citizens generally refer to their home as Pathet Lao or Muang Lao which translates simply as Lao Country or Land of the Lao. The Thai word for Thailand is also Muang Thai although the term Muang – in both languages – most accurately describes a city, city state or perhaps small chiefdom. This was the original geopolitical system in Lao and northern Thailand in earlier times when the region’s mountainous topography led to the formation of numerous small, sometimes isolated and sometimes semi-autonomous, valley polities incorporating a main, fortified settlement with surrounding villages and farmland.

Lao or Lao
Mekong sunset in Luang Prabang

The northern Thai word Chiang (also Chieng and Xieng in Lao) was probably, originally a Chinese loan word and also means fortified settlement or city hence Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and XiengKhouang (Xiangkhouang) in northeastern Lao.

The peak of Lao power came between the 13th and late 18th centuries when a kingdom, going under the charming name of Lan Chang, (or Lan Xang) – meaning Million Elephants – ruled over much of what is today Lao as well as large swathes of northeastern Thailand. The capital switched from time to time between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

Wat Xiengthong in UNESCO World Heritage Luang Prabang
Wat Xiengthong in UNESCO World Heritage Luang Prabang

When the French turned up in the region in the late 19th century Lao was by then divided into three principal kingdoms; Champassak in the south, Vientiane in the centre and Luang Prabang in the north. Luang Prabang had recently been ransacked by Chinese Black Flag bandits while Vientiane had been destroyed and largely depopulated by the Siamese. (1) Sensing an opportunity, the French offered protectorate status and added an S to make the term plural so Laos thus combining all three separate kingdoms.

The British in neighbouring Burma also adopted the term while the French being French rendered the grammatically correct (in their terms at least) S that they’d just added, a silent one. Lao or Laos continued to be employed, largely interchangeably, for a hundred years or so until the Americans turned up. As a frontline state during the war in Vietnam and with the homegrown, communist, Pathet Lao organisation fighting alongside the North Vietnamese the Americans were eager to curry support for the beleaguered pro-Western Lao government and the anti-communist, mainly ethnic Hmong, forces that the CIA had raised and funded.

Lao or Laos
World Heritage Plain of Jars

One of their problems – among many – was a PR one. How to garner support and sympathy for a country whose name sounded like a rather unpleasant parasitic insect? (Yes, they pronounced the S.) Some lexicographical genius at the CIA or Pentagon came up with the simple solution of separating the word into two syllables – La-os, pronounced Lay-oss. (A grating term still frequently heard today.) We’d assume that it was also around this time that terms such as Laotion (pronounced Lay-otion) and Lations also came into being.

Lao's third UNESCO-listed site, Wat Phu
Lao’s third UNESCO-listed site, Wat Phu

You’re unlikely to come across any irate locals if you do use the term Laos or Laotian (even if they may cringe inwardly), but the best, and in our opinion most correct term for the country, people and language is simply Lao. It’s also important to note that Lao, Laos or even La-os or Laotian are all political terms derived from what is merely the predominant ethnic group in this highly mixed country.

Although accurate figures are somewhat hard to obtain, ethnic Lao people – members of the Tai or Tai-Kadai linguistic/cultural group – only account for a little over half of the population with the remainder of the population comprising Chinese, Vietnamese, Mon-Khmer and Sino-Tibetan ‘hilltribe’ minorities.

Hmong vendor, local market near Paksang
Hmong vendor, local market near Paksang

Keen-eyed readers may notice that our Lao tours are indeed on our Laos page. We confess…SEO/commercial reasons have outweighed grammatical correctness, (although our S is, of course, a silent one!), so, do visit Lao or Laos, learn a few words of Lao, sample some of the little-known Lao cuisine and, last but not least, the country’s most famous export Beer Lao.

(1) Siam and Siamese being another somewhat controversial term as the Thais have never called themselves anything other than Thai/Tai with Siamese likely to have originally been a Portuguese term for the residents of the region.