Luang Prabang was the historical home of the Laos royal family – until the revolution! In 1975, when the revolutionaries finally won a war against the King’s forces, King Sisavang Vattana was forced to abdicate, and then imprisoned in a remote cave, where he and his entire family died from starvation and neglect. And within 20 minutes the royal palace was opened as a museum and exhibition. Now it is a regular little money-spinner for the government, with visitors paying 10,000 Kip for the privilege of seeing the French-built palace. Although I’ve not visited Buckingham Palace I imagine that, on a different scale, it is similar – large rooms filled with very little, and seemingly offering few home comforts. One of the most interesting rooms displayed the ex-Kings possessions, including his clothes, thrones and his elephant howdah (riding seat).
One of the revealing rooms was that put aside to display the presents given to the royal family from other countries. From Japan, China, France, Canada and others were brilliant gifts of artistic merit – fine crystal, silverware, porcelain and art. And from the USA? Well, the Americans were obviously in their technical age – a 6″ model of Apollo 11 from Richard Nixon, 2 scraps of moon rock (and I mean scraps – you wouldn’t even see them without the accompanying magnifying glass), and 2 flags taken to the surface of the moon in space missions. (Help me here, because the letter that went with the gifts wasn’t on display, but surely it must have said something like “Dear King Sisavang, we’re sure sorry that we flew 580,944 missions to Laos and dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs on your country instead of Vietnam last year. Here, have a bit of moon rock to fill a crater, to make up for it. Yours, Tricky Dicky”). Seriously, that many bombs over the ten years of the Vietnam War mean that the country now has a huge unexploded munitions problem, and people regularly get blown up in their fields.
In the evening, to cap our right-royal-day, we went to the Royal Ballet performance, with heaps of dancers in traditional dress, performing parts of the Ramayana (what a relief – in India the whole thing takes a week to perform). The tickets cost a massive 75,000 Kip (5 Pounds, which is a lot of money in Laos) each, but the number of people involved in the production meant that we felt we got our money’s worth. I’m afraid I’m not really into ballet, but Charlotte, who is, rated it as ‘boring’, but she was chuffed that the attendant piled five chairs on top of each other, so that she could see the stage!
So there we go, a right royal day, all made slightly odd by the fact that the royal family were bumped off in such recent history (like, when I was at secondary school – that’s not total-history).