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  7. Fa Ngum and the birth of Laos

It was during the 14th century, that the prince, Fa Ngum, who came from Xieng Dong-Xieng Thong, tried to unify Laos.

Fa Ngum, The Conqueror

The last born of a family of 4 children, he was banished by his father when he was very young because of an omen by one of the King’s animist shamans. Educated by the Khmers in Angkor, he was formed as a warrior and a Buddhist. He came back as a conqueror to his native town having added 2 other provinces on his way; forming for the first time in Laotian history, a united territory.

The new Realm was called Lan Xang Hom Khao, or literally The Kingdom of a Million Elephants and a White Parasol. The capital was naturally established at Louang Prabang (which was called Mouang Seua, or Muang Swa at that time) Theravada Buddhism, which Fa Ngum had brought back with him from his stay with the Khmers, was proclaimed as the new religion for everybody.

The King of Angkor hadn’t forgotten his adopted son and son in law (as Fa Ngum had married his daughter Nank Kèo Lot Fa). To congratulate him on his achievements and his fervour for Buddha, the Khmer king sent Fa Ngum a golden Buddha the Pha Bang, also written Phra Bang which became the symbol of the realm and its palladium (the most sacred article in existence which was also linked to the protection of the town and the realm).

Luang Prabang, the capital of the Lan Xang Realm

In 1357, Muang Swa took the name of Muang Xieng Dong Xieng Thong and became the first spiritual, political and administrative city of the Laotian realm. As from then, golden temples were constructed all over the town which, to this day, still exist in fantastic numbers. Most were destroyed during attacks from plunderers and reconstructed or renovated during the XIXth and XXth centuries. The new realm went through 60 years of prosperity before declining during nearly a century, wavering under Kings that were too quickly replaced (there were no less than 7 Kings between 1416 and 1438, and 6 others between 1479 and 1520).

A few principles in the Realm of a Million Elephants

The Lao King is of divine origin. He comes down from Khun Borom the Son of the Heavens; whereas the people came from marrows. (A genie made a hole in a marrow with a red-hot poker ; black men came out : these were the Khas. He made another hole with a cold poker ; white men came out : these were the Laos).

Buddhist religious hierarchy has existed since Fa Ngum – or maybe before – and is like a feudal administration system. There exists a "king of the community" or Sangharaja (sang ha = community + raja = king ) who has authority over the bonze-governors, the bonze-chiefs of the villages as well as the bonze chiefs of the districts. Religious power is very potent; there are no examples of Lao Kings having flouted it.

Transmission of possessions between parents and children is done in a special way.

  • The husband goes to live with the wife’s family
  • He doesn’t inherit from his own family and contributes to his in-laws prosperity, with his work.
  • He builds his own house, near that of his in-laws.
  • The youngest daughter finishes by inheriting her parent’s house.

Men’s authority over women is tempered in this way, the remnants of an old matriarchy. This difference to the Confucius system of China and Vietnam is important to know, so as to better understand Lao society.

  • The family unit is managed by the eldest man.
  • The head of the family is in charge of all male members of the family and has the right of life or death.
  • He can put a member of his family up for wager, in case of debts.
  • He only has one wife, but polygamy is not forbidden if he is rich.
  • He is answerable to the administration for the members of his family, for taxes and work.

The Thai Lao, like all Thai’s is a free man that no other Thai can make a slave, except in the case of blatant rebellion towards his master or a debt.

At the bottom of the social ladder, the masses of slaves can be given as much work as their masters want. Normally they were Austro-Asians, sometimes they were prisoners of war or even issue from kidnappings.

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