Souvanna Khomkham (Laos): Ancient city emerges from the waters of the Mekong

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The big Buddha, one of the few remaining examples of the craftsmanship of the period. / Vientiane Times

Located on a former island which disappeared when the Mekong River swelled, it was rediscovered this year when the water level dropped

The large engraved pole and other antiques unearthed from the ruins of the ancient city of Souvanna Khomkham teaches the modern generation about the quality of the civilisation that existed at that ancient time.

Recently, more artifacts and pieces of the city have been discovered along the Mekong River.

The ancient city of Souvanna Khomkham is located in Ton Pheung district of Bokeo province, a northern province of Laos, on a site about 40 km from the district's main town. It is located on a former island which disappeared when the Mekong River swelled and swamped it and was rediscovered this year when the water level dropped considerably.


The oldest stupa in Souvanna khomkham

From information supplied by the Bokeo Information, Culture and Tourism office, the date that the ancient city was founded remains a mystery. According to historical records kept by Sri Lanka and mentioned in the book Exploration of the Mekong River written by 19th century explorer Francis Garnier, Souvanna Khomkham appeared in the fifth century AD. The book says that the city developed rapidly. In only three years the number of households reached 100,000. It was mainly populated by Khrom people.

The success of the city attracted traders from the Naga families of Luang Prabang and they had some disputes. The people of Luang Prabang sent their armies to attack Souvanna Khomkham which they razed to the ground and dispersed its population. Some went to Luang Prabang where they brought with them the tradition of Lai Heua Fai, a spiritual festival which is still followed today.

Sometime later a Naga family of Lao Chok (Lao from northern Xieng Hai) rebuilt Souvanna Khomkham and surrounded it on all four sides with a rampart, each side measuring 3,000 var (an extended two-arm span).

The city was renamed Nakhenthra Nakhorn or Nakhaburi or Nakhaphanthusinghonvat Nakhorn or Nakhorn Xieng Lao as it was built and rebuilt by Lao people of the north. Besides these different names, in the various records of the northern Lao people and in the epic Thao Hung Thao Cheuang, another name was mentioned - Nakhorn Ngeun Nyang or Ngeun Nyuang. Later, when Phanya Saen Phou ruled the city, it was called Nakhorn Xieng Saen.

Forty-three kings of the Lao Chok dynasty ruled over Nakhorn Xieng Lao or Nakhaburi or Nakhorn Ngeun Nyang before Khun Cheuang ascended to the throne. He was the first Lao king to unite the ethnic groups in the northern kingdom in 1096 AD.

Khun Cheuang led an army to conquer Luang Prabang, Xieng Khuang and Pakan (Bac kan, Principality of Kieo Chi, Vietnam), which he built into a united kingdom especially among the Naga and the Khrom.

He can be considered a great king of the multi-ethnic Lao nation. The kingdom of Khun Cheuang collapsed after the reign of four Luang Prabang rulers such as Khun Kan Hang, a great grandchild of Khun Cheuang, who was defeated by the armies of Khun Lor who came from Meuang Lum or Meuang Thaeng (present day Dien Bien Phu).

Souvanna khomkham which is the first name given to the city has been destroyed and rebuilt several times and given many names before it became the present day's ruins, leaving few traces of its past but those which exist are quite moving.

According to initial surveys, in an area of 10,000 hectares, there are 44 archaeological vestiges and brick buildings such as temples, stupas, Buddha images, water reservoirs and other constructions.

The city was the object of many attacks by Lao and Thai bandits and the only vestige left over from that time, which attests to the high level of artistry and craftsmanship of the era, is a Buddha image seated in the meditation posture made from bricks and plaster. The statue is 7.22 metres high, not including the ushnisha (special headdress), and 7.10 metres wide. Each shoulder measures 1.10 metres across. From the side, the length from the hip to the knee is 3.60 metres.

It can be considered as one of the largest Buddha images in Laos and also in Southeast Asia. Judging by its size we can say that the Buddha image was at one time enclosed within the palace grounds. 
Unfortunately, only the body and head are left. The ushnisha has also disappeared. The navel area and the throne were excavated by looters in search of treasure.

Another Buddha image, almost as large as the first one has collapsed. Phra Lan Tue or Phra Rasmi is made of bronze and is now at the bottom of the Mekong near the small island of Don Haeng. Phra Lan Tue fell into the river because of erosion of the river bank on the Lao side. There are a number of stupas left but all were desecrated by looters for the treasures placed inside them. Most of them are now ruined, with only a few still standing.

These archaeological finds attest to the fact that the major part of the site dates from the time the city was called Nakhorn Xieng Saen. King Setthathirath founded the city on both sides of the Mekong River with its centre on the left bank in the exact same location as present day Ton Pheung district. The city was destroyed during an invasion by Burmese armies, under the reign of King Setthathirath which led to the occupation of Lane Na and its ensuing separation from Lane Xang.

Following a small mountain range which stretches from north to south on the west of the ruined city there is a deep ditch, over 10 meters wide, which stretches to the bank of the Mekong River with a high dyke (now a road) on its eastern flank, which is the western side of the city.

That, evidently, was the city's defence system, a rampart against the armies of elephants, horses and soldiers of the aggressors.

The area is now preserved as a national archaeological site, a place for historical research and knowledge, a tourist destination and a place for relaxation for researchers, scholars and amateur enthusiasts of antiquity.