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LAOS » NORTHERN » LUANG PRABANG » History of Luang Prabang
History of Luang Prabang 



Early Lao history is little documented. But archaeological and historical evidence suggests that the early indigenous population of this mountainous, landlocked region, the Lao Theung, one of the many ethnic Tai people, probable originated in China and migrated south, mingling with the Lao Loum.  There were early feudal kingdoms, including Muang Swa, the earlier name of the area of Luang Prabang, and smaller kingdoms in the north such as Muang Sing, which were brought under one ruler in Luang Prabgang only after the 14the century.

Luang Prabang became the royal capital in 1353 when Fa Ngum, a great warrior, became the first king of Lane Xang Hom Khao, the Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol. At that time there were many elephants in Luang Prabang, and they became the symbol of the Kingdom, although today they survive only in the forests. But elephants were also symbolic of warfare. Warfare was endemic in mainland Southeast Asia, he writes, fought by large conscripted armies of foot soldiers and elephant corps. “The very name Lane Xang, A Million Elephants, stated a claim to military power.”

Laos history is interwoven with legends, and in mythological accounts Fa Ngum was said to have descended from the god of the sky, Khun Borom, and was thus revered as having divine status. Fa Ngum, son of a Tai prince, was raised at the court of Angkor in Cambodia and married a Khmer princess, Keo Kaengkanya. He received the Pra Bang Buddha, a golden Buddha statue said to have been cast in Ceylon, but fashioned in the style of 13th century Khmer sculpture, as a gift from his father-in-law, the King of Angkor, Phaya Sirichanta. This Buddha statue was to become the royal palladium and protector of the Lao kingdom. When Keo Kaengkanya died in 1368, Fa Ngum is rumoured to have become so dissolute that he was deposed and his son, Sam Saentai, became king in 1373.

Laos , surrounded by powerful neighbours, was constantly invaded by the Chinese, Vietnamese, Siamese and Khmers. The Khmer empire expanded into Laos between the 9th-15th centuries, introducing new ideas and leaving a legacy of archaeological remains in the south, notably Wat Phu. The Kingdom of Luang Prabang continued to maintain political relations with Lan Na and Chiang mai in Thailand, and Sipsong Pan Na in China.

King Sam Saentai (Lord of Three Hundred Thousand Tais) ruled until 1416. During a reign that lasted 43 years, he built up an administrative structure as well as military strength. Trade increased and the kingdom prospered. The study of Buddhism, a religion that had come peacefully with trade from India, was encouraged and temples were built. He was followed by King Lan Kham Deng, 1416-27, before a succession of short-lived rulers that culminated in the reign of King Photthisarat, 1520-47. Under his reign Vientiane, known in Lao as Vieng Chan, City of the Moon became an important centre of trade and religion. In 1527, this deeply religious king outlawed animist sacrifices to the spirits and ordered the destruction of Luang Prabang’s most revered shrine. Wat Aham was later built on this ancient site. 1527 also saw the building of Wat Sangkhalok on what was said to be the oldest Buddhist site in Luang Prabang, on a tributary of the Mekong, called Nam Dong. Photthisarat married a lan Na princess, Yotkamtip, and in 1545, his son, Setthathirat, claimed the Lan na throne.

Setthathirat, whose statue takes pride of place in front of Wat That Luang in Vientiane, ruled from 1548-1571 and was the last great king of Lane Xang. After his father’s death, Setthathirat returned from Lan Na to Lane Xang with the Pra Kaeo, the Emerald Buddha, another renowned image. Both the Pra Bang and the Pra Kaeo Buddhas images were particularly sacred and believed to be inhabited by spirits. Their proximity to each other could be disastrous, it was believed.


Setthathirat organised a strategic alliance with the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1560, and started the construction of Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang. But he then decided to move his capital to Vientiane in 1563, as Luang Prabang had been under constant attack by the Burmese. There he built a new temple, Wat Pra Kaeo, and brought the Emerald Buddha to be enshrined there. Royal chronicles state that it was during this time that the name of Luang Prabang, City of the Golden Buddha, to honour the image, came into usage, replacing the earlier town’s name of Muang Swa. The Burmese, under King Bayinnaung, also attacked Lan na and Setthathirat relinquished his claim to that throne. They then attacked Vientiane which came under Burmese control for seven years. Setthathirat died mysteriously, having vanished during a campaign in Attapeu in 1574, and eventually Luang Prabang and Vientiane were united under King Nokeo Kumman, 1591-96. Several more kings reigned until King Sulinya Vongsa ushered in an era of peace and a golden age between 1637-1694. Luang Prabang’s influence spread to Siam and Cambodia. During his reign, the first Europeans visited Laos, in particular Gerrit van Wuysthoff, a Dutch merchant, in 1641-42, and an Italian Jesuit missionary, G.M. Leria, between 1642-48. The former described his visit in a detailed account, while Leria’s descriptions were written down by a fellow Jesuit, G.F. de Marini. One of the few early descriptions of this remote kingdom, it was published in Italian, then French, and alluded to the considerable riches and power of the Lao kingdom, the splendour of the royal court and the religious ceremonies.

Sulinya Vongsa prudently arranged and alliance with Annan, in present day Vietnam, by wedding the daughter of the emperor Le Than Ton. Demnarcated frontiers were created with Vietnam, and it was decreed that those people living in houses on stilts owed allegiance to Sulinya Vongsa, whereas those occupying houses built on the ground were subjects of the Dai Viet.

After his death in 1694, Lane Xang, was at a disadvantage because it had no coastal trading area, split into three kingdoms: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak, a new kingdom in the south. Luang Prabang, ruled by Sulinya’s grandson, became linked to Chian, while Vientiane, ruled by his nephew, was closer to Hue’and Hanoi, and Champassak was linked to Siam.

Strategically located, Laos formed a buffer zone between China, Vietnam and Siam, and in the 1700s there were incessant wars with Siam, leading to Siamese domination of the Lao world.

In 1774, a treaty of alliance was signed and Luang Prabang became a vassal state of Siam. The Siamese seized the Pra Bang Buddha and carried it off in 1728. Although the image was returned, it was seized again in 1778, along with the Emerald Buddha, and taken to Bangkok. While the Prabang image was brought back in 1876, its presence having been blamed for a series of droughts, the Emerald Buddha remained in Bangkok. The Pra Bang was returned to Wat Visoun, but after the monastery was destroyed, it was installed in Wat Mai from 1897.

Luang Prabang continued to maintain alliances with Lan Na, Chiang Mai and Sipsong Pan Na. Conflict remained between Vientiane and Bangkok, however, and in 1828 the Siamese attacked and absorbed Vientiane into their territory. Both Luang Prabang and Vientiane were influenced by Siamese culture which was starting to become Europeanised. In Luang Prabang, European goods began to be available in the markets. However, Siamese domination eventually gave way to the French annexation of Lao territories and new influences.

Mauhot was followed in 1867 by Doudart de Lagree’s expedition, charting the course of the Mekong, one of the most important explorations of trade routes between Yunnan and the Vietnam Delta. Following the river upstream from the Delta, they covered 9,960 kilometres, and ‘discovered’ 5,060 kilometres for the first time, producing the Mekong Exploration Commission Report of 1866-1868. The expedition halted in Luang Prabang where they stayed for one month. They produced maps and engravings in the course of their geographical research, many of them veritable works of art, providing further information for France’s expansion into Indochina. One of the principal members of the team, the naval officer Francis Garnier, killed in Hanoi in 1873, also praised the lovely setting of the town.

Source:  Ancient Luang Prabang by Denise Heywood