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The Princely Brawl for Control of Laos

October 08, 2016

Historically Laos was known as the The Lan Xang (million elephants) Kingdom of Laos with its royal capital located in Luang Prabang. During the final sixteen years of the monarchy leading up to the Pathet Lao victory in 1975, a three headed elephant symbol of the country was particularly relevant due to the fact that Three Princes of Laos were fighting for control.

King Savang Vatthana who became the King of Laos upon the death of his father in 1959, served until the throne was abolished December 2, 1975 as the Pathet Lao and one of his nephews overthrew the government. For much of King Savang's reign, the Three Princes had their own political ambitions despite the King's efforts to get his unruly family to maintain a coalition government following his appointment of them when Laos obtained independence from France.

The author spent several uneasy nights in Luang Prabang in the late sixties with the area infested by North Vietnamese tanks having overrun a Hmong base a few kilometers away. While sitting in the open courtyard having a sundowner, one of the "lifer" Agency for International Development contractors said that the Vietnamese would never invade Luang Prabang out of deference to the King. We three gringos took a small measure of comfort in that observation despite the fact that a large Huey helicopter hovered over the air strip in the daylight hours. There are mixed emotions the first time you see a helicopter aloft looking for Pathet Lao saboteurs ranging from "that is comforting" to "why is that necessary."

However, when the monarchy was abolished, King Savang and his son, Prince Vong Savang, were placed in re-education camps where they both perished in either 1978 or 1984. Apparently, the re-education program did not work so well and/or their record keeping was flawed given the wide disparity in possible departure dates from this world. Obviously, any reverence for the King and royal family dissipated over time; if it ever existed in the early seventies.

Prior to that time, the Three Princes are shown below in a press conference in Vientiane, Laos in 1961.

Prince Souvanna Phouma, on the left, supported a neutralist Government to the chagrin of the U.S. His half- brother, Prince Souphanaouvang, is next to him. Prince Souphanouvong was a staunch communist and the leader of the Pathet Lao supported by the North Vietnamese. To his right is the right-wing Prince Boun Oum, a cousin of the half-brothers, who overthrew the original Souvanna Phouma government in 1960 with the support of the Hmong General Vang Pao, leader of the CIA backed illegal war. However, the dominance shifted to Souvanna Phouma and a coalition existed until the Pathet Lao fled the corruption in the administration and moved to the mountains. The photographer of the Three Princes was not sufficiently clever to line the Princes up from left to right in accordance with their political beliefs. 

The author recently was in Luang Prabang and visited the King's palace which has been restored. For some reason, Trip Advisor did not have the palace on its tourist attraction list back in the sixties but it is there today so a visitor can pick up a bit of history. However, this blog should accompany most tourists to fill in some of the gaps. Luang Prabang remains a wonderful city thanks to the willingness of the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces to leave it alone during the war years coupled with the efforts of UNESCO to name it a world heritage site during the modern era. Look closely in the image below and you will see the three-headed image partly obscured by a new flag at the top of the palace though one wonders are we talking about elephants or princes?

The three-headed elephant was also a symbol of royalty in historical Siam. In fact, Lao and Thai territory used to change hands fairly often until the French stepped in and colonized Laos. The historical flag of Thailand was a single white elephant on a red background as the Thai people seemed to lack the three contentious princes Laos had. The ancient flag of Thailand can be seen in The Elephant Story, Comfort, Texas. Moreover, The Elephant Story has designed several pieces of jewelry based upon the Rama VI Thai coins circa 1916 that reflect the three headed elephant which was the currency of Thailand at that time.



Rama VI Thai Coin Jewelry


Silver Coins from the Reign of King Rama VI (1910 - 1925) of Siam (Thailand)

During the early reign of King Rama VI, the king ordered for the first time the production of Baht coins with the portrait of the king on the obverse, with these first coins having on the reverse Airavata, the three-headed white elephant.

The coins were issued issued in 1913 in 3 denominations: 1 baht and 2 and 1 salueng.

Thai Sterling Silver Coin Ring

Thai Coin Sterling Silver Charm Bracelet



Thai Coin Sterling Silver Bracelet

Thai Sterling Silver Coin Cuff Links




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