Stilt houses of the Phu La
The Phu La, a Tibeto-Burman language group, lives in mountainous areas of Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Son La and Dien Bien northern provinces. Its population is nearly 11,000.

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>>“Phu La” ethnos -- its customs, practices and folk laws

Ta Thi Tam

Ethnology Institute

The Phu La, a Tibeto-Burman language group, lives in mountainous areas of Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Son La and Dien Bien northern provinces. Its population is nearly 11,000.

The group lives in stilt houses but a small part chooses earth houses. The group believes every land lot is guarded by a deity, so before building a home, a family must obtain approval of such deity. After choosing a site for building its home, a family leaves for one night some dozens of rice paddies on the land lot covered with a bowl. The next morning, if the paddies stay the same, it means the site is good for building a home. If the paddies change their positions or are missing, it is a bad omen and the family is supposed to find another place.

The Phu La has a taboo of building a home on the date of death of their parent or the date of birth of their child. They are not supposed to start construction on the day of the tiger or monkey either, which are believed to be bad days.

A Phu La family often builds its home in the tenth or eleventh lunar month after the harvesting time so that its relatives and villagers can give a helping hand. But the family has to prepare building materials such as wood, bamboo, grass or palm leaves two months earlier.

A Phu La traditional home, which often overlooks a stream or river with a mountain in its back, has a simple structure, consisting of three parts with the middle part being the largest. The house has two main roofs and another two covering the gables. The frame consists of two main columns, two small columns for supporting the walls and another two at the gables, which are all fixed in the ground. These columns are tied with bamboo strings or through mortise and tenon joint to purlins and crossbars. The crossbars are big bamboo trees tied from the roof top of one side to the roof foot of the other side. The house has a reed floor and bamboo wattles.

A Phu La home has two stairways leading to two doors at the two gables which are opposite to each other, with a stove in the middle. The stairways do not have stairs as they are made of three or six apricot trees fixed together, with one end propped on the floor and the other end on the ground. The main door is for receiving visitors and the sub-door leads to the place storing the rice mortar and water containers.

The middle part of the house is where most family activities take place. This part has cua ma (window of spirits) which is a bamboo wattle placed outside a narrow window in the back wall. Cua ma faces the direction of the main stairway and lies opposite the main stove and perpendicular to the mountain in the neighborhood. Family members are believed to be troubled by the spirits of the dead and get sick if cua ma is placed not opposite the stove while the family’s wealth is believed to get dispersed if cua ma is placed diagonally with the mountain. All formalities of belief are conducted by the family at cua ma with offerings put on banana leaves on a winnowing basket which is placed on the floor.

The family’s stove is placed in the middle of the house - the kitchen. Above the stove is a small shelf where maize and rice seeds and dried food are kept. The kitchen is not only for cooking but also serves as a place where the family gathers in the early morning before going to the field and in the evening after a working day. The Phu La’s traditional new rice ceremony is held in the family’s kitchen.

The Phu La has strict taboos related to cua ma and the stove. A visitor is supposed to neither turn his back to the stove nor lean against cua ma. If breaching this, he will be fined according to each clan’s rules.

The left part of the house is divided into smaller rooms as the bedroom of the parents and places for storing valuable possessions and family utensils. Half of the front part is where to keep food containers. Outside the house on the left side is placed the rice mortar. This is also the cooking place and where women do embroidery in idle time. Under the floor are kept farming tools and cattle and poultry.

A small part of the Phu La still lives in earth houses which have a similar structure like stilt houses. An earth house has between three and five parts with two doors. It also has four roofs, two main columns and two or three small columns. The kitchen and breeding facilities are built separately from the house.

The Phu La’s shift from nomadic to sedentary life together with its cultural exchange with other ethnic groups has resulted in changes in the structure of its traditional house. A Phu La home nowadays bears cultural traits of the Thai characterized by the structure of columns and beams.-

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