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Grabowsky / Kaspar-Sickermann

Müang Sing

Lao P.D.R.:
Müang Sing

November 2000

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The small town of Müang Sing is situated
  • in the far northwest of Laos, Luang Namtha province,
  • 14 km away from the Chinese border,
  • in a dale,
    "as beautiful as a woman" (quotation from Laotian),
  • surrounded by high mountains,
  • by the River Nam Sing,
  • at a height of barely 700 m,
  • at N 21° 11,5' / E 101° 08,9'.
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This is an essay about the development of the town from ca. 1870 AD until today and its history with an outlook into the future. The essay is based on documents, town plans, inscriptions, information supplied by the local administration and on a visit in Müang Sing in November 1996 and a second one in February 1998 by Grabowsky und Kaspar-Sickermann.

In February 1998 a second travel to Müang Sing was extended to Ban Chiang Khaeng, one of the former capitals of the principality of Chiang Khaeng (before Müang Yu).
The reason for this exploration was the post-doctoral thesis (habilitation) by Dr. Volker Grabowsky, in which the history of the founding of Müang Sing is mentioned.
Many thanks go to Mr. Kohl of the GTZ [Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit / (German) Society for Technical Co-operation] and his team for their support, also especially to Mr. Raubold for his assistance. We also wish to thank Mr. Khotkaeo (chief of the district), Mr. Maithamdi (deputy chief of the district) and Nan Cai Saeng (curator of the Museum of Müang Sing).
This Web-Site is a work by Dr. V. Grabowsky. Photos, maps und other illustrations, as well as processing for the Internet by W. Kaspar-Sickermann.
Table of contents For those who want to hurry up:
© Dr. Volker Grabowsky / Walther Kaspar-Sickermann
The use of these texts, maps, plans, sketches and photos in the internet is permitted only whith a LINK to this original URL.
In other media (e.g. prints) the authors and this URL must be mentioned.
Abridged versions are allowed (with the permission of the authors) provided that they do not distort facts.
As there will be addenda and improvements you should mention the date of quoting.
The authors ask for your comments:
[mail] walter@kaspar-sickermann.de
mail.gif volker.grabowsky@uni-hamburg.de
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Laotian Terms
house; village, prefix of place names; smallest unit of administration
(pronounce "C" like "j" in "joy")
title for princes and nobles
Cao Ban
herein: lord of the town, of the region
Cao Müang
original: ruler of the town, lord of the principality
nowadays: chief of the district
Cao Fa
District; town
(notice: the name "Müang Sing" is used for the town as well as for the plain of the river Sing)
water; abbreviation of Maenam (=river)
buddhist monastery; temple
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The history before the founding of the town
The various sources do not correspond in every detail. Therefore some of the dates may not be absolutely correct.
Little is known about the history of Müang Sing prior to the late 18th century. According to local traditions, the valley of the Sing River was first settled before 1792 by the widow of the late ruler of Chiang Khaeng (see below). Troubled by quarrels among her six sons, the widow moved with one son, Cao Saengsi, and her retainers from Chiang Khaeng to Ban Nam Dai, a village situated ca. 5 km to the SW of present-day Müang Sing. Later she founded a walled city nearby: Wiang Fa Ya. There she took up residence and ordered in 1792 the construction of a great stupa on the top of a mountain on the southern fringe of the Sing valley. This stupa called That (dhatu) Chiang Tüm (alternative Laotian pronounciation: "That Chiang Tüng") is revered as the holy shrine of Müang Sing. Every year on the first full moon of November the people of Müang Sing and surrounding regions - as far as Müang La and Müang Pong (Phong) in Sipsong Panna - come together at That Chiang Tün to celebrate a temple festival in honour of the local genii.
For better understanding it is necessary to know, that until the end of the 19th century the borders were not so important in SE-Asia as humans were, who could be suppressed or deported or who at least were obliged to pay tribute.
According to the chronicle of the principality of Nan (nowadays a province in N-Thailand) several deportations occured at the beginning of the 19th century (e.g. 1805/06 and 1812/13). Significant parts of the population were displaced from Müang Sing to the territory of Nan, Chiang Kham area.
From then on the plain of the Nam Sing river has been depopulated for decades. Only in the mountainous jungle there lived hill-tribe people, who perhaps recognized the supremacy of Nan and sent products of the jungle, which were forwarded to Bangkok as tribute.
At that time there existed the above mentioned principality of Chiang Khaeng, whose historical origins seem to disappear in the dark. Its old capital was Ban Chiang Khaeng (Xiangkheng), followed by Müang Yu (founded not before the mid 1850s). The exact site of this last capital Müang Yu is difficult to locate. One may assume that it was situated in the west of the river Mekong, probably near the confluence of the Luai (Loi) and Mekong rivers. The ruler of Chiang Khaeng was a vassal of the king of Burma, who acknowledged him the control over Müang Sing in 1863/64.
Two maps show the political situation in 1885 and today (1997).
Encouraged by the Burmese, in 1866/67 Kòng Tai, the ruler of Chiang Khaeng, sent some of his subjects to the depopulated valley of Müang Sing. He also claimed the exclusive right to exploit the forests in that region. The ruler of Nan, Cao Anantawòraritthidet, reacted sharply. He threatened to carry out a punitive expedition. If Chiang Khaeng did not abandon its provocations, he would send troops to deport the illegal settlers from Müang Sing to Nan. Finally, the ruler of Chiang Khaeng bowed to Anantawòraritthidet's ultimatum, withdrew the settlers, and the status quo was restored.
In 1880 already a new settlement, again by a woman, can be veryfied. In the monastery of Ban Nam Dai (!) there is a Buddha with a dedication on its pedestal in Tham-script and in Pali language. The figure has been devoted by Buakham, the ruler of that settlement. The dedication refers to the year 1880. It may be, that Buakham was a concubine of Cao Fa Sili Nò, the ruler of Chiang Khaeng, and occupied Müang Sing as an advance guard.
The Buddha of Ban Nam Dai
Buddha with date of dedication dedication Inscription in Tham, Thai, English
The Buddha dedication Inscription in Tham, Thai, English
Cao Fa Sili Nò intended to move the capital of Chiang Khaeng from Müang Yu to the plain of Müang Sing. The official reason was the shortage of ground at the old site. The real reason may have been a geostrategic one because Chiang Khaeng had ceased sending tributes to Burma after a bloody struggle of succession in Ava following the death of the Burmese king Mindon. The transfer of the administrative centre and the evacuation of parts of the population should be seen as measures of security in order to render, from that time on, better protection against a Burmese punitive expedition.
In 1884 the Wat Hua Khua was founded near the northern corner but outside of nowadays Müang Sing. From here they searched for the appropriate ground for the new town. In 1887 already Müang Sing was ready. More than 1000 subjects had to move to the new capital and the surrounding plain.
Burma had plunged into political agony by the beginning of the 1880s and had to abandon its grip of the Shan states. This caused a power vacuum in the region.
Nan did not fight against the founding of Müang Sing and waited for the further development.
The situation changed quite abruptly in 1885/86 when the British conquered Ava. In addition the nephew of Cao Fa Sili Nò provoked a serious clash whith his uncle. This nephew was the ruler of Chiang Tung, the western neighbour of Chiang Khaeng. The instability in that region triggered off concerns of security in both Bangkok and Nan. By early 1889, the Siamese decided to launch an armed intervention for the sake of Cao Fa Sili Nò's safety, according to official documents. However, the real motive for the intervention was apparently Bangkok's territorial claims on Müang Sing.
Cao Fa Sili Nò who had hesitated to do so for many years would finally recognize the suzerainty of King Chulalongkorn of Siam.
The unsecure status of Müang Sing was revealed several years later during secret negotiations between England and France that focussed on the founding of a buffer state in the Upper Mekong region. At the centre of that buffer state should be Müang Sing. When the negotiations failed in 1895/96, the course of the Mekong north of Chiang Saen was defined as the border between British Burma and French Indochina. the region east of the Mekong fell under French influence (the later protectorate Luang Prabang).
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Town Plans of 1890
General Description
In the Bangkok archives there is a plan of Müang Sing which apparently has been drawn by the Siamese in about 1890. It is written in Thai.
Plan of Müang Sing 1890
the original redrawn
(for better reading)
simplified whith English text
original plan redrawn in Thai very simple
Please pay attention, that this plan is NOT DIRECTED TOWARDS THE NORTH. The corner down on the left is the northern corner. In consequence Wat Luang (look at the top of that plan!) is situated at the SE-wall of the town.
Buildings and Inhabitants
According to this plan the city of Müang Sing was set out like a chessboard (8 x 8 squares). It is divided by streets of different breadth and has an earthen wall whith 12 gates, three on each side. In the centre of the town the ruler´s palace and other princely buildings were erected. By 1890 there existed only one monastery whithin the town walls: Wat Luang.
The population density differed from square to square. There was a lot of empty space in the NW while in the SE and E there were up to four houses in a square (read "rüan" as "house"), altogether 121 houses.
This corresponds rather well to inquiries about the houses of Müang Sing and surroundings in 1888. According to that the town of Müang Sing includes 137 houses, in addition 346 houses were situated in 15 further settlements. Apparently there was not a real census, but it was known, that about 3000 people lived in the whole plain of Müang Sing. If, what can be assumed, seven individuals lived in a house on average, then nearly 1000 people were inside the wall of the town.
Length and Distance
It is not possible to interpret correctly every figure of length or distance in that town plan.
In use are the units sen, wa and sok, which in all probability differ in value from the "same" units nowadays.
unit today about 1890
1 sen 40  m (in Laos 34 m??)
1 wa 2  m 1.70 m (in Laos)
1 sok (cubit) 50 cm 61 cm (?)
According to verbal information in Müang Sing we use as an attempt the old "Lao-wa" (1 wa = 1,70 m). Consequently the conversion into sen (1 sen = 20 wa) leads to 1 sen = 34 m.
Comparison between the plan and the reality
  given in the plan calculated 1) in fact
Width of the streets:
principal axis
streets between the other gates
side streets

12 wa
5 wa
3 wa

20,4 m
8,5 m
5,1 m
The wall:
length of the edges

6 sok
5 sen, 4 wa

3 ... 3,6 m
207 m

ca 800 m
(from the border) to Phong
(from the mountain Khao Luang)
to Chiang Khaeng
to Nan

260 Sen

221 Sen
10,764 Sen

8,84 km

7,51 km
366 km

as the crow flies:
ca 10 km
ca 260 km
1) 1 sen = 34 m; 1 wa = 1,70 m (as an attempt)
The given values for the streets may be plausible. But the other figures do not correspond with reality, especially the length of the wall. However, as the Siamese map was adapted from a Lü original (unavailable in the Thai National Archives), a script error cannot be excluded. Supposedly, the original manuscript reads "25 sen and 4 wa" (instead of 5 sen, 4 wa), which is equal to 504 wa. With the old Lao unit "wa" (1.70 m) or still better with the French "brasse" (1.62 m) the "given" value would fit reality.
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From 1895 until now
Although the district is situated far away from the economical and political centres, and although there are not many inhabitants, Müang Sing's history was quite exciting, because exactly here the spheres of political influence of China, England, France and Thailand intersected.
Not later than 1890 Müang Sing was a tributary of Bangkok.
In 1895 British troops, coming from Birma, invaded Müang Sing. Cao Fa Sili Nò fled and finally went to Müang Luang Nam Tha (nowadays the capital of that province), which was already controlled by the French.
In 1895/96 Müang Sing too came under French control (later: protectorate of Luang Prabang).
1897 and following years: The division of the principality of Chiang Khaeng was perfect. Britain got the regions in the west of the river Mekong and France the eastern territories.
French troops were permanently stationed. Near the southern corner of the town they erected a military fort, thereby destroying the wall in that sector. Moreover the colonial administration built an asphalt road from Müang Sing to the Chinese border. Parts of the road were running very close to or directly on the SE front of the town wall. On the outer side of the "China road" they built a market and behind that market a new brick wall. The "urban" population shifted gradually towards this road, the town's economic lifeline.
The administration of the town owns a photo of the palace, an ectraordinary high wooden house. It was in the centre of the town until the 1920's.
During the first decades under French rule Müang Sing expanded. In addition to the first monastery, Wat Luang, three other monasteries were founded within the town wall. They were all placed in symmetric rotation to Wat Luang (in relation to the centre of the town). It is obvious, that Müang Sing was built for growth. But as documents show Cao Fa Sili Nò had no success to repatriate people back to Müang Sing who have been deported to Nan several decades ago. The four monasteries belonged to the compartments (Chiang = Siang [laot.])
compartment monastery direction
Ban Siang Cai Wat Luang Southeast
Ban Siang In Wat Chiang In Northeast
Ban Siang Yün Wat Chiang Yün
(destroyed in 1962)
Ban Siang Lae Wat Chiang Lae Northwest
In 1901 (or 1900) Cao Fa Sili Nò died at the age of 56.
Between 1907 and 1911 there were internal conflicts in Müang Sing so that eventually the follower of Sili Nò, Chao Fa (Müang) Mon Onkham, had to flee. Till his dead he fighted against the French from his base Chiang Rung in Sipsong Panna, China.
In 1916 the French officialy removed this last ruler of of Müang Sing/Chiang Khaeng. In the decree of April 6th 1916 they accused him to be "coupable des crimes et délits de droit commun et de crimes politiques". The hitherto special status of Müang Sing was abolished and the district came under direct control of the colonial administration.
In 1946 the Chinese Kuomintang attacked Müang Sing. There must have been a heavy battle, as the market and the brick wall behind were completely destroyed. The vital importance of the "China Road", however, did not decline. Although the brick wall was never repaired, the market was. Since 1954 the newly built market of Müang Sing has been again attracting traders from far and near.
In 1954 the French had to leave the kingdom of Laos.
Wat Chiang Yün was destroyed on April 4th, 1962 during an exchange of artillery fire between troops of the Vientiane government, which controlled Müang Sing at that time, and Pathet Lao forces who operated near Luang Nam Tha. Thus at present only three monasteries have survived.
Today Müang Sing is part of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
Recently the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) has erected a second market hall as a shelter for hill tribe people who until then had to sell their products in sun and rain.
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Müang Sing today (inside the old wall)
Please note: Modern maps are orientated approximately to the North. Therefore they all are turned about 180° in comparison to the old map of 1890.
Wat Luang is situated in SE
The official map of 1982 (JPG: 98 K), scale 1:100000 shows the shape of the old town not clearly enough. But on a satellite image (JPG: 45 K) of 1988 the squares and the walls can be seen excellently.
The excursion of Grabowsky and Kaspar-Sickermann led to a new todays town plan (1996). In the web site this plan is provided with links, so that by a mouse-click you can see the scenery.
During our survey in Müang Sing we closely inspected the remains of the town wall and the town moat as well as the area inside. In short the following observations seem worth mentioning:
  • The length of the wall, given in the old plan, proved wrong. In fact, one feels impressed by the vastness of the town. The length of each side was measured at roughly 800 m. Thereby the whole area inside the town wall would be 60 - 70 ha. The wall is still visible, apart from its southern corner where it is completely levelled in a length of 300 - 400 m in both directions. All gates can be recognized as broad passages. Moreover, one can still see a moat of 4 m breadth surrounding the town. Parts of it are silted up. Near the eastern corner the moat is formed by the Sing river.
  • The present height of the wall is between 1.2 and 1.6 m. Although raining water might have levelled the wall to a certain extent, it seems hard to believe that the original height of the wall was about 3 m.
  • Apart from some spots where two squares are amalgamated into one (rectangular) area, the delineation and the breadth of the streets are more or less the same as can be seen from the 1890 map.
  • The ruler's palace and the other palace buildings have disappeared. There are ruins of a brick building in the centre of the town, but it comes probably from the French colonial period. The area surrounding the former ruler's palace is sparsely populated. Most of the area is used as garden land and pasture.
  • Major buildings in the town are
    • the old French fort, now used by the Lao People's Army,
    • the district administration,
    • one kindergarten, four primary schools and one secondary school,
    • one teacher's training college,
    • one school for women's vocational training,
    • the ground of the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ).
  • The area of highest density of population is in the southeast of the town. The gravity of population has obviously shifted towards the "China Road" and the market. That area belongs to the compartment of Siang Cai where almost half of the total "urban" population lives. Our own mapping of the population density in the town, based on close quarter-to-quarter inspection, confirms the uneven distribution of inhabitants. The area close to the northern corner, in particular, is unpopulated wasteland. This may explain the relatively small population of Siang Lae and Siang In to which this area belongs administratively. The official map of 1983 shows 216 houses for the whole town, inside and outside of the wall.
  • Müang Sing is experiencing an economic upswing. There are many new buildings along the main road that runs to the Lao-China border. For several hours a day there is electricity. One can also observe motorization to a certain extent. The bulk of commodities and consumers goods comes from China. Simple tourism is booming. In 1993, there was only one hotel in Müang Sing. Three years later there were already four, and three others are yet under construction.
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The Outline:  Assumptions
One is tempted to pose the question why Cao Fa Sili Nò, the first ruler of Müang Sing, had chosen a quadratic shape of considerable dimension including twelve gates in regular distance to each other. The population of that large a town was quite scarce, no more than 1,000 people. The town had been built, accordingly to all sources available, in a short period of only two or three years. The input of labour must have been enormous.
We believe that the wall could hardly be used for military purposes the more to since it had no bricks. The sources do not indicate any palisades which is not surprising in view of the total length of 3.2 km. Suppose that in the case of emergency the total population of the plain - 3,000 persons including women and children - would have taken refuge inside the town, one might assume that no more than 1,500 - 2,000 persons would have been available for its defence.
Therefore, the layout of Müang Sing must have followed more ritual deliberations of how to build a town:
It is an established fact that cities of quadratic or rectangular shape have been built on the whole territory of Asia throughout the centuries. However, one should add that the concept of a "quadratic city" as such was not the discovery of a single people or country. Cities of quadratic shape are well known in different countries of the world - in acient Egypt, in Mesopotamia, in Mexico, in Rome and in China. The quadrat was the most simple and most feasable form of markation. Moreover, the concept of a quadratic shape was everywhere linked to religious and mythical beliefs. ..."
"... The city of Lo-Yi (China, 3rd century before Christ) had a quadratic shape with a length of  9 Li (2.25 km) for each side, three gates on each side and nine streets in each direction." [2] (compare with Müang Sing !)
The old Burmese capital Amarapura, situated directly to the south of Mandalay, was built in the late 18th century along the same principles. The citadel of Mandalay, a city founded in 1857 by King Mindon, is a quadratic structure of 2 km times 2 km surrounded by a high brick wall. The prototype of a city of quadratic layout in the region of present Northern Thailand and Northern Laos seems to be Chiang Mai, founded by King Mangrai in 1296. The inner wall of Chiang Mai is a brick wall with the dimensions 1.6 km times 1.6 km.
Not only the quadratic layout of Müang Sing deserves our attention. The high number of gates, that rendered an effective defence of the town even more difficult, seems not to be accidental, too. It is interesting to note that several other walled towns in the region had exactly twelve gates as well. One example is Siang Hung whose earthen wall was of oval shape and surrounded by a palisade of 6 sok (3 m) depth. Another one is Siang Tung from where the ruling family of Müang Sing (Siang Khaeng) descended. Siang Tung, the capital of the Khün state situated east of the Salween River, was of irregular shape but possessed twelve gates like Müang Sing.
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In the polyethnic society of Laos the province of Luang Nam Tha has the greatest diversity of ethnic groups. In the district of Müang Sing live
  • Akha
  • Thai Nüa
  • Yao
  • Thai
  • Lao Soung (Hmong)
  • Lao Thoeng (Khmu)
According to latest official statistics (from 1992) the area inside the old town wall comprised slightly more than 200 households. This indicates a rather slow increase of only 50% within one century. There was probably more than one cause for Müang Sing's demographic stagnation. One cause could have been the declining economic importance of Müang Sing due to the closing of borders with Burma and China (until very recently). The figures in detail:
compartment number of
number of
in %
number of
Ban Siang Cai
(Wat Luang)
107 546 44.6 293
Ban Siang In 31 156 12.7 87
Ban Siang Yün 32 303 24.7 140
Ban Siang Lae 39 220 18.0 109
total 209 1.225 100.0 620
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The future Town Plan
On the drawing board the future of Müang Sing has already started. The development plan of 1991 (JPG: 35K) is closely orientated at the original quadratic layout and keeps the delineation of the street system intact. The plan envisages a much higher population density than is the case at present. It depends obviously on the hope that the urban population will encrease steadily, at least by 2.6% per annum which was the average for the province of Luang Nam Tha in the late 1980s. The statistics for Müang Sing are different. During the 1988 - 1992 period the average increase of population was less than 1.5% per annum. It seems that both town and district of Müang Sing were net emigration areas during the last two or three decades. One has to wait and see whether the assumption of the district administration that this trend could be reverted in the future is realistic.
The only remarkable difference to the town map of 1890 is that the centre of the town, i.e. the palace area, would move exactly one square closer to the main commercial road to China. The total urban area of 83.3 ha, which includes roughly 20 ha outside the old town wall, would be used as follows:
exploitation area in ha area in %
administration 12.0 14.4
incl. housing
6.4 7.7
trade (market) 1.9 2.3
living quarters 48.0 57.6
park 15.0 18.0
If this plan will ever be realized in full, the population of Müang Sing would increase drastically and the number of houses would almost be doubled. Furthermore, the population would become more evenly distributed. Two large park areas with extensive flower gardens and restaurants are planned, one in the northern corner (Siang In and Siang Lae) and the other outside the eastern corner near the district hospital.
This bold vision underlines that the district and provincial authorities envisage Müang Sing both a major attraction of tourists and a regional economic centre. For the time being, however, it seems too optimistic to see Müang Sing as the future hub of a so-called "economic quadrangle" linking trade routes between Burma, China, Laos and Thailand. But the combination of trade and "alternative tourism" -  based on the ethnic diversity and cultural richness of the region -  could appear attractive. In this respect, the re-discovery of Müang Sing as an historic township could become meaningful.
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[1]  Grabowsky, Volker:
"Bevölkerung und Staat in Lan Na:
Ein Beitrag zur Bevölkerungsgeschichte Südostasiens"
("Population and State in Lan Na.
A Contribution to the Population History of Southeast Asia")
Post doctoral thesis (habilitation) at the
department of Thai and Vietnamese Studies, Hamburg University, 1966
[2]  Oshegowa, Nina und Oshegow, Sergej:
Kunst in Burma (Art in Burma)
VEB E.A.Seemann Verlag, Leipzig 1988,
ISBN 3-363-00054-5
[3] Grabowsky,Volker:
Introduction to the History of Müang Sing (Laos) prior to French Rule: The Fate of a Lü Pricipality;
Bulletin de l'Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient, 86 (1999),S. 233-291
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