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A brief history of the Lan Xang Kingdom, a powerful state growing from Laos to rival the Thai Kingdoms to the south.

The modern nation of Laos has changed hands through many different empires throughout the years. Thanks to its rich material wealth and prime location in Asia, it has grown to hold a special spot for many cultures who want to expand. At times, these empires have included Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Chinese kingdoms. However, one unique among such empires was Lan Xang, a powerful kingdom emerging from Laos itself.

The Lan Xang Kingdom was founded by Fa Ngum in the early 14th century. The grandson of the king of Muang Sua, Fa Ngum became “the Conqueror” by taking over several tribes and city-states to form this kingdom. Lan Xang lasted for over 300 years before enemies overtook it due to its landlocked nature.

Lan Xang was unique in that it allowed for much ethnic diversity and a limited social structure. Unlike other similar empires of the time, there wasn’t a complicated caste system to deal with, and the country continued to grow as more territory was taken. This article will look at the Lan Xang empire more, explore their culture and beliefs, and see what made them unique.

Who Are the Lan Xang Kingdom?

Lan Xang, which also goes by the name of Lan Chang, was a kingdom found in the area of Laos and Northeastern Thailand. This kingdom flourished and did well starting in the 14th century. It wasn’t until the 18th century when Lan Xang officially ended when it was divided into two kingdoms. These two kingdoms were the Luang Prabang and the Vien Chang.

Origins of the Lan Xang Kingdom

The geography of the Lan Xang empire would originally be settled by some of the indigenous Austroasiatic-speaking tribes, including the Vletic and Khmuic people. This helped bring out some of the Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures that developed during that time.

The Han dynasty spent a lot of time expanding southward over time. It was this that provided some of the very first written accounts of the Tai-Kadai speaking people who were in the Guangxi and Yunnan areas of China.

The Tai people then migrated south in waves starting in the seventh century. This migration went faster after the Mongol army took over Yunnan between 1253 to 1256. This conquest drove the Mongols further north into the area that would eventually become Lan Xang.

In the fertile valleys of the north, the Dvaravati culture of the Mon people was growing. The principal city-state in this area was known as the Muan Sua. As the Sukhothai Kingdom began to grow, many other common cities of the time came under Thai influence. Following the death of their king, Ram Khamhaeng, some city-states got free until the founding of Lan Xang in 1353.

It was then in 1343 when King Souvanna Khampong died that a dispute over Muang Sua took place. Fa Ngum, the grandson of the former king, was given an army to take the crown. He began his campaign to take back first the area of Muang Sua, taking other areas along the way and uniting districts and towns that were once dispersed.

In 1353, Fa Ngum was crowned, and he chose to give his kingdom the name of Lan Xang Hom Kaho. He continued more conquests during the time, growing the area of Lan Xang to take up large parts of China, Loatia, and more.

Lan Xang Name Origins

Fa Ngum was the one who came up with the name of the country. It was officially known as Lan Xang Hom Khao, which stood for the name of “The Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol.”

Culture and Beliefs of the Lan Xang Kingdom

Culture in Lan Xang

Lan Xang had a lot of ethnic diversity due to ethnic migrations and trade. There were many hill tribe peoples, some people who were related to the Tai groups, and many were from other parts of China.

Because of the complicated ethnic diversity of the time, the structure of society was kept simple, compared to other cultures nearby.

This society was divided into a few categories. There was the secular authority of those in the royal family, along with the religious orders, followed by the nobles. The final group was the peasantry, which included general laborers, farmers, artisans, and merchants.

Those outside the system, but considered above all, were the sangha or the clergy. These provided social mobility and a way to receive an education. The hill people and those who were prisoners of war were outside of the social system.

Lan Xang was also in the century of trade for much of Southeast Asia, which allowed it a good way to make money and grow wealthy. Their crafting of gold, silver, weaving, and silk production, as well as in rice and forest timber, were in high demand in the area.

Religion in Lan Xang

The Theravada branch of Buddhism was the state religion of Lan Xang beginning in 1527 with King Photisarath, though it had started back in the beginning with Fa Ngum.

Even in the local villages and towns, much of the people’s daily lives revolved around the way or local temple. These were known as the centers of learning, and all males had to spend at least a little bit of their time in religious contemplation as a novice or a monk.

History of the Lan Xang Kingdom

The Lan Xang empire was one that helped combine many different independent city-states and cultures into one. Outside of a brief period where Fa Ngum, the founder, was not friendly towards other religions, many people enjoyed relative peace in this area. This empire became a big center of trade thanks to its cold, silk, and timber. However, with it being landlocked, it was at the mercy of other empires, which soon turned into its downfall.

Early Years of Lan Xang Expansion

The history of Lan Xang was one of expansion. Even after starting and naming this country, Fa Ngum continued to expand to the east. He spent time picking off parts of the disintegrating Champa empire and then went along the Annamite Mountains that were part of Vietnam.

It didn’t take long before Fa Ngum earned the name, “The Conqueror,” because he was always preoccupied with warfare.

Height and Decline of Lan Xang

The first few years for Fa Ngum were pretty uneventful. Then in the next six years, there were some troubles between different religious sects of the time. Fa Ngum was a believer of the lamaistic Buddhism, while many others wanted to follow Theravada Buddhism. Fa Ngum was not friendly towards the other religion and had many pagodas torn down.

In 1368, when his first wife, Khmer, died and remarried the ruler of Ayutthaya’s daughter, he calmed down on the ideas of religion. It was this wife who welcomed artistic and religious missions, one of which brought the statue of Buddha, the phrahang into the country, and this became the palladium of the kingdom.

This country lasted for about 300 years, developing itself as a powerful trade partner for many as time went on because of its big sources of wealth.

Geography of the Lan Xang Kingdom

Lan Xang in the North

In the north and northwest, the Lan Xang were able to create overland trade routes with Lanna and Burma through to Yunnan. These would eventually join up with the Chinese Tea-Horse Road. There was also some trade done in the city of Luang Prabang that could flow down to Vientiane and then transported overland to Roi Et. This helped to Make Lan Xang a major trading partner in that part of the world. 

Lan Xang in the East

Towards the East, the Annamite Range formed a big barrier, but the areas of Xam Neua and Muang Phuan helped the Lan Xang enjoy commerce with Vietnam. The route was sometimes complicated and relied on the major rivers to that side, but many goods were exchanged, including silver, iron, and cloth for the forest products that Lan Xang was well-known for. 

What Happened to the Lan Xang Kingdom?

Even though the Lan Xang Kingdom lasted for many years, it was in 1690 when it fell prey to a series of rivals to the throne. This split the Lan Xang into three independent kingdoms:  Vientiane, Champasak, and Luang Prabang. Another section of Lan Xang, Muang Phuan, remained semi-independent because it was annexed by Vietnam earlier, but this annexation was short-lived.

Over time, even these three kingdoms were taken over by other factions, including by the Burmese, the Siamese, and other Chinese areas until the 1800s, when they joined Vietnam and Cambodia under the colonial umbrella of French Indochina.

Cities of the Lan Xang Kingdom

Wiang Chan (Vientiane)
Vientiane, Laos
GPS: 17.96285, 102.6114

Champasak
Champasak, Laos
GPS: 14.90445, 105.87024

Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, Laos
GPS: 19.88757, 102.13551

Nakhon Phanom
Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
GPS: 17.39608, 104.78251

Roi Et
Roi Et, Thailand
GPS: 16.05366, 103.65058

Monuments of the Lan Xang Kingdom

Wat Phra That Luang
Vientiane, Laos
GPS: 17.96285, 102.6114

Phrathat Phanom Ong Doem Stupa

Fast Facts

Name: Lan Xang Kingdom
Origin: United Laos kingdoms rose in the power vacuum left by the receding Khmer Empire.
Language: Lao
Religion: Theravada Buddhism
Period/Era: 1353 – 1707 CE
Location: Modern Laos and northeastern Thailand.
Capital: Luang Prabang, later Vientiane
Decline: Political turmoil broke Lan Xang into 3 independent kingdoms.

Glossary

Angkor
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern day Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Ayutthaya
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.

Ayutthaya Kingdom
Thai kingdom based in central Thailand, later referred to as Siam. Its capital was the city of Ayutthaya until the city was destroyed by the Burmese, forcing the state of Siam to relocate to modern Bangkok and found the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Chiang Mai
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mangrai in 1296.

Chiang Saen
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Ngoenyang Kingdom until the establishment of its successor, the Lanna Kingdom, in 1293 CE.

Dvaravati
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.

Emerald Buddha
Common English name of Phra Kaew Morakot, a legendary Buddha images which is currently housed in Bangkok after changing hands through several empires.

Isaan
Common name for the northeastern region of Thailand.

Jayavarman VII
Mahayana Buddhist king of the Khmer Empire from 1181–1218 who conquered Champa, built Angkor Thom, and initiated massive engineering projects to rebuild the kingdom.

Khmer
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.

Khmer Empire
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.

Lanna Kingdom
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.

mandala
Political system found in historic Southeast Asia in which tributary states surrounded a central power without being directly administered by them.

Mekong River
The world’s 12th longest river, which flows from the Himalayas through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, into the Pacific Ocean.

phra that
Common term in Thai temple names meaning “Buddha relic”, referencing the temple supposedly housing a relic of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Also spelled “phrathat”.

Rattanakosin Kingdom
Thai kingdom and successor to the Thonburi Kingdom. Based in Bangkok and founded in 1782, the Rattanakosin era lasted until 1932, when political reforms transformed the kingdom into the modern nation of Thailand.

Siam
The unified Thai state that began in the Ayutthaya Kingdom and continued through the Rattanakosin Kingdom into modern Thailand.

stupa
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

Tai peoples
Ethnic group originating in Southern China that migrated south during the Mongol invasions, eventually founding the kingdoms hat became Thailand and Laos.

Taungoo dynasty
The ruling dynasty of Myanmar from 1510–1752. It waged wars with and conquered several surrounding kingdoms, including Siam, Lanna, and Lan Xang.

Theravada Buddhism
“The “Doctrine of the Elders” branch of Buddhism which draws its teachings from the Pali Canon. This sect is popular in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Thonburi Kingdom
The historic successor of the Ayutthaya Kingdom founded in 1767 in modern Bangkok. It was succeeded by the Rattanakosin Kingdom in 1782.

wat
Thai word meaning “temple”

wiang
Thai word for “walled city”

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

2 Comments

  • Thx for posting this informative piece on the Lan Xang Kingdom! 🙂

    You did a good job of highlighting how it grew out of the Khmer Empire right up to the 1800’s when the French began their involvement in the area.

    • Benjamin says:

      I agree they’re more interesting that I originally thought. Although there’s a lot of info out there about the rise of the Thai kingdoms following the decline of Angkor, there is comparatively a lot less on Lan Xang — to the point where (until actively looking into them) I had only heard of Lan Xang in passing mentions in their relationship with Lanna. I’m hoping to learn more about them on any subsequent trips to Laos – and specific sites you could recommend?

What are your thoughts?