Luang Prabang and the Last of the Elephant Kings
By the banks of the Mekong, ‘Mother of rivers,’ people sat in huddles laughing over bottles of Beerlao, old, red Soviet hammer and sickle ensigns fluttering above them. Children shouted “sabaidee” from shady doorways. Rusting steamers displaying the Lao People’s Democratic Republic flag cut past craggy husks of limestone, lifting elliptically from the water. Surrounding the town, the denuded mountains appeared cobalt blue above the swirling, slow tide.
In this, the most bombed country in the world, borders have no meaning. Loggers have deforested limitless tracts, their booty bound for Thailand. Further North at Boten, where a Cargo Cult awaits the second coming of a gun-toting Jesus in fatigues, rows of smuggled Japanese cars lie patiently dreaming of China.
Colonial era slate roofed buildings in paring Communist monotones lined the calm streets of Luang Prabang’s historic centre. At Villa Santi, home of the last Laotian Princess – the only former royal to remain in Laos - open shutters hung from the barred windows. Orange-clad novice monks with shaven eyebrows dallied under parasols, the old symbol of sovereignty. Stalls offered pomelos, papayas and black water chestnuts beneath peeling placards of idealized workers, their fists raised in triumph.
Luang Prabang was the seat of a six-hundred year old dynasty, the Kingdom of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol, centred upon the sacred and inviolable person of the King. The last of the Elephant Kings, Savang Vatthana and his hapless, haphazard entourage were taken captive in March 1977 by a Vietnamese-backed Communist movement that had been so long in the jungle that they no longer had any concept of who was important and who wasn’t. The King, his family and his cronies were never heard from again.
Savang Vatthana was a quiet, demure man who held little interest in his position. Tall and gawky, he was deeply religious and superstitious, often talking in circling riddles. In 1959, after the death of his widely-respected father Sissavanvong, a massive storm tore through Luang Prabang, ripping the roofs from houses and destroying his father’s funerary arches. A soothsayer prophesized that he would never be crowned King and delaying his ascension, Savang Vatthana did his upmost to fulfil the prophecy. He would always live in larger than life shadow of his father.
Unlike previous Kings, Savang Vatthana took only one wife, Khamphoui, who he adored. Like the last Russian Tsar, his only true loves were his wife and children, his religion and gardening. Savang Vatthana and Tsar Nicholas were both prisoners, trapped within the confines of their inherited positions.
Functional rather than grand, the Royal Palace, now a museum, was built by the Laotian’s colonial overlords in 1909. The French wanted to elevate the office of the royal family who, prior to this, had lived in bamboo huts. Below rickety tiling, the concrete triple headed elephant with parasol, representing three Kingdoms in one nation, is now shrouded by the new LPDR flag; red and blue with a white circle, floating serenely at the front of the building.
Inside the museum, portraits hung upon plain white walls above polished mahogany floors, endless power-cuts coupled with and a lack of windows ensuring near darkness throughout the day. In the King’s quarters - nine doors but no windows - four ginormous lamps stood at the corners of the royal bed, a cheap, moth-eaten mosquito net tied to them. The ornately carved bed carried the initials “SV”, a looted ivory tusk missing from the elephant crest. On either side of the room were photographs, one from the blossom of youth, vibrant and hopeful, the other of an uncertain middle age.
Outside the King’s quarters, a dusty palanquin laid on the ground. Glass cabinets displayed old royal stamps, costumes, puppets and gifts from around the world; Japanese vases and Indian tapestries. From Richard Nixon, moon fragments and an old Lao pennant purportedly carried aboard an Apollo mission. From Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt - missing, presumed drowned - a splintered boomerang. From Madame Vieng Khan, Vietnamese wife of the King’s cousin, ‘Red Prince’ Souphanouvong, co-author of his downfall, a comb and mirror. From Ho Chi Minh, dated 1964, a tea set, the poisoned challis purporting “eternal friendship.”
The palace carried the musty smell of faded grandeur. There was an eerie hush, a vacuum giving the feeling of trespassing or of walking on graves. In the hallway stood a wooden framed gramophone, on its turntable a HMV ‘78, an adagio, the last song the King ever heard. In a final photograph Savang Vatthana looked tired; puffy, dark circles under his sad eyes. The music had stopped.
‘Alas,’ Savang Vatthana told his elfish Cambodian counterpart, Norodom Sihanouk, ‘I am doomed to be the last King of Laos’.
Revolutionary leader Kaysone Phomvihane finally confirmed that the King was dead on a trip to Paris in 1989.
‘I can now tell you that the King died of natural causes,’ he said. ‘He was very old. It happens to us all’.
Three years later Phomvihane himself succumbed to the inevitable.
The death of Savang Vatthana has never been reported in Laos. He is rumoured to be buried in an unmarked grave near Sop Hao Re-education camp, where he spent his final years separated from his wife and children, a lonely and broken old man.
Peeling Communist placard, Luang Prabang Market
Savang Vatthana's portrait from a Royal Lao Army Calendar, 1973
A thinly spread crowd await a military parade, Luang Prabang