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A possible history!

Asa ruins Phou Asa

The Stones of Kiat Ngong.

As an accomplish of Mrs Patrizia Zolese, a chief archaeologist for this mission to Vat Thong Muang, Mr Marco Vadori published this interesting science article.

This visit dates to 2002 to the village of Ban Kiat Ngong, Pathoumpone District in Champasak Province.

Their curiosity got awoken for this, as like the Tomo (Oubmong) ruins, Phou Asa, although totally different in structure and construction are the only such sites on the left bank of the Mekong River.

This site at the edge of what is now known as the “National Protected Area, Xe-Pian Wetland” some 60 kilometres south of the province’s capitol of Pak-Xé or more commonly known as Pakse.

The village of Kiat Ngong then consisted only of wooden huts/buildings as do all her surrounding villages and have been since memory.

Back then with a population of over 25 elephants they took a ride up, just outside Kiat Ngong Village, the Asa hill/elevation.

They were presented with a black, rocky, barren flat vantage area overlooking the surrounding hills to the right as well as a large part of the wetland to the left, all covered in forest, much as it is today.

Walking atop this barren black area towards the far end, countering a little incline, they found what is today known as Vat Phou Asa meaning the Asa Temple on the hill.

Described by Mr Marco Vadori: “The ruins were covered in vegetation and completely abandoned, an impenetrable ruined small temple with a large stupa a few meters away, enclosed in a larger rectangular enclosure dotted with bizarre cylindrical pillars (counting 108 of them) surmounted by a circular monolithic slab, all structures are made of dry stone masonry”.

What an adventure this must have been back then and still is today.

Now for the interesting stuff 😉

The official story as per, Lao Ministry of Culture, Education and Tourism:

The “Temple” was the work of the Kha people (a generic and derogatory name that literally translates to “slaves” in the Lao language and refers to all tribal people including the Mon-Khmer ethnic subgroups locally such as Brao and dates back to the uprising against the Kingdom of Champasak early 1800’s.

The insurgency was led by a Monk named “Ay Wat Sa” from which the place got its name, Asa.

This version though left Mrs Zolese with too many questions apart from its name Ya Sa / Asa added to the Lao word for mountain which is Phou.

Phou Asa “Temple” is absolute unique in that there is nothing similar in Laos nor in her surrounding countries and one of her principal features is to find it still, in her loneliness in the forest as in the time of her construction.

One is very impressed by the vast lithic assemblance, those long rows of cylinders almost all still standing. Enigmatic in their silence as the megalithic Plain of Jars in Xiang Khouang Province.

One might get the same feeling of a mute testimony of lost civilizations, ancient wrecks that continue to emanate an aura of fascinating mystery, stones speaking a language long lost.

It was not until the winter of 2015/2016 that Mr. Marco Vadori, using Kingfisher Ecolodge as his base, ventured out along the base of Asa mountain to carry out inspections and excavations in order to find out more about this intriguing place.

His theory is that this “Temple” must have been a fortified place, an Acropolis, therefore in her close vicinity there should have been evidence of an ancient urban centre, and here before his very eyes, at the edge of the wetlands, emerged a city.

To get back to the official version and why this could be incorrect:

The rebellion of the tribal people took place between 1817 and 1821 targeting Chao Phnom Manoi, the King of Champasak at that time.

This indisputable historical fact has different versions depending on the source being it Thai, Lao or local.

What they all have in common though is that Champasak (Town) was taken, sacked and destroyed, also all mention the King fled to Bangkok in former Siam.

All mention the counterattack by Siamese forces and the King of Vientiane who pushed out the rebels. On the Monk leader of the rebellion, to whom the mountain now owes her name, the stories differ. After his flight from Phou Asa to Attapue he was killed on Phou Ya Pou, escaped into the forest or captured and taken to Siam.

The structure of the “Temple” is entirely from dry rock, stones assembled with great skill but absolutely distant from any works left by the Khmer buildings such as Vat Phou Champasak or other monuments throughout this area including Angkor.

It also needs mentioning that since the collapse of the great Khmer Empire in the thirteenth century, no one ever moved a rock anymore in the region.

All constructions since, being it the Lao, Brao or any other ethnic groups have been only using wood.

When the French arrived in the late nineteenth century, they found Champasak’s structures solely made of wood except for a brick pagoda in Sino-Lao style from the mid-nineteenth century.

At the time of the French arrival when written history started, the natives were practically living naked, armed with stone axes and absolutely oblivious of any lithic construction technologies, besides the edification of temples does not belong to animists like the Brao and other minorities in this area.

We can also rule out the idea of people living in this forest building stone walls to protect their villages from invaders as there is no proof of them even putting up wooden barriers for protection.

Another oral history, by an elderly Brao from Taong, a village near Kiat Ngong.

They link the Asa ruins to “Groong”, an epic and messianic character of Brao mythology and Vat Phou Champasak to Groong’s brother Yoong.

Groong is often associated, by Laotian and Cambodian Brao animists, to several places of natural elements of interest. Think of waterfalls, large rocks, trees or forests.

This then leads back to mythical times and the construction of the Asa “Temple” atop the (Phou) mountain in the forest in ancient periods.

Other local testimonies refer to how Vat Phou Champasak was constructed by giants 8 “soke” tall (a soke is the length from elbow to fingertip in Lao), reference to mythical ages that suggest the construction of the Asa “Temple” existed from more ancient times than when King Chao Manoi or the Monk Ay Sa lived.

The ruins atop Phou Asa have all the features of a Hindu design, the wide rectangular stone walls, offering a perfect view of its surrounding area and with four meters wide and two meters high easily defensible. Also, the dugout baray inside as well as the ones outside to hold (drinking) water for the dry season.

More recent finds around Ban Kiat Ngong, an Asian “Venice” in the middle of a forest:

Modern day Ban Kiat Ngong sits at the foot of Asa mountain on the edge of the Xe Pian wetland.

Due to altimetry reasons this area is the first to get flooded during the monsoon and the last to fall dry in the hot season subsequently this is the favourable location for people wanting to collect water to see them through the dry season. 

The morphology of the terrain features characteristic volcanic rock formations that naturally tend to split into blocks.

Right on the edge of the wetland, in an extensive area that includes the entire Kingfisher Ecolodge compound, lapping eastward Ban Kiat Ngong and continuing into the “boeung” (wetland in Lao) there are kilometres of stone dikes, protecting the soil from annual floods from the boeung.

There are recognisable canals, water locks, passages, docks and stairways as well as terraces for cultivation of rice.

The evidence of human intervention in constructing such a complex water control system, and its construction using local lava rocks must be associated with the ruins of the Asa “Temple”. There are flights of stairs using large slabs of volcanic rock similar to the ones used at the Asa structures.

This, to Marco Vadori and Patrizia Zolese, have them believe that the presence of a village, at the foot of the Asa hill connotes differently to what was, till now, seen as just a bizarre Trible temple and transforming this into an undoubted antique acropolis.

As on the other side of the Mekong, at the foot of the Mountain of Shiva (now Phou Kao) set the ancient city of (probably) Shrestapura, similarly crossed by man made canals, bridges and Temples.

More pieces to this jigsaw puzzle with a short history of the region and general considerations:

The prehistoric age, the emerging of historical societies are all closely related to each other as well as to southern China. These were not just a collection of isolated worlds but rather well-connected areas as testimony the excavations and dissemination as far as in Indonesia of bronze drums called Dong Son and dating back 3 to 100 years BC from Yunnan. Three of these, of considerable size are exposed in the museum of Pakse.

The first century of western counting brought the first of the Indianized South-East Asian kingdoms, the Funan.

This kingdom, in the Mekong Delta however was composed of city-states, territories, kingdoms and principalities often at war with each other. The Funan, due to her location between India and China and the decline of the aera of the Silk Route in the third century plus the boost of traffic by sea, expended her control over most of southern Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia.

Through Chinese chronicles it is known that the northern kingdom called Chenla over-run all Funan around the fifth to seventh century. At this time Shivaism was made the state religion

The Chenla kingdom evolved into the Khmer Empire and the first commemorative stone in the Khmer language, let carved by king Isanavarman, is dated 612AD.

At this same time in Annam, todays central Vietnam, around Hue a second Indianized kingdom named by the Chinese as Lin Yi, was developing, a forerunner of the still Shivaism Champa Kingdom.

Their main centre of worship was My-Son in the mountains some seventy kilometres from today’s Da Nang. Here a stele, dated from the fourth Century AD, was found announcing the foundation of the temple dedicated to Shiva by King Bhadravarman in its inscription.

The first capital of the Chenla Kingdom named Shrestapura was most likely the same city as founded by King Devanika, at the foot of the Linga-Pervata, today called Phou Kao. On its ruins the current town of Vat Luang Kau is build, the last in line along the Mekong making up for what we now address as Muang Champasak. In the seventh century AD the Chenla kingdom was split up between Laos and modern-day Cambodia with its second capital founded by King Isanavarman I, Isanapura, todays Sambor Prei Kuk.

Today, as before, Ban Kiat Ngong is located on the road that connects Vat Phou Champasak to Attapeu and continuing over the mountains to Vietnam/Champa. Is was a strategic location overseeing the road to Vietnam/Champa and the importance of its abundance of available water all year round.   

In Funan the stagnant waters of the Mekong Delta presented challenges to its residents such as the constant efforts building drainages, while in the territories where the Chenla Kingdom was born and developed, the challenges on the water front were the opposite in that they needed to store the water during the rainy season to get them through the long dry seasons. The implementation of major water projects and their management required a centralised and efficient governing. In the end this is what made the Chenla Kingdom dominate the other kingdoms as their effective water management allowed for year-round available crops which allowed the population to flourish thus also allowing for a superior military strength compared to its rivalling neighbours.

At Ban Kiat Ngong, kilometres of dikes remain visible, it practically is a huge baray (Khmer water reservoir). Perhaps this is the place where the ancient Khmer developed their ingenious water management skills on which they build their Empire? Besides the large Baray’ at Vat Phou Champasak, there is one at Ban That, and 3 Khmer towers, flanked by a smaller one, on the road to Angkor Wat.

This smaller one, probably the oldest Baray is strikingly similar in construction to those of Ban Kiat Ngong, composed of stones arranged in rows superimposed one on the other forming a sort of steep stairs.

These Baray were build using a natural slope, dug out the upper part with the landfill used to construct the dike at the lower end as is the great Angkor Western Baray measuring 8×2.2 kilometres.

The author closes remarking: “I like to think that the fortunes of the Khmer Empire, with all the wonders left behind by them from so many centuries ago, may have had its cradle right here at Ban Kiat Ngong and her “boeung”.

Signed,

Marco Vadori.

San Vito al Tagliamento, Italy June 16th, 2016.

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