Palace in Paradise
by Denise Heywood
The international community has been helping Laos to restore its cultural treasures. In May, the colonial-style National Museum in Luang Prabang, the former Golden Palace, received assistance from a Japanese conservation and research team from the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka; and last December the entire former royal capital was approved to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The US$20,000 National Museum project was led by Associate Professor Katsumi Tamura with a team of four, and funded by the Japan Foundation's International Cooperation Project for Asian Museums.
"We are a research institute for ethnology and anthropology, and specialists in museology of Asian countries," explained Professor Tamura. "Our eight-day project has involved taking photographs and making a plan of the museum to create better displays, storage, archives and systems for management. The photographs will help for conservation and preservation purposes, and for creation of an inventory, which the museum does not have. All data will be kept in special files. Staff here are eager to renovate the museum and to preserve their monuments."
Director Kamphong Phommavong, who did a six-month museum management course in Osaka last year, said: "Last year we had assistance from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). But until now in the museum we had only hand-written documentation, and files were not well-organized. We are happy to have this help for renovation."
The palace was built between 1904-1909 during the French protectorate. When the Pathet Lao took control of Laos in 1975 the last king, Savang Vatthana, and his wife, Khang Phouny, were forced to abdicate, along with their son, Crown Prince Vong Savang.
The palace was preserved as it was left, with murals and mosaic covered walls. Its French furnishings, such as an empire-style bed and a Victrola "Talking Machine" with 78 rpm records of Pablo Casals, crystal chandeliers and Sevres porcelain, are sparse, but the throne room is more lavish, with brocade coronation robes for the crown prince and high-heeled black and gold lace shoes from Nice for the queen. A portrait of Queen Khan Phouny by Ilya Glazunov, painted in 1967, shows a woman of dignified but sad bearing.
A collection of gifts from dignitaries around the world includes not only art objects, but items such as a boomerang from Australia and a piece of the moon from the Apollo II mission, donated by Richard Nixon in 1973. There are gold, jewel-encrusted daggers and display cases filled with 15-17th century jade, crystal, and a gold Buddha, among them the most revered Buddha in Laos, the solid-gold Phra Bang, said to date from the 1st century, from which Luang Prabang derives its name. The Phra Bang will shortly be moved to a special new chedi being constructed in the palace grounds.
In order to implement the recommendations of the World Heritage Committee to make Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site, Khamliene Nhouyvanisvong, the Laotian Special Representative at UNESCO in Phnom Penh, will become the Permanent Delegate of Laos from 1 September.
"We have to set up a management committee and legislation to protect the monuments and restore and preserve the buildings," he said. "There are 62 temples dating back to the 14th century and 111 houses, some dating from the era of the French protectorate. The area will be zoned and there will be no new construction. We would like to develop ecotourism and cultural tourism."
Luang Prabang was unknown to the Western world until 1861 when it was visited by the Frenchman Henri Mouhot, the man attributed with the discovery of Angkor Wat. He described it as "a delightful little town," and admired the mountains that form an amphitheater. "Were it not for the constant blaze of the tropical sun," he wrote, "the place would be a paradise." Mouhot died here of malaria in November of the same year, aged only 36. He is buried outside the city, amid the dramatic scenery of the Mekong, on a remote river bank, in a recently restored 19th century white tomb.
The French influence on buildings resulted in a blending of architectural styles, typified in the National Museum, which is part Lao, part French. Prior to the French, buildings were constructed of wood with bamboo walls, while brick was reserved for monasteries. Between 1907 and 1925 the French administration built colonial-style offices and houses using wood and masonry, incorporating elements such as those of the celebrated Wat Xieng Thong, built in 1561, with its low-sweeping tiered roof.
Luang Prabang is considered to be the best preserved traditional city in southeast Asia. Nhouyvanisvong plans to keep it that way. "My idea," he said, "is to make the whole place a living museum."