The museum offerings in Luang Prabang are better than might be expected of a small town, even one that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main attraction is the Luang Prabang Palace Museum, worth the visit even though they seem not all that interested in welcoming visitors. They close for a two-hour lunch break, shorts and tank tops are a no, skirts must be parochial-school length, and there are strictly no photos allowed. We will compensate with a 10,000-word post.
The museum is housed on the grounds of the palace of the now defunct royal family of Laos, who ruled from 1904 to 1975 before being deposed and “reeducated” to death by Communist guerrillas. As far as palaces go, it’s approachable, with a throne room that politely requests your fealty rather than demanding it. On display are solid gold crowns, swords, knick-knacks presented by foreign heads of state, and mid-century Laotian furniture befitting a king and queen. And the place is lousy with art, from elaborate mosaics to multiple portraits of members of the royal family.
In the hallway that threads through the living quarters hang 16 panels that depict the epic of Prince Wetsantara. His fatal flaw, according to the accompanying signage, is an over-generosity that sees him giving away all his worldly possessions, his wife, and his children. “He seemed like he really needed a couple of young boys…what could I say?” Our favorite panel is the first, which shows Wetsantara’s mother shortly before she becomes pregnant with our hero. She is given ten wishes, and while we’re not going to hate on anyone’s wishes, you gotta do you, they’re maybe a little shallow? She asks for a son with black eyes and eyebrows “as blue as a bumblebee,” and then she wishes not to get fat during her pregnancy like all those “general women” (is that the 4th century version of basic bitches?) and PLEASE, when she’s nursing, let her breasts be upright like lotuses instead of all gross and saggy. “Oh, world peace too I guess. Scratch that, let’s go with no grey hair until I’m really old, thanks.”
There are also a trio of portraits of King Savang Vatthana, Queen Khamphoui, and Crown Prince Vong Savang by the Russian artist Ilya Glazunov in 1967. Glazunov seems like a huge jerk with ties to an ultra-nationalist party that believes Jews and Freemasons are trying to destroy the fabric of Russia, but the paintings are larger than life and pretty marvelous.
But the real show-stopper, in our opinion, is the three-wall mural by French artist Alix de Fautereau, known as Alix Aymé after her second marriage. The accomplished wife of an academic, she spent much of her adult life in French Indochine, befriending the Laotian royal family and completing the mural in the royal palace in 1930. Its bold use of color is somewhat reminiscent of Gauguin or Matisse, and each segment of the piece depicts a different time of day in the Laotian countryside.
When de Fautreau’s husband returned to Paris, she quickly grew bored and returned to Indochine without him, infant child in tow. She spent the rest of her 95 years traveling throughout Asia, painting and being a badass. We couldn’t find any photos of her royal palace mural online, but here are some samples of her other work.
We also loved the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC). Fashion, crafts, ethnic minorities—that’s our jam. We learned about a traditional courting ritual involving passing a high-stakes game of catch; that Hmong women often took only the clothes on their backs with them when they married, and that therefore their clothing represented their entire identity; and that attachment parenting is huge in Laos. “Family bed” is just called “bed.”
Hero image by Khánh Hmoong.