The earliest inhabitants of Laos were hunter-gatherers. Later they were farmers growing rice and pulses. The first farmers used stone tools but from about 2,000 BC bronze was used in Laos and from about 500 BC iron. However unlike Vietnam the people of Laos were influenced by Indian rather than Chinese culture. From the 1st century AD Indian merchants introduced Theravada Buddhism into Laos.
From the 9th to the 13th century the Khmers from Cambodia ruled much of what is now Laos. However in the 14th century the ancestors of today’s Laotians founded a kingdom called Lan Xang. The first king was the ambitious Chao Fa Ngum, who was succeeded by his son Phaya Samsenthai in 1373. He ruled until 1421 and under him Lan Xang became a prosperous kingdom. Unfortunately his successors were less skillful rulers. In the 16th century Lan Xang was threatened by Burma but it managed to retain its independence.
In the 17th century greatness was restored to Lan Xang by Souriyavongsa (1637-1694). His long reign is seen as a golden age. During it Lan Xang was powerful and prosperous. However when Souriyavongsa died in 1694 he did not leave a heir.In the early 18th century Lan Xang split into 3 regions centered on Luang Prang in the north, Vientiane in the middle and Champasak in the south. When it was divided in that way Laos was weakened and fell prey to Siam (Thailand). In 1779 Siamese forces occupied Vientiane. Afterwards the three Laotian states were dominated by Siam (Thailand).
In 1804 Anouvong became king of Vientiane. By 1825 Anouvong was determined to overthrow Siamese domination and restore the kingdom of Lan Xang. In 1827 he advanced into Siam but was defeated and forced to retreat. Anouvong fled to Vietnam. Several months later he returned to Vientiane but was captured by the Siamese (Thais) ending all hope of a restored Lan Xang.
In 1867-68 a Frenchman called Francis Garnier traveled through Laos. However the French left Laos alone for two decades. Then in the late 1880s and early 1890s French influence in the area grew. Finally in 1893 the Siamese formally surrendered all territory east of the River Mekong to the French.