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The History of Kham Thong Luang

by Upahat Ba Phoi.  Translation Peter Koret, Broken Handle Press, USA 2018.
Review-essay by Dr Robert Cooper

Ba Phoi’s manuscript

While traveling throughout Laos in search of historical artefacts in 2006, researchers of the EFEO (École Française d’Extrême-Orient) made an unusual discovery. In a small town in remote, southern Salavan Province, they came across an old palm-leaf manuscript composed entirely in verse.  The text was as long as it was rare: a total of 786 leaves, hand-written on both sides; over one thousand five hundred A4 pages when typed out in Lao.  There are no other Lao historical documents from any period remotely comparable in size. Stranger still, this manuscript is a history of a person and place that nobody knew existed: Ba Phoi in Kham Thong Luang.

The only handwritten copy of this text was hanging from a nail in the house of the ninety-year-old great granddaughter of the man who composed it.  The History of Kham Thong Luang had been collecting dust for nearly a century – as if waiting for Peter Koret, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to translate it into English and make it available to the world.

This extraordinary work spans almost forty years (1884-1920, with back-story references).  Ba Phoi’s translator, Peter Koret, is sure this work (in translation, about the length of Das Kapital) was written diary-style, with the content of each leaf fresh in Ba’s mind and pen.  This accounts for some of the contradictions in the text – Ba Phoi evolved as he wrote, although at times he seems to have ‘evolved’ during the gap between consecutive lines.   Ba started writing soon after completing his early life as a monk; he stopped writing suddenly in his mid to late fifties, presumably taken by death.  We access Ba Phoi’s life and thought through the medium of an outstanding translation in English.

Ba Phoi refers to himself in the third person throughout, most often using the terms ‘Ba’ (‘Monsieur’ rather than ‘Mister’, now obsolete), ‘(the) Upahat’ and occasionally ‘the book-keeper’.  This is a polite (but not subservient) way of addressing an equal or superior – Ba was being polite to his future readers.  Peter retains Ba’s third person use throughout.  The modern reader (at least this one) does, however, get a feel that Ba Phoi is talking directly to his reader; certainly Ba wrote to be read.  I also got a feeling that the author was something of an isolated/lonely man; Ba Phoi can translate ‘Monsieur Solitary’, which might be a pen-name since his birth name was Khambao.  Ba was born out of wedlock, never mentions a father, his mother died at age thirteen and he entered a monastery, initially in Kham Thong Luang then in Ubon.  He married the granddaughter of the then Chao Meuang in 1884 and became a clerk for his grandfather. Perhaps his simple use of ‘Ba’ was significant in a time when millenarian leaders were using the pretentious ‘Ong’ as personal pronoun – if so, it is Ba’s only sign of modesty.  Ba was a traditionalist; his worldview followed that prevalent in southern Laos at the time: he was millenarian and seems to have believed in the coming thousand-year golden age to be ushered in after his topsy-turvy world, where inferior ruled superior, collapsed with the arrival of the Maitreyya, the future Buddha. Naturally, he wrote on palm-leaf; anything important worth keeping was written on palm-leaf.

We gain much from Ba’s description of the French, with whom he had an ambivalent if quietly hostile relationship. Ba’s account  of the southern protectorate contains  detailed observations/criticisms of taxation, fines, restrictions on commerce, corvée labour, the first phonograph, the telegraph, the aeroplane  (landing in Ubon –  augured by the  presence of a million butterflies) and the comical relationship between man and dog  (Ba is amazed that the French keep dogs as pets).  Ba did well in his work for the French, whom he admired for their achievements but disliked, and was promoted to Upahat in 1904, three years after the birth of Ong Keo’s millenarian rebellion.

Ba acknowledges Ong Keo observes Buddhist precepts and conventions, but Ba is opposed to Ong Keo’s widespread millenarian insurrection.  Ba’s own Chao Meuang is said to support Ong Keo but Ba has no time for him. Why?  There seems (to me) to be only one reason: Ong Keo is Kha.

7571. The wise man, Ba Phoi, listens (to people talking about the Man of Merit) 7572. (These kind of beliefs) are not in the dharma that the Buddha taught (and have existed in the world as Buddhist teachings) from (the time of his appearance on earth) onwards 7573. It is impossible that a Kha is to have (great) merit as in the news (that has been circulated) 7574. I am only fearful that ubat will occur in Laos in the future.

(The numbers refer to the lines of the original palm-leaf manuscript – inserted throughout by Peter to assist future scholars.)

 The reasoning would seem to be that a Kha is a Kha is a Kha: had Ong Keo been worthy, he would not have been reborn a Kha. This passage seems to place the Kha on a lower level of existence to the Lao; it might be tempered at a later point in the manuscript, where Ba tries to explain the subjection of Lao to Siam and France in karmic terms:

15527. It is bad karma from the distant past to be paid for in future lives 15528. In the past, we worked as subjects of the land of the Thai celestial royalty 15529.  We used our power to oppress the Kha, fining them 15530. Fining (the Kha), taking elephants and money in many places 15531. The elders of old had committed these acts, tying themselves up (in the creation of) bad karma 15532. To be paid for by their grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Since the same group-karmic line of reasoning justifies the position of both Lao and Kha, the later passage is perhaps less an apology to the Kha than a confirmation that all people get what they deserve. It is none the less exceptional for a Lao of that time to recognise the mistreatment of Kha.

 Ong Keo, Ba tells us, is Alak (other writers place him as Ngkrian/Nge).  The precise ethnicity of Ong Keo (or his lieutenant and successor, Kammadan, or of a dozen or so leaders of the rebellion that Ba criticises) is not important for Ba Phoi – Ong Keo is Kha, and that means he could not be a ‘Man of Merit’.  In Ba’s time and place the generic term Kha seems to have included all forest and mid-mountain ethnic groups as well as ‘slaves’ i.e. the entire population other than the small minority of ethnic Lao.  That many of those Lao supported Ong Keo placed Ba in a minority within his minority.

Ba Phoi seems quite unaware, or simply does not mention, that Ong Keo’s rebellion was neither the first nor the biggest ‘Kha Revolt’.  Another (led by Thao Ni) occurred in the north-eastern highlands of Hua Phan, 1875-1886.  Put down by Siam, it dragged on until 1901.  It took on the same (Buddhist) millenarian form. Ba also ignores similar revolts in 1908 by Leu (as Thai as the Lao) and the ‘Chao Fa’ rebellion of 1914-18 in Meuang Sing (although he goes into WW1).  Ba could not include absolutely everything, even in such a lengthy document, but he did have a grand mission:

6520.  I will write the story/history of Laos 6521. To be passed on by future generations.

His ‘story of Laos’ was mostly limited to a small area on the remote fringe of the country where most people were not ethnic Lao.

Peter Koret’s translation

Dr Peter Koret, as any good translator should, translates rather than interprets. It is Peter’s introduction and footnote references that provide a sturdy interpretive footbridge between writer and reader.  These, plus a comprehensive Glossary and Index, are essential companions to the English text.

Translation was no easy task, so don’t expect an easy read.  The History of Kham Thong Luang is not an epic poem: there is no hero to spin a plot and maintain the reader’s interest; there is no tension leading up to a great and inevitable tragedy to keep the reader going when the action founders (as it does, sometimes for pages on end). This ‘history’ is more an honest ‘diary’ in verse: it contains the writer’s opinions, feelings and prejudices, and can be self-obsessed – all of which makes it invaluable to any student of Laos.  I recognise that my interpretation might have been both helped and hindered by my experience of ultra-remote eastern Salavan during the dramatic period 1980-1984 (in areas along the Xe Kong River which in 1984 became Xekong Province).  The 1980s population and administration was overwhelmingly tribal; the population was equally tribal during Ba’s time (and today), but Ba’s administration was ethnic Lao – under the French Commissioner.

The translator helps an English-speaking reader by adding words in English between parentheses into sentences that would otherwise involve the reader’s  guess-work (Peter’s unrivalled knowledge of Lao, ancient and modern, fills in such gaps – thank heavens) .  Some words in the original are Lao/Thai (Salavan was under Siam’s control before Laos became a French protectorate in 1893) and are retained in the translation because they have no unambiguous equivalent in English – these are words such as Meuang, which has a clearer meaning in today’s Lao but in Ba Phoi’s time was variously used to nominate city/town, country or province (today’s Lao word khweng had yet to be given the meaning ‘province’.)   The Chao Meuang was the head/lord of the Meuang and varied in power depending on the area and resources under his administration.  The Upahat is the ‘deputy’ of the Chao Meuang, with the Latsavang and Latsabut third and fourth in hierarchy. Ubat is negative omens/inauspicious events/disasters, etc.  Words with a poetic rather than a daily use are usually translated, with Peter picking what seems to be best term in context: thus, pheun in the title could be history or story – Peter chooses ‘history’.  The title of the manuscript, as written in Lao by Ba Phoi is Pheun Meuang Kham Thong Luang – because of the ambiguities surrounding the word meuang, Peter wisely drops the word from the title in English.  He keeps the name Kham Thong Luang rather than the name used by Siam: Kham Thong Yai.

Kham Thong Luang is the only known first-hand contemporary account of the period by an educated millenarian Lao working within the (French) administration in southern Laos; it is unique.  Paradoxically perhaps, it is likely to be academics from America, Australia, Britain, France and Germany who study Peter Koret’s translation.  There will be one or two Lao, but they too are likely to find the English translation more accessible than the original in antique Lao.  Perhaps sadly, Ba Phoi will not be resurrected by lines of novice monks sitting cross-legged in temple libraries making merit by hand-copying his original verse onto palm-leaves; Ba’s posterity will instead be decided by foreigners, printing presses and computers.

ISBN-10: 0999668313 (Vol. 1)

ISBN-13: 978-0999668313 (Vol. 2)

Books availability:  Amazon; Mary Martin, Singapore;

Book-Café Vientiane.