Indochina Day Eight, part one
09.02.2020 - 09.02.2020
In the garden of the Villa Chitdara
Overnight I discovered one downside to the Villa Chitdara - the hardness of the bed. It was very firm, reminding me of some of the beds in North Korea last year. But I slept reasonably well nevertheless, and at least it wasn't an early start as we had decided to delay seeing the famous Tak Bat, or almsgiving ceremony, until tomorrow.
We enjoyed our buffet breakfast served in the dining area overlooking the pretty garden, especially the excellent fruit selection and omelettes cooked to order.
Breakfast fruit platter
My view from our breakfast table
In the market
WARNING: THE NEXT SECTION HAS A COUPLE OF PHOTOS SOME PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY VEGETARIANS, MAY FIND DISTRESSING
Afterwards we met up with our guide, Lee, at the gate of the hotel for a day's sightseeing in Luang Prabang. Our first stop was at the fresh produce market which takes place every day on a narrow side street, with goods spread out on the ground on either side of the path.
The morning market
And what an assortment of goods we saw - vegetables both familiar (chillies, peppers, aubergine, spring onion) and unknown (banana flower, trumpet flower, river weed).
The animal produce was especially bizarre to our eyes - rats, civet cats, moles (cut open with their intestines and other innards on full view), frogs (sold alive), tiny snails (ditto) and more. There were also tiny birds for sale in equally tiny straw cages, for people to buy and release to get good karma, as we had done in Phnom Penh.
Sellers at the market
~ the one on the right has baby birds for sale
And in complete contrast to all of this, a few stalls sold beautiful lengths of fabrics in jewel-like colours.
From the produce market we walked to the nearby former royal palace, now a museum. Once there, Lee gave us an overview of Laos history, although I found this a bit hard to follow as his English was a little uncertain at times. But from later research I put some pieces together that were particularly relevant to what we saw at the palace. Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you’re not interested, but I found knowing this background helped me understand not only what I was seeing at the palace but also much else that we saw and heard during our stay in Laos.
The Royal Palace through the trees
The first Lao kingdom, called Lan Xang or ‘land of the million elephants’, was founded in 1353. The founder, Fa Ngum, had been raised in exile among the Khmers of Angkor and when he returned to the state where he had been born, as a prince coming to reclaim his rightful crown, he brought with him the Buddhist faith. His wife was a Khmer princess and his father-in-law, the Khmer king, sent Buddhist scholars and scriptures, as well as a sacred golden Buddha called Pra Bang. The latter was placed in the capital, Muang Sua, which was renamed Luang Prabang in its honour. For the next 200 years Luang Prabang was the religious and cultural centre of the kingdom of Lan Xang, and the kingdom thrived. But its power began to crumble in 1694 when the king died without an heir. After a period of internal strife Lan Xang was divided into three kingdoms: Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the centre and Champassak in the south. These three rivals never stopped quarrelling and were easily invaded and overrun, particularly by the Siamese (from present-day Thailand) who by the end of the 18th century controlled most of this region. But Siam was persuaded to cede the territory of Lan Xang (and of the Khmer) to French Indochina in return for its own independence.
The French reunited the three territories and called their new protectorate Laos, from les Laos, the plural form of the Lao people, but moved the capital to Vientiane as it was the most central of the three. They retained the monarchy in the kingdoms, but each king ruled merely as a puppet, answerable to them.
Royal barges and pond at the Royal Palace
French Indochina fell briefly to the Japanese in World War II. When Japan surrendered in 1945, a Free Laos movement declared independence, but the deposed king of Luang Prabang, Sisavang Vong, allied himself to the French. When the attempt at independence failed, the French reinstated Sisavang Vong as king, this time over the whole of Laos - the first time a Lao monarch had ruled over all of what we today know as Laos.
In 1953, the French granted independence to the Royal Lao Government, but many in the country felt it was still only a puppet government and a resistance group formed, backed by communist North Vietnam. When the French withdrew from Indochina in 1954, the U.S. started supplying the Royal Lao Government with arms. Almost inevitably, given this background and the country’s location, Laos was drawn into the Vietnam War. We were shocked to learn from Lee that in fact the country’s people suffered even more severely during that time than did those of Vietnam itself, and I have since read that Laos suffered the heaviest bombings of any country in history.
After the fall of Saigon the new communist government in Vietnam lent its support to those fighting against the king in Laos and Sisavang Vong was soon defeated. He was deposed on December 2nd 1975, Buddhism was abolished as the state religion and the communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established – it remains the only party. But despite this, commercial enterprise is not only permitted but encouraged, Buddhism has been reinstated and the economy is improving, although it remains a poor country.
Surprisingly, given that history, a statue of Sisavang Vong stands in the grounds of the palace. Despite siding with the French he was (and is still) loved by most people in the country for his steady and moderate leadership and for the establishment of the first constitution in Lao history.
Marigold stupas in front of the statue of King Sisavang Vong
Statue of Sisavang Vong
~ you can see the shrine Haw Pha Bang in the background of the shot on the right, and the building which serves as cloakroom and also houses the royal ballet in the one on the left
Haw Pha Bang
Haw Pha Bang
We had to put our bags, including cameras and phones, into lockers in a separate building before visiting the first building, Haw Pha Bang, a shrine which houses the sacred golden Buddha given to the kingdom by the Khmer king, father in law of Fa Ngum, who helped to bring Buddhism to Laos.
This statue stands 83 centimetres high and was cast in an alloy of 90% gold with additional silver and bronze. It has its arms outstretched and its palms facing forward in a 'stop' gesture. Lee told us that this Buddha gave the city its name and that 'Pra' means Buddha and 'bang' means stop. The Buddha, Lee said, is urging the people to stop fighting and to stop killing each other. But I haven’t found anything online to back up this explanation. Wikipedia translates Luang Prabang as ‘Royal Buddha Image’, linking the name to the statue but without any mention of stopping. And most sources describe the statue as being in the attitude known as Abhaya Mudra, dispelling fear and offering protection.
Balustrades, Haw Pha Bang
The statue has been venerated as a unifying force for religious and royal traditions in Laos. Legend says that it came originally from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the first century AD, but most experts assess it as being of 14th century Khmer origin. It was twice captured by Siamese invaders; each time political upheaval and misfortune in Siam were attributed to its theft and it was returned.
At Haw Pha Bang
The shrine looks quite old, but appearances can be deceptive – it was built only in 2006. Prior to that the statue was housed in several different Luang Prabang Wats, or temples, and from 1947 in the Royal Palace Museum. Some say that this statue is a copy, with the original kept in a vault either in Vientiane or perhaps even in Moscow, but that doesn’t prevent devout locals from venerating it and respecting its power to keep their country safe.
The Royal Palace
From the shrine we went to the palace itself, which was built in 1904 during the French colonial era as a home for King Sisavang Vong. After his death in 1959 his son Savang Vatthana became king, although he was never crowned, choosing to defer his coronation until the end of civil war in his country. When that war ended in victory for the communist Pathet Lao forces he was forced to abdicate. He refused to leave the country but in 1976 he surrendered the royal palace to the Lao Government, which turned it into a museum. He moved to a nearby private residence where he was placed under house arrest. In March 1977, fearing he might escape to lead a resistance, the authorities arrested him and the rest of his family. They were sent to a ‘re-education camp’ where he, his wife and oldest son all later died of malaria (according to the authorities – some dispute this). A younger son Sauryayong Savang, now lives in exile in Paris.
Above the entrance to the palace is a gold relief depicting a three-headed elephant sheltered by a sacred parasol. This is the symbol of the Lao monarchy and Lee told us it derived from the merging of the three ancient kingdoms to become the new kingdom of Lan Xang, the ‘land of the million elephants’.
The Royal Palace
We climbed the white marble steps and were required to remove our shoes before entering, presumably to protect the rather lovely polished wooden floors. I would have loved to have been able to take photos inside but the no photos rule is clearly rigidly enforced as they are hard to find even on the internet.
Lee took us through the series of rooms, described their function and pointed out some key items on display. The walls of the main throne room were richly decorated with glass and mother of pearl mosaics. From this we went into the King's reception room with its walls covered with murals depicting scenes from traditional Lao life – village houses, farming, religious ceremonies and more. Each of the walls is intended to be viewed at a different time of day, depending on the light that enters the windows on one side of the room, which matches the time of day depicted.
In the other rooms many of things on display were relatively recent, dating from the period of the last king. There was even a large cabinet radio that looked to me not dissimilar to those of my early childhood in the 1950s. The bedrooms have been preserved as they were in 1975 when the King was forced from the palace.
Back outside, and reunited with our shoes, we went to see the small collection of royal cars - several Lincolns, a Ford, a Citroen.
After this we were able to retrieve our belongings from the lockers and had some free time to take photos in the grounds, which was allowed. Some of the photos above were taken then.
Visitor at the Royal Palace, and one at Haw Pha Bang
Heuan Chan Heritage House
From the palace it was just a short walk to this traditional house, which is over 100 years old and a very rare surviving example of a pre-colonial Lao style aristocratic mansion. It has been restored and is now open to the public.
Before looking around we enjoyed a cold drink in the shady garden. I had wanted to buy one before leaving the Royal Palace, but Lee had suggested that we wait until we got here as it would be a pleasanter place to sit, and he was right! Meanwhile he went off to get our tickets and chat to a local friend who works here.
In the garden at Heuan Chan Heritage House
After our drinks we had a short tour of the house from a resident guide who described how the different rooms would have traditionally been used and talked about the items on display, including a typical household shrine, costumes, cooking equipment etc.
Heuan Chan Heritage House
In the kitchen - drying chillies and garlic
Outside we saw some people demonstrating traditional crafts, making marigold stupas for shrines and objects out of bamboo. It’s possible to take courses here on these crafts and on cookery – we saw them preparing for one of the latter in the open-air kitchen. Then we relaxed over a cup of coffee (included in the tour) in the same pretty garden where we had enjoyed our cold drinks.
Making marigold stupas
From here we walked back up to the main street where our driver was to pick us up. There was some delay before the car appeared and when it did it had a different driver! We learned that our driver 'was busy' and his brother was standing in for him. But at least it gave me some time for more photos!
Dog on a bike, dressed to match!
~ the owner saw us taking photos of the bike from his seat at a bar opposite and came across with his dog so he (the dog) could pose for us!
On Sisavangvong Road
Tuk-tuk and driver
This unexpected pause in our activity might also be a good point at which to pause this entry, as it’s getting rather long and I still have lots more to share from this busy day! So, to be continued …