Lao Phuan

Geographical Distribution

Population

Approximately 115,000 in Laos and perhaps 200,000 in Thailand

Areas of Habitation
Provinces of Xieng Khouang, Luang Prabang, Hua Phan, Luang Namtha, Bolikhamxay, Vientiane and Vientiane Prefecture.

Alternative Names
Puan, Phoan, Poan, Phuane, Phuon, Phouane, Pu-uen, Phu Un (Phuan is pronounced Poo – un)

Language

Linguistic Family: Austro-Thai
Language Group: Tai-Kadai
Language Branch: Tai Southwestern

History

The Phuan once had their own kingdom located in today’s Xieng Khouang province. Though little is known about the history of the Phuan kingdom, it is possible that they established their small kingdom around the Plain of Jars before King Fa Ngum founded the Lan Xang Kingdom in 1353. They called their kingdom Muang Phuan. Muang Khun was the capital. The Phuan lived in peace for a long time before foreign powers began to interfere in their affairs.

During the first decades of the nineteenth century, the population of the Phuan kingdom was constantly decimated by the Siamese of Bangkok who took tens of thousands of slaves from Muang Phuan to Siam to dig the canals of Bangkok t. In 1834, orders were given by the Interior Minister in Bangkok to the commander of the Siamese army to continue the depopulation of the Phuan state and to cleanse the plateau of its people.

Later, in the middle of the nineteenth century, armed Haw bandits came in bands on horseback from Yunnan, China, to steal, rob, plunder and massacre everything and everyone they came across. They inflicted a reign of terror on the people of Muang Phuan.

In 1873, the Siamese army expelled the Haw from the region as they had marauded not only the relatively independent Phuan kingdom, but also the Sip Song Chau Tai region and the regions around Luang Prabang and Vientiane, areas which were under Siamese suzerainty. But shortly after the Haw returned and the terror continued.

After another marauding season across the Phuan kingdom by the Haw in 1875, most Phuan packed their goods and fled from the carnage on the plateau to the plains near the banks of the Mekong. Siamese commanders saw a unique opportunity to accomplish in a single mission a task that Bangkok had tried to realize for decades. The refugees were soon rounded up and the Phuan, having just escaped the Haw f disaster, walked into a Siamese trap

The Siamese forced them south to central Thailand where they became t slaves of the Siamese court. After decades of depopulation by the Siamese and two decades of marauding by the Haw, the population of the Phuan kingdom was reduced by three quarters. The Phuan kingdom never recovered from the carnage of those years. Partly as a result of the exodus of its people, Muang Phuan slowly ceased to function as a political entity.

The earliest census of the Phuan region dating from 1899 records a total population of only 24,920 people , of which 49 percent were Phuan, 44 percent hilltribes and 7 percent Lao migrants from Lao towns. Today, it is estimated that only 45,000 to 50,000 Phuan live in their former homeland of Xieng Khouang province, with about 60,000 to 70,000 Phuan settled in other provinces of Laos. In Thailand, however, due to the depopulation policy of the Siamese court in the nineteenth century, the Phuan population is much higher than in Laos. There are no exact figures available because of the degree to which the Phuan in Thailand have assimilated. But there might more than 200,000 people of Phuan decendency in Thailand.

The old Phuan capital, Muong Khun, survived the ravages of the Haw bandits in the nineteenth century, but was totally destroyed by American bombing during the height of the Vietnam War in 1967-70. In 1975 Phonsavan became the new capital of Xieng Khouang province

Houses and Villages

The Lao Phuan live in large, rambling wooden houses raised on stilts about 1.5 meters above the ground. Walls are of lumber or bamboo mats, floors of split bamboo or planks with corrugated tin or thatch roofs. A steep bamboo ladder or wooden staircase leads to a covered porch that runs along the front side of the house.

A house is made up of a large central room. An earthen fireplace is located in one corner, sleeping mats for the family members in the opposite corner and the space between functions as a living room. Another popular Phuan house design separates the kitchen and the sleeping/living room in two parts. From a board darkened by smoke above the fireplace hang pieces of meat on rattan slings to be dried. Smoke blackened pots and pans of different sizes stand around the earthen fireplace. Several different shaped and sized bamboo baskets and containers hang along the wall or stand on the floor. When raining outside, laundry hangs on a long line to dry opposite the fireplace.

The place under the house is for the family loom, a wooden sitting platform and some agricultural tools. The Phuan family fences their compound with bamboo sticks or hedges or they may leave it totally open to the neighborhood’.

Costume and Crafts

Traditionally the Lao Phuan have had their own distinctive costume. However in recent years the dress habits have changed. The mean wear Western style shirts and trousers while the women of all ages wear the Lao phaa sin, either cotton or silk.
The older Lao Phuan men still make a wide variety of baskets, containers, vases, traps and other household utensils from bamboo. Unlike their kin group in Thailand, who balance two baskets on a stick carried over the shoulder, the Phuan of Laos still make back-baskets to carry agricultural produce home from the fields.

Phuan women are experts in weaving colorful silk or cotton phaa sins and sashes, both for their own use and for sale. Phuan women are skilled in all phases in the production of these garments, from raising silkworm to silk cocoon preparation, to spinning thread ,dying the thread and then weaving and embroidering the garments.

Agriculture and Economy

The Phuan are paddy rice cultivators. They grow both ordinary and glutinous rice. Rice is the most important cash crop for the Phuan.

The Phuan grow vegetables, spices, herbs and fruit in kitchen gardens, close to the house. The household consumes most of the produce with any surplus sold in the local market.

The Phuan raise silk worms and use the cocoons to make thread for weaving garments. ,

The Phuan raise water buffalo and cows in large numbers. Almost every Phuan household keeps chickens, ducks and a couple of pigs.

Fish play an important role in the daily diet of the Phuan people. Fish are caught with nets, spears or traps in rivers and streams. Many Phuan villages have their own ponds where fish are raised Phuan men also hunt rats, squirrel, deer and birds to supplement the family diet.

Society

The Phuan kingdom was led by a prince of the extended Lao royal family until palace intrigue led to his demise and the incorporation of his kingdom under the rule of the king Luang Prabang in the mid 1800′s. Each Phuan district had four officials chosen by semi-hereditary right from among the eligible men of the ruling family. This system was terminated along with all other royal based governance when the Lao communists came to power.

Phuan family structure is extended and matriarchal/ patriarchal. Most Phuan, still have a deep sense of following their traditional customs and habits. Sexual activities prior to marriage are taboo, at least for the girls, since virginity is regarded by the Phuan as a highly desirable quality for the bride. Traditionally, Phuan parents have the duty to maintain strict control of their daughter’s mores, and courtship between the sexes must conform to the rules accepted by Phuan society as a whole. The ideal marriage age for Phuan girls is between seventeen and twenty and for boys between twenty-one and twenty-five. When a Phuan couple wishes to marry, the boy informs his father, who approaches the parents of the bride.

There is no specific or traditional price required for a Phuan bride. Depending on the wealth of both families involved, the groom’s family pays a price in cash It is not customary to include animals, such as a buffalo or a pig, in the transaction. Phuan tradition does require the family of the groom to pay for the outfit of the bride on the wedding, including a silver or gold necklace, silver belt or other jewelry.

After marriage, the newly wed couple spends the first year in the house of the bride’s parents. After that period, the couple is free to build their own house.

The Phuan of Xieng Khouang inter-marry with Lao, Tai Dam, Tai Deng and Khmu, but not Hmong.

Ceremonies, Myths and Beliefs

The Phuan consider themselves devout Buddhists but are in fact animists who have included a very corrupt form of Buddhism into their pantheon or religious practices. Their beliefs differ from those of the Lao only in detail. According to Phuan Buddhist ideals, three major events in each person’s lifetime are required. Most important, is the ordination of a son, the annual post-Lent presentations of robes to the monks, and participation in the construction of a monastery.

Their animistic world view includes multitude spirits for the village, house, family, livestock, forest, river, sky, trees, loom and spinning wheel. All spirits must be placated in order to receive blessings and avoid curses.

The most import spirit is tha phu ban, the guardian of the village. On specific days, the villagers gather around the spirit house of the tha phu ban and offer rice whiskey, candles, fruit and betel nuts. Villagers can also approach the spirit individually, asking for a favour. If the favor is granted, the person will sacrifice a whole chicken and several eggs, or a pig’s head.

The Phuan religious village leader can be either male or female. This person is the master of religious ceremonies They also have a sorcerer, often female to cure sickness.

The Phuan hold a number of ceremonies during the agricultural cycle. They also celebrate Songkran, (New Years) but some days later than the Thai and Lao do. They have adopted Songkran from the Lao.

The Phuan distinguish three possible types of death. To die naturally of old age is regarded as the best death. The second type of death results from an illness, such as malaria or cholera. The third type is a violent death or accident, which is the most undesirable of all. Premature deaths are feared because of the involvement of the spirit world. In cases of death caused by violence, accident or epidemic disease, the body is not cremated, as when death is from natural causes, but is buried Such an eventuality is greatly feared, not only by the Phuan but by all Buddhists , because without cremation there is no release of the spirit so that it can ascend to heaven or be reborn into another earthly body. Those Phuan who die the naturally are cremated .