Ancient chronicles state that Tai people settled in present day Chiang Saen District, Thailand, when the city “disintegrated into swamp” during the 11th century. They then “set up a new town to the southeast. This settlement was on high ground on an island that had formed, the site of the old Souvannakhomkham (civilization).”
Based on remnants, some archaeologists suggest Souvannakhomkham, the centre of a kingdom stretching from the Golden Triangle to Vietnam, dates to the 1st century. The Souvannakhomkham site played a significant role during the Lanna Era, but by 1545, the Lane Xang Kingdom took control of the trade hub. Most of the ruins visible today likely date from this era.
Houay Xay, today’s provincial capital, eventually became the centre for traders from Yunnan in southern China, who were on their way to Thailand and back. Ensuing centuries found the Siamese, Burmese, and Chinese struggle over the region’s strategic trade routes, known as the “Tea Caravan Trail”, taking mules and pack ponies through Laos to China and Tibet.
Among the three major routes, the most difficult but direct – today’s Lao Route 3 – ran from Houay Xay through Vieng Phoukha to Luang Namtha Town, before continuing to China. This style of caravan trade flourished through for centuries, primarily using mules and horses for their ability to carry heavy loads. Heading south, traders carried tea, silk, salt, clothing, metal goods and fresh vegetables. They returned to China with wood for dyeing cloth, tobacco, opium, and raw cotton.
However, Haw bandits seized the strategic area in the 18th century, prompting residents to abandon the region for some 150 years. Burmese leader, Khun Ching, then gained control and established Houay Xay in 1884. Tai Yuan then began migrating to Bokeo from Burma and China, and the Hmong arrived from Vietnam followed by Yao and Lanten from Yunnan, China.
French colonials entered the picture in 1893, prompting many north-western Lao residents to vanish back into the hills. The French constructed Fort Carnot, the colonial power’s western-most stronghold, in 1900, to monitor the river and border. It sits on a Houay Xay hilltop overlooking the Mekong and town, and is considered the best preserved French military building in Laos.
Years later during the Second Indochinese War of the 1960s and 1970s, Bokeo was again a temporary home to foreign troops. Nam Nyu, north of Houay Xay, is the site of an old American air base used from 1964-1973, to carry out bombing missions that levelled much of Luang Namtha Town.
Today’s Bokeo Province was created in 1983, when it split from Luang Namtha Province. In 1992, Pak Tha and Pha Oudom Districts were reassigned to Bokeo from Oudomxay Province.
Source: Lao Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism