Noom – my bar boy friend and current love of my life – wasn’t a happy camper. But then he wasn’t calling me on the veracity of the comment I’d just made either. His concerns were deeper. His problem was with the stupidity of the Lao people for killing off their King and Queen. The very idea, to a Thai, was unthinkable. At best. And worthy of a bit of payback genocide, at the very least.
We were touring the National Museum in Luang Prabang and had just finished going through the Haw Kham, the Royal Palace and former residence of the Lao Royal Family. Before we entered the building Noom had a long talk with the Pha Bang, the 1st century gold Buddha from Sri Lanka displayed there from which the town derives its name. The rest of our tour of the building hadn’t taken long. There wasn’t a lot to see. A few weapons were of mild interest, but safely tucked away behind glass meant they couldn’t be touched. So Noom’s attention waned quickly even on those.
The last room contained gifts sent to the Lao royal family from various countries. The display of shiny baubles caught Noom’s eye. He carefully read each descriptive card, judging the worth of what each country had sent. In his opinion, Thailand had been the most generous. Go figure. I’d like to have defended the honor of my country, but amidst the intricately carved ivory, beautifully crafted silver, and jewel laden boxes, the best the U.S. could do was a small model of the Apollo Lunar Module. Made out of cardboard. I have a strong feeling Nixon had something to do with that. Noom was considerate in not mentioning America’s paucity of generosity.
“Like White House,” Noom explained to me – just in case I’d missed the purpose of the building we’d just been through – as we walked out to retrieve our shoes and cameras from the lockers provided for mandatory storage of all personal items. The displays may not have quite measured up to world class standards, but they had the rules of top-notch museums down pat. Though I think the ban on photography had less to do with protecting the artifacts and more to do with a concern that future visitors who’d seen proof of the sparsity of materials on display might decide to pass on touring the place. And pass on forking out the 30,000 kip to do so.
I considered mentioning that it was also just like the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but then that really isn’t the King’s home any longer – even before he took up residence in the hospital – and comparing the brick and mortar abode that was once home to Laos’ king with the spectre of the Grand Palace really was a case of apples and oranges. Not to mention such an association would have pissed Noom off. But his mind tracked to a similar comparison.
“Where King stay now?” Noom asked, assuming as usual I’d have the answer.
Unfortunately, I did.
“They killed the King and Queen,” I told him, not thinking just how poorly that fact would go over with a Thai.
“What!” he exclaimed, thinking perhaps I wasn’t serious and just razzing him as I frequently do.
Oooops. But too late to take that bit of news back, so I explained, “Back in the late 70s, when the Pathet Lao took over, they sent the King, Queen, and Crown Prince to re-education camps and killed them.”
Noom stared at me for a minute, waiting for me to laugh and prove it was a joke. I shook my head to signal that it wasn’t. And hoped he wouldn’t follow up by asking why they’d killed off their royalty. That was an explanation I really couldn’t provide. At least not substantially. But then I can’t explain the stupid things my country does either. Like electing Bush. Either time.
We’d already toured the small gilded wat on the grounds, the Haw Pha Bang, waiting for the handful of other tourists to leave so we could climb up the roped off stairs of the repository of the paladin of the city for a photo op. There was still one more building to see, the Conference Hall, which houses a never ending change of modern displays about Luang Prabang, Laos, and the Laotian People. But Noom had had enough. The death of the royals, even though that’d occurred 30 years earlier, had upset him greatly. We headed over to a near-by wat instead so he could discuss the matter with the Buddha.
That conversation seemed to do the trick and soon all was good in Noom’s world again. We visited a few more wats, all of which involved scaling steep sets of stairs, took a break for a late lunch, and then headed up the almost 1,000 stairs to the top of Mount Phousi.. And another temple, albeit a small one. The real purpose for our climb was to watch the sun set over the sleepy provincial town. It’s what tourists do in Luang Prabang. Though most are smart enough to head back down the unlit stairs before dark.
Neither of us should really be allowed out without supervision. You’d think between the two of us, at least half a brain would be represented. Instead it works the other way and common sense takes a holiday of its own. So we were the last to head downward and by then it was pitch black. Which made for a precarious and tricky passage back to Sisavangvong Road. Reaching the small promenade built atop the retaining wall at street level, we stopped to congratulate ourselves and to admire the well-lit street filled with red topped canopies under which night market vendors took short naps while trying to make a few kip off unsuspecting tourists ready to hand over their hard earned cash for worthless trinkets made in Thailand and Vietnam. Bathed in a golden light behind the tents, the Royal Palace Museum’s wat rose into the night’s sky. A good photo op if there ever was one. We both started snapping shots.
Noom’s adequate yet limited English has settled on the word ‘power’ to cover the spiritual strength of Buddhist shrines, temples, and statues. It’s a very real force in Noom’s world. When we hit a shrine or temple that has power, he has a physical reaction. The hair on his arms stands up. The smoother areas of his arms get chicken skin. If I don’t notice, he’ll point it out. Just so I know I’m in the presence of a powerful piece of Buddhist imagery. He’s also into instant gratification. So after shooting a few photos, he always stops to review his work. And this time he let out a surprised, “Oh!”
Most, but not all of his photos of the wat had eerie spherical shadows in the sky surrounding the temple. I checked to see if they were reflections from street lights, but their placement was off. Plus, they moved from one picture to the next. And where one shot had only one or two of the apparitions, another had more than a dozen. And yeah, I know what they were. I think.
But so did Noom.
He picked out the photo that held the most spots. This one also had two small unexplainable bright lights in it. And he quickly identified them for me. The largest moon-like sphere was the spirit of the King. The much smaller but quite bright light below that was the Queen’s spirit. And the slightly less bright light off to the side was the spirit of the Prince. Even in death they still were in residence at the palace and watching over the Lao people.
In his second ‘best’ shot, the one I’m sharing with you here, the King had moved to the side of the wat, the Queen’s bright light had settled near the temple’s roof, and the Prince had transformed into one of the shadowy spheres, hovering midpoint of the Haw Pha Bang.
One man’s religion is another man’s myth. Faith and superstition are easily confused. Our personal belief systems, at their most basic, explain the unexplainable, acknowledge a greater power, and feed the needs of our soul. Noom’s soul had been troubled by the idea that a people would kill their king; an unthinkable event for a Thai. The unusual results of his photography efforts had resolved that concern. And I was afforded a glimpse into his extraordinary world once again.
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