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Xiengkhouang Beyond the plain of Jar

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Laos is the least populated country is South East Asia, with about 7.17 million inhabitants in 2019 and an annual population growth of 2.3 %. Roughly 80 % of the population lives in rural areas. Although few in absolute numbers, within the population of Laos there is tremendous ethnic diversity with 49 officially recognized main ethnic groups. About 50 % of the population comprises culturally distinct ethnic minority groups, each with their own rich culture and traditions.

The population of Xieng Khouang Province was estimated at 251,334 in 201. Most people live in one of the provinces 570 small rural villages and practice agriculture and raise livestock. The most populous ethnic group in Xieng Khouang is Tai Phuan that comprise 40 % of the population. The Tai Phuan are classified as lowland Lao. They are traditional paddy rice farmers that supplement their livelihoods by fishing, collecting non-timber forest products and producing handicrafts.

The Hmong migrated from China to Laos in the 19th century and usually occupy the high mountains practicing rotating agriculture and raising livestock.  In northern Laos, the Hmong are most populous in Xieng Khouang province (38, 4 %). Other ethnic minorities include Tai Dam, Tai Deng and Khmu people. Phonsavanh has a sizeable population of people from Viet Nam and China running small businesses.

The largest contributor to Laos’ Gross Domestic Product is agriculture which provides a living for 80 % of the population. The principal crop is sticky rice but corn, tobacco, cotton and coffee are also grown. Raising livestock for domestic and regional consumption is an important economic activity. The primary national industries include hydropower, tin and gold mining, timber, tourism, garment manufacture and agro-forestry.

In Xieng Khouang the most important agricultural crops consist of rice and corn alongside cash crops such as cassava and peanuts. Cattle and buffalo raising is a significant contributor to rural household income. Timber industry plays an important role in the local economy. The Fujian cypress (Fokienia), locally called Mai Long Leng and the Red Sandalwood (Pterocarpus) produce a very durable wood and are greatly valued for furniture. Harvest of non-timber forest products such as resins, herbal medicine and forest foods for commercial and home use are also very important contributors to the local economy and rural people’s livelihoods. Important non-farming activities in the province are silk weaving, embroidery, basketry, umbrella making, blacksmithing, broom making, and food processing. Tourism is the second biggest industry in Xieng Khouang.

Xieng Khouang 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 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. In the mid-14th century, Muang Puan was incorporated into the Lane Xang Kingdom under Fa Ngum, though the Phuan were able to retain a high degree of autonomy. After Siam (Thailand) extended control to Lao territories east of the Mekong in the 1770’s, Muang Puan became a Siamese vassal state and also maintained tributary relations with Dai Viet (Viet Nam). To exert greater control of the lands and people of Muang Phuan, the Siamese launched three separate campaigns (1777-1779, 1834-1836, 1875-1876) to resettle large parts of the Phuan population to the south to regions under firm Siamese control.

Subsequent invasions by Chinese marauders called “Haw” plundered Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang, and the Franco-Siamese treaties of the 1890’s placed Xieng Khouang under colonial rule as part of French Indochina until briefly after World War II.

During the Second Indochina War that raged in Laos during the 1960’s and early 1970’s Xieng Khouang suffered heavy aerial bombardment and intense ground battles due to its strategic importance. This conflict has left a deadly legacy of unexploded ordnance (UXO) which is still being cleared today. Since Laos gained full independence in 1975, Xiengkhouang and the Plain of Jars are enjoying peace and tranquility after centuries of conflict.

The original capital city, Muong Khoun, was almost totally obliterated by US bombing and consequently, the capital was moved to nearby Phonsavanh. Of several Muong Khoun Buddhist temples built between the 16th and 19th century, only ruins remain. Vat Pia Vat, however, survived the bombing and can be visited.

In Laos there are three distinct seasons; cool and dry (November to mid-February): hot (mid February to mid-May); rainy (June-October). During the rainy season the country is very green with emerald rice paddies and forested mountains stretching as far as the eye can see. In November the rain gives way to a cooler dry season and it gets quite hot in March and April. However, the climate in Xieng Khouang is significantly cooler than Vientiane due to its high elevation; temperatures seldom exceed 30° C during the warm season and may approach 0° C at night in the cold season.

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