Part 2: Laos
As many readers know, Smiling Albino is based in Bangkok, Thailand, but also has extensive operations in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Nepal. Besides being awesome places to explore, one thing that all of these countries have in common is that they entered the 20th century with a strong monarchic system in place. But of them all, only Thailand’s remains a powerful and influential component of contemporary life.
For westerners, the idea of monarchy is difficult to compartmentalize. Almost every modern country has it woven into its contemporary cultural fabric in some way or another, but in Asia, the office of monarch continued to carry significant weight long after most western countries had relegated the role to a symbolic relic of a time long past. So what happened?
In this second instalment of a four part blog series, let’s take a look at the history of royalty in Laos, an incredible story full of war, intrigue, and almost-successes that is generally thought to have begun in 1353, when a fellow named Fa Ngum seized power.
Fa Ngum was descended from leaders of the various tribal states that made up central Southeast Asia at this time, and had spent most of his life living in the Khmer Empire (see Part 1: The history of the Cambodian Royal Family). But as the Khmer Empire began to weaken in the face of disease and ecological disaster, Fa Ngum was sent north to keep the area in check. A few alliances here, a few battles there – including one against his uncle – and he crowned himself ruler of the newly-founded Lan Xang Kingdom; basically, most of present-day Laos and a slice of northeastern Thailand.
Fa Ngum ruled until 1372, when his people sent him into exile, placing his son Oun Huean on the throne. Successive family members followed until 1428, when a cunning queen known as Maha Devi emerged, pulling the strings behind the scenes as seven kings were crowned and then killed over a period of 14 years. In 1442 her fun came to an end when she was drowned as an offering to the mythical Naga serpent. A council of elders took over until 1456, when King Chakkaphat, the grandson of Fa Ngum, was crowned.
Save for a successfully repelled invasion by Vietnam and a few local skirmishes, the next several hundred years saw a long period of peace ruled by good, effective Kings from a fairly straight hereditary line. That all ended in the mid-1500s when a series of succession disputes and wars with nearly everyone in the area left the Lan Xang Kingdom battered and fractured. Eventually, King Nokeo Koumane got things back on track in 1591 when he reunited the broken pieces of Lan Xang, but died without an heir, and everyone got right back to fighting.
In 1637 King Sourigna Vongsa finally pulled everyone together and ruled over a strong and prosperous Lan Xang until he died in 1694. Then – surprise! – everyone got back to fighting, this time far more seriously, resulting in Lan Xang splitting into the northern Kingdom of Luang Prabang, the middle Kingdom of Vientiane, and the southern Kingdom of Champasak, each ruled by various descendants of Lan Xang royalty.
By this time, the Siamese Kingdom had emerged as the big kid on the block, and in 1779 – annoyed at Vientiane for their previous alliance with arch-enemy Burma – Siam invaded. This moment was really the beginning of the end for the Laos Royal Family, and after a four-month siege, the Kingdom of Vientiane fell under Siamese control, with Luang Prabang and Champasak following suit.
(History nerd alert – one of the generals leading the invasion force was Chao Phraya Chakri, founder of the Chakri dynasty that still rules Thailand today).
By this time the Lao royal family was broken, diluted, and ruled in name only. In 1826, Vientiane King Anouvong, weary of Siamese control, raised an army and invaded Siam. Noble intentions or not, it turned out to be a really bad call. The Siamese – better trained and better armed – pushed him back to Vientiane and reduced the once glittering capital to smoldering rubble, forcing Anouvong to retreat all the way to Vietnam. He was eventually betrayed and marched back to Bangkok, where he was displayed in a metal cage until he died in 1829.
Siam allowed the Lao Royal Family to continue “ruling” over the three Kingdoms until 1893, when the Franco-Siamese War kicked off. France won, Siam gave them Laos, and France added it to French Indochina. This didn’t mean much to the dynasties of Luang Prabang, Vientiane or Champasak – they were allowed to “rule” but under the watchful eye of France instead of Siam.
This relationship puttered along for a few decades until the devastation of WWII reorganized global power structures. Laos saw its opportunity and declared independence in 1953, establishing a constitutional monarchy under King Sisavang Vong, former King of Luang Prabang. He was followed by his son, Savang Vatthana who ruled until 1975 when – in the shadow of a terrible civil war and the horrors of the Vietnam War, he was overthrown by communist Pathet Lao forces and imprisoned, where he died of malaria several years later. There were no more kings left.
Today, Laos is one of the five remaining communist states (China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea), and is run by the ironically named Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Check out our sample trips to Laos here.
All is not lost for Lao royalty. The head of the Royal Family today is Soulivong Savang (grandson of Savang Vatthana), and his regent/uncle Sauryavong Savang, who both staged daring escapes from Laos. Along with a disparate group of supporters around the world, they continue to push to establish a constitutional democracy in Laos.
In our next blog, we’ll turn our attention west, to learn the story of Nepal’s monarchy.