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05 SEA NewEra.indd 95 4/27/10 2:55:30 PM 05 SEA NewEra.indd 96 4/27/10 2:55:30 PM 97 Martin Stuart-Fox THE EARLY HISTORY OF LAOS In the first centuries CE, Laos was inhabited by people who spoke AustroAsiatic languages, a family to which Mon and Khmer belong. Southern Laos, in the vicinity of Champasak, was the centre of an early Cambodian kingdom, described in Chinese texts as “Land Zhenla”. This contrasts with “Water Zhenla” on the flood-prone lower Mekong. Southern Laos remained under Cambodian rule at least until the thirteenth century. Further north, on both banks of the Mekong River, Mon principalities extended as far as the Plain of Viang Chan. In the eighth century, one such principality, called Wen Dan, sent a number of tribute missions to Tang China. About this time, Tai peoples began their slow migrations from one river valley to the next, possibly under pressure from Han Chinese expansion. Some went as far west as Assam and Burma. Others moved to the Chao Phraya basin and to the mountains of northwest Vietnam. Those whom we know as the Lao followed fast-flowing tributaries of the Mekong south and west through the mountains of northern Laos to where they joined “the Mother of Rivers”. On the way they encountered the Khmu, still the largest ethnic minority in Laos today. Where the Khan River meets the Mekong is the site of Luang Prabang, known in the past as Meuang Sua, a small Khmu principality seized by the Lao. The first Lao principality at Meuang Sua, which the Lao renamed Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, was strategically situated at the junction of important trade routes. Control over trade in valuable forest products, such as cardamom and sticklac, and in ivory, antlers, hides, silver and gold, brought wealth and power. 5 Laos 05 SEA NewEra.indd 97 4/27/10 2:55:30 PM Reproduced from Southeast Asia in a New Era: Ten Countries, One Region in ASEAN edited by Rodolfo C. Severino, Elspeth Thomson and Mark Hong (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010). This version was obtained electronically direct from the publisher on condition that copyright is not infringed. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Individual articles are available at SOUTHEAST ASIA IN A NEW ERA: Ten Countries, One Region in ASEAN 98 FOUR GREAT LAOTIAN KINGS AND THE ENTRY OF EUROPEANS Four great kings dominated the early history of Laos: Fa Ngum, Vixun, Xetthathirat and Surinyavongsa. Fa Ngum gave Laos the name “Kingdom of a Million Elephants”, Buddhism became strongly established during Vixun’s reign, and Vientiane (Viang Chan in Lao) was founded by Xetthathirat. The fourth great king, Surinyavongsa, ruled for the longest period and presided over the golden age of Lan Xang. Surinyavongsa had been on the throne for only three years when the first Europeans to have left an account of the Lao kingdom arrived in Viang Chan. First, in 1641, came Gerrit van Wuysthoff, a merchant employed by the Dutch East India Company, who, like Xetthathirat, wanted to open a trade route down the Mekong. He and his small party were royally accommodated and entertained during their eight-week stay in the Lao capital. Van Wuysthoff had more to say about the prices of trade goods than about Lao culture or religion, but he was followed a year later by a much more informative visitor. This was the Italian Jesuit missionary, GiovanniMaria Leria, who stayed in Viang Chan for five years. During that time he had little success in converting anyone to Christianity and eventually gave up. But he liked the Lao people (if not the monks) and left a revealing description of the power of the king, his sumptuous palace, and the wide gap that existed between the nobility and the common people. When Surinyavongsa died in 1695 he left no obvious successor. The succession dispute that followed resulted in the division of Lan Xang. First the ruler of Luang Prabang declared independence from Viang Chan, then, a few years later, Champasak in the south also seceded. The once great kingdom of Lan Xang was thus fatally weakened. In its place were three (four with Xiang Khuang on the Plain of Jars) weak regional kingdoms, none Plain of Jars Around 500 BCE, people on the Plain of Jars in northern Laos began to exploit local ore deposits to create a new...


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