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Laotian myth : the legend of Phou Thao & Phou Nang

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Every civilization has its stories and legends transmitted from generation to generation. Laotian culture is no exception to the rule. Deep into the Buddhist tradition, its tales are about love, spirits, fights for women, or even nature. At ORLA Tours, we think that these little stories are very important to local culture. That's why we write a series of articles about it.

We chose to start with the legend Thao Phoutthasaen.

Why this one among so many? First, it has many similarities with the tale of Tom Thumb transcribed by Charles Perrault at the end of the 17th century. Interesting, right? And also, because we can contemplate the mountains from this story every day in Luang Prabang. Phou Thao and Phou Nang respectively evoke the silhouette of a girl and a young boy.

Here is their legend ...

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, a woodcutter and his wife were living in the land of Inthapatha. Times were hard because cutting wood was only making small money. Moreover, they had 12 daughters to feed. That’s quite a budget for meals!

The whole family was starving because of lack of food. How to solve this problem? Radical but effective solution: the girls were abandoned in the forest.

During their wandering, they entered the lands of Sunthara Nyakhini, a terrible ogress. Her favorite dish? Girl meat. Needless to say that their stay wasn’t going to end well. Luckily, the ogress had a daughter, who would die of boredom by lack of friends to talk with. She decided to save the lives of the 12 girls in order to distract her own. Human stew is postponed.

They were more and more plump and the ogress began to struggle to curb his desire for fresh flesh. It was time to flee. Growing up, the girls had become beautiful young ladies. And when they arrived in the lands of King Paluthasaen, he decided to marry them all. So, yes, 12 weddings were celebrated!

Guess who didn’t like this happy ending? Yes, the ogress. She had fed 12 girls to eat them, but they fled and were now married to a king. The dream life! She developed an evil plan for revenge. Here are the main steps. She transformed herself into a unbelievably beautiful creature, married the same king and made sure to be crowned first queen. Then, she pretended to be sick. The cure for this incurable disease? The eyes of the 12 other wives. Rather radical revenge. The king obeyed, ordered that their eyes be taken out and sent the girls to exile.

The young women resumed their wanderings. Except that, now, they could not see anymore and it turns out that they were all pregnant. Murphy's law! Once sheltered in a cave, they had no other choice but to eat the newborns so as they don’t starve to death. Because, you know, it’s not that easy to pick fruits when you’re blind, right?

The story could have ended there. Except that…. Nang La, the youngest of the sisters "by chance" had only one punctured eye. She took that opportunity to shelter her child and raise him as discreetly as possible, otherwise he would have finished as a snack.

One day, a wild rooster passed by the cave and was taken pity on them. From then on, he started feeding them every day. Thanks to the offerings, Nang La's son became a strong and healthy young man. But, don’t forget that he was not supposed to remain alive! That's why his mother ordered him to spend most of his time out of the cave.

He spent his days in the village next door, where he practiced the local chess game. So much he became reknown for his talent in the whole kingdom and it reached Paluthasaen's ears. Do you remember him? He is the king and husband of the 12 girls. He met the child who told him his story and his years in the cave. Quickly, the king realized that he was none other than his own son. The kid moved to the palace.

Guess who was not very pleased by that? Yes, the ogress, still her ... Again, she fainted an incurable disease. Lack of imagination, right? Long story short, the remedy was supposed to be with her daughter who stayed in the forest. The Prince was sent there with a letter addressed to the girl saying “kill and eat this guy”. Fortunately, he met a hermit in the forest who magically modified the content of the letter.

Obviously, once arrived there, they fall in love. The girl teaches the prince a lot of cool tricks. Such as, how to make thorny forests appear, how to boil rivers, or how to create a wall of fire with a magic lemon. Can be useful, right? She also revealed him where were stored the eyes of his aunts as well as the heart of the ogress. Yes, as curious as it may seem, she can live with her heart outside of her body.

The prince leaves his new wife to give back the eyes to his mother and sisters. Once done, he goes back to the palace to “talk” with the ogress. He cuts his heart which, logically, causes the death of the stepmother.

What about the king, you may ask? It is clear that he had made some mistakes. Marry an ogress, put out the eyes of his 12 wives, exile them in a cave, send his son to be killed, .... To catch up, he invites the whole family back to live in the palace. Everything finally ends well.

Except that... let's not forget that the Prince had left his beloved to give back the eyes of his aunts. So, he goes back on his winged horse to return to her. And here is the tragedy ... His wife, Vainya Lapati, died of grief because he left her. Annihilated by the news, he also dies of sadness. In the name of their love, they are transformed into mountains in the shape of bodies next to each other.

That’s it for this legend.

We hope that you liked it as much as we did. What we like very much is that even today in Luang Prabang, we can admire Phou Thao (the boy's mountain) and Phou Nang (the girl's mountain). Symbols of this eternal love, these hills are a beautiful mark of the timelessness of these tales. So, what is the moral of this story according to you? We let you think about it. We'll talk to you soon about another legend, so stay tuned!

#legend #myth #story #tradition #culture #laos #luangprabang #phoutao #phounang

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