Today is a National Day in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic marking the anniversary of the victory of the Pathet Lao in the Laotian Civil War that was an adjunct of the Vietnam war. Let’s talk about the country’s name before I get into the heart of things. The country was called Laos (with an /s/) by French colonists, but both the people and their language are known as Lao indigenously, and they refer to their country by the full name, sometimes, or as Muang Lao (ເມືອງລາວ) more commonly. After independence from France in 1953 until 1973 the country retained the French colonial name, Laos, but subsequently it has been called Lao. I will use the name Laos here for the country prior to 1973.
The First Indochina War (1946 – 1954) was centered on Vietnam, but involved Laos and Cambodia as well, and eventually led to French defeat and the signing of a peace accord for Laos at the Geneva Conference of 1954. In 1955, the US 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 US policy of “containment” of communism in Asia.
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, 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 US forces in the Republic of Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2 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”. Around 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 2nd December 1975. He later died in prison. Between 20,000 and 62,000 Laotians died during the Civil War. On 2nd December 1975, 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.
Larb is probably the best known Lao dish and I covered a version of it here. https://www.bookofdaystales.com/lao-new-year/ This recipe is for a common beef version, but there is also a fish version which is popular. It resembles ceviche a little, in that the fish has a lime juice dressing, but it is parboiled, and other herbs and vegetables are added. The greens preferred in Laos, and SE Asia in general, are not easily found outside of Asia, but you might find a friendly Vietnamese market. When I lived in New York there was one near my work. In Lao the fish used is local fish from the Mekong. You can use any white fish, but remember, the more you substitute ingredients, the farther you get from the taste of Lao.
¼ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp lemongrass, white parts only, finely minced
1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp fish sauce
2 tbsp shallots, thinly sliced
¼ cup scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1-2 red Thai bird chiles, chopped (or Prik Bon chili powder)
3 cups Asian greens, whole leaves, coarsely chopped
¼ cup cilantro, fresh, whole leaves, coarsely chopped
½ cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1 lb white fish, sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, cut into 2” pieces
1 ½ tablespoons ground roasted rice (optional)
In a small bowl, mix together the lime juice, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, shallots, salt and chili. Set aside.
Put the watercress, cilantro and mint into a medium bowl.
In a small saucepan, boil 3 inches of water with 1 stalk of lemongrass, place the fish into the boiling water, turn off the heat. Let sit 3-4 minutes.
Toss the greens with lime-lemongrass dressing plus the roasted rice (if using). Drain the fish and mix in gently. Serve immediately.