Northeast Thailand and northwest Laos have a long history. People have been living here at least 50,000 years. Farming has been practiced for around 5,000 years and some of the oldest examples of Bronze Age culture were found here. The region is freckled with ancient burial grounds, tanks and weirs. In the A.D. first millennium powerful civilizations with advanced irrigation methods were found here. These died by the second millennium.

The original inhabitants of Laos were Austroasiatic peoples, who lived by hunting and gathering before the advent of agriculture. Skilled at river navigation using canoes, Laotian traders used routes through the mountains, especially rivers, from earliest times. The most important river route was the Mekong because its many tributaries allowed traders to penetrate deep into the hinterland, where they bought products such as cardamom, gum benzoin, sticklac, and many foods. [Source: Library of Congress]

The first modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) arrived in Southeast Asia around 50,000 years ago. Their stone-age technology remained little changed until a new Neolithic culture evolved about 10,000 years ago. Stone tools discovered in Houaphanh and Luang Prabang provinces attest to the presence of prehistoric man in the hunter-gatherer stage in Lao territory from at least 40,000 years ago. The Hoabinhian culture is named after an archaeological site in northern Vietnam. Hoabinhian hunter-gatherers spread throughout much of Southeast Asia, including Laos. Their descendants produced the first pottery in the region, and later bronze metallurgy. In time they supplemented their hunting, fishing and gathering by horticulture and eventually rice cultivation, introduced down the Mekong River valley from southern China.

Agriculturist society seemed to appear during the 4th millennia B.C. as evidence has been found by archeologists. Burial jars and other kinds of sepulchers have revealed a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 B.C. and iron tools were known since 700 B.C. These people were the ancestors of the present-day upland minorities, collectively known as the Lao Thoeng (Upland Lao), the largest group of which are the Khamu of northern Laos. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The early people that lived in Laos and migrated there belonged mostly to the Austro-Thai ethnolingustic family, particularly in the Thai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao) subgroups. Austro-Thai groups occupied a long swath of that extends from Assam area of northeastern India to the Red River valley in southern China and northern Vietnam.

Many aspects of Laotian history are fuzzy and misty. Before establishment of monarchy. Laos was occupied by slash-and-burn hill tribe farmers who live today pretty mush as they did back then. In Luang Prabang Province, archeologist have found large stone drum-shaped objects with engraved motifs similar to this of northern Vietnam’s Dong Son bronze drums, The Dongson culture was active between 500 B.C. and A.D. 100.

Plain of Jars

Plain of Jars (near Phonsavan in Xieng Khoung Province in northeast, central Laos) is one the most unique places in Southeast Asia. Surrounded by dense tropical forests and limestone peaks, this windy, grassy plateau is home to hundreds of one-meter to three-meter urns. The vast majority are carved from sandstone and limestone. A few have been chiseled from red granite. The oldest ones are believed to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]

Thus far 300 jar fields have been discovered, with a total of 3,000 jars. Some of the ones below ground were discovered using sateliite imagery. More site are being found all the time. There may be more than 10,000 of them out there, many hidden in the jungle.

The sites, archeologists say, were cemeteries and the jars were funerary urn to store corpses until they decomposed and the bones were ready for burial or cremation (a practice common the Bronze Age and still done on parts of Laos today) . No skeletons have been found inside the urns but human remains have been found in a few and skeletons have been unearthed nearby. Most of the sites are on grassy knolls, many with impressive views of the surrounding countryside. Sometimes cows graze among the urns.

Nobody is quite sure of what the jars were used for. According to one legend they were built by giants to store grain and make alcohol. Many Laotians believe they were built by a 6th century chief, Khun Jeuam, to make wine for a huge celebration to mark the the victory over an evil king. They say the jars were originally made of sand, sugar came and buffalo skin.

On average, the jars are ten feet high, nine feet wide and weigh between 1,300 and 2,000 pounds. The largest one, known as Jeuam’s “Victory Cup,” weighs seven tons, has a 26-foot circumference and is eight feet tall. The smallest ones are about three feet tall. Many are covered in lichens. At one time it is believed they all had lids but most have been pilfered. Some of the remaining lids are adorned with concentric rings.

The Plain of Jars is located on the XiengKhouang Plateau in north-central Laos. Due to its strategic location, the Plain of Jars played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War and was the site of many ground battles and intense aerial bombardment. Based on the Plain of Jars' extraordinary heritage, the Lao Government has applied to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Plain of Jars via Phonsavan is accessible by air from Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Overland travel is possible from northern and central Laos and north-central Vietnam.

Early History in the Plain of Jars Area of Laos

Xieng Khouang Province in Laos and the enigmatic Plain of Jars make up one of the most important sites for studying the late prehistory of mainland Southeast Asia. While the ancient civilization that constructed the jars was flourishing, advances in agricultural production, the manufacturing of metals, and the organization of long-distance overland trade between India and China were also rapidly transforming local society and setting the stage for urbanization across the region. Mortuary practices associated with the jars consisting of both cremation and secondary burial suggest a highly-evolved local tradition of ritual, symbolism and metaphysics which persisted through to the kingdoms of the Angkor Period, long after the arrival of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies into Southeast Asia.

Prehistoric material found at the Plain of Jars is still under study, and apparently spans a considerable period of time, with some dating from as early as 2000 BC. The bulk of the archaeological material, however, as well as the jars themselves appeared much later, dating to the early Iron Age between 500 BC and 500-800 AD. The closet archaeological parallels to the finds at the Plain of Jars appear to be Bronze and Iron Age materials from Dong Son in Viet Nam, Samrong Sen in Cambodia, and the Khorat Plateau in northeast Thailand. There are also similarities with the present-day city of Danang, as well as with sites in the North Cachar Hills of northeastern India where megalithic jar North exist. All of these similar sites date to approximately the same period-roughly 500 BC - 500 AD. Together they form a mosaic picture of a large area of upland Southeast Asia criss-crossed by traders, with the Xieng Khouang Plateau at its centre.

Although little is known about the people that constructed the megalithic stone jars, an account of the area's history as it relates to the Tai Puan and the lands they settled in Xieng Khouang is recorded in the Pongsawadan Meuang Puan or the Muang Puan Chronicles. The Tai Puan are a Buddhist Tai-Lao ethnic group that migrated from what is today southern China and by the 13th century had formed an independent principality at the Plain of Jars that prospered from the overland trade in metals and forest products.

Archeology and the Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars was first brought to the attention of the West in 1909 by a French customs official. They were first described in detail by French archeologist Henri Parmentier in 1923 and first excavated by French archeologist Madelaine Colani in 1935. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]

Colani wrote a 600-page monograph entitled The Megaliths of Upper Laos and concluded the jars were funerary urns carved by a Bronze Age people for cremated remains. She theorized the remains were cremated because some urns were located near a cave with chimney, where she dug up remains she thought were funerary vases in which corpses were burned. She also found some iron tools, carnelian beads and a bronze figure but these have since been lost.

A lot of research still needs to be done. It is still not clear how old the jars are and how they were transported many kilometers from the quarries where they were carved. Archeologist have no idea of the ethnicity or linguistic base of the people who created the urns. A half dozen quarries with broken jars have been discovered in the mountains. Many believe the urns were dragged to the jar sites by elephants. Some think they lie on a an ancient road that connect the Red River valley in Vietnam with India.

Ban Ang Plain of Jars Site

Ban Ang Plain of Jars Site (1.5 kilometers northeast of Phomsavan) is the principal jar site. Here there are more than 250 urns scattered over an area of 60 acres. Fifty or so jars, including the largest ones, are on a ridge on the northeast side of the site. Some archaeologists have speculated that these urns once contained the remains of chiefs. Bomb craters lie on the edge of the site but no urns have been damaged. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]

Describing the jars at the Ban Ang site, Colani wrote: "They are disposed without regularity, some of them pressing one against another, others quite isolated. Each one is fashioned from a separate block of stone, and a small number of them are built are very well, executed, as though turned on a lathe, bespeaking the hand of a true artist."

Parmenteir described three types of urns: squat-shaped ones, slender ones and others that were "almost sections of squared or rectangular prisms, with well rounded corners." He was able to figure out that most of jars probably contained one or two black pots, one or two hand axes, "a bizarre object which we called a lamp," and often spindle weights of iron, glass beads, drilled carnelian beads, earrings of stone or glass, bronze bells and frequently the remains of human bones.

Excavations done by Japanese archeologist in 1994, revealed an urn with a carving of a human figure and burial pits with human bones and two-foot jars with pieces of bone and teeth inside. None of the human remains were burned, which refutes Colani's theory.

Thong Hai Hin (Jar Site 1)

Thong Hai Hin (Jar Site 1) (15 kilometers southwest of Phonsavan) features dozens of stone urns on a grassy knoll and 200 more are scattered in a field below. Some are cracked and shattered but most are in good condition. One has a stone lid. Pieces of lids lie next to others. Some jars have water in them. Others have shrubs and plant growing in them. Tourists are free to climb around on them.

The Plain of Jars Site 1, also known as Thong Hai Hin covers an area of 25 hectares and is covered with tall brown grass with a few trees dotting the undulating landscape. According to the notice board, there are 334 jars found here, with the biggest having a diameter of 2.5 meters and a height of 2.57 meters. A huge signboard by Mines Advisory Group (MAG) states that they have performed Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) clearance of this site between 26 Jul and 29 Oct 2004, 127 pieces of UXO was removed as well as 31,814 pieces of scrap. [Source: Lao Heritage Tour]

Site 1 has two sections, with the closest to the gate located on a small hillock. There are man made stone steps leading up the hill where a big collection of stone jars. The size of jars here are among of the biggest. From the top of the hill, there is a zigzags path down to the next section, about 500 meters away, where there is another group of stone jars. Most of the jars here are smaller than the ones on the hill. An unusual jar with a stone lid can be seen here.

Other Plain of Jar Sites: In a site called La Sen (6 miles south of Ban Ang or an hour by car on a terrible road) urns are arrayed on the tops of two steep hills, which are separated by a gully. A third more distant site, called Ban Sousa, is in the middle of rice fields at the foot of a wooded ridge. A few of the 155 jars found here have been damaged by bombs. The Ban Phakeo jar site (50 kilometers from Phonsavan) features nearly 400 jars and many rare stone discs with animal sculptures, and is the only jar site with lids. There is also evidence of people using the jars as grinding-whetstones for sharpening knives. Beautiful orchids often bloom in the jars.

Lao Arrive in Laos

The Lao people are thought to have originated in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. They are related to other people that either live there now or originated there such as the Dai and settled mostly in river valleys.

The Lao are very similar ethnically to Thais. They speak a similar language and are members of the larger Tai family of ethnic groups. These groups began migrating southward from China in successive waves, beginning over 2,000 years ago. No one is sure exactly when they came or why.

By the A.D. 8th century Tai groups had established themselves in much of northern Southeast Asia, in the process displacing Mon-Khmer people that were already there. Many lived in semi-independent principalities known as muang under local lords. This period of history was marked the rise and fall and break up and creation of small kingdoms and shifting alliances. Southern Laos came under the influence of the Khmer Empire.

The early Tai-Lao groups were the ancestors of the present-day upland minorities, collectively known as the Lao Thoeng (Upland Lao), the largest group of which are the Khamu of northern Laos. Other Lao Thoeng tribes live in southern Laos, including the Brao and the Katang. Like their northern cousins, they speak Austro-Asiatic languages, a group which includes Khmer. In fact southern Laos is believed to be the birthplace of the Cambodian people, from where they spread further south to establish the kingdom of Funan by the 2nd century CE. The earliest kingdom in southern Laos was identified in Chinese texts as Chenla, dating from the 5th century. Its capital was close to Champasak, near the later Khmer temple of Wat Phu. A little later Mon people (speaking another Austro-Asiatic language) established kingdoms on the middle Mekong – Sri Gotapura (Sikhottabong in Lao) with its capital near Tha Khaek, and Chanthaburi in the vicinity of Viang Chan (Vientiane). [Source: Lonely Planet]

Tai-Lao Migration

Tai peoples probably began migrating out of southern China about the 8th century. They included the Tai-Lao of Laos, the Tai-Syam and Tai-Yuan of central and northern Thailand, and the Tai-Shan of northeast Burma. They are called Tai to distinguish them from the citizens (Thai) of modern Thailand, though the word is the same. All spoke closely related Tai languages, practised wet-rice cultivation along river valleys, and organised themselves into small principalities, known as meuang, each presided over by an hereditary ruler, or chao meuang (lord of the meuang). The Tai-Lao, or Lao for short, moved slowly down the rivers of northern Laos, like the Nam Ou and the Nam Khan, running roughly from northeast to southwest, until they arrived at the Mekong, the Great River. They worshipped the ngeuk, powerful snake deities believed to inhabit these rivers, which if not propitiated could so easily tip frail canoes and drown their occupants. Most Lao peasants still believe that ngeuk exist. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

“The early Lao text known as the Nithan (story of) Khun Borom recounts the myth of creation of the Lao peoples, their interaction, and the establishment of the first Lao kingdom in the vicinity of Luang Prabang. The creation myth tells how two great gourds grew at Meuang Thaeng (Dien Bien Phu, now in Vietnam) from inside which sounds could be heard. Divine rulers, known as khun, pierced one of the gourds with a hot poker, and out of the charred hole poured the dark-skinned Lao Thoeng. The khun used a knife to cut a hole in the other gourd, through which escaped the lighter-skinned Tai-Lao (or Lao Loum, Lowland Lao). The gods then sent Khun Borom to rule over both Lao Loum and Lao Thoeng. He had seven sons, whom he sent out to found seven new kingdoms in the regions where Tai peoples settled (in the Tai highlands of Vietnam, the Xishuangbanna of southern China, Shan state in Burma, and in Thailand and Laos). While the youngest son founded the kingdom of Xieng Khuang on the Plain of Jars, the oldest son, Khun Lo, descended the Nam Ou, seized the principality of Meuang Sua from its Lao Thoeng ruler, and named it Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (later renamed Luang Prabang). =

Legend of Khun Boron

Immortalized in a glass mosaic located in the Throne Room of the former Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, the legend of Khun Borom parallels historical accounts of the migration of the Tai people, of which the Lao are considered to be a main branch. According to this popular legend, the heavenly kingdoms were once ruled by powerful Gods, which, as a gesture of goodwill, would occasionally send someone to reign over the lesser earthly realms. [Source: ~ ]

“It was for this purpose that Khun Borom, the son of the Heavenly God Phaya Then, descended to the earthly realm on a royal elephant distinguished by its crossed tusks. Upon landing at an uninhabited place known as Na Noi Oi Nu (small rice field) in the vicinity of Muang Then (City of Gods), believed to be located in present day northwestern Vietnam, Phaya Then provided Khun Borom with an axe and a buffalo as a means to initiate agriculture. Upon traveling to Xieng Dong-Xieng Thong, a former settlement on the present day site of Luang Prabang, the local inhabitants accepted Khun Borom's offering of the buffalo and agriculture subsequently commenced. ~

The settlement flourished, however, as a result of numerous adverse deeds committed by the inhabitants, the buffalo died and a giant liana (Kheua Khao Kaat) grew from its nostrils. Eventually it grew so high that it reached the sky and blocked out all sunlight to the earthly realm threatening the survival of all life forms. Two deeply loyal servants of Khun Borom, affectionately known as grandfather (Phou Nheu) and grandmother (Nha Nheu), selflessly undertook the heroic deed of chopping down the liana with the axe. Knowing that by undertaking this dangerous task that they would be killed in the process, they requested only that they be remembered for their bravery. Upon chopping the liana down, sunlight streamed into the earthly realm once again and humankind was saved. Phou Nheu and Nha Nheu were subsequently honored as the settlement's Devata Luang, a tradition of reverence that continues to this day. ~

Power Centers in the Middle Mekong Valley

A number of princely fiefdoms based on wet rice cultivation and associated with the pottery and bronze culture of Ban Chiang developed in the middle Mekong Valley from the first century A.D. These fiefdoms exercised power over their neighbors, in circumstances of generally sparse populations, through expanding and contracting spheres of influence best described by the term mandala. Commerce, marriage contracts, and warfare served to expand a mandala. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Thus, a plurality of power centers occupied the middle Mekong Valley in early times. Sikhôttabong was a mandala whose capital was located on the left bank of the Mekong at the mouth of the Xé Bangfai and then moved westward as a result of the expansion of Champa, an Indianized state on the coast of Vietnam founded in 192 A.D. Cham, descendants of Champa, were present at Champasak (Bassac) in the fifth century. The Mon kingdom of Candapuri, the earliest name of present-day Vientiane, (Viangchan) was another mandala. The social structure of Sikhôttabong and Candapuri appears to have been strongly hierarchical, with an aristocracy, a commoner class, and a slave class. The fact that some kings came from the commoner class appears to indicate the presence of some sort of consensus in effecting royal succession. At its peak, another important regional power, Funan, had its mandala incorporate parts of central Laos. The smaller but also important Mon kingdom of Dvaravati (through which Theravada Buddhism reached Laos in the seventh and eighth centuries) was centered in the lower Menam Valley beginning in the fifth century. *

In the seventh century, a northwesterly migration of Thais from their region of origin in northwestern Tonkin brought to the Ta-li region in what is present-day Yunnan, China, a successor state to the Ai Lao kingdom. This new kingdom, Nan-chao, expanded its power by controlling major trading routes, notably the southern Silk Road. Culturally, this polyethnic, hierarchical, and militarized state was to have a great influence on later societies in Indochina, transmitting the Tantric Buddhism of Bengal to Laos, Thailand, and the Shan state, and possibly Cambodia, and the political ideology of the maharaja (protector of Buddhism). Nan-chao was organized administratively into ten prefectures called kien. This term seems to be the origin of place-names keng (for example, Kengtung), chiang (for example, Chiang Mai), and xiang (for example, Xiangkhoang). Moreover, the population and army of Nan-chao were organized in units of 100, 1,000, and 10,000, a form later found in Indochina. Also, the title chao (prince), appears to have been of Nan-chao origin. Another branch of this same migration began at the headwaters of the Nam Ou and followed it downstream to Louangphrabang and continued on through Xaignabouri to Chiang Mai. *

As a result of the expansion and contraction of mandala, places of importance were known by more than one name. Muang Sua was the name of Louangphrabang following its conquest in 698 A.D. by a Thai prince, Khun Lo, who seized his opportunity when Nan-chao was engaged elsewhere. Khun Lo had been awarded the town by his father, Khun Borom, who is associated with the Lao legend of the creation of the world, which the Lao share with the Shan and other peoples of the region. Khun Lo established a dynasty whose fifteen rulers reigned over an independent Muang Sua for the better part of a century. *

In the second half of the eighth century, Nan-chao intervened frequently in the affairs of the principalities of the middle Mekong Valley, resulting in the occupation of Muang Sua in 709. Nan-chao princes or administrators replaced the aristocracy of Thai overlords. Dates of the occupation are not known, but it probably ended well before the northward expansion of the Khmer Empire under Indravarman I (r. 877-89) and extended as far as the territories of Sipsong Panna on the upper Mekong. *

In the meantime, the Khmers founded an outpost at Xay Fong near Vientiane, and Champa expanded again in southern Laos, maintaining its presence on the banks of the Mekong until 1070. Canthaphanit, the local ruler of Xay Fong, moved north to Muang Sua and was accepted peacefully as ruler after the departure of the Nan-chao administrators. Canthaphanit and his son had long reigns, during which the town became known by the Thai name Xieng Dong Xieng Thong. The dynasty eventually became involved in the squabbles of a number of principalities. Khun Cuang, a warlike ruler who may have been a Kammu (alternate spellings include Khamu and Khmu) tribesman, extended his territory as a result of the warring of these principalities and probably ruled from 1128 to 1169. Under Khun Cuang, a single family ruled over a far-flung territory and reinstituted the Siamese administrative system of the seventh century. Muang Sua next became the Kingdom of Sri Sattanak, a name connected with the legend of the naga (mythical snake or water dragon) who was said to have dug the Mekong riverbed. At this time, Theravada Buddhism was subsumed by Mahayana Buddhism. Muang Sua experienced a brief period of Khmer suzerainty under Jayavarman VII from 1185 to 1191. By 1180 the Sipsong Panna had regained their independence from the Khmers, however, and in 1238 an internal uprising in the Khmer outpost of Sukhodaya expelled the Khmer overlords. *

The Champasak area of southern Laos was part of Funan and Chenli empires between A.D. 1st century and 9th century and then was part of the Khmer Angkor empire from A.D. 10th century to 13th century. When Angkor declined it was absorbed into the Lao kingdom. See Champasak

Wat Phu and the Champasak

Wat Phu and the Champasak Cultural Landscape Area (8 kilometers south of Champasak, near the Cambodian border) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Wat Phu [Vat Wat Phou or Vat Phou] temple complex is a major example of both early and classic Khmer architecture of the 7th-12th centuries. Around Wat Phu are well preserved remains of a sophisticated ancient city. Human sacrifices may have been conducted here. Recent research has shown that this complex is the focal point of a sophisticated cultural landscape centred on the Champasak Plain, taking in the Phou Kao (mountain) to the west and the banks of the Mekong River to the east. Between them are temples, shrines, water tanks, water channels, quarries, historic field systems, settlement sites and an ancient road to Angkor.

In the early 1990s archeologists began excavating around Wat Phu in Champasak, near the border of present-day Cambodia in southern Laos, and unearthed the well preserved remains of two sophisticated ancient cities: 1) Shrestrapura, which dates back to the 5th century and is regarded as a cradle of the Angkorian empire of Cambodia; and 2) Lingapura, which thrived from the 9th to the 13th centuries. The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the ancient city of Shestrapura and many little known but interesting archeological sites along the banks of the Mekong River .

Shrestrapura had a rectangular plan and measures 2.3-by-1.8 kilometers and was surrounded by double earthen walls on three sides and the Mekong River on the other side. Other remains include circular foundations, traces of an irrigation system, Hindu statuary, stone tools and ceramics. The site was dated to 5th century by stelae with Sanskrit inscriptions, the oldest of their kind in Southeast Asia. There is evidence of a Hindu shrine that may date to A.D. 3rd century.

The site is being studied by a team lead by Italian archeologist Patrizia Zolese of the Lerici Foundation. Interesting finds include beautiful and well-preserved stone reliefs, ancient ramparts, irrigation canals and a road leading to Angkor. The site is very fragile and preservationist worry about the effects of nature and tourism on it. Major restoration work has yet to be done but there are concerns it might be done in a shoddy, haphzard way. The site welcomed 50,000 visitors in 2000.

According to UNESCO: The Champasak cultural landscape, including the Vat Phou [Wat Phu] Temple complex, is a remarkably well-preserved planned landscape more than 1,000 years old. It was shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 kilometers. Two planned cities on the banks of the Mekong River are also part of the site, as well as Phou Kao mountain. The whole represents a development ranging from the 5th to 15th centuries, mainly associated with the Khmer Empire. [Source: UNESCO]

The Temple Complex of Vat Phou bears exceptional testimony to the cultures of Southeast Asia, and in particular to the Khmer Empire which dominated the region in the 10th–14th centuries. The site is also an outstanding example of the integration of symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings. Contrived to express the Hindu version of the relationship between nature and humanity, Vat Phou exhibits a remarkable complex of monuments and other structures over an extensive area between river and mountain, some of outstanding architecture, many containing great works of art, and all expressing intense religious conviction and commitment.

The site along with other outlining temple was inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage List as Wat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasack Cultural landscape in 2001. Am Exhibition Hall funded by the Japanese government was opened at the main entrance area to the site in 2003; this houses important artifacts recovered both within and nearby the complex. A major festival is held at the site in February each year.

To reach Wat Phou Champasack visitors should turn off National Highway 13 some 32 kilometers south of Pakse and continue 4 kilometers to the Mekong River ferry; Wat Phou Champasack lies 14 kilometers south of the ferry terminal on the other site.

History of Wat Phu

The Temple Complex of Vat Phou bears exceptional testimony to the cultures of South-East Asia, and in particular to the Khmer Empire, which dominated the region in the 10th-14th centuries. It is an outstanding example of the integration of symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings, expressing the Hindu version of the relationship between nature and humanity. [Source: UNESCO]

The origins of the site lie before AD 600, at least at the city of Shrestrapura, where archaeological research has produced evidence of pre-Angkorian times (until c . AD 900). The evidence from its inscriptions has shown that Champasak region was one the old kingdom of Sethapuora in the 5th century A.D., governed by King Thevanika who may be a Cham person. The location of this old Kingdom is about 6.5 kilometers to the east of Wat Phou and share a border with the Mekong River near Wat LaungKao and Phanonneau village, which 400 hectares. The development of the site as a whole, however, was intimately bound up with the origin, development and zenith of the Khmer Empire between the 7th and 12th centuries.

A new line of kings probably centred in the Champasak region expanded its authority from its capital at Isanapura from the 10th century onwards, until it encompassed not only most of modern Cambodia but also much of what is now eastern Thailand. The floruit of the elaborate landscape at Vat Phou occurred during these centuries. Its historical significance lies in its role as an imperial center and its demonstration of Indian rather than Chinese influence in the clear evidence of Hindu religious belief. The last major developments to the Champasak cultural landscape were in the 13th century, just before the collapse of the Khmer Empire.

There is no evidence of any maintenance of the monumental buildings since then, although various other occupations and events have occurred on the site. Vat Phou itself, in contrast to what it represented in the first millennium, was converted to Theravada Buddhism and remains a local center of worship today. Essentially, however, the area reverted to secondary forest, which covered most of it when the first Europeans arrived in the 19th century. An annual Vat Phou Festival demonstrates the continuing place of the site in the lives of the local community.

Wat Phu

Wat Phu (in Champasak) is one of Laos’s great architectural treasures. Built between the 7th and 12th centuries, it is a marvelous set of Khmer ruins featuring graceful galleries and pavilions that extend for 1,400 meters (1,530 yards) over six natural terraces on the lower slopes of a richly forested mountain, facing the Mekong River. The mountain is believed to have been sacred to local people long before a temple was built on it. The Khmer temple was dedicated to Siva and is regarded as one of the earliest Khmer sanctuaries. Located at the northernmost portion of the Khmer Empire (A.D. 800-1200), it was established by the same king who built Angkor in Cambodia. It was most recently renovated by King Suryavarman I in the 11th century.

Perched on three artificial terraces built in the side of a plateau above the Mekong River, Wat Phu covers one and half square miles and encompasses a main sanctuary, six ancillary shrines, two "palaces," a monumental staircase with processional path, Hindu and Buddhist stone carving, and two large reservoirs. Two smaller sanctuaries are connected by a paved road. A third sanctuary is on the opposite of the Mekong River. The view of the Mekong River and valley from the temple is stunning. Sometimes monkeys climb around on the ruins.

Wat Phu means "Mountain Temple." It is reached by a walkway that passes several platforms with smaller temples. The archeological site is divided into three main levels joined by a promenade: 1) a rectangular pavilion built in the 20th century and used by the Lao monarch to watch the Wat Phu Festival; 2) two rectangular pavilions in the middle-level with original 6th century sculpted lintel with images of Siva, Vishnu , Kali, Mandi bulls and Khmer monarchs; and 3) a sanctuary that encloses a large linga, (Shiva phallus). A lintel in the sanctuary depicts Krishna killing his uncle. Sections of a stone pipe that carried water from a sacred cave to the sanctuary are visible.

Converted from Hinduism to Buddhism in the 14th century Wat Phu still plays an important role in local religious life today. The temple complex measures 1,400 meters in line running east to west up the lower part of the Phou Khao Mountain. It is built on six different levels or terraces, connected by steps and central walkway. Most are man-made, but the uppermost level is a natural terrace where a spring flows out of the mountain. The water from this spring was channeled so that is flowed through the main sanctuary and over the central Shiva linga (the place of which is now occupied by a statue of the Buddha). From there the sacred stream flowed down the artificially terraced mountain slope in to two sacred reservoirs or barays and finally in to the Mekong River, whose life-giving waters were believed to sustain the whole of the ancient Khmer Empire. Standing structures within the temple complex include quadrangles, a Nandin Hall, small pavilions, brick towers, stairways and the main shrine, which was dedicated to Shiva.

Near the sanctuary is a wat with a few resident Buddhist monks. The view from here is said to be the best. A path leads to a boulder with a stylized crocodile on it. Some believed that human sacrifices were held here in the pre Anglor era. Within a few kilometers are three other Khmer sites that need some serious restoration work. In recent years, with the help of many international organizations and neighbouring countries, the complex has seen almost continuous renovation projects aimed at keeping what is left of the existing structure from collapsing.

Ever since Buddhism recognized Wat Phou as a site of huge religious and cultural importance, local authorities, together with several other organisations and local people, have organized Boun Wat Phou (Wat Phou Festival) on 15th day of the 3rd month of Lao lunar calendar. Designed to commemorate all those who have contributed to this wonder of ancient architecture and based on traditional Buddhist practices, the festival is held for either three days and three nights or seven days and seven night. It hosts displays of traditional music, dance, sports and a variety of local produce. Most importantly of all, on the final day, senior dignitaries and religious figures from around the country, come to take part in a traditional Taak Baat (alms ceremony). The festival also includes a parade of elephant or horses, a crafts fair and demonstrations of ancient traditions passed down by generations of people living off the surrounding land.

Wat Phou Complex

Wat Phou Complex and Champasack Heritage Landscape is located 500 kilometers south of Vientiane on the east bank of the Mekong River in Champasack province. Wat Phou is an excellent example of early classical Khmer architecture, dating from the 7th to 12th centuries AD. At the foot of Wat Phou is the ancient city of Shestupura, which was settled in the 5th century AD, and is believed to be the oldest urban settlement in Southeast Asia. Besides the main Wat Phou Temple Complex, there are several archeological and nature sites nearby that can take some time to explore.

Wat Phou Champasack is the most famous Hindu temple complex built in Laos under the Khmer Empire, which dominated much of Southeast Asia from the 10th to 14th century. Ancient stone inscriptions found at the complex, describe how it was first built in the 5th century, its gradually began to fall into ruins, before it was finally restored to its former glory in the early 11th century. The temple was further expanded in the 12th and 13th century, with the addition of a new section designed to support the east-west axis, which runs from the foot of a dramatic hillside known as Mount Phou Nak, to the impressive Pathan Palace.

Wat Phou Champasack is distinguished as much by its dramatic and symbolic environmental setting as it is for its masterful architecture and iconographic arts. The temple nestles at the foot of the 1,408- meter Phou Khao Mountain, known in Sanskrit as LingaparWata or ‘Linga Mountain because it is said to resemble the Linga of the Hindu god Shiva. Reputed by legend to be Shiva’s birthplace, this has been a sacred site since in least the A.D. 5th century, when near by Setapura is believed to have been a capital of the proto-Khmer kingdom of upper (Land) Chenla. Construction of the Wat Phou temple as begun as early as the 7th century - under Jayavarman I, though most of the surviving building date from the reigns of Jayavarman VI (1080-1107).

The complex is enormous and includes several large reflection pools and statues of various ruling kings. All these figures are designed to reflect the ethos of goodness and strength behind the Khmer Empire. A planned pre-Angkorian ancient city (4 ha) on the banks of the Mekong appears to have been replaced as the urban center by another planned city immediately south of Vat Phou itself in the Angkor period. A probably contemporary road leads southwards from it, past quarries and other industrial works. Many of these features exist in a carefully planned landscape laid out to reflect its sacred character as perceived by the builders of Vat Phou. The terraced Temple Complex lies at the foot of Phou Kao, stretching west-east to a freshwater spring on a rock Vat Phou temple complex, a major example of both early and classic Khmer architecture of the 7th-12th centuries. Shortly after the collapse of Khmer power, Buddhism became the dominant religion in most of Southeast Asia-yet remarkably. The temple remained largely unchanged. Only a few alterations were commissioned to better serve Buddhist practices, as well as the restoration of several ruined structures.

Recent research has shown that this complex is the focal point of a sophisticated cultural landscape centred on the Champasak Plain, taking in the Phou Kao (mountain) to the west and the banks of the Mekong River to the east. Between them are temples, shrines, water tanks, water channels, quarries, historic field systems, settlement sites and an ancient road to Angkor. terrace where the shrine was built. An axial line from the natural linga (phallic-like point) on the mountain summit through the shrine was used as the basis for the layout of the temple complex: it is 1,400 meters long, with lakes as well as buildings to either side, bisected by an axial processional way.

The use of a natural mountain-top eye-catcher (elevation 1,416 meters) and the relatively high degree of survival of landscape and its structural components, assist present-day appreciation of the grand concept of the original design of what was always intended to be a 'cultural landscape'. Much of it continues in use now as shallow paddy-fields for rice.

Traces of the Khmer road were clearly identified though examination of a series of aerial photographs covering the area from Wat Phou to Angkor. Some extensive sections of the road are still clearly visible at ground level. The road was built after the Khmer Empire was unified, when traveling through provinces was no longer too dangerous. The connection from the Wat Phou temple complex to Angkor again points to the enduring sacred significance of the temple and the LingaparWata or Linga Mountain. The road was built of compacted earth and looks like a causeway. It can be easily recognized in some sections, but other are in poorer condition. Chapels or resting place were built at regular distances along the road; an inscription at Preah Khan (a 12th century temple at Angkor) mentions 121 rest houses (dharmasala) along the route, and ruins of several of them have been found. Today there are a number of villages as well as other ancient monuments along the road, and bushes and trees have grown on it. It is often possible to make out its base, but the track is not always easy to follow without the assistance of an archaeologist. The road starts from the Nandin Hall at Wat Phou Champasack, leading some scholars to suggest that this building was originally a sacred chapel or resting house where pilgrims arriving via the road would stay for their first devotions. A walk of one hour south along the road through open country and woodland leads first to Nang Sida and further to Ban That (18 kilometers from Wat Phou).

Laos - Library of Congress Bibliography

Adams, Nina S., and Alfred W. McCoy (eds.). Laos: War and Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1970; Boyle, Andrew J. Senior Officers Oral History Program. Washington: U.S. Military History Institute, 1971; Breazeale, Kennon, and Snit Smuckarn. A Culture in Search of Survival: The Phuan of Thailand and Laos. (Southeast Asian Studies, Monograph Series, No. 31.) New Haven: Yale University, 1988; Briggs, Lawrence P. "The Appearance and Historical Usage of the Terms Tai, Thai, Siamese and Lao," Journal of the American Oriental Society, 69, No. 2, April-June 1949, 60-73; Brown, MacAlister, and Joseph J. Zasloff. Apprentice Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Laos, 1930-1985. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1986; Bui Quang Tung. "Chao Anou, roi de Vientiane, à travers les documents vietnamiens." Bulletin de la Société des Études Indochinoises [Saigon], 33, No. 4, 1958, 401-06; Caply, Michel. "Le Japon et l'indépendance du Laos (1945)," Revue d'Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale [Paris], 1971, 67-81;

Castle, Timothy N. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993; Cordell, Helen (comp.). Laos. (World Bibliographical Series, No. 133.) Oxford, United Kingdom: Clio Press, 1991; Dengler, Dieter. Escape from Laos. Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1979; De Pelacot. "Le Tran Ninh historique," Revue Indochinoise [Hanoi], Nouvelle Série, Tome IV, 34, May 30, 1906; Deuve, Jean. Le Laos 1945-1949: Contribution à l'histoire du mouvement Lao Issala. Montpellier: Université Paul Valéry, 1992; ------. Le Royaume du Laos 1949-1965 (Histoire événementielle de l'indépendance à la guerre américaine). Paris: EFEO, 1984;

Dommen, Arthur J. Conflict in Laos: The Politics of Neutralization. New York: Praeger, 1971; Dommen, Arthur J., and George W. Dalley. "The OSS in Laos: The 1945 Raven Mission and American Policy," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies [Singapore], 22, No. 2, September 1991, 327-46; Dore, Amphay. "Aux sources de la civilisation Lao (Contribution ethno-historique à la connaissance de la culture Louang-Phrabanaise.)" Paris: Cercle de culture et de recherches laotiennes, 1987. Mimeographed; Furuta, Motoo. "The Indochina Communist Party's Division into Three Parties: Vietnamese Communist Policy Toward Cambodia and Laos, 1948-1951." Pages 143-63 in Masaya Shiraishi and Motoo Furuta (eds.), Indochina in the 1940s and 1950s. Ithaca, New York: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1992; Goscha, Christopher E. "Thailand and the Vietnamese Resistance Against the French." (Master's thesis.) Canberra: Australian National University, 1991;

Gunn, Geoffrey C. Political Struggles in Laos (1930-1954): Vietnamese Communist Power and the Lao Struggle for National Independence. Bangkok: Editions Duang Kamol, 1988; Hamilton-Merritt, Jane. Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993; Heintges, John A. Carlisle Barracks, PA, U.S. Army Military History Institute. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: Senior Officers Oral History Program, 1974; Hirshfield, Claire. "The Struggle for the Mekong Banks, 1892-1896," Journal of Southeast Asian History [Singapore], 9, No. 3, March 1968, 25-52; Jumsai, M.L. Manich. History of Laos. Bangkok: Chalermnit, 1971; Kaysone Phomvihane. Revolution in Laos: Practice and Prospects. Moscow: Progress, 1981; Le Boulanger, Paul. Histoire du Laos français. Paris: Plon, 1931; Levy, Paul. Histoire du Laos. (Que Sais-Je? No. 1549.) Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1974; Lindell, Kristina, Hakan Lundstrom, Jan-Olof Svantesson, and Damrong Tayanin.

The Kammu Year: Its Lore and Music. London: Curzon Press, 1982; Long, Lynellyn D. Ban Vinai, The Refugee Camp. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993; Neo Lao Haksat. A Quarter Century of Grim and Victorious Struggle. Sam Neua: Laos: 1970; Ngaosyvathn, Mayoury, and Pheuiphanh. "Lao Historiography and Historians: Case Study of the War Between Bangkok and the Lao in 1827," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies [Singapore], 20, No. 1, March 1989, 55-69; O'Neill, Thomas. "The Mekong: A Haunted River's Season of Peace," National Geographic, 183, No. 2, February 1993, 2-35; Osborne, Milton E. River Road to China: The Mekong River Expedition, 1866-73. New York: Liveright, 1975; Quincy, Keith. Hmong: History of a People. Cheney, Washington: Eastern Washington University Press, 1988; Randle, Robert F. Geneva 1954: The Settlement of the Indochinese War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969; Sage, William W., and Judith A.N. Henchy (comps.). Laos: A Bibliography. (Library Bulletin No. 16.) Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986; Scott, Joanna C. Indochina's Refugees: Oral Histories from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1989; Shiraishi, Masaya, and Motoo Furuta. "Two Features of Japan's Indochina Policy During the Pacific War." Pages 55-85 in Masaya Shiraishi and Motoo Furuta (eds.), Indochina in the 1940s and 1950s. Ithaca, New York: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1992; Sila Viravong, Maha. Phongsavadan Lao (History of Laos.) New York: Paragon Books, 1964; Sirikrai, Surachai. "Thai-American Relations in the Laotian Crisis of 1960-1962." (Ph.D. dissertation.) Binghamton: State University of New York, 1979; Stieglitz, Perry. In a Little Kingdom. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1990; Stuart-Fox, Martin. Laos: Politics, Economics, and Society. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 1986;

Stuart-Fox, Martin, and Mary Kooyman. Historical Dictionary of Laos. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1992; Tarling, Nicholas (ed.). The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, 1: From Early Times to c. 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992; Toye, Hugh. Laos: Buffer State or Battleground. London: Oxford University Press, 1968; United States. Congress. 103d, 1st Session. Senate. Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. POW/MIA's: Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. Washington: GPO, January 13, 1993; United States. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-54, 13: Indochina, Pt. 1. Washington: 1982; ------. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, 21: East Asian Security; Cambodia, Laos. Washington: 1990; ------. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, 16: East Asia-Pacific Regions; Cambodia, Laos. Washington: 1992; Wyatt, David K. "Siam and Laos 1767-1827," Journal of Southeast Asian History [Singapore], 4, No. 2, 1963, 13-21.

Martin Stuart Fox, a professor of history at the University of Queensland, wrote a history of Laos. Grant Evans is an expert on Laos at the University of Hong Kong.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress,, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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