The Phong inform us that they are neither Lao, Tai, nor Kha. Phong they are, and Phong they intend to remain whatever anyone may say or do.
The other day at Sam Neua, the phaya boun, a learned Tai man with a slender, intelligent-looking head, told us the legend of the Phong’s origins.
In days of yore, one of the daughters of the king of Vientiane, beautiful as the moon, was bathing in the Mekong, when a fruit of the species known as mak san collided with the pure lines of her body. To punish this sacrilegious fruit, our beauty devoured it with her little teeth, black and shiny like cinnamon seeds, whereupon the young princess’s health flourished as never before, and without her knowing the reason, a few months later, she felt stirrings in her entrails. Nine months after bathing, a rosy baby made its appearance in the world, to the great astonishment of the young mother and the no less great furor of the king her father. The king tried every means of discovering the author of his grandson’s days, threatened the princess with the most dreadful punishments, and pleaded with her with tears and sobs in his voice. Not surprisingly, all was in vain, with searches throughout the kingdom being just as fruitless.
Suddenly, the child began to utter dreadful screams without anyone managing to calm him down. For weeks, the court’s most expert matrons, physicians, and astrologers exhausted their efforts to soothe the baby’s tantrum, but all in vain, when a Phong turned up after traveling down the Ou River. Claiming he had the power to pacify the young prince, he was met with general incredulity. The Phong offered the child a mak san fruit, whereupon the baby immediately stopped crying. At the sight of the prodigy, the king did not hesitate. This was a sign from heaven! He offered his daughter’s hand to the victorious Phong, and the wedding was celebrated with great pomp. The Lao king offered the young couple the privilege of ruling over Don Tian territory on the Mekong a little below the capital city of what was then a powerful kingdom. The new prince’s servants took on the task of felling trees in the neighboring mountain to ready rice fields, or rai. But two or three days after they had completed their task, the trees grew again, covering the slopes of Don Tian just as before. The report of this prodigy spread over the entire country.
Fearful that his son-in-lay might be a genie descended upon the Earth to relieve him of his kingdom, with due ceremony, the king of Vientiane informed him of an expulsion order enjoining him to leave his states. Thus, following the fortunes of the exiled prince, the Phong people left for Hua Phan.
The mystery shrouding the Phong’s origins sustains many legends among the Tai, those big children.
Tonight, wrapped in his blanket, the phaya boun tells a true story, he says with a wry smile. Here it is, faithfully recounted.
Once upon a time, the Phong came down from the highlands led by a chief they called Bodo but who took the name of Hat Ang. He was protected by Heaven.
Now, on the feast of the fifteenth day of the moon, a genie descended from above carrying odd-looking instruments. He handed Hat Ang a two-sided gong, an axe made of diamonds, and a lek si, a kind of bradawl.
“Take the lek si,” said he, “and when the tribe sees that the streams have dried up and the springs have run dry, strike the rock, and water will gush out. Also cast the lek si against a stone to make a spark and light a wood fire. This axe will allow you to chisel the stone itself. As for the gong, it will be useful to you when you wish to invoke Heaven’s protection whenever your men are in serious danger.
Great was the Phong men’s joy when they saw themselves spoiled by benevolent genies; extreme was their pride.
They had accepted and put up with the suzerainty of the king of Luang Prabang over their territory. But now, they felt powerful enough to throw off the yoke, however light, of the Lao monarch, and refused to obey his orders.
An army was dispatched against the Phong, who, fortified by Heaven’s protection, put the Grand Muang’s soldiers to flight. The Phong kingdom flourished. Hat Ang was king. He hardly ever sang hymns of gratitude to Heaven any longer.
One fine summer’s day, as the midday heat kept everyone beneath the protecting roof of their huts, a sparrow hawk broke into a well-stocked chicken coop, where its appearance caused much commotion. With the fowls squawking in terror, the rumor spread from neighbor to neighbor. One cried out: “The enemy! The Lao from Luang Prabang are coming!” Hat Ang’s servants ran to the gong and struck it with redoubled efforts to call the warriors to arms.
When the band left the town, they saw nothing more than a sparrow hawk taking flight into the deep azure, carrying a small chicken in its claws. Great was the disappointment of these men of arms, who came home to jeers from the girls.
But the good genie could not accept that his gifts should be thus profaned. Sacrilegious use had been made of the gong, for there was no need to drag the heavenly protectors away from their spiritual contemplations for a naughty, thieving sparrow hawk. “Give me back this gong you do not know how to use!”, cried the genie in a chilling voice.
So poor Hat Ang was forced to return the sacred gong. For him and the Phong, this gong strike was a frightful blow, if we are to believe phaya boun, for seeing themselves cursed by Heaven, they all felt despondency entering their souls.
These events reached the ears of the king of Luang Prabang, who resolved to take the last two tokens he had received from Heaven from this rebellious vassal.
Now, Hat Ang had a daughter, beautiful as the day, as is expected of a fairy tale princess. A prince from the Kingdom of a Million Elephants and of the White Parasol, most handsome of person, came to the Phong monarch’s court to ask for his daughter’s hand. Proud of this alliance, Hat Ang enthusiastically agreed. The young couple enjoyed perfect love under the tender gaze of the Father of the Phong, when the prince remembered the mission that had been secretly entrusted to him. Living with his father-in-law, he was able to grab the celestial ax and the lek si and threw them into a burning brazier without anyone noticing.
A most resourceful man, the prince resolved to destroy the king and the principal chiefs of his race. He had spoken of Luang Prabang so often and so praised the great city’s charms that all burned with the desire to journey there. Our Lao thus persuaded the Phong that they would be able to see the capital if they erected a tall tower on the region’s principal mountain. They did so.
For months and months, materials of all kinds were brought to the summit of the peak, and all able-bodied men started work on erecting this colossal monument, a sort of Tower of Babel.
When the tower rose into the air to five hundred cubits on a base as wide as a citadel, the prince climbed it followed by the court and an immense multitude, then under some pretext or other went back down again, and with the complicity of some Lao servants, set fire to the tower. The tower came crashing down with a terrifying noise. Every single person that had climbed the mountain perished, except the prince and his entourage.
They returned to the Phong’s town, seemingly dismayed by the accident, which was due, they claimed, to the people’s imprudence. But since the Lao king’s envoy wished to annihilate the race, he persuaded the surviving Phong to wage war on the fog that obstructed the road to Luang Prabang. Many a warrior fell to his death tumbling down a precipice.
The credulous Phong then waged war on water, which for them was a new obstacle. Many were drowned.
Finally, a Lao army turned up, having been called by the prince. As it approached, the Phong fled their village for the mountain, but the soldiers from Luang Prabang chased them there mercilessly. Submitting at last, the remnants of the Phong race accepted the suzerainty of their former monarch forever.
Such is the fantastical narrative of this humorous man of letters, the old phaya boun.
At Ban Sa Loei, one of the principal Phong villages, we question the chiefs and the notables. They tell us the story of the tower, energetically claiming to be neither Kha, Tai, or Lao. Their elders told them that their race originated at the source of the Nam Ou, which they left to settle in the kingdom of Vientiane, and then moved on to Hua Phan territory exactly 183 years ago. From Vientiane they brought the Lao language and Lao writing while preserving the Phong language among themselves. From the Lao they learned the Buddhist religion, for Ban Sa Loei has its pagoda and its buddhas. They also followed the Vientiane calendar and celebrated its festivals.
All that is left of the Phong is a little over one hundred families scattered among several villages in the same Hua Phan district, and the Ban Sa Loei people do not know of any other groups of the same race. Since their submission to the king of Luang Prabang, they no longer have tribal chiefs.
The notables also willingly tell the story of the princess from Vientiane who became with child thanks to the mak san and explain their departure from the Lao kingdom on the basis of this legend.
Like most residents of Hua Phan, the men wear short jackets and wide trousers. As among the Tai Neua, the women’s skirts are tied under the armpits and are quite unusual in design, with alternating white, yellow, and red lozenges. The women wear gaiters, a short jacket of dark blue cotton adorned with multi-colored piping, and a turban with small strips of red, white, or blue cloth hanging down the left side of the head.
We record the tribe’s vocabulary, which is guttural, as among all the Kha.
In sum, these famous Phong seem to us to consist of a group of Kha no doubt taken into slavery by Vientiane’s armies and who reclaimed their freedom either at the time of the final fall of the kingdom or during a troubled period of the sort the country’s monarchs endured so often during the years preceding the final catastrophe.
For us, the strips of multi-colored cloth that adorn the edge of the turban recall the flowers or leaves the Kha women habitually insert in the same spot in their hair, which is tied in the same manner as among the Phong.
But try telling these semi-civilized people they are Kha in origin! They can barely call themselves Lao. Such is human nature’s eternal pride!
These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 4:19 (October 15, 1905): 1398-1402.
The images of the Phong people presented here were taken by Alfred Raquez and are held in the collection of the Natural History Museum in Vienna. They are reproduced from Old Postcard Series Vol 1: Laos, Lao Postcards by Alfred Raquez, edited by D. Ande. (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2015). For more information on the Vienna archive of materials Raquez collected in Laos during his mission, see William L. Gibson, “Mission Raquez: A forgotten ethnographic expedition through Laos in 1905,” History and Anthropology (2018) https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2018.1474351