I think I first heard of Laos when I was a kid. It was
that country next to Cambodia, where that beautiful ruin
Angkor Wat was. Then Laos started showing up on the evening
news. Reports were filed of guerillas on the Plain des
Jarres. I was 8 or 9. It was a fascinating idea, a field
of jars, gorillas dancing on them. That was my introduction
Now, as a result of our Indochina venture, some of us
have Lao neighbors, but curiously, the country is
practically never in the news. On the international stage
Laos is silent and invisible. When did you last hear, see,
or read a dispatch from Laos?. All of its neighbors make
news: Myanmar for its abusive government, Vietnam for its
economic potential, good old Thailand for its cut-throat
business practices, Cambodia for its ongoing troubles, and
of course China. But Laos escapes notice. I believe it
still professes to be a "People's Democratic Republic." But
no one cares. Why?
Probably it's geographic isolation has a lot to do with
its political silence. It's a landlocked country, the only
one in Indochina. Much of the terrain is rough hills.
Overland travel east to Vietnam is difficult, and the Mekong
river which forms most of the western border, despite some
serious navigational problems, is Laos' economic lifeline.
In normal times Laos would expect to do a lot of busines
with Thailand. The last 50 years have not been normal,
however, and Laos remains radically undeveloped today.
The whole country is densely forested, though they are
cutting it down as fast as they can. Among the inhabitants
of the forest have been a very large number of elephants,
whose ubiquity gave a name to a medieval Laotian kingdom.
Among the various agricultural products grown is a certain
amount of opium. I believe the government does not claim to
be completely in control of its borders.
Several major ethnic groupings currently live in Laos.
The numerically and politically dominant Lao are related to
the Thai, and came to Laos in the 12-13th centuries CE. In
the far north are the Man and Meo peoples, who came from
Yunnan in China. A number of Mon and Khmer tribes inhabit
the south , and these peoples are possibly aboriginal.
There are signs of early technology in southeast Asia.
Bronze casting, for example, was known in Thailand before
the 2nd millenium BCE, and may have actually originated
there. Laos seems to be a different story. There has been
very little work done on the prehistory and early history of
Laos, but my impression is that it has been a pretty wild
place with a sparse population that left little in the way
of ancient artifacts.
Southeast Asian history in general begins with the
accounts of the Chinese, who start discussing events of the
region in the first century CE. Mention is made to the
kingdom of Funan, whose capital was located not too far from
Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Funanese coins are known to us,
handsome silver rupee-like pieces and fractions. The
southern tip of Laos is some 200 miles north of Phnom Penh,
and Vientiane is about 600 miles upriver. Funan cannot have
had much influence up there.
Closer to Laos, but still far away, was the kingdom of
Dvaravati that arose in Thailand in the latter half of the
first millennium CE. Dvaravati issued coins as well, but I
am aware of no evidence of their use in Laos, or of any
Dvaravati influence there.
The rise of the Khmer empire in the 9th century CE
brings Laos into history proper, for the Khmer rulers
claimed sovereignty over the entire length of the Mekong.
Centered at Angkor in Cambodia, the Khmer state endured some
In the 13th century Lao movements from the west
(Thailand) into the Luang Prabang region of northern Laos
removed that territory from Khmer control. When southeast
Asia was ravaged by the Mongols under Kubilai Khan a number
of refugees fled to the mountains of Laos. The Mongols
didn't stay, however, and the power vacuum left by their
destruction was occupied by the Thai, whose leaders
consolidated several kingdoms. The most powerful, Sukothai,
held sway over Luang Prabang (former capital, now the second
city of Laos) in the 14th century.
Sukothai probably originated the unique Thai "bullet"
style of coinage, but there is, I think, no evidence that
it's money circulated in Luang Prabang. Up in the Lao hills
they liked to use bars. Southern Laos was still occupied by
the Khmer, who didn't use coins at all and never had. (The
so-called Angkor lead flower-coins are almost certainly 18th
century or later gambling tokens.)
Sukothai was in political decline by the mid-14th
century. At its fall a local hero in Luang Prabang, Fa Ngum
by name, declined to recognize the successor state of
Ayutthia. With help from his in-law, the Khmer emperor, he
made himself independent, naming his kingdom Lanchang,
poetically translated as "Land of the Myriad Elephants." It
is at this point that the numismatic history of Laos begins.
The The Medieval Laotian economy was probably served by
many of the same commodities mentioned by Alice Quiggin in
her A Survey of Primitive Money. She described, in the 19th
century, a system in which cowries, metal in various forms,
slaves, buffalos, and Chinese porcelain jars (there are
those jars again) were valued against each other. The
metal, mostly bronze and silver, was commonly traded in two
dominant forms: kettles and ingots. The latter, shaped like
slugs or leeches, are called lat.
It is a fact of life that everything is more expensive
where it's hard to get to, and Laos was hard to get to.
There was less silver to go around than in the lowlands of
Thailand, so it made sense, if there was going to be a
circulation at all, to stretch the bullion. Thus, while the
"packsaddles" of Chiengmai down in Thailand were fine silver
tamlungs (4 baht of about 15 grams each), the 14-15th
century Lanchang lats were low grade billon. The tamlung
was a bit heavier at 72 grams, but that was mostly public
relations, as the intrinsic value was still lower than the
These early lats have smooth surfaces and usually 3 or
4 marks stamped into their "obverse," the central one of
which is an elephant. Tamlungs, halves, and quarters are
In the 16th century, about the time the capital was
moved from Luang Prabang to Vientianne, there was an
increase in economic activity and the silver supply
improved. This resulted in a reform of the lat. The silver
content was increased, and the weight was dropped to the
standard tamlung of 61.2 grams. There remained a bit of
public relations in these pieces however, as the purity,
while better than before, was still not up to the Thai
standard. To emphasize the reform these new lats were given
a bumpy surface, and by poetic analogy they have come to be
known as tiger tongues.
There is a continually propagating story that the bumps
were created by the struggles of live ants dropped carefully
onto the molten metal. They must have been iron ants,
because even red hot metal, let alone molten, would make the
ants go "pfft" and disappear before any struggle might
occur. But I'm proud to continue the tradition of this
numismatic tall tale.
Early tiger tongues have an elephant mark and at least
one other stamped in the central portion of the "obverse."
The silver looks good, and the weight doesn't deviate too
much from the ideal (61.2 grams). These coins are scarce.
The Lao kings involved themselves in the affairs of
Lannatai, even occupying Chiengmai and seizing the throne.
Rare numismatic relics of Lao occupation are fine silver
ingots hammered into oblong rectangles and stamped with the
normal Chiengmai marks. After a decade or so internal
Laotian events forced a withdrawl.
Meanwhile, the Burmese power was growing in the west.
By the 1550s Burma was consolidated and the king was looking
for a project to keep his army happy. He moved on
Chiengmai, taking it in 1556. When the Burmese army went
home Laos sent a force to take it back, and patched together
a defensive alliance with the Ayutthia state in Thailand.
Burma came back with a large force that crushed both
Ayutthia and Lanchang. The Lao king got away however, and
raised a rebellion which kicked the Burmese out of Laos, and
spread to Thailand. Burma put down the revolt, only to find
its hold on Laos slipping yet again. The upshot of some 25
years of wrangling was that Burma gave in and Lao
sovereignty was restored.
Two numismatic items related to the Burmese occupation
period are worth noting. The first is that during the
occupation of Chiengmai there was an issue of rectangular
bars on the model of the period of Lao dominance. They
differ in being cast rather than hammered and cut. These
are rare today.
The other item concerns the elephant type "opium"
weights. The weights are bronze fractions and multiples of
the baht (Burmese = kyat) and were the official Burmese aid
to trade in lieu of a currency. The two common types
depict, colloquially, ducks and lions, though both are
really supposed to be divine super-beasts. Elephants are
scarce at best, and the story that goes with them is that
they were made for use in Laos. I'm just passing on the
tale, and am aware of no proof either way. I would note as
a further aside that the elephant types are more often faked
than any other.
As the 16th century opened the Burmese empire was in
decline and the king in Vientiane consolidated his country.
Prosperity flowered for some two decades, then, after some
15 years of dynastic squabbling, the contest was settled in
favor of a gentleman named Souligna Vongsa, who proceeded to
give his nation 57 years of peace and prosperity. His death
in 1694 occasioned the return of dynastic warfare, and by
1707 the country had been split into two mutually hostile
governments with capitals at Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
The two weak states were tempting targets for the
resurgent Ayutthia government in Thailand, and after several
twists and turns Vientiane was annexed in 1827. Luang
Prabang maintained an independence of sorts, though in a
subsidiary relationship to Ayutthia. By the 19th century
this status had declined into outright vassalhood, with the
king named by Bangkok.
As for the coinage, lats continued to be the made.
Mitchiner, in his Oriental Coins and their Values, vol. 3,
attributes to the close of the 16th century scarce tiger
tongues of reasonably fine silver with wheel countermarks.
For the first time a double tamlung appears. After the
establishment of a united Lao kingdom in 1591 the wheel
marks were replaced with snakes, and the double tamlungs
with these marks are the most common of the marked silver
tiger tongues. There is also a rare 1½ tamlung with a
different mark from the same period.
With the late 17th century split into two kingdoms the
stamped marks were abandoned. Tiger tongues continued to be
made by Vientiane. These unstamped lats are even more
common than the snake stamped pieces. By the start of the
18th century a process of casual debasement had begun, with
silver fineness declining toward zero and weight control
becoming sloppy. Some of these base pieces are found with
ersatz marks cast, rather than stamped, into the coin. Base
tiger tongues used to be easy to find, but have been
unavailable for a while. For a couple of decades everyone
who wanted a tiger tongue bought one of the cheap, base
ones, and the result is that now you can buy them in silver
but not in billon or brass.
Luang Prabang made a different kind of lat. These were
completely base, made usually of copper or brass,
occasionally lead. (I don't know if the lead ones are
genuine or not. It's been several decades since I've seen
one. Their rarity alone would seem to support their claim
to suthenticity.) There were no marks of any kind on the
Luang Prabang lats, and the weight varied from about 90 down
to 15 grams. These are known in our hobby as canoe money,
and occasionally a piece is found that looks just exactly
like that. Most of them are cruder, flattened logs if you
will. They are common and cheap.
France had been been dabbling in southeast Asia since
the 17th century. I say dabbling because they did a little
business here, a little politics there, and it never
amounted to much until the 19th century. The focus of their
interest was Vietnam of course, not Thailand, which was not
colonial fodder but rather a contending state. And Laos was
hard to get to. From the late 18th century they were a
fairly constant presence in Vietnam, and in 1802 they
managed to put their nominee on the throne as the Gia Long
Their clout eroded under subsequent monarchs, until
1858, when a string of massacres of Christians was answered
with a Franco-Spanish invasion. Saigon and surrounding
territories were seized and kept by the French. Tonkin was
occupied in 1882, and in the following year the emperor
accepted Protectorate status and Vietnam became a colony of
The French got to Laos in 1889, ostensibly on mission
to restore order in a region that had been disturbed, as had
all of southeast Asia, by the arrival of masses of refugees
fleeing the Tai Ping war in China. They stayed and
established a protectorate, which was incorporated into the
Indochina Union in 1893.
The currencies of French Indochina were the legal
tender of Laos during the colonial years, but I have no
information regarding their use there. There was a tendency
in the mountains to make silver coins into jewelry, and the
Luang Prabang "canoe" lats, which had been in production in
the 1880s, certainly continued in circulation for some time
after. They really ought to be in the Standard Catalog with
a KM number.
The first modern "coins" were those silver tael and
half tael ingots with the Lao legend. The half has the
Chinese character fu (wealth), and the tael comes either
with fu or with a stag's head, which itself comes in several
varieties, "long antlers" and "short antlers" being the best
known. The most convincing story I've heard about these is
that they were made in 1943 in Hanoi, expressly to
facilitate the opium trade. The fu types are fairly easy to
obtain. Short antlered stag is just a bit scarcer, but
Thierry, in an article in the Oriental Numismatic Society
Newsletter #143, states that it is a fake. The long
antlered varieties are rare, the originals having two
extraneous die marks in the obverse field.
For the French puppet kingdom of 1949-54 there are
three common aluminum coins. Most interesting of these to
me is the 10 cents with type "woman with a hole in her
head." These also exist as essaies (scarce) and piedforts
(rare). The independent kingdom, which became a client of
America for a while, produced a small number of massive gold
and silver coin sets for the coronation of the king in 1971,
and a few more in 1975. These are not easy to find.
People's coinage consists of three aluminum minors
dated 1980, probably too low value to circulate, and easy to
collect. There is also a series of commemoratives beginning
in 1985. I don't think any of them have circulated but I
may be wrong. The 1985 coins, struck at Leningrad, have
dignified Lao themes. There on one of them is the Plain of
Jars! The later issues, made at Havana, have a more
commercial aspect. There is an element of desperation in
these late coins, whose only purpose is to pry a bit of hard
currency out of us.