Phu Tai History

Asger Mollerup

Phu Loi, March 2012

The content of this paper will be presented (in Thai) at the Phu Tai World Day in Renu Nakhon 11 March 2012


     The ethnic Phu Tai designates a specific ethnic group closely related to Tai Phuan, Tai Nyo and Lao Nuea; not Tai Dam and Tai Khao. The Phu Tai are probably one of Khun Bulom's seven 'sons' (ethnic groups), who settled in Lak Xao area of Khammouane Province, Laos P.D.R., when the Tai Phuan settled in nearby Xieang Khouang and the Tai Dam settled at Dien Bien Phu, Northern Vietnam, in the latter part of the 1st millennium.
     In the decline of the Khmer and Cham Empires the Phu Tai migrated further south and conquered the upper valleys of the Xe Bang Fai and Xe Noi Rivers of present day Savannakhet and Khammouane provinces. After the fall of Chao Anou Siamese troops relocated as many Phu Tai and other ethnic groups as possible from the eastern side of the Mekong River to the western side, present-day North-eastern Thailand.


     The Phu Tais inhabit the hinterlands east and west of the Mekong River in present-day Mid-Laos and NE-Thailand and have their own distinct language, which is mutually intelligible with Tai Nyo, Phuan and Lao Nuea. Phu Tai is not mutually intelligible with Thai and Lao; neither is it closely related to Tai Dam as often stated on Internet sources as for example Wikipedia. 
     ''Phu Tai'' is an ambiguous term, and may refer to either one specific ethnic group or designate a family-group. This confusion likely started with the French explorers of the late 19th century: Pavie used the term ''Phu Tai'' in the sense of ''Mountain Tais'' - a family group including all Tai groups in Laos and Vietnam, with the exception of the ethnic Lao and the Phuan groups: Tai Khao, Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, Tai Nuea, etc. - and 'our' Phu Tai as well. This despite that earlier French explorers as Harmand and Lagrée used the term Phu Tai solely as an ethnonym to describe the Tais they visited in Mueang Lahanam, Mueang Phin and Mueang Xepon in present-day Savannakhet Province some 10-12 years before the arrival of the Pavie Mission in the 1890's.
     The ambiguous use of the term Phu Tai has caused several misunderstandings. One is that the Phu Tais of the Mid-Mekong fled the invading Chinese Ho (Haw) bandits in the 1880's at a point of history, when the Phu Tais of north-eastern Thailand (Isan) had already been re-settled to Isan for 40 years. Another that the Tai Dam of north-western Vietnam and the Phu Tai of the Mid-Mekong is the same ethnic group (1) - and that the Phu Tai therefore (also!) origin from the fabled Mueang Thaen (believed to be located in the vicinity of Dien Bien Phu, northern Vietnam). Linguistic research has revealed, that while the Tai Song Dam of Thailand descents from the Tai Dam of the Dien Bien Phu area (Burusphat), then Phu Tai contributes another language closely related to Tai Phuan, Nyo and Lao Nuea (Chamberlain, 1975, p. 63).

     Chamberlain suggests that the various Tai groups migrated towards west and south-west in the 7-9th centuries, an era corresponding to - and probably inspired by - the Khun Bulom legend(s), in which Bulom (Borom in Thai) sent his seven sons to rule various mueangs (polities) in SE-Asia.
     When the Phuan settled in the wide valleys of Xieang Khouang in the latter part of the first millennium, the numerous Phu Tai group migrated southwards as well and settled east of Xieang Khouang - eventually in Khammouane, an area by some Bulom legends ascribed to have been ruled by one of Bulom's sons: Chao Kom.
     Nowadays the majority of the Phu Tais in Laos live between the Xe Bang Fai and Xe Bang Hian Rivers - from Mueang Mahaxai to Mueang Lahanam, but in the end of the first millennium they could not have migrated south of the Khammouane-Nakai plateau: The two tributaries of the Mekong were inhabited by ethnic Bru and Suai groups, vassals of either the Khmer Empire to the south and/or the Champa Empire to the east. Champa was located along the coast on the eastern side of the Annamite Mountains, on which western side we find the gold-mine area of Mueang Vang - Mueang Ang Kham, the significance of which on-going archaeological excavations hopefully will reveal soon. In the lower end of the Mekong tributaries the 12th century Khmer temples in the lower Xe Bang Hian area and the 5-7th century Mon (?) settlements in the lower part of the Xe Bang Fai testify about civilizations powerful enough to have prevented Phu Tai intrusion. Only after the decline of the Khmer Empire and its vassals in the 14th century, the Phu Tais could have conquered the land of the Bru, Suai and other Mon-Khmer groups.
     Contemporary historical recordings of the presence of Phu Tais in Savannakhet and Khammouane only goes back to the fall of Prince Chao Anou in 1829, the oldest reports being Siamese records of how many people were resettled from which mueangs east of the Mekong to newly established mueangs west of the river.

Above: Approximate migration patterns of some of the Tai groups of the south-western branch of the Tai-Kadai language stock.



The Khun Borom Chronicle(s) - and the 'lost son'.

     The Tai Dam version of the Borom myth (Chamberlain, 1992. See also Hartmann, 1981) starts with the descend from the Sky of various ethnic groups, who first arrived at Mueang Om and Mueang Ai, from where they were distributed to different mueangs (
the Lao and Thai word mueang can be translated as either 'city', 'town'; 'administrative district', 'polity'; or 'country'). One of the 'ancestors' went to Mueang Lo, from where his grandchildren were dispersed to govern. The last grand-child got no mueang so he went on a long odyssey until he and his followers finally arrived at Mueang Thaeng and established his rule at Ban Pe.
     In Wyatt's version Khun Chu Song went to rule at Tung Kea, which he locates in the area between Muang Hua Phanh and Tonkin. Jana quotes the Xieang Khouang version and informs us that ''Khun Chu Song ruled at Müang Chulanii or Plakan'', without suggesting the location. Maha Sila Viravong (1964, p. 31), referring to the ''story book of Muong Lan-Xang'' informs us, that ''Thao Chu-Song [ruled] over Muang Chulni or Vietnam'' and ''Thao Kom [ruled] over Muong La-Khamuane''. Manich (1967, p. 31) gives no reference for that ''Prince Krom was sent to rule at Kammuon''. In Tossa's listing of the seven sons Lokkom (= Lok Kom = Thao Kom = Prince Krom) went to rule at "Xiangkhom, Khamkao, or Khamkoed" (the latter location being located some 20 km west of Ban Khammouane at Lak Xao).

Above: Khun Borom Palm leaf manuscript, Source and courtesy to:

     All versions of the Khun Borom myth starts with the creation of man and beast coming from the Sky (China) and describes migration of Tai groups who settled in various parts of SE-Asia in the latter part of the first millennium.
     One of Khun Borom's seven sons spoke Tai Dam and settled in Mueang Thaen; another son spoke Tai Phuan and settled in Xieang Khouang. Some habitats of the sons of Borom are unidentified, but in three of the Borom versions above a ruler named Kom and the location Khammouane is repeated.
     The Phu Tai contributes a relative numerous ethnic group and is therefore an obvious candidate for this 'lost son' (Thao Kom?), whom we suggest could have dwelled in the easternmost of the Sipsong Chut Tai: Hoa Phanh or Nge An , before settling east of the Phuan in Khammouane centered about Ban Khammouane at Lak Xao.

The Archery Legend

Phu Tai oral tradition refers to a myth, where the Phu Tais in request for new land competes with the indigenous "Kha'' (ethnic Bru): The group which arrow stuck to a cliff was the winning part. The Bru chose giant bows held by six men - with no success. The Phu Tai archer applied glue to the tip of his arrow and won - after which the Bru left their ancestral land.
     The essence of this story is that the Phu Tai took over land from an indigenous population as the migrating Tais have done elsewhere. And they likely did it by ''competing on arrow'', but in a more war-like scenario.
     The location of the ''Merit Competition'' (
การแข่งขันเสี่ยงบุญวาสนา) is given to be in Mueang Vang (polity) and has recently been identified (!) as ''The Cliff of Merit'' (ผาบุญ) next to the stupa at That Ban That at the upper stretches of the Xe Noi River in eastern Savannakhet.
     If the myth is related to the paddy fields of Xe Bang Fai River and its tributary, the Xe Noi, then the ethnic confrontation must be dated to after the decline of the Khmer Empire; if related to their suggested former habitat, the Ban Khammouane area around Lak Xao, the confrontation could go as far back as to the 8-9th century.
     This myth is a Phu Tai myth and told by the Phu Tais to legitimize their suzerainty over its vassal with the ''merit'' aspect indicating their superior moral right over the 'un-civilized Kha'. Future research should focus on recording old legends told by the indigenous Mon-Khmer groups.

Above: One of many vertical rising cliffs Above: "Pha Bun", the "Cliff of Merit" Above: ... another cliff

The Nang Lao (Lady Lao) Legend

In the Lady Lao Legend the Archery Myth forms a prelude as the reason why a high-ranking Lao Vientiane lady, Nang Kham Phao, went to Mueang Vang together with a group of Buddhist monks to introduce Buddhism to the Phu Tai. The legend also tells how her elephant stopped at an auspicious place, where Lady Lao chose to build That Ban That.

The Nang Xofa (Lady Xofa) legend

     An apparently older version of the Lady Lao Legend is mentioned by Surachit (2000, p. 91), who refers to Lao Traditions written by a daughter of Rama IV and a descendant of Chao Anou and printed in 1936. In this legend (according to Surachit's extracts) a Phu Tai leader assisted Setthatirath II (Ong Lo, who ruled from 1698 to 1730) of Vientiane in quelling a rebellion, and as a reward was given the king's daughter, Nang Xofa, in marriage. Their four sons went to rule Mueang Sop Ek, Mueang Chiang Kho, Mueang Vang and Mueang Xepon. Also mentioned is, that ''Phu Tais migrated to the southern part of the Kingdom of Vientiane'', without mentioning from where (Khammouane or Dien Bien Phu?). Neither the Archery legend nor the introduction of Buddhism forms parts of this oral tradition.
     The myth is written by an ethnic Lao aristocrat legitimizing Lao suzerainty over its vassal. And the Nang Lao Legend is a similar legitimatization.

Above: Phu Tais from Thailand visiting Phu Tais in Ban Na Gnom, Laos, February 2012: thot pha pa merit (ทำบุญทอดผ้าป่า)



History or legends about Mueang Vang

Maha Sila Viravong's accounts are some times difficult to classify as being historical facts or legends, but two episodes, with no sources given, deserve to be mentioned as they are related to Phu Tai history: During the rule of Ong Bun, son of Ong Lo, the rebellious Thao Kukeo "left Champassak, went up along the Sebang-Fai [Xe Bang Fai] river and incited the people of Muong Se-Katark, Se-Kabong, Muong Vang, Xieng-Hou, Pha-Bang, Khamkeut, and Kammuane to join his ranks and staged a rebellion to regain the power due him." (Viravong, 1964, p. 85). In the listing above Mueang Vang, Khamkeut and Khammouane are all Phutai mueangs. The rebellion against Thao Khamsing of Tha Khaek, opposite Nakon Phanom, took place somewhere between 1730 and 1764.
     The earliest reference to Mueang Vang and Mueang Xepon given by Viravong dates back to mid 14th century, when Fa Ngum ascending the Mekong River from Angkor conquered Mueang Kabong (Sikhottabong south of Tha Khaek) as well as many other mueangs in nowadays Savannakhet and Khammouan provinces. (Viravong, 1964, p. 28). If Viravong's information is historically solid, then Mueang Vang existed already in the beginning if the 14th century.

Where is/was Mueang Vang located?

     The location of the Mueang Vang is disputed. In the last years many Phu Tai groups from Isan have pilgrimaged (ทำบุญทอดผ้าป่า)
to Ban Na Gnom (Ban Na Nyom) in eastern Savannakhet Province. A village called Ban Vang and the presence of the That Ban That Stupa (dubbed as "That Nang Lao") some 10 km north of Ban Na Gnom, a nearby located hill dubbed "Pha Bun" (the Cliff of Merit), has all together with the Nang Lao Legend been taken as a proof of, that the location is the fabled homeland of the Phu Tais.


Above: Small ceremonial sand-stupas at That Ban That

Above: That Ban That ('That Nang Lao')

Above: Local Phu Tai Woman doing merit
Above: Ban That Stupa apparently surrounded by 'heart-shaped' dikes: The 'heart' of Mueang Vang, the centre of the ancient Mueang Vang?

     I am far from being convinced that Ban Vang was the administrative centre of Mueang Vang. When I visited the area in February 2012, I accommodated in a nearby village, where the village head called Ban Vang for Ban Vang Noi ("Little Ban Vang"). When passing ''Pha Bun'', the "Cliff of Merit", I stopped and asked for its name, but the local villagers did not say ''Pha Bun''. The That Ban That Stupa is without doubt old. I tentatively assumed it to from the Era of Chao Anou, who built or restored many Buddhist temples and stupas in the area. An associated sim appeared to me to be older, but that is up to archaeologists to determine. I was unfortunately not aware of the "Nang Lao Legend", so I made no attempts to get it confirmed by elder locals.
     I found the That Ban That Stupa by chance: My GPS informed me about a Ban That (the "Village of the Stupa"), so I stopped in the village and asked, where the stupa was located. Later studies of satellite images indicate that the stupa was surrounded by a circular habitation - eventually with a surrounding dike system (see map above). These supposed old dikes will be examined on a coming field trip. The stupa is now located isolated in serene surroundings behind the village, but when it was build, it would have been located within a settlement, the dominant mueang of the area.
     There are many villages in the area containing the word vang as a part of it's name, especially in the mountain valleys some 40 km east of Ban That. Also the word vang has several meaning: In Phu Tai 'deep water' (in a river), 'reservoir', 'pond' and 'thriving', 'being prosperous; in Lao: 'to 'protect', 'to enclose (with a hedge)'.

     The first contemporarily written reports referring to Mueang Vang were done by the 19th century French explorers. When Harmand in 1877 AD (2420 BE) visited Mueang Phin some 60 km south of Ban That, the chao mueang (governor) informed him that the area housed ''three Pou Thay provinces: that of Phin, and ascending the Se Bang Hieng, that of Tchepon [Xepon] on the left bank, and that of Vang on the right bank.'' The chao mueang also informed Harmand that the Phu Tai ''have come from the north, from a place they call Nam Noi ['little river']'' (Harmand, 1997, p. 218).

Above: Malglaive's map from 1890, part of a U.S. military map from the Vietnam War and a  5 years old satellite image.

     The first Farang (Lao: Frenchman) to visit and map Mueang Vang (village) was Malglaive in 1890. He also described a connection between the chao mueang of Mueang Vang and Mueang Ve (Renu Nakhon).
     On Malglaive's map (above) I have inserted a fragment of a map used during the Vietnam War, where Mueang Vang is given as Mueangvangkao, meaning the 'Old Mueang Vang'. Northeast hereof there is another village named Oun Kham, which is Ban Ang Kham or Mueang Ang Kham, meaning the 'Golden Bowl'. Note that Mueang Vang and Mueang Ang Kham are two different villages; many refer to Mueang Vang Ang Kham as if it was one destination.
     Based on these information I found Ban Mueang Vang Kao on Google Earth and visited it in February 2012. The villagers had been relocated to the main road some five years before, but some farmers were working at their old habitat. I asked them for the location of the former village temple (wat) hoping to find remnants of a brick structure, but they showed me the ruins of a wooden structure. On the way back the Phu Tai farmer asked me, if I was interested in the residence of the former chao mueang, which I certainly was, as this was a final confirmation of that I had reached the old Mueang Vang (see ''Chao M.''  on the inserted satellite image above).
     I am therefore convinced that the provincial centre of Mueang Vang - Ban Mueang Vang Villlage - where the chao mueang resided, was located in the valleys 16 km SE of the administrative centre of Vilaboury District; and not being the Ban Vang Noi next to Ban Na Gnom. This does not exclude that Ban Na Gnom and the Ban That stupa was located in Mueang Vang district: On another of Malglaive's maps Ban Na Gnom is located 9 km east of a small river, which formed the border between Mueang Mahaxai and Mueang Vang in 1890. And it does not exclude, that an even older Ban Mueang Vang was located at and surrounding the Ban That stupa, from where the chao mueang and the left-over of his followers fled the Siamese troops trying to resettle the Phu Tais in the 1830s. I tentatively suggest that the heart of Mueang Vang was located at and surrounding the Ban That Stupa (see satellite image above), but further field research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.
     The mountain valleys where Ban Mueang Vang (Kao), Ban Ang Kham and Mueang Luang ('capital city') are located, could not have housed a large population. The wide valley where the Ban That stupa is located is an ideal location for a rice-growing population large enough to have sufficient surplus to construct larger monuments. I therefore call the wide valley for the '''Rice-Bowl" (Ang Khao) and the valleys for the "Rice-Bowl" (Ang Kham).

      The valleys of Ang Kham do contain gold, and gold was indeed washed in the river connecting Ban Mueang Vang and Ban Ang Kham before the Siamese arrived, according to Malglaive. Nowadays a huge gold mine project is conducted east of Vilaboury and next to Ban Mueang Luang.
     New to me, when I visited Vilaboury, is that the area has a 2000 years old history. Recent archaeological excavations have among other artefacts revealed several Dong Song drums, which have also been found at many other locations throughout SE-Asia, and more interesting is that they apparently have been cast in the Ang Kham Valleys. This sets Mueang Vang and neighbouring mueangs in a new historical perspective considering its closeness to the ancient Champa Empire on the other side of the Annamite mountains and the area formerly being a Mon-Khmer area, probably dominated by the ethnic Bru and Suai. It will be interesting to read future reports made by the archaeologists presently excavating in the Ang Kham area. From a Phu Tai point of view it is important to know for long a period and to which extend gold, copper and iron was extracted from the ''Golden Bowl''.

Above: Dong Song ritual drums (top left and mid), stone axes, gold-cobber ingots, iron-tools (top right) and holes related to casting cobber-wares (bottom left). The photos were taken at the administrative centre of Vilaboury and at the Cultural Centre of Vilaboury. All items are excavated in the mountain valleys of Vilaboury district and dates app. 2000 years back.

When did Mueang Vang not exist?
      Archaeology in Laos is still in its initial phase. In the lower Xe Bang Fai River area - opposite That Phanom - archaeologists are presently (spring 2012) excavating ancient dikes, the brick structures of which they tentatively suggest dates to 5-7th centuries. A Mon Dvaravati culture? I found another - probably related - dike/canal structure in the same area, when visiting a Phu Tai village, and reported it to the archaeologists.
     Of Khmer settlements in mid-Laos only Huean Hin south of Savannakhet is known to the general public. Harmand did report about a Khmer pedestal he passed on his way to Mueang Phong north of the Xe Bang Hian river, where he observed more Khmer artefacts. His Lao escort and guides denied any presence of any ancient sites in the neighbourhood. Harmand's ethno-chauvinistic attitudes towards all locals resulted in a total lack of corporation and this to an extend that he was misguided around the area instead of being let directly to his destination, Hue on the Vietnamese coast.

: Mueang Phong surrounded by rectangular dikes. The reservoir (baray) 2 km west of is in typical Khmer 1:2 ratio. Prasat Phong (my coining) is a-typically located east of the baray (marked by a red spot).

     When Harmand was reporting that he was convinced that there was a Khmer Prasat close by, he was right; he was actually sitting in the midst of what seems to be an ancient diked Khmer settlement, clearly visible on the satellite image above. Also visible only 2 km west hereof is the shape of a Khmer style baray (water-reservoir). Normally an associated prasat (temple) will be located west of the baray, but here the prasat is located east of. A pile of bricks indicate a brick-structure, most likely with door frames of sand-stone. The site is highly revered by the local ethnic Suai population, who camped around the brick-pile during a Buddhist retreat. An elder local informed me that there inside the rubbles was buried a 1 by 1 m sandstone with a hole in the middle: A pedestal with a hole for fastening a deity - eventually a linga!
     At another site in the vicinity I found a more solid proof of former Khmer presence, a singha, a lion door-guardian. Locals informed me that I was not the first farang visiting the site.
     These - and probably another two - Khmer sites north of the Xe Bang Hian River are most likely related to Prasat Huean Hin on the banks of the Mekong, the area being its 'rice-bowl'.
     Again we have to wait for the archaeologists to publish their findings, but the very presence of ancient Mon and Khmer structures along the lover stretches of both the Xe Bang Fai and the Xe Bang Hian rivers - and the gold excavations in the area of the upper stretches - tells us that the Phu Tai could not have migrated into this area and 'competed on arrow' with the 'primitive Kha' when the other 'sons' of Khun Borum settled elsewhere in the 8-9th centuries. The Phu Tai had to wait on the Khammouane plateau until the Khmer empire to the south and the Champa Empire to the west were in their decline. It is therefore unlikely that the Phu Tai started occupying the Xe Bang Fai much before the era of Chao Fa Ngum in the 14th century.

Site I: Ancient Mon (?) dike and reservoir Site I: Spirit house on small hillock Site II: Ancient dike and baray.
Site III: Baray Prasat Phong Site III: Prasat Phong (below tree). Site IV: Wat Mueang Phong
Site VI: Ancient dike Site VI: Remnant of singha (guardian lion) Site VI: Laterite foundation of sanctuary


     We have contemporarily written historical records about the Phu Tais dating only back to Chao Anou in the beginning of the 19th century and historical indications that they could not have settled at their present habitats before the 14th century, so where were they located in the gap between? Historical linguistic research, mainly done by Charles Chamberlain, give some framework for theorizing about their whereabouts in this 500-year period.
     Chamberlain bases his historical analysis mainly on tonal determination of the Tai languages and how proto-Tai developed into two different main groups, the PH-group and the P-Group, characterized by two different pronunciations of initial consonants: Aspirated or un-aspirated. In one area (mainly in the wide low-land river valleys of the Mekong and the Chao Phraya Rivers and their adjacent uplands towards Xam Neua) พ  is pronounced as /ph/: aspirated, and north hereof as /p/: un-aspirated. In the latter area /phu/ is therefore /pu/ and /khon/ (human) would be /kon/ - as for example in Tai Dam.
     The distribution of this aspirated / un-aspirated pronunciation is sketched on the map below using he Lao letters ທ  /ph/ for aspirated and ຕ  /p/ for un-aspirated. Phu Tai belongs to the th-group (PH-group) and so do the other closely related Tai-groups in what Chamberlain has coined the Old Neua group. He also tentatively suggests that the split took place in the 8th century - the century when the 'sons' of Khun Borom (= the SW-branch of the Tai-Kadai languages) migrated towards west and south-west ultimately from the Cao Bang area near the Vietnam-Chinese border.
     The four closely related PH-group languages of Chamberlain's 'Old Neua Group' (Phu Tai, Phuan, Nyo, and Neua) split from the P-Group (for example Tai Dam, Tai Khao and Thai Daeng) and must have lived, developed and influenced one another for more than a millennium in the geographical environment marked by Xieng Khouang, Xam Neua, Nge An and Khammouane. I therefore object local Phu Tai statements that the Phu Tai origins from the Tai Dam area Dien Bien Phu (claimed to be identical to the fabled Na Noi Oi Nu), a statement also based on the misunderstanding that Phu Tai and Tai Dam belongs to the same group. The Phu Tai forms a unique ethnic group and have their own unique language. And they most likely migrated to Khammouane - on the border of the Khmer and Cham power spheres, in the same period when the Phuan settled in Xieang Khouang some 1200 years ago.

Above Map showing the approximate distribution of what Chamberlain calls "PH- and P-languages" marked by a blue border (isogloss).
     The green border marks the mainly mountainous area where the Lao and Thai letter sara-ai-mai-muan (ໃ) is pronounced with its original sound: oe /ɤ/. In Lao and Thai ໄ and ໃ are both pronounced as /ai/.

: Chamberlain, 1975, pgs. 62-63. (edited and underlined by me)

     Chamberlain stressed twenty years ago that his theory is tentative, but efficient, and that further research is needed and should be conducted by a team of specialists in Tai linguistics and Vietnamese history and that further Tai field research is needed in the area of the Old Neua branch of the Tai languages and in the adjacent mountain valleys in Vietnam. If not, then we will not be able to fully understand Tai migrations and history - including the history of the national languages: Lao and Thai.
      But only limited field research has been conducted since then and the prime 'objects' of the research, the elder Tai speakers are dying out, and with them the possibility to understand our history.


     Two of the most important indicators for determining ethnic affiliation are: 1. Which ethnonym do the members of the group apply to themselves, and 2. Language.
     The Phu Tai in NE-Thailand and Mid-Laos all refer to themselves as Phu Tai, but the ethnonym can in Thai and Lao scripts be written in two different ways and thereby having two different meanings:
ผู้ไท / ຜູ້້ໄທ and ภูไท / ພູໄທ - in English transcription either way will be Phu Tai. In Laos P.D.R. only ຜູ້້ໄທ is used; the meaning in Lao and Phu Tai being 'human-people'; not 'free-people'. In NE-Thailand both ผู้ไท and ภูไท are used, the latter meaning 'mountain-people' (for a more comprehensive discussion about how to write Phu Tai, see Phu Tai for Medicals - in print).
     Phu Tai have their own distinct language, which is only reported existing in NE-Thailand and Mid-Laos. Phu Tai language is also reported existing in a few isolated villages on the Vietnamese side of the Annamite Mountains neighbouring Mid-Laos, which is most likely, but has not been confirmed by linguistic research (for details about Phu Tai language, see Phu Tai for Health). Different Tai languages have their own specific tonal systems (see below). If Phu Tai is spoken in Mid-or Northern-Vietnam, then their tonal systems will not differ essentially from what is depicted below.

   Above: Tonal systems of Phu Tai speakers from Atsaphone, Savannakhet, Laos P.D.R. and Khao Wong, Kalasin, Thailand.
Source: Phu Tai for Medicals by Thanyalux Chaiyasook Mollerup and Asger Mollerup.


     This paper is based on initial historical research on Phu Tai history conducted over the last six months and mainly based on non-Thai and non-Lao references. An outline hereof will be presented for the public at an 'expert-panel' on the Phu Tai World Day 11 March 2012 in Renu Nakhon. A more comprehensive version will hopefully be reached before the next Phu Tai World Day and the next International Phu Tai Day in Khao Wong.
     We therefore hope that the general public as well as scholars will give constructive feed-back on these lines, make suggestions, point out errors, and add relevant references.

APPENDIX: Pictures from Laos

Phu Tai wedding in Mahaxai Phu Tai weaving Young weaver and elder Phu Tai language informant
Phutai house Kaloeng house Bru house

     The house to the right is in Phutai style, but the owner and other villagers in Ban Mueang Luang, close to Tha Khaek, claim to be Lao. Malville noted the same name on his old 1890-map and added "M. Loong?" ('capital city') indicating uncertainty and a Phu Tai pronunciation of a Phu Tai settlement.
     The village is located in a hard to access valley in the Hin Boun River area; 22 km took 2 hours on motor bike.
     In the neighbouring valley all villages were Phu Tai and in Ban Na Khue another old that (below) waits for archaeologists to determine its age; which the locals give to be 200-300 years

Phutai house   Phutai style house, Lao speaking owner


That Lahanam at Xe Bang Hian. Age unknown That Ban Na Khue. Age unknown Wat Mahaxai, Xe Bang Fai.

     Archaeologists have many sites to excavate in mid Laos - all with relevance to Phu Tai history. Until archaeologists, linguists, historians, ethnographers, and other specialists have done more in-depth studies, we can only make tentative sketches of Phu Tai history.
     The Phu Tai area is far wider than the Mueang Vang area. The latter should not be over emphasized; not all Phu Tai in Isan origin from Mueang Vang.

The 'gate' of Mueang Vang (Kao) Wat Mueang Vang (Kao) No road to Mueang Vang (Kao)
Xe Bang Fai Xe Bang Hian Xe Noi (= Nam Noi = 'little river').

Xe is pronounced as 'Se' and means 'river' and is normally nam ('water') in all Tai languages, but the rivers in the Phu Tai area have kept their Bru (?) prefixes.


(1) See website of Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University, where the Tai Dam and Tai Khao mistakenly are presented as Phutai: Also Khon Kaen University:, Phu Tai Studies, Kalasin University: and Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre: - all without references.


     The ambiguous use of the term ''Phu Tai'' and the resulting confusion about the geographic extend of the ethnic Phu Tai was evident at the International Phu Tai Day in Khao Wong, Kalasin Province, 10 March 2012, as well as at the Phu Tai World Day in Renu Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom Province, 11 April 2012. At both occasions the public was presented with mis-leading information about ''Phu Tais'' living in Northern Vietnam, Southern China and even as far away as Japan and the United States.
     At the International Phu Tai Day in Khao Wong, Kalasin Province, 9-10 March 2013, the misinformation was repeated: The local Phu Tai speaker announced from stage: ''We in Khao Wong are Phu Tai Dam'' (sic.), a term also used when presenting the attending Tai Dam of Dien Dien Phu, Vietnam. The local Phu Tai are thus informed that The Phu Tai in Khao Wong and the Tai Dam are the same group.

     This misunderstand is caused by Bangkok based Phu Tais, who have forgotten that 'phu' means 'man, human, group' in Phu Tai and other Tai languages. In Bangkok Thai 'phu' is equivalent to 'phu-khon' or just 'khon' and that the proper naming of the Tai Dam should be 'khon Tai Dam' - Tai Dam People.
     It was evident for the local audience that the Tai Dam spoke another language.

     It is therefore most relevant to organize a seminar with scholars trained in linguistics, ethnography and history to present and discuss up-to-date research related to Phu Tai language, ethnicity and history.
     The outcome of such a seminar will benefit the general public as well as the ethnic Phu Tai - and hopefully be held before an eventual Universal Phu Tai Day, or better: International Tai Day in 2014.

Asger Mollerup, 16 March 2013.



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Jana Raendchen
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In print and later available at:
Somsonge Burusphat
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สุรจิตต์ จันทรสาขา
Surachit Chantharasaka
เมืองมุกดาหาร กรุงเทพ ฯ 2543
Mueang Mukdahan, Bangkok, 2000
ຄຳແພງ ທິບມຸນຕາລີ ຄຳໝ້ນ ສີພັນໄຊ
ໂພໄຊ ສູນນະລາດ
ຄຳໃບ ຍຸນດາລາດ

ຊອກຮູ້ຊົນເຜາໃນລາວ ສະຖາບັນວິຫະຍາສາດສັງຄົມແຫ່ງຊາດ ສະຖາບັນຄນຄວ້າຊົນເຜແລະສາສະໜາ ນະຄອນຫຼວງວຽງຈັນ 2009
Findings About About Ethnic Groups in Laos. National Institute for Social Science and Institute for Research on Ethnicity and Religion. Vientiane, 2009. By Dr. Khamphaeng Hinmountaly and team. (My translation and transcription).

10 March 2012

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