CITIES IN LUANG NAMTHA
Tucked in the northwestern corner of Lao PDR, Luang Namtha covers an area of 9,325 square kilometers with more than 85% of its terrain being low calciferous mountains that rise to between 800–2,000 meters above sea level. The highest point (2,094 meters) is found in Vieng Phoukha District and several peaks that approach 2,000 meters can be found among the province’s central mountains that separate Namtha and Muang Sing. Like the rest of the country, Luang Namtha’s weather pattern is characterized by a rainy season lasting from May to October followed by a cool dry period from November to February. March and April are the hottest months. On average, the daily temperature is a pleasant 25 degrees Celsius but during the cool season it can dip to zero on the coldest nights.
To the north, Luang Namtha shares a 140 kilometer land border with the People’s Republic of China and its northwest frontier with Myanmar follows a 130 kilometer stretch of the Mekong River. Administratively, Luang Namtha Province is divided into 5 districts including Namtha, Nale, Vieng Phoukha, Long and Sing (Muang Sing) that are further divided into 380 village units. The provincial capital, which is also called Luang Namtha, is in Namtha District and is the most heavily populated town with nearly 45,000 inhabitants. Total population in 2005 was 145,310 with 78% classified as rural and 40% less than 14 years old.
Luang Namtha’s main industries are agriculture, wood processing, lignite and copper mining, handicraft production, transportation and tourism. In 2005 per-capita GDP stood at US$ 280 and grew at an annualized rate of 7.7%. In terms of employment, most people are engaged in agriculture, planting rice, corn, vegetables, cassava and peanuts. Other important agricultural products are buffaloes, cattle, fish, chickens, rubber, teakwood, watermelons, sugarcane and peppers. Forest products such as bamboo shoots, mushrooms, rattan, cardamom and ginger are also key sources of income for the rural population.
Archaeological evidence including stone tools found in the Nam Jook River Valley in Vieng Phoukha and cliff paintings near Nale suggest that Luang Namtha Province was inhabited as early as 6,000 years ago. The first local written account of the province’s history appears in the Xieng Khaeng Chronicles that recount the founding of Xieng Khaeng on the banks of the Mekong River in the early 15th century by Chao Fa Dek Noi, a Tai-Lue that originated in the court of Chiang Rung. Xieng Khaeng grew into a modest principality that later found itself under the influence of the Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand until the early 16th century and then become a Burmese vassal from the mid 16th to the early 19th century. Beginning in the first half of the 19th century, Xieng Khaeng fell under Siamese domination and suffered from numerous conflicts. In 1885 Chao Fa Silinor eventually led more than 1,000 Tai-Lue subjects to what is present day Muang Sing for both strategic military reasons and in search of more expansive agricultural land.
South of Muang Sing it appears that there were considerable population movements taking place from the 16th to the 19th century as well, in both the Nam Tha Valley and Vieng Phoukha. In 1587 a group of 17 Tai-Yuan families arrived in the Nam Tha Valley from Chiang Saen, settling near present-day Vieng Tai Village. By 1624 Muang Houa Tha was established under the traditional Tai Muang administrative structure, ruled by 4 nobles of the Saenhansulin family. In 1628, Pathat Phoum Phouk and Pathat Phasat were constructed as symbols of friendship and neutrality between Muang Houa Tha and Chiang Saen. The original Pathat Phoum Phouk still exists and is located south of Luang Namtha Township. The ruins of Pathat Prasat, on the other hand, are north of town near the source of the Nam Dee Stream but have almost completely disappeared.
Vieng Phoukha was also prospering by the 17th century, with the construction of dozens of Buddhist monasteries and pagodas in the Nam Jook and Nam Fa River valleys. Evidence of what must have been a large population in Vieng Phoukha can be seen just north of the district capital, where an extensive khou vieng (earthen rampart) surrounds the ruins of sprawling Vat Mahaphot and many smaller pagodas.
Though Muang Houa Tha enjoyed peace and stability through most of the 17th century, beginning in 1709 a series of natural disasters weakened the Muang and it briefly came under the influence of the Sipsongpanna Kingdom centered in southern China. A population exodus to Muang Sing, Muang Nan (Thailand) and Muang Ngern (Sayabouly Province) ensued, eventually causing the Nam Tha Valley to become nearly completely abandoned for 155 years. During the late 1700’s prior to the reign of Chao Fa Silinor, one of the first main population movements into Muang Sing began with a group of Tai-Lue from Xieng Khaeng, led by a woman named Nang Khemma. Nang Khemma was the widow of Xieng Khaeng’s ruler at the time and went on to commission the construction of That Xieng Teung Stupa in 1787. Today, That Xieng Teung remains highly revered by Tai-Lue Buddhists throughout the region and is believed to contain a sacred relic of the Lord Buddha.
In 1890, the Tai-Yuan returned to the Nam Tha Valley under the aegis of Chao Luangsitthisan to re-establish Muang Houa Tha. Vat Luang Korn, one of Luang Namtha’s largest, was constructed shortly thereafter in 1892. However, the newly resettled Muang Houa Tha was to enjoy its independence for only two years. In 1894, following a meeting between the French, British and Siamese colonists, it was agreed that Muang Houa Tha would be administered by the French and the Mekong from the northern reaches of Muang Sing to Chiang Saen would serve as the border between French Indochina and British-ruled Burma. Not long after this divide took place the first group of Tai-Dam arrived from Sip Song Chou Tai in north western Viet Nam and established Tong Jai Village on the east bank of the Nam Tha River. At about the same time the Tai-Dam arrived, migrations of Tai-Neua, Tai-Kao, Akha, Lanten, Yao and Lahu originating in Sipsongpanna, Burma and northwest Viet Nam began to migrate to the area’s fertile valleys and the forested mountains surrounding them.
By the late-1950’s following France’s withdrawal from Indochina after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Muang Houa Tha again found itself embroiled in conflict - this time between the US-backed Royal Lao Army and the resistance government’s communist inspired Pathet Lao forces. On 6 May 1962, Muang Houa Tha came under control of the Pathet Lao and was renamed Luang Namtha Province, while the area between Houei Xay and Vieng Phoukha was called Houa Khong Province, nominally controlled by the Royalists until the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975. Between 1975 and 1983 Houa Khong and Luang Namtha were administered as a single province and then partitioned into what is present day Luang Namtha and Bokeo.