Thanks to its favourable location along the Mekong River in the middle of an enormous fertile valley, Vientiane has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century. The Khmer, Siamese, Burmese and Vietnamese have all had their turn at the wheel, repeatedly conquering and often sacking the city even after it had been integrated into the first Lao kingdom known as Lan Xang, meaning the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’.
Vientiane reached a new height of importance in 1560, when King Setthathirath relocated his capital from Luang Prabang in the north to present-day Vientiane. He built the impressive That Luang stupa on the site of an ancient Khmer temple east of the city. This beautiful Buddhist icon remains a major symbol of Lao sovereignty and a reminder of this communist nation’s Buddhist roots. This was Vientiane’s Golden Era, which came crashing down in the late 1800s when the Siamese razed the city. Only one Buddhist temple was left standing, the stately Wat Sisaket, built in 1818.
All but abandoned until the late 19th century, when the French colonised Laos as part of their Indochina plan, Vientiane has been on a slow path of recovery ever since. The French made Vientiane the capital of their new colony and most of the city we see today dates from this period or later. With so little historical infrastructure left after the Siamese invasion, there are few reminders of the city’s pre-colonial existence.
The French ruled Laos with a relatively fair hand until WWII, after which a number of Lao independence groups emerged and began campaigns for autonomy. Independence was achieved in 1953, when Laos become a constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately, Laos was sucked into the Vietnam War soon after independence, resulting in the dubious honour of being the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare.
While the countryside bordering Vietnam was being bombed into oblivion by the Americans, extensive aid money from the US was keeping Vientiane insulated from the tragedy afflicting the rest of the nation. This sad irony allowed the capital to thrive during wartime by supplying entertainment services for US soldiers and government officials.
When Saigon fell in 1975, the boom in Vientiane also ended. The communist party, Pathet Lao, took control of the capital and created the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which still governs the country today. Within days, Vientiane was transformed from a hedonistic haven to a repressed city where anything related to American culture was outlawed. When the Americans withdrew financial aid, the economy of the capital collapsed.
In the chaos that ensued, the Pathet Lao forced the traditional monarchy to abdicate, marking the end of 600 years of Laotian royalty. The communist government also tried to outlaw Buddhism, but massive public protests in 1977 forced the Pathet Lao to back down. The Soviets stepped in to replace the role of the Americans, creating a radically different city. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Laos was forced to re-evaluate its position in the world.
The opening of the Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane and Nong Khai, Thailand in 1994 was the first step towards new foreign policies. Since then, development money from many nations has poured into Laos to help with infrastructure, agriculture and education. The communist government is still in power, but capitalism has made serious inroads into Vientiane’s economy. The future of Laos will greatly depend on how well the government can wean itself off of international aid and assume responsibility for its own sustainabilityAll but abandoned until the late 19th century, when the French colonised Laos as part of their Indochina plan,
Vientiane has been on a slow path of recovery ever since. The French made Vientiane the capital of their new colony and most of the city today dates from this period or later. Many temples have been rebuilt and are now an integral part of daily life.
Today the city is a mixture of old and new as it undergoes rapid development into a modern city. In 2010 Vientiane will celebrate its 450th birthday.
An extraordinary event that our ancestors have failed to celebrate (KPL) Party and government leaders led Vientiane residents and Lao people from every corner of the country in celebrating the 450th anniversary of Vientiane as the national capital and the 35th founding anniversary of the Lao People's Democratic Republic held at the National Stadium (KM-16) last Friday.
The State President signalled the grand opening of the celebration of the two historic days with nine hits on the gong before the audience of local residents and foreigners could view 39 programmes of parades and art shows by over 11,000 Lao performers to demonstrate the development of Vientiane at each era.
These ranged from the times when Vientiane was founded by hero Boulichanh, times of civilisation and invasions and destruction by foreign armies, and the current time of national defence and construction under the Lao People's Democratic Republic. In his statement to the audience, President Choummaly Sayasone highlighted the pride and gratitude of the Lao people to celebrate the two historic events and conveying warm greetings and best wishes to veterans, heroes, soldiers, civil servants, Party members, armed force personnel, the Lao ethnic people and overseas Laotians.
"We, Lao people, are a nation which has experienced a history of establishment, existence and growth in this region for thousands of years.Ancestors and the Lao people who were patriotic forged unity to fight against enemy and safeguarded and saved our beloved motherland for us as their successors till today," read the President.
King Sayasetthathirath decided to move the capital city of the Kingdom of Lane Xang (million elephants) from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in 1560 after learning that the city of Luang Prabang was enclosed by mountainous and hilly landscape and rivers, which presented difficulties to the development and national defence of the country. Meanwhile, the King realised that Vientiane had a large and fertile plain which was at the centre of the Kingdom of Lane Xang and was conducive for his royal administration and foreign policies.
"Under the reign of King Sayasetthathirath, Vientiane enjoyed development in all areas. Since then the capital city and Lao people as a whole have encountered the ups and downs at different times of civilisations, succumbing to a protectorate to foreign feudalism and colonialism. Due to these prolonged and changing realities, Lao people have become more patriotic, upholding moral principles and admiring peace, independence and friendship with international community." Prior to the speech by President Choummaly, Mr. Somsavat Lengsavad, Standing Deputy Prime Minister and President of the Organising Committee for the Celebration of Vientiane's 450th anniversary as the national capital and the 35th anniversary of the Lao PDR, made a keynote speech emphasising the opportunity of the Lao people to celebrate the centennial event for the first time since Vientiane was proclaimed as the national capital by King Sayasetthathirath, and the main objectives of the celebration, which were to raise awareness of the Lao people and Vientiane residents in particular on the history of the capital, to promote the unity of the Lao people and contribute to the development and growth of Vientiane and make known the history of Vientiane Capital to international community.
"For me the Lao PDR has been developing for 35 years. The country has made a big progress and leap development. The leadership by the Party and government is actually good. I am satisfied with the celebration and realise that the Party and government took a right opportunity to raise public faith in its leadership," said Mr. Thongmeuang Sayasouk, retiree from Sivilay village, Vientiane Capital, among the 20,000-strong audience at the stadium.
"I am excited with the development of the country. It is the first time for me to see such a big event. I am so excited," said Ms. Kayavanh Thanadabouth, an overseas Laotian who has lived in the United States for over 30 years on a visit for the occcasion.
The celebration also drew the participation of 200 representatives of overseas Laotians in five countries.
In June 2007 the Politburo of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party Central Committee approved a plan of action for the celebration of Vientiane's 450th anniversary as the national capital. Since then 21 projects have been approved and set as part of the celebration of the capital proclamation. Among them are the construction of the SEA Games' Stadium, the Mekong Embankment Project, the Vientiane Capital's 450th Year Road Construction Project; the That Luang Square Improvement Project; the Vientiane Administration Office and the National Assembly's First Constituency Office Construction Project, the Vientiane's 450-year History Book Writing and Revision Project and the Vat Sisaket Restoration Project.