During the late 14th century Muang Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (modern Luang Prabang) emerged from Khmer suzerainty to become the kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao (‘One Million Elephants under a White Parasol’).

Its founder was Fa Ngum (1353-1373), who had spent his early life in exile at the Khmer court and married Khmer Princess Keo Kaengnya. Dispatched at the head of a 10,000-strong Khmer army in 1351 to expel the forces of an ascendant Ayutthaya from the Khorat Plateau (now the Isaan or north eastern region of Thailand), Fa Ngum resolved instead to seize the region for himself. Subduing Muang Sikhottabong, Muang Chanthaburi (Vientiane), Muang Phainam and Muang Phuan (Xieng Khouang), he went on to recover his ancestral territory of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong and proclaim himself King of Lane Xang in 1353. After defeating the Siamese and concluding a treaty with the Viet king, Fa Ngum was left in control of a large area of peninsular South East Asia which stretched from today’s Chinese border in the north to modern Sekong Province in the south, and from modern Thailand’s Khorat Plateau in the west to the Annam Highlands in the east.

Adopting Therevada Buddhism, Fa Ngum requested the Khmer King in 1358 to send a religious and cultural mission to Lane Xang to help establish the Buddhist sangha. With the delegation came the pha bang, a sacred golden Buddha image which remains to this day the country’s most revered religious symbol. However, the pha bang was not brought immediately to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong but installed instead at a new sanctuary in Viengkham (Phainam), where it would remain until King Wisunarath finally transported it north in 1502.

The 16th century witnessed an extraordinary cultural flowering in Lane Xang, presided over by three illustrious kings – Wisunarath (1501-1520), Photisarath (1520-1550) and Sai Setthathirat I (1550-1571) – for details see Architecture of Lane Xang 1353-1695, Lao literature during the Lane Xang era, Lakhon pharak pharam – Lao classical dance and Buddhist sculpture.

Xiang Dong Xiang Thong continued to function as the capital of Lane Xang until the mid 16th century, when King Sai Setthathirat I moved his palace south to Vientiane – partly to exploit the latter’s greater agricultural potential and partly in order to reduce the risk of attack by the Burmese. However, in honour of the sacred pha bang, the king changed the name of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong to Luang Prabang (Royal City of the Pha Bang), and in subsequent centuries, with its many important wats, the northern capital was to retain its importance as a religious and spiritual centre.

Following the mysterious death of King Sai Setthathirat I in 1571 while campaigning in the south, the kingdom of Lane Xang was plunged into a bloody 70-year war of succession, during which time it was relegated to the status of a Burmese vassal kingdom. Order was finally restored by King Suriyavongsa (1638-1690), whose long and peaceful reign is remembered as a second golden age of Lao culture during which Vientiane emerged as an important regional centre for Buddhist learning. However, Suriyavongsa’s death was followed by yet more internecine feuding, and in the face of repeated Burmese invasions Lane Xang broke up into three smaller kingdoms centred on Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak.

Leave a reply