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  7. Fa Ngum, the legend

Fa Ngum is considered by Laotians as being the founder of Laos and the first person to recognise the word of Buddha for the whole country, (the equivalent of our William the Conqueror) as well as the person who gave the country its historical borders, which are recognised, even today, by most Laotians. It all started at the beginning of the 14th century. At that time, a King (Chao Phi Fa) reigned in Luang Prabang (then called Xieng Dong-Xieng Tong) and its immediate area, just like many other small Kings which were dispersed all over the area of what would soon become known as Laos. Like all the kings at that time, Chao Phi Fa had many women around him, and a throng of children. He was the sole ruler over his realm.

Legend tells us that this King had a child, with one of his wives (around 1316.) This child was special at birth : he was born with 33 teeth. The animist mandarins of the region, when they heard about it, came to see the baby, to check this spectacular event for themselves. Faced with such a freak of nature, they were unanimous : something very bad would happen to the realm, if the King didn’t take the necessary steps to get rid of the child. The father was obliged to comply, quickly : the omen was final and the sentence had to be carried out. In spite of this catastrophic prediction, the King just couldn’t kill the new-born baby. He let the mother bring him up normally : what could he be afraid of from a baby? Fa Ngum could live, at least until the age of 7.

The child quickly showed many signs of precociousness. He was a brilliant pupil, better by far than all of the other children of his age, which made his father very proud.

The King would watch the amazing progress of his son in all the domains essential to the education of high dignitaries. He was also an excellent horse rider and had a lovely character. He was more and more loved by the King, who never stopped regretting the fact that his son was the object of a divine curse. As each day passed, the boy became more handsome, more intelligent and more loveable as well ...

Unfortunately, the mandarins were there to remind the King of his duty and the weight of his responsibilities to the spirits who, according to them, were asking for the young Prince’s soul. The fateful day of Fa Ngum’s seventh birthday arrived, much too soon for the distraught and desperate father, who couldn’t push the execution date of his son any further. He had to obey the spirits and rid the town of the problem. Being as he couldn’t take the decision to kill his child, who was so good and obedient, so intelligent and loving, he had a junk built, so as to abandon his son to the Mekong river.

This was in 1323, the large junk was fastened to the quay. 30 of the King’s most faithful servants installed the prince comfortably in what was supposed to be his last abode ...

Author’s note : Legend tells us that it was because of a dental problem that the Prince was sent away from his realm; history tells us another story : Fa Ngum, as a child, was a particularly precocious and beautiful boy, who, very young, got out of hand with one of the King’s mistresses, who fell under his charm. It was that, which caused his disgrace ...

Whatever the real story be, the young Fa Ngum didn’t die on the river Mekong as the animist priests had hoped. His boat sailed peacefully on and arrived one morning at the mouth of the Mekong river, where the Khmer realm was situated (actual Cambodia). The Khmer King took the child in, and recognising the child’s royal blood, welcomed him into the realm of Angkor. The child refused, claiming to be the victim of a curse and told his story to the King. The King was Buddhist and didn’t believe in the primitive superstitions in which Xieng Dong-Xieng Tong was still steeped.

Buddhism started in India, 1800 years earlier, with a simple man who believed he was no more than that. (Siddharta, also called Sakyamuni or Buddha, 560 to 480 years B.C.), and who refused the idea of Gods and spirits and concentrated on his own condition, believing in the principle that Man carries within himself, the seeds of his own perfection. Buddhism spread all over Asia ... Angkor was constructed between the VIIth and XIIth century and was completely under the spell of this religion, creating temples which were each more covered in gold than its predecessor... We are told that the young prince was subjugated by the beauty of the places that were dedicated to this new religion.

The King decided to bring the child up like one of his own sons. Fa Ngum turned out particularly talented, obedient, faithful and trustworthy. As time passed, complicity and love grew between the young Prince and the old King. Fa Ngum never disappointed his new protector : he was a good scholar, a quick and visionary fighter, and was sensible enough to become a man with all the necessary qualities to govern. The King, who loved this young Prince very much, gave him the hand of one of his daughters, Nang Kaew Kaeng Nya.

Past master in the art of war, skilled horseman, and awesome strategist, Fa Ngum wanted to go back to the country of his birth to reclaim the throne that should have been his. In 1340, when he was 24 years of age, he felt ready to leave with his soldiers to conquer all the small realms along the Mekong River. He left with an army of 10 000 men given to him by the King. As a Palladium for the new realm that he intended conquering, the King gave him a statue of Buddha in gold and emeralds, the Pha Bang, which became the palladium of the Lao Realm.

On the way to his birthplace, Fa Gnum defeated the 5 small states north of the Mekong capital, including the Khorat plateau, and finally took over the realm of Muang Seua and its capital Mouang Soua. It is said that his father, seeing his son’s victorious arrival, left him the throne and died of sorrow because he had listened to the mandarins. In 1353, Fa Ngum declared himself King of the three territories which, united, formed "The Realm of a Million Elephants and a White Parasol". Being as the animists had banished him with their obscure predictions, and because he had converted to Theravada Buddhism, Fa Ngum introduced this religion to the realm, and had temples built. In one of these temples he installed the golden statuette that his adoptive father had given him (the Pha Bang, of which a copy exists in the Old Royal Palace of Luang Prabang). Mouang Soua then became Mouang Xieng Thong (which ended up by being called Luang Prabang, in 1563.)

In this new capital, he installed a Khmer colony, made up of scholars, artists and Buddhist monks. That was the beginning of Laos ...

But Fa Ngum was impatient to leave again on his quest for peace and unity. In 1354, even though Nang Kaew Kaeng Nya was 3 months pregnant, he became master of the Thai state of Lan Nan. Then he came back to Louang Prabang where the Queen, who had ruled in his absence, had given birth to a son, Oun Heuane (Happiness of the House).

Not long afterwards, Fa Ngum prepared new expeditions into the Central and Southern regions, who had never acknowledged his authority. In 1356, he besieged Vientiane, which was called Vieng Nham (Golden Beech) at the time. It is said that, at that time, Vientiane was an extremely developed and rich town, fortified by impassable bamboo walls. Fa Ngum didn’t want to lose too many men by attempting an attack if he wanted to accomplish his dream. Instead he used cleverness to overcome the capital of this small realm...

Knowing that the town’s strength rested in this thick barricade of bamboo, Fa Ngum had some small pieces of gold shot into it so that they got caught up in the bamboo. He then started a rumour in the town, saying that the bamboo was special and that there was gold in it. When the villagers found out that there really was gold in the bamboo, they started to rip it apart, frantic and blinded by the idea of gold. Even the soldiers couldn’t resist the temptation of getting rich. Fa Ngum had only to wait, in order to take the town which no longer had any defences.

During the first 20 years of his reign, Fa Ngum extended his realm to the East by taking Champa, as well as the mountain range bordering Vietnam, with whom he signed a treaty for peace and for the sharing of the territory. He regularly provoked the King of Ayuthaya and seized many Siamese muongs ... Tired of the endless wars by this man called "The Conqueror", and also tired of his high-handed behaviour and his loose way of living since the death of his wife in 1368, his ministers deposed him in 1371. He died 2 years later, and was replaced by his son, Oun Heuane, who reigned for 40 years and who was nicknamed the Chief of the SamSenThai (the "three hundred thousand Lao-Thais", half-casts of Thai-Lao origin counted in the census of 1376.) The period between 1353 and 1416 (date of the end of the SamSenThai reign) was marked as one of the most prosperous in Lao’s history.

This period between 1353 et 1416 (end of the reign of SamSenThai) was recognised as one of the most prosperous periods in the history of Laos.

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