I came across the “Laos National Museum in Luang Prabang” by accident. Not that there was any chance I’d walk by it and miss it, once I was on the main street – I just mean to say that I did not know it was there and I was not looking for it on purpose. On the main street I was doing the usual first rites for a new country – changing money, getting a new SIM card, having a lunch. It was truly a beautiful day – perfect for strolling. And this is how I ended up walking by a high wall with an open gate behind which one could see a big building with a beautiful garden.
I am the first one to agree that reading an account of a museum visit is as interesting as watching the grass grow (the one thing more boring is writing such an account, actually). Yet here follows a post – a long one, yet really the shortest I could make it! – about – yes, a museum visit.
In an earlier post about Angkor I played with the idea that inside the complex one could discern – as if it was a holographic image of sorts – Cambodia’s history from the past to the very present. Their markings were right before the visitors’ eyes, yet few seemed to take notice. What about this museum? Well – since here, unlike Angkor, one was not allowed to take photos, it will be more difficult to make a point. But let’s try…
First some trivia – entrance fee for foreigners was 30,000 kip (3 euros) – by no means a small sum by Lao standards. To make it look like a sweet deal the ticket comprised of three parts – 10,000 kip each – that granted access to separate areas – the museum itself, a Buddhist wat in the garden, and, believe it or not, the King’s Car Collection (hosted in a separate building). Getting a ticket for just one or two of the three? Not possible, of course.
More trivia: Upon entering I had to take off my shoes – as is commonly done in Thailand and Laos not just when going inside temples, but even when entering shops, etc. (In Thailand I once even had to take my shoes off when entering a bar, as well as – believe it or not – a public restroom). Some places which require you to take off your shoes are so unusual (to the foreigner) that I later set out to find the origins of the custom. Turns out the answer was simple: it was a “relic of the times when taking one’s helmet off meant there was no danger nigh” or perhaps because “in the middle ages garbage and waste was thrown out the window and men would walk outside with very large hats that would catch whatever would be thrown out of the window, so when they went inside they would take their hats off and dump everything out.”
Oops. Those were in fact the explanations for the Western tradition of taking one’s hat off. As for shoes in Asia – go figure…?!
So I entered the museum. My first impression was how high the ceiling was – it rose about 10 meters above ground. I had entered inside a big hall and on whose walls there were hundreds of beautiful figures showing aspects of Lao life.
Look, Ma, no photos allowed
Courtesy: joankrash @ Flickr
Look closer at those figures, and you will see peasants farming the field, workers holding the tools of their trade, merchants, women, children – all dressed in their style. A true small visual encyclopedia of Lao life as it once was. One thing not easily noticeable was that the figures were made of tiny pieces of painted glass – and exposed a beautiful effect when the sun light fell upon them.
Yet as I proceeded around the halls, it was soon clear that this museum was… strange. We are used to thinking of a museum as a place for exhibiting historical artifacts, aren’t we? But “true” museum artifacts to showcase this or that aspect of Lao culture or history were quite scarce.
But you entered a room, and found out – for example – that it was the King’s bedroom – with the King’s king-size bed inside, and every King’s personal belonging neatly labeled as well. Then the next room would be the queen’s bedroom – with her bed and her royal mirror on the wall. Then there was the royal dining hall – with a table sitting twenty compete with plates, knives and forks. In one of the halls behind a window pane you could even see the King’s shoes. One could not help not noticing that the shoes had been extensively used as they had the signs of wear and tear.
Yet, we all know (in fact, do we?) that Laos is a Socialist republic established in the seventies following the King’s forceful exile. Still, everything here was about the King or the Queen.
And it finally struck me. The clues had been all around – if only I would take notice. After all, such a big building (by Lao standards) could not have been built to be a museum originally. I was nowhere else but in the king’s very palace (the hostel I was staying at was originally a prince’s residence, remember?).
King Sisavang Vong had been ousted, yet all his possessions were carefully preserved and on display.
French artist Marcel Duchamp serving as inspiration for Lao museum curators?
Not only that. Outside of the palace/museum – in the garden – there was a big statue of the king himself.
Last Laos King Sisavang Vong
Only in Laos!
With that in mind, let’s revisit those wall murals. Say, what do you see on the walls and ceilings of European palaces? Paintings of generations of royal family. Religion-inspired decorations (angels, etc). Naked women (technically, creatures from ancient Greek and Roman mythology). Occasionally, some other fancy stuff. But one thing you’d never see is detailed depictions of peasants and craftsmen, of the simplest of folks – such as here. (Albeit there might be more to this than meets the eye – the murals had been created in several stages and – the info I was able to dig up is somewhat unclear about it – the ‘peasant’ ones might have been commissioned by Sisavang Vatthana, the last king of Laos, who was for some years the formal head of state while the rule was de facto in the hands of the people’s government. Even if that was the case – I’d still say “Only in Laos.”)
More trivia about the murals: later I read that each wall was intended to be viewed at a different time of day, depending on the light entering from the windows (and highlighting activities from that particular time of day). Lao subtlety at its finest.
Many visitors around whose comments I could overhear seemed to feel somewhat confused too (or, sorry to say it, even cheated) by the abundance of everyday objects around. They, too, had came along with their expectations of what a museum would be like, and were surprised to instead be greeted by the king’s bed, dinner set and shoes.
None of us should have been so surprised had we for a moment considered the fact that this was not Europe, but Laos. The common Lao people traditionally (e.g. up until the Socialist revolution) did not use ‘Western’ shoes, or ‘Western’ knives and forks – or even ‘Western’ beds for that matter. These objects that couldn’t be more trivial to us were actually new and amusing to them – and thus a perfect exhibit. At a time when the country had no electricity, nor roads, nor a reliable connection to the outside world, no TV, no movies, no Disneyland. The royal palace-cum-museum was all that entertainment combined – and rightly so.
But times have changed now, aren’t they? There is electricity, TVs, Internet, cars, scooters and what not – and the museum has stayed the same. So, what good is it – looking at someone’s bed and shoes? Well, to answer that I’ll quit speaking for the Lao people – I honestly do not know how interesting the museum is for them now – and go back to being a foreigner.
Let’s first reflect on the relative lack of ancient Lao artifacts (going contrary to the visitor’s assumptions of what a museum is like).
“The Palace Museum includes a small but impressive collection of royal Lao artifacts (Ramayana). Mayana dance masks, musical instruments, royal seals and medals, porcelain), and Buddha statues (many brought in for safekeeping by monks from wats or stupas abandoned or destroyed). Even the palace was not the safest place to stash priceless Buddhas. In 1910 the French government sent a specialist to Laos to select articles from the royal collection [emphasis mine!] for the Louvre Museum. A treasure of gold and bronze Buddha statues, works in silver, and other decorative objects was loaded onto a boat that subsequently sank without trace in the Mekong River.” (http://www.indochinatravel.com/country/laos/info/luang_prabang.htm)
Throughout the centuries Lao people never really established a proper state of their own. How could they? The mountains did not allow for road construction. There was no access to the open seas. As a result local population led (and still lead) a self-sufficient lifestyle, growing all the things they need. The area mostly existed as a buffer between its more powerful and aggressive neighbors – Siam (Thailand), Vietnam, China. Whatever the Lao people could scoop up, it was for some neighbor (usually the Thai) to come and take away – including Buddhist statues, etc. Then came the French (read the quote above). Then in more recent times after the revolution neighboring Thailand was openly hostile to the new Lao government, keeping the borders closed as well as hosting, training and supplying Laos counter-revolutionary organizations that wrecked havoc inside Laos.
Now you know that, in a true Lao style, what the museum shows not actually says a lot about what Laos is.
Let’s move on. I talked a lot about what was or was not in the museum, but the one thing not mentioned so far are the many gifts the King received from the dignitaries of foreign countries. (I am quite sorry that I could not take photos of them as it is not often that one gets to see what presents heads of state get to give each-other). Let’s start with the obvious – the Palace itself was built by French (you should’ve guessed by now) in the beginning of the 20th century. Then the country became a prized possession in the struggle between the Cold War powers-to-be – the US and USSR. Judging by the royal presents both powers heavily courted the Lao King, indeed.
The US gift that impressed me the most was a small piece of actual Moon rock presented to the Lao people on behalf of the US people, signed by US President Nixon (I later found out that such stones were presented to every nation in the world, US allies and enemies alike – but I did not know it at that moment.)
Note: I personally find a piece of Moon rock an interesting present to a country that was bombed by the United States to near oblivion with a total of two million tons of bombs, making areas along the border with Vietnam resemble the Moon surface. To this day Laos holds the dubious title “most heavily bombed country per capita on the planet.” Forty years after the bombing raids ended, people in Laos still become handicapped and die from triggering unexploded bombs each year.
On the Soviet side, the present that made the most impression to me was two true-size full-body portraits of the King and the Queen in traditional Lao dresses painted by a Soviet painter. Paid for by the Soviet Government, undoubtedly.
Think what you will, but being a king and ruling in such a challenging environment was no easy task. Maybe the king was not so unhappy with the exile, after all.
Finally – outside of the museum – hosted in a separate building was the prized King’s Automobile collection. Normally one would not think of cars being on display in a historical museum (unless it is for cars). The hall featured six of them – five huge American cars, the likes of Ford and Cadillac, as well as one French – all clearly presented to aid the battle for the mind and the heart of the Lao King and his government. Each car was neatly labeled with explanation who and when presented it to the King.
Luang Prabang - The Royal Cars
And not to be missed – the ever present delicate Lao touch was to be found here as well.
Subtle, unobtrusive, Lao
Lao PDR, I love you.