This is my first new stamp issuer profile since I wrote about Zululand in mid-February. Amazingly enough, In just added my first stamps from Laos to my “Stamps From (Almost) Everywhere” collection. The purchase of the 1958 set of elephant stamps was prompted when I was doing research on a French stamp last month and discovered that the engraver — Jean Pheulpin — had won the Grand Prix de l’art philatélique Française for his work on Scott #41-47. I recalled having the partial set in my childhood collection and immediately went on eBay and placed a Buy It Now order. At the time of my sole trip to this beautiful country to the north of Thailand nearly eight years ago, I was experiencing a “non-collecting” period and so I didn’t buy any stamps there (I did purchase a number of postcards and even mailed a couple back home but these never arrived). I’m happy to add Laos to my collection and hope to purchase more of the nation’s stamps soon.
Laos (ລາວ), officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ — Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon in Lao or République démocratique populaire lao in French) and commonly referred to by its colloquial name of Muang Lao (ເມືອງລາວ), is a landlocked country in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of Mainland Southeast Asia, bordered by Myanmar (Burma) and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the southwest and Thailand to the west and southwest. It lies mostly between latitudes 14° and 23°N (a small area is south of 14°), and longitudes 100° and 108°E. Its thickly forested landscape consists mostly of rugged mountains, the highest of which is Phou Bia at 9,245 feet (2,818 meters), with some plains and plateaus. The Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand, whereas the mountains of the Annamite Range form most of the eastern border with Vietnam and the Luang Prabang Range the northwestern border with the Thai highlands. There are two plateaux, the Xiangkhoang in the north and the Bolaven Plateau at the southern end. The climate is tropical and influenced by the monsoon pattern. Laos has a total land area of 91,875 square miles (237,955 km²) and a population estimated at 6,758,353 in 2016.
Present-day Laos traces its historic and cultural identity to the kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao (Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under the White Parasol), which existed for four centuries as one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Due to Lan Xang’s central geographical location in Southeast Asia, the kingdom was able to become a popular hub for overland trade, becoming wealthy economically as well as culturally.
After a period of internal conflict, Lan Xang broke off into three separate kingdoms — Luang Phrabang, Vientiane and Champasak. In 1893, it became a French protectorate, with the three territories uniting to form what is now known as the country of Laos. It briefly gained freedom in 1945 after Japanese occupation, but was recolonized by France until it won autonomy in 1949. Laos became independent in 1953, with a constitutional monarchy under Sisavang Vong. Shortly after independence, a long civil war ended the monarchy, when the Communist Pathet Lao movement came to power in 1975.
Laos is a one-party socialist republic. It espouses Marxism–Leninism and is governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, in which the party leadership is dominated by military figures. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Communist Party of Vietnam and Vietnam People’s Army continue to have significant influence in Laos. The capital and largest city is Vientiane. Other major cities include Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Pakse. The official language is Lao. Laos is a multi-ethnic country, with the politically and culturally dominant Lao people making up approximately 55 percent of the population, mostly in the lowlands. Mon-Khmer groups, the Hmong and other indigenous hill tribes, accounting for 45 percent of the population, live in the foothills and mountains.
Laos’ ambitious strategies for development are based on generating electricity from its rivers and selling the power to its neighbors, namely Thailand, China and Vietnam, as well as its initiative to become a ‘land-linked’ nation, shown by the planning of four new railways connecting Laos to those same countries. This, along with growth of the mining sector, Laos has been referred to as one of East Asia and Pacific’s Fastest Growing Economies by the World Bank, with annual GDP growth averaging 7% for the past decade. It is a member of the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), East Asia Summit and La Francophonie. Laos applied for membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1997; on February 2, 2013, it was granted full membership.
The English word Laos was coined by the French, who united the three Lao kingdoms in French Indochina in 1893 and named the country as the plural of the dominant and most common ethnic group, which are the Lao people. In the Lao language, the country’s name is Muang Lao (ເມືອງລາວ) or Pathet Lao (ປະເທດລາວ), both literally mean “Lao Country”.
Archaeological exploration in Laos has been limited due to rugged and remote topography, a history of twentieth century conflicts which have left over two million tons of unexploded ordnance throughout the country, and local sensitivities to history which involve the Communist government of Laos, village authorities and rural poverty. The first archaeological explorations of Laos began with French explorers acting under the auspices of the École française d’Extrême-Orient. However, due to the Lao Civil War it is only since the 1990s that serious archaeological efforts have begun in Laos. Since 2005, one such effort, The Middle Mekong Archaeological Project (MMAP) has excavated and surveyed numerous sites along the Mekong and its tributaries around Luang Prabang in northern Laos, with the goal of investigating early human settlement of the valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries.
An ancient human skull was recovered from the Tam Pa Ling Cave in the Annamite Mountains in northern Laos; the skull is at least 46,000 years old, making it the oldest modern human fossil found to date in Southeast Asia. Stone artifacts including Hoabinhian types have been found at sites dating to the Late Pleistocene in northern Laos. Archaeological evidence suggests agriculturist society developed during the 4th millennium BC. Burial jars and other kinds of sepulchers suggest a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 BC, and iron tools were known from 700 BC. The proto-historic period is characterized by contact with Chinese and Indian civilizations. According to linguistic and other historical evidence, Tai-speaking tribes migrated southwestward to the modern territories of Laos and Thailand from Guangxi sometime between the 8th–10th centuries.
Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants), founded in the 14th century, by a Lao prince Fa Ngum, who with 10,000 Khmer troops, took over Vientiane. Ngum was descended from a long line of Lao kings, tracing back to Khoun Boulom. He made Theravada Buddhism the state religion and Lan Xang prospered. Within 20 years of its formation, the kingdom expanded eastward to Champa and along the Annamite mountains in Vietnam. His ministers, unable to tolerate his ruthlessness, forced him into exile to the present-day Thai province of Nan in 1373, where he died. Fa Ngum’s eldest son, Oun Heuan, came to the throne under the name Samsenthai and reigned for 43 years. During his reign, Lan Xang became an important trade center. After his death in 1421, Lan Xang collapsed into warring factions for the next 100 years.
In 1520, Photisarath came to the throne and moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane to avoid a Burmese invasion. Setthathirat became king in 1548, after his father was killed, and ordered the construction of what would become the symbol of Laos, That Luang. Setthathirat disappeared in the mountains on his way back from a military expedition into Cambodia and Lan Xang began to rapidly decline.
It was not until 1637, when Sourigna Vongsa ascended the throne, that Lan Xang further expanded its frontiers. His reign is often regarded as Laos’s golden age. When he died, leaving Lan Xang without an heir, the kingdom divided into three principalities. Between 1763 and 1769, Burmese armies overran northern Laos and annexed Luang Phrabang, while Champasak eventually came under Siamese suzerainty.
Chao Anouvong was installed as a vassal king of Vientiane by the Siamese. He encouraged a renaissance of Lao fine arts and literature and improved relations with Luang Phrabang. Under Vietnamese pressure, he rebelled against the Siamese in 1826. The rebellion failed and Vientiane was ransacked. Anouvong was taken to Bangkok as a prisoner, where he died.
A Siamese military campaign in Laos in 1876 was described by a British observer as having been “transformed into slave-hunting raids on a large scale”.
In the late 19th century, Luang Prabang was ransacked by the Chinese Black Flag Army. France rescued King Oun Kham and added Luang Phrabang to the Protectorate of French Indochina. Shortly after, the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane were added to the protectorate. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Phrabang became ruler of a unified Laos and Vientiane once again became the capital.
Laos never had any importance for France other than as a buffer state between Thailand and the more economically important Annam and Tonkin. During their rule, the French introduced the corvée, a system that forced every male Lao to contribute 10 days of manual labor per year to the colonial government. Laos produced tin, rubber, and coffee, but never accounted for more than one percent of French Indochina’s exports. By 1940, around 600 French citizens lived in Laos.
During World War II in Laos, Vichy France, fascist Thailand, Imperial Japan, Free France, and Chinese nationalist armies occupied Laos. On March 9, 1945, a nationalist group declared Laos once more independent, with Luang Prabang as its capital but on April 7, 1945 two battalions of Japanese troops occupied the city. The Japanese attempted to force Sisavang Vong (the King of Luang Phrabang) to declare Laotian independence but on April 8 he instead simply declared an end to Laos’ status as a French protectorate. The King then secretly sent Prince Kindavong to represent Laos to the Allied forces and Prince Sisavang as representative to the Japanese. When Japan surrendered, some Lao nationalists (including Prince Phetsarath) declared Laotian independence, but by early 1946, French troops had reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos.
During the First Indochina War, the Indochinese Communist Party formed the Pathet Lao resistance organization. The Pathet Lao began a war against the aggressive French Colonial forces with the aid of the Vietnamese independence organization (the Viet Minh). In 1950, the French was forced to give Laos semi-autonomy as an “associated state” within the French Union. France remained in de facto control until October 22, 1953, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy.
The First Indochina War took place across French Indochina and eventually led to French defeat and the signing of a peace accord for Laos at the Geneva Conference of 1954. In 1955, the United States Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the U.S. containment policy.
In 1960, amidst a series of rebellions in the Kingdom of Laos, fighting broke out between the Royal Lao Army and the communist North Vietnam-backed, and Soviet Union-backed Pathet Lao guerillas. A second Provisional Government of National Unity formed by Prince Souvanna Phouma in 1962 was unsuccessful, and the situation steadily deteriorated into large scale civil war between the Royal Laotian government and the Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao were backed militarily by the NVA and Vietcong.
Laos was a key part of the Vietnam War since parts of Laos were invaded and occupied by North Vietnam for use as a supply route for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese positions, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported South Vietnamese incursions into Laos.
In 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack to help the Pathet Lao to fight the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing, leaving the conflict to irregular ethnic Hmong forces of the “U.S. Secret Army” backed by the United States and Thailand, and led by General Vang Pao.
Massive aerial bombardment against the Pathet Lao and invading People’s Army of Vietnam forces were carried out by the United States to prevent the collapse of the Royal Kingdom of Laos central government, and to deny the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to attack U.S. forces in the Republic of Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history relative to the size of its population; The New York Times noted this was “nearly a ton for every person in Laos.” Some 80 million bombs failed to explode and remain scattered throughout the country, rendering vast swathes of land impossible to cultivate and killing or maiming 50 Laotians every year. Due to the particularly heavy impact of cluster bombs during this war, Laos was a strong advocate of the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban the weapons, and was host to the First Meeting of States Parties to the convention in November 2010.
In 1975, the Pathet Lao, along with the Vietnam People’s Army, and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Lao government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on December 2, 1975. He later died in prison. Between 20,000 and 62,000 Laotians died during the Civil War. After taking control of the country, the Pathet Lao government under Kaysone Phomvihane renamed the country as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and signed agreements giving Vietnam the right to station armed forces and to appoint advisers to assist in overseeing the country. Laos was requested in 1979 by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to end relations with the People’s Republic of China, leading to isolation in trade by China, the United States, and other countries.
The conflict between Hmong rebels and the Vietnam People’s Army of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), as well as the SRV-backed Pathet Lao continued in key areas of Laos, including in Saysaboune Closed Military Zone, Xaisamboune Closed Military Zone near Vientiane Province and Xieng Khouang Province. From 1975 to 1996, the United States resettled some 250,000 Lao refugees from Thailand, including 130,000 Hmong.
Laos is increasingly suffering from environmental problems, with deforestation a particularly significant issue, as expanding commercial exploitation of the forests, plans for additional hydroelectric facilities, foreign demand for wild animals and nonwood forest products for food and traditional medicines, and a growing population all create increasing pressure. The United Nations Development Programme warns that: “Protecting the environment and sustainable use of natural resources in Lao PDR is vital for poverty reduction and economic growth.”
Stamps of French Indochina were used in Laos from 1893 until 1951. The first stamps specifically issued for the Kingdom of Laos were issued on November 13, 1951. The Prathet Lao issued stamps from 1961 until 1975 for use in the parts of the country it controlled. Starting in 1975, stamps were issued under the banner of the Democratic People’s Republic of Laos.
On March 17, 1958, Laos released a set of seven stamps depicting Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) that many collectors feel is one of the most beautiful set of animal stamps ever issued (Scott #41-47) These were designed by Channane Prisayane and engraved by Jean Pheulpin, the latter of whom won the Grand Prix de l’Art Philatélique for this set. Although Pheulpin would engrave some 650 different stamp designs during his lengthy career, he is best known for the 1958 elephants set. His biography can be found on the Stamp Engravers blog.