Reverence for Monarchy Lives On In Sacred Capital of the Kings

OVER Luang Prabang hangs a morning haze as heavy as its history.

The haze veils the green jungle hills, the chocolate waters of the Mekong River, and Buddhist temples, whose gold steeples reach skyward in this sacred home of the former Laotian kings.

As has happened every dawn since Luang Prabang's founding in the 14th century, monks in saffron robes walk barefoot through the streets in an act of humility, carrying lacquered bowls to receive offerings from the faithful.

The old people in Luang Prabang, a name that means ``royal holy image,'' refuse to forget the last king who ruled Laos. They are like Russians who refuse to forget the last Czar, or Cambodians who wished for Prince Norodom Sihanouk to be their monarch again. The Lao king was protector of both the people and Buddhism.

Many of the king's former servants can still be found in this isolated town, some 140 miles north of the new capital, Vientiane.

The king's chief artist, Thit Khamtane, makes a meager living selling wood carvings of Buddha. He helps to maintain the palace, having carved some of its most beautiful artworks.

It is even possible to bump into some of the king's relatives. His granddaughter, Chio (princess) Tiene, runs the Villa de la Princesse Hotel, which opened recently in a French colonial house once owned by the former queen.

If people in Luang Prabang talk about the king at all, they do so in whispers. Their memories of him are crisp, but their reminiscences are as veiled as the dawn haze.

In 1977, the last king, Savang Vatthana, went ``to the north,'' as the Laotians say. The Communist rulers, who took over Laos in 1975, sent the king, along with thousands of others, to ``re-education camps'' (prisons) in the northern province of Sam Neua.

To their credit, the Communists did not kill the king outright. He had a relative in the party. But he was too powerful a symbol among the 4 million Laotians to let him become a potential rallying point for dissent.

``He was a good man and protected the people,'' says an elderly rice farmer, Xieng Eanh. The educated elite, however, say the monarchy failed to modernize the country the way those in neighboring Thailand and Cambodia did. ``His family was too decadent,'' says merchant Chanthone Thattanakham.

Not until 1991 did the Laotian people learn that the king had died, perhaps 10 years earlier. Crown Prince Vongsavang may have died as well, although his wife still lives in Luang Prabang, and is still greeted with bows and honorifics.

The most haunting presence of the king is his palace, which has been kept pretty much the same as the day he left it. Just why the Communists did so is unclear.

Laotians can enter the palace only with permission, which is rare, while the foreign tourists allowed into Laos can take a tour.

Next to a giant throne chamber in the 1904 French-designed building is a room full of foreign gifts to the king, including moon fragments from Richard Nixon and a silver desk set from John Kennedy. A 12-foot painting of the king shows him wearing green silk, holding a gold sheath and flanked by a throne and a statue of Buddha.

The king's and queen's separate bedrooms and their shared bathroom are sparse but elegant. Two safes keep the three gold crowns of previous kings, while a valuable gold Buddha statue has been put in a state vault. But there are many rich touches, such as a gold betel-nut box, the royal palanquin, and a set of French china.

The French, who colonized Laos, paid dearly to defend the monarch and Luang Prabang from Vietnamese Communist guerrillas. In 1954, the French military took a stand not far from Luang Prabang, at Dien Bien Phu on the Laos-Vietnam border, where Ho Chi Minh's jungle fighters defeated them in a historic battle.

During its war in Indochina, the US dropped more bombs on tiny, landlocked Laos than it did on Germany during World War II. Many of the bombs were intended to protect Luang Prabang.

But by the end of the war, the monarchy was no more. In this ancient, quaint town, it survives only in a haze of memory.

On the banks of the Mekong, the monarch's former chef, Phanh Khoumlavong, now sells hot chilies from a wooden table. She remembers the king as a kind man who loved French food and read Proust. And she still cries for him.

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