Friday, October 25, 2013


This was the palace for the King of Laos, in the years before communism
I'm outside an unusual looking building, and what I’m seeing is not what I expected at all. With its long white layout, topped by a red tiled roof, this appears to be some sort of important auditorium. Two architectural features hint at the importance of this landmark. High on the rooftop, a narrow golden stupa points to the sky. Just above the main entrance, there is a golden, three headed elephant. This emblem is a mark of royalty, and once adorned the Royal Lao flag. 

This happens to be the palace of the last King of Laos. 

Nearing the palace, I see where the visual peculiarities come from. Its exterior is a mixture of two vastly different styles of architecture, French and Laotian. Doors and the shutters are French, but the roof is Asian. Snake-like naga figures protect the palace corners, while the stupa shaped spire peaks up to the center of the rooftop.

This architectural blend is not surprising, since the royal residence was constructed for the king by the occupying French colonials in 1904. Laos was such a poor country when the French took over, that the royal family couldn’t even afford to build a decent palace. 

Ornate decor in a Buddhist shrine on the royal palace grounds
The Laotian line of royalty reached back six centuries, and the country wasn’t always so poor. There were several ancient kingdoms. The most powerful was called 'Lane Xang', based here in the town of Luang Prabang. At its zenith, Lane Xang’s territory included not just northern Laos, but also parts of Thailand, China and Vietnam. These same three neighboring countries would later dominate Lane Xang in succeeding centuries.

This may not be the most picturesque palace from the outside, but what lies within is more impressive, so I climb the front steps to enter. Waiting my turn to buy a ticket, two European backpackers ahead of me complain that the three dollar admission price is too high! I wonder why they bothered traveling thousands of miles to see this exotic land, if they are bickering about spending a few dollars to see one of the most cherished places in all of Laos. 

Once inside, I make my way into the throne room, where King Sisavang Vong held court. Here I get a sense of royal luxury; the décor is impressive. Gold trim lines the royal pillars. Red ceilings and red walls, make way for colorful mosaics depicting everyday life in old Luang Prabang. France is again represented, with their crystal chandeliers. When the French built this place Laos was already a French colony, so the display of opulence was not a true reflection of the king’s power. Still, the king remained an important part of the Laotian identity, culture and religion.  

Without any need to hold court in this royal room anymore, golden cases with Buddha statues and ceremonial swords are displayed around the room. But the main focus is the throne itself. From a distance, the royal chair appears to be made of gold all around, save for the royal purple seat cushions. Behind where the king’s head would have been, is the royal symbol of three gold elephants. Three levels of mythical nagas heads seem coiled and ready to strike, as if to protect the king. I'd love to take photos in here but if I do, they'll confiscate my camera. 
Statue of King Sisavang Vong of Laos

The monarch that held court here, King Sisavang Vong, died in 1959 as Laos entered another period of conflict. He was replaced by his son, King Savang Vatthana. This succession occurred in an era when the world's monarchies were quickly disappearing. At the funeral, the king’s heir was heard to say, “Alas, I am doomed to be the last king of Laos.”

Although he replaced his father as the monarch, King Savang Vatthana chose to delay the coronation ceremony until the war ended, so in the end he was never crowned on this throne. By the time Savang became king Laos was independent, and the reins of power were again connected to the royal family. Prince Souvanna Phouma, the king’s cousin, would become the on again, off again Prime Minister of Laos, as he struggled to keep the country together during the war years fighting the communists. 

Taking the other path was Souvanna Phouma’s half brother, Prince Souphanouvong. Here was a unique figure. As a prince, he became one of the few royals in world history who became a committed communist. He left the good life of Luang Prabang, and went to the highlands to join the Pathet Lao. He became known as, ‘The Red Prince’. Souphanouvong took a Vietnamese woman as his wife, endearing him to his communist patrons in Hanoi. If he was to remain true to the monarchy, he would have married a Laotian. 

Over in a nearby reception room, a red embroidered wall hanging bears dragons and a phoenix. This was a gift from Hanoi, presented to King Savang in 1963. What an insincere gift. More than any other country, it was North Vietnam that would bring about the downfall of the Royal Laotian Government, and this king with it. 

I meander to the back of the palace, where the royal residence is located. Some of the palace rooms appear much as they did as the day when the king was arrested. In the dining room, Wooden chairs with wicker seats surround an antique table, beneath another French chandelier. Here over dinner, the king discussed affairs of state with his princes. 

The King's tennis court, which hasn't been used in decades
The old wooden floors creak, as I reach the separate bedrooms of the king and queen. It’s 1970’s era furniture, mixed with Asian accessories. Black and white portraits of the royal couple still hang on the walls. The king’s bed has mosquito netting over it, a reminder that even royalty worried about malaria here. The royal rooms give the feel of undisturbed time capsules. 

Outside the king’s bedroom in the hall, I take a seat by an open window, listening to the light rain falling through the tropical trees outside. I wonder if the king ever sat here to collect his thoughts by this window, as the drama of Laos unfolded. As the end neared, the US government offered him asylum, but he declined. The king had declared long ago that he would never abandon Luang Prabang. As the heart of Laos, he vowed to stay here until the end.

Since the rain isn’t very heavy, I exit the royal residence to peruse the palace grounds. Walking on the grass near the back, I find an old weather beaten tennis court. The king himself enjoyed playing tennis here, a sport he learned while attending school in France as a youth. With the net gone, this court hasn’t been used in years. 
Red Prince (in black) with Ho Chi Minh and other communists

Behind the palace is the Mekong River, and to the other side is the king’s garage. I head in to see what kind of wheels the king favored. Inside, I’m amused at his choices of automobiles. Besides an old Landcruiser and a Citroen without headlights, there are three American cars. Two are full size Lincoln Continentals from the 50’s and 60’s. Except for the red logos of the three headed elephant painted on the doors, they are all white. His poor chauffeur must have spent a lot of time wiping mud off of the pristine white finish, since Luang Prabang had few paved roads back then. 

The last of the royal rides is, egads! It’s a four door 1950’s Ford Edsel. I’m surprised that the king held onto such a low quality vehicle. Then again if you think about it, the Edsel makes a fitting metaphor for America’s commitment to Laos. In the beginning, it was big, and it was powerful. But it wasn’t popular, it wasn’t dependable in the long term, and in the end it was a failure. 

Laotians sell food and drinks outside the royal palace, now an official national museum

I open my umbrella, and head back out into the rain. Leaving the palace, I head down the long driveway, passing between tall palm trees and smartly trimmed hedges. This is the same route that the king took when he departed the palace for the last time. After the Pathet Lao forced him to abdicate in 1975, he was arrested and forced to leave his home for good. As the communist era in Laos began, the monarchy that had survived for 600 years, was gone in a flash. 

The only royal that retained any power with the communists was the Red Prince, who became their ‘front man’. As a member of the royal family, he gave the Pathet Lao legitimacy in the eyes of the populace. He was named the 'President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos', a position which held more symbolism than power. He had brought the neutralists hope that royalists and communists could rule in peace together. But they were fooled, since the real power behind the Pathet Lao wasn’t the Red Prince, it was the communist chief Kaysone Phomvihane.

As for the other former prince, Souvanna Phouma resigned as Prime Minister in 1975. He retired to Vientiane, where he died in 1984. His fate was far better than the rest of the royal family. After his forced abdication the king, queen and two other princes were imprisoned and sent into internal exile. They would never return to Luang Prabang. The last king of Laos, Savang Vatthana, died in a remote jungle prison camp, and the Laotian monarchy died with him. 

The communist government of Laos has never given an account as to what happened to all of these members of the royal family. How they met their tragic deaths in prison, remains a mystery to this day. 

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