February 20, 2016
The Phaun People and their ancient fight to keep their identity
The Phuan people (พวน), also known as Tai Phuan, Thai Puan (Thai: ไทพวน) or Lao Phuan are a Theravada Buddhist Tai people, who also believe in animism, in which they seek help through the worship of both “guardian spirits” and “locality spirits and objects.
The Phuan are thought to number 307,000 people, according to the Ethnologue Report, with as many as 200,000 spread out in small pockets, over most of the northeastern Isan region, with smaller groups scattered in central Thailand. The majority of the remaining Phuan live in Lao within the borders of their original Kingdom.
The Phuan language is closely related to other tribal Tai languages, such as the Thai Dam and the Thai Loei, but unlike some other local dialects the Phuan language is not losing ground to the standard Thai language and is fiercely guarded by the people.
While little is written about the Phuan, what is known other than the fact that they are an ethnic group who highly value their own language and identity, is that they once had their own Kingdom (located in today’s Xieng Khouang province, north-east Lao). It was later to become an independent principality in the Lan Xang Kingdom and later still a colony of both Vien Tiane and lastly Siam.
It is believed that they established their small kingdom around the Plain of Jars before King Fa Ngum founded the Lan Xang Kingdom in 1353. The Phuan called their kingdom and their capital Muang Phuan.
Culture and Commerce
Over the centuries the Phuan people have lost little in the way of their traditional style of dress (though most now wear western clothing in every-day use). Their women are still famous for their hand woven textiles, especially the striped and patterned pakama, a short sarong worn by men, and a pasin tin jok, a longer women’s skirt, along with the equally colourful silk or cotton phaa sins and sashes.
The women are skilled in all phases in the production of these garments, from raising silkworm to silk cocoon preparation, to spinning and dying the thread, through to weaving and embroidering the garments. While the Phuan are traditionally paddy rice cultivators and it is their most important cash crop, the older Lao Phuan men still make a wide variety of baskets, containers, vases, traps and other household utensils from bamboo.
Phuan culture is very similar to other tribal Tai groups and the Isan and Laotian people with whom they are neighbours and occasionally kin.
Their History of Forced Resettlement
For many centuries the Phuan prospered but in later years there were a number of defining periods in the Phuan history when the people were forced into resettlement to Siam (now Thailand).
The population of the Phuan kingdom was repeatedly decimated by the Siamese who took tens of thousands of slaves from Muang Phuan to Siam after the wars of 1773, 1792 and 1827.
Corvee/slavery had been in existence in the Kingdom for 387 years prior to 1905, with as many as 1/3 of the population believed to be in bondage. It was King Chulalongkorn who outlawed this practice in 1905. See more on slavery in Thailand
More of its people were forcibly resettled yet again in 1885, when the Siamese army defeated the horse mounted Haw, (See our post The Haw in today’s Thailand), who had captured, the then still Siamese colony of Xiengkhouang.
The Haw had been able to steal, rob, plunder and massacre almost unchecked, everything and everyone they came across in the preceding two decades, including plundering into the southern provinces of Isaan.
While the old Phuan capital, Muang Phuan, survived the ravages of the Haw bandits in the nineteenth century, it 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
Annual Festivals and Events
The Phuan have two unique events each year they are; the nationally celebrated Kam Fa Festival and the regional Si Satchanalai Elephant Back Ordination Procession
The Kam Fa Festival (ประเพณีกำฟ้า) (or Boon Kam Fa Festival) has its origins from the once rich history of the Phuan People. This annual event is organised to seek blessings, from the gods and spirits who protect the Phuan and who can bestow both good and bad luck. The traditionally two – three day event is held across both Thailand and Lao traditionally on second and third day of the waxing moon in the third lunar month.
The festival is a combination of merit making, parades and the chance for the Phuan to wear their traditional clothes, play their ancient games, sing and dance to long remembered songs and enjoy delicious food all wrapped in a carnival atmosphere.
For more on this event and why the sound of thunder is so important to these people see our post Kam Fa Festival
Si Sachanalai Ordination Procession This annual event is known as “Buat Chang Hat Siao”, and is held during 7–8 April at Ban Hat Sieo, Ampher Si Sachanalai. Sukhothai Province. It features a spectacular procession of soon to be monks in colourful costumer on the backs of some 20-30 decorated elephants.
For more on this event see our post Si Satchanalai Elephant Back Ordination Procession
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