Luang Namtha's History

Discover the tug-of-war past of the Last Frontier’s far northwest.


Archaeological evidence, including stone tools found in the Nam Chook River Valley in Vieng Phoukha, and cliff paintings near Nalae, 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 15th century by Chao Fa Dek Noi, an ethnic Tai Lue.

Xieng Khaeng grew into a modest principality that later found itself under the influence of the Lanna Kingdom. In the 16th century, it became a Burmese vassal before falling under Siamese domination in the early 19th century. In 1885 Chao Fa Silinor led more than 1,000 Tai Lue to what is present day Muang Sing for strategic military reasons and to search of more fertile land for farming.

From the 16th to 19th centuries there were considerable population movements south of Muang Sing in the Nam Tha River Valley and Vieng Phoukha. In 1587 a group of 17 Tai Yuan families arrived in the Nam Tha Valley from Chiang Saen, Thailand, settling near present-day Vieng Tai Village. By 1624 Muang Houa Tha was established under the traditional muang administrative structure. In 1628, Pathat Phoum Phouk and Pathat Phasat were constructed as symbols of friendship and neutrality between Muang Houa Tha and Chiang Saen.

Vieng Phoukha was also prospering by the 17th century, with the construction of dozens of Buddhist monasteries and pagodas in the Nam Chook and Nam Fa river valleys. Evidence of a large population in Vieng Phoukha can be seen just north of the district capital, where extensive earthen ramparts surround the ruins of Vat Mahaphot. 

Though Muang Houa Tha enjoyed peace and stability through most of the 17th century, it briefly came under the influence of the Sipsongpanna Kingdom in southern China starting in 1709. Many locals, including Tai Yuan, moved to Muang Sing and today’s Sayabouly Province, leaving the Nam Tha Valley nearly abandoned for 155 years. During the late 1700s, many Tai Lue from Xieng Khaeng moved to Muang Sing.

In 1890, the Tai Yuan returned to the Nam Tha valley to re-establish Muang Houa Tha. Vat Luang Korn, one of Luang Namtha’s largest temples, was constructed shortly thereafter in 1892. However, the newly resettled Muang Houa Tha was to enjoy its independence for only two years. In 1894, the French, British and Siamese agreed that Muang Houa Tha would be administered by the French, and the Mekong from northern Muang Sing to Chiang Saen would serve as the border between French Indochina and British-ruled Burma.

By the late 1950s, following France’s withdrawal from Indochina after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, Muang Houa Tha found itself embroiled in the conflict between the US-backed Royal Lao Army and 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. After Lao gained independence in 1975 and until 1983, Houa Khong and Luang Namtha were administered as a single province and then partitioned into what is present day Luang Namtha and Bokeo Provinces.

Sources: Lao Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism

French translations of the Xieng Khaeng Chronicles


Luang Namtha…Nature’s Playground

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