Original Lao settlers were part of the overall Tai migrations from southern China, beginning over 2,000 years ago. By the eighth century, Tai groups had settled through much of northern Southeast Asia, commonly in semi-independent muang, or principalities, each under the leadership of a local lord. Shifting alliances and the rise and fall of petty kingdoms continued until King Fa Ngum first unified a Lao state in 1353, with its capital at Luang Prabang and encompassing all of present-day Laos and northeast Thailand. This kingdom of Lan Sang (Million Elephants) lasted about 200 years, but disintegrated under the Burmese invasions of the late sixteenth century. King Soulingna Vongsa briefly revived the kingdom during the latter half of the seventeenth century, but it again foundered and remained divided variously under Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese influence and control until the French entered in 1893. French colonial rule served to unify the Lao provinces on the left bank of the Mekong, and reestablished the royal house of Luang Prabang under a French protectorate, but otherwise had little effect on village life. Two major periods of war (the nationalist struggle against the French between 1944 and 1954 and the Second Indochina War between 1956 and 1975) disrupted Lao villages and distorted the development of Lao towns. A Communist government took control of the present area of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in late 1975, ushering in a period of revolutionary enthusiasm, reorganization, out-migration, and consolidation. The mainly subsistence economy of Lao villages continued after 1975, but was modified by government efforts to establish collective work groups and villagewide agricultural cooperatives and to bring education and administrative oversight to rural areas. By the early 1980s the hardships of war and rapid revolutionary transformation had diminished, returning village life to approximately the same level and style as in the early 1960s. In the late 1980s, Laos gradually allowed the entry of foreign businesses and tourists, and took tentative steps toward greater political openness.
Lao and Thai have long been closely aligned culturally, and prior to 1975 the Mekong was more a communication path than a frontier. The absence of good education in Laos prompted many Lao to study in Thailand, and villages in border regions regularly participated in each other's traditional celebrations and festivals. Prior to the 1970s the Lao educational system was based on a French curriculum, and a small Lao elite was educated at French schools elsewhere in Indochina or in France itself.