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
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.
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
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
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: The daughter of the house (?)
||Above: Village extension (not Phutai).
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
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
Morning visits in the local markets witnessed that
traditional herb-medicine was still being sold.
Above: On Friend-Ship-Bridge heading for Mukdahan