Housed in an old colonial structure (built in 1925) that was once the French Governor’s mansion, the Lao National Museum (which was once known as the Lao Revolutionary Museum) might not have the trove of artifacts you’d expect for a national museum; however, the museum makes up for it with some rather interesting exhibits.
To be sure, the museum features everything from dinosaur bones and sandstone sculptures of the Hindu god Shiva to machine guns and black and white photos of guerrillas fighting U.S.-backed troops before the communists came to power in 1975.
The first floor is dedicated to Laos’s ancient history as well as the archeology of the Mekong River and contains numerous artifacts such as pots, drums and tools as well as some dinosaur bones, which were found near Savannakhet. Additionally there are some exhibits on cultural and historical sites like The Plain of Jars and Wat Phou, which provide visitors with insights into Laos’s rich cultural heritage.
The second floor is divided into a series of rooms, each displaying artifacts and pictures of periods in time dating back to 1353, including the history of the Lao kingdom of Lane Xang up to 1707; the division of Lane Xang into three principalities 1707-1779; the rule of Siam 1779-1893; the French colonial period 1893-1945; the first Indochina War 1945-1954; US intervention 1964-1973; the successful liberation of the country in 1975; and the period of national development since 1975.
If much of Laos’s past history is lost on you, exhibits which show Laos’s modern history are more foreboding whether its oil paintings depicting the French Colonialists violent behavior toward Laotians (one large undated oil painting shows a French soldier throwing a boy down a well as another prepares to hit a woman with his rifle butt as he rips a child out of her arms while a village burns in the background) or grainy black and white photos of Laos’s struggle against the Japanese during World War II and later, the American Imperialists during the Vietnam War.
Likewise, there are many artifacts and photos highlighting the Pathet Laos (PL) lengthy struggle for power. And to round off things, there’s enough armament exhibits to make any Rambo fan happy with such catchy captions like—“this machine gun shot down this helicopter” and “these are the guns the Americans used against…”
Notwithstanding, one of the more disturbing exhibits about Laos’ connection with the Vietnam War is about the unexploded ordinance from the conflict that is still being found today.
(Between 1964-1969 around 450,000 tons of ordinance had been dropped on Laos; afterwards that amount was dropped every year for the next three years. By the end of the war, the bombing amounted to approximately to 1.9 million tons, or a half-ton for every man, woman, and child living in Laos making the country the most heavily bombed nation [and a per capita basis] in the history of warfare.)
Aside from all this history, war, and revolution, one of the museum’s more interesting exhibits is in the last room before you exit, sort of a Laos trade and commodities exhibit of produce, handiwork, and manufactured goods. Although dated, it sheds lights on Laos’s geography and commerce and the nation’s development since the mid 70s.
There is a small museum shop, but other than a few T-shirts and some postcards that you can buy at almost any shop in Vientiane, there’s not much to offer. The museum should make up some of their own T-shirts and also offer illustrated books of some of the artifacts on display to generate revenue to acquire more artifacts.
The museum is open daily from 8:00-12:00; 1:00-4:00 and closed on holidays. Admission is 5,000 Kip (approximately 50 cents).