Phutai Language

A comparative study of the Phutai in Thailand and Laos P.D.R.


In Search for the Phutais

Question (on Route 9): 'Where do the Phutai live?'
Answer (by a young Lao girl): 'In the countryside' ...


     Names as Mueang Wang, Mueang Bok, and Mueang Phin in Sawannakhet province of southern Laos P.D.R.are well-known to the ethnic Phutai in eastern Isan, where elders tell the younger generations that the Phutai originally came from these legendary areas before settling in NE-Thailand some 150 years ago. But few people know the exact locations of these mueangs and even fewer have visited them.
     Some old history tellers even talk about an even more ancient origin of the Phutai in the mountains bordering northern Laos and northern Vietnam, Mueang Thaeng (also written as Theng), and the mythological Khun Burom, the forefather of all Tai speaking groups of which the Lao and the Thai today form the largest groups.

     In April 2009 we had a short vacation and decided to do an initial motor-bike trip in order to visit Mueang Wang - Mueang Phin. Mueang Thaeng in the Dien Bien Phu area will come later...
     Mueang Phin is easy to find on the map and easy to access being located on Highway 9, which connects Sawannakhet on the Mekong River with Lao Bao on the border to Vietnam. A short coffee-break in Ban Phin market attested that Phutai language still flourished: Thanya could communicate in her native tongue.

We crossed the Mekong River at Nakon Phanom / Tha Khaek with the last ferry at sunset

     After accommodation in a guest-house formerly for French officials we headed for the mountainous areas west of the Laos-Vietnamese border. After 150 km flat landscape from Sawannakhet and east the first mountains started to appear. Some 20 km before Mueang Phin we passed a watershed and the last ethnic Lao village, from where the valley beautifully surrounded by mountains resembling our own area, Khao Wong, 'the mountain circle'. Riding north along the curving Route 28 reminded us of the road through the Phu Phan Mountain Chain. The vegetation was similar - even the new trend in rubber plantations was the same (above).

     Muang Vang Ang Kham: Muang is here understood to mean 'district, county, country, land' including a number of smaller entities (ban = villages). Tentative translation: vang in Phutai only means 'backwater' (not 'palace' as in Thai and Lao, ang means 'basin', and kham means 'gold' and put together Muang Vang Ang Kham could mean the 'Golden Backwater Basin Land' with villages such as Ban Mueang Luang, Ban Ang Kham, Ban Tha Salo, Ban Phon Hai etc. (see map below).
     Muang Phin: We have no suggestions for phin (except a 3-stringed music instrument), but The Land of 'Phin' is located south of Muang Vang Ang Kham, and includes villages as Ban Phin and Ban Kham-Sa-I.
     Nowadays Muang Phin is an administrative centre; Muang Vang Ang Kham is not. Laos has a 4-levelled administrative system: pathet/khvaeng/mueang/ban (country/province/district/village). So when asking for Muang Phin one gets a specific geographical answer; asking for Muang Vang Ang Kham one gets no specific answer. Among the answers we got were Ban Ang Kham; which we decided to visit.

     On the road to Ban Ang Kham we stopped at Ban Tha Salo some 8 km east of Route 28. A villager informed us that this and the next two villages were Phutai and that Ban Tha Salo had been relocated some 2-3 years ago from a location 1-2 km north to the north. Now they have access to e new dirt road and electricity. The old temple is being renovated and people from Mukdahan in Thailand pays annual visits to the village and the temple - probably headed by Khun Surachit, the grand-son of the last Chao Mueang of Mukdahan...

     East of Ban Tha Salo (above) the road was under construction and hard to ride.
     After some 10 km we stopped at the school in Ban Ang Kham next to a modern stupa and an uninhabited wat, temple. The school has 3 rooms and 3 teachers, who teaches from Junior 1-3.

     The villagers were curious - and shy. Thanya's Phutai tongue soon opened a lively conversation and a crowd soon gathered to inspect the visitors

... but taking pictures was impossible; the first biip of the camera made everybody disappear...

     20 minutes was not enough to establish confidence and the setting sun made us leave looking for accommodation in nearby Vilabouly.

     Mueang Vilabouly is nowadays the administrative centre and therefore carries the prefix muang meaning 'district'. The village has 4-5 guest houses, but when we arrived there were no tourists. The forests have a rich potential for eco-tourism and local brochures informed about the possibility of accommodation in the national park close by.

     Arriving at Vilaboury the back-tyre was flat (!) and after being repaired the back-brake did not work. This made a change of planning. The roads north of Vilaboury are allegedly hard to ride curving dirt-roads, which without back brake would be too 'adventurous'...


Above: Ban Mueang Luang Village temple  

     Inspired by the name Ban Muang Luang ('Capital City Village') we set out for this little rustic village only 4 km from the main road the next morning and parked at a farmers house next to the temple.
     The temple houses one monk and a few novices. The locals informed the the temple was the most important in the area and was the focus of a large annual festival. The monk and some villagers were renovating the temple.
     Formerly the village also hosted a Chao Mueang (governor) emphasizing the former importance of the village. Was Ban Muang Luang once the administrative centre of Ban Wang Ang Kham?
     The Phutai language spoken in the village seemed well preserved and makes the village an prime candidate for further language studies.

Above: A local shop and the first customer...  

Above: The village well is famous throughout the area.
     All villages consist of houses without fences. The land is common land and even the dogs know this: One can walk undisturbed in the village - unlike villages in Isan, where the dogs follows pedestrians barking aggressively.

Above: Route 28  
Above: Ban Phon Hai on Route 28.
     Traditional Phutai house with the son-in-laws more modern Lao style house to the right on the same compound.

     Phutai houses are more spacey that Lao houses, which generally are build on 9 columns. We counted Phutai houses with 18-24 columns - and even more...
     Phutai houses have the kitchen annexed upstairs. The rooms generally have a common space in the middle. And annexed to the main building the huean su, where the son-in-law lives with the daughter of the house for some years before establishing separately elsewhere in the village or on the same compound. The young woman below is probably a daughter resting outside her huean su quarter.
     The authors of this photo odyssey live in a huean su (even just a room) in a Phutai village in NE-Thailand.

Above: The daughter of the house (?)   Above: Village extension (not Phutai).

     In Mueang Phin we heard of a village named Khan-Sa-I located some 15 km west of the district city. Having lived in the district of Kham-Sa-I in Mukdahan Province for 12 years, this was a a natural last visit on the way back home.
     We only stayed one hour in the village, but the presence of old villagers with a clear genuine Phutai accent, made Kham-Sa-I a clear candidate for future comparative language studies.
     The name of the village has apparently also attracted citizens from Mukdahan Province in Thailand, who pay annual merit visits here - and not surprisingly, they come from Kham-Sa-I.
     We also noticed the largest Phutai house in the area raised on more than 36 columns. The old village temple is beautiful as well and the local wat is the spiritual centre of the local community.

     The older farmers brought another subject into focus: 'The Last War' - referring to the Vietnam War, which included secret and heavy bombings of the Ho Chi Ming Trail area inside Laos and Cambodia. Even as we tried to stick to our main objective - the location of the Phutais and the present status of culture and language - the old farmers returned to stories from the Secret War. They told of continuous bombings of the area. Cooking was done so as to avoid visible smoke that would attract aeroplanes. Farm work was also dangerous as the farmers were targets for strafing machinegun fire. The war ended in 1975 leaving the whole village - including the temple - burned to ashes, indicating that all the 'old houses' are no older than 34 years.

     Having two villages of the same name and where the villagers identify themselves through a common past makes them interesting from a linguistic perspective. The farmers informed us that Kham-Sa-I (Laos) is a rather new village - only some 4 generations old. Before that they migrated from Mueang Wang in search of new land to cultivate. The farmers from Kham-Sa-I (Thailand) also perceive an original habitat at Mueang Wang.
     The tonal pattern used in the two villages seems to be different - judged by hearing. A later tonal analysis of the 2 Phutai dialects based on recordings and the outcome as graphs will show how different they actually are.

     Also here we asked for Mor Yao (traditional healers) and as everywhere else on our short trip we got the same answer: They have been out of practice for 10-20 years and replaced by modern medicine and modern doctors.
     Morning visits in the local markets witnessed that traditional herb-medicine was still being sold.

Above: On Friend-Ship-Bridge heading for Mukdahan


06 April 2009

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