Champasak – The Tragic Kingdom of Southern Laos

The town of Champasak in southern Laos is small and neglected consisting of not much more than two roads running alongside the Mekong river for about 5km. Its main business appears to be the trickle of tourists who arrive to see the nearby ancient Khmer ruins of Wat Phou. But within the grounds of an unremarkable looking Buddhist temple in the town centre are the funeral stupas of two kings. For this was once the capital of an important kingdom that held sway over central and southern Laos parts of Vietnam and Cambodia as well as Ubon Ratchathani, Sisaket and Roi Et in modern Thailand. The story of Champasak is one of tragic downfall which some say was caused by powerful curses upon the ruling families.

Khmer temple ruins
The ancient ruins of Wat Phou are the main reason tourists visit Champasak today

The Founding of Champasak

The last dynasty of Champasak was founded in 1713 when a charismatic monk Phra Khu Phonsamek placed a teenage boy on the throne with the title King Soysisamout.

Phra Khu Phonsamek was an highly revered abbot from Wat Phonsamek in Vientiane who became known to his followers as Phra Khu Khi Hom; that is The Monk Whose Shit Smells Good (Yes, you read that correctly, but the khi or “shit” in fact refers to any remains of his body such as hair, nails or teeth or any remaining possessions, all considered highly auspicious). Phra Khu Phonsamek fled a royal succession struggle in 1695 after the death of King Suriyavongsa, heading south with several thousand followers including Princess Sumangkhala, the king’s pregnant daughter. The princess gave birth to a boy named Nokasat and for several years she lived in a village near Nakhon Pathom with her son.

buddhist temple
The famous stupa in Nakhon Phanom was restored by Phra Khu Phonsamek
(Photo by Khunkay, CC BY-SA 4.0)

After rebuilding the famous That Phanom chedi Phra Khu and his followers spent several years in Cambodia. But in 1708 they moved north to Champasak where an elderly Queen known as Nang Phao invited Phra Khu to rule as regent. When the queen died in 1713 Phra Khu placed the young Nokasat upon the throne in a ceremony held at Wat That in Champasak town.

golden stupa
Phra Khu Phonsamek’s remains are interred at Wat That, Champasak, where he is still highly revered

But there was a sting in this tale that some believe has had repercussions for the dynasty ever since. For Queen Nang Peng had been the illegitimate daughter of the previous queen Nang Phao. In 1638 Queen Nang Phao had been seduced by a visiting noble from Nong Bua Lamphu, leaving her pregnant with the future Nang Peng. This loss of female virtue was believed to have cursed the royal line of Champasak. More than three centuries later one of Champasak’s last princes, Chao Boun Oum, would say “With an unmarried mother as queen, everything started so badly that the game was lost before it began.”

The Crystal Buddha that Pierces the Mist

In fact it did not all start badly for King Soysisamout. In 1724 word reached the king of an auspicious discovery by two indigenous hunters in a mountain village. They had apparently found a crystal Buddha image in a river and after some difficulty raised it from the water and took it back to their village. There it displayed miraculous properties – chickens would no longer enter the house where the image was kept, nor would they eat rice laid out to dry near the image.

When the king heard of this he sent his court officials to invite the Buddha image to come to Champasak. It seems that the invitation was accepted for the court officials and the villagers accompanied the crystal Buddha in a procession of boats down from the mountain. Once they reached the main river however, the villagers were instructed to return home whilst the court officials would continue alone. But soon after a strong storm blew up and the Buddha image was lost overboard into the river. Despite frantic searching all seemed lost until the king asked the two village hunters to come and help. With their help the crystal Buddha was again retrieved from the waters and finally carried down river to Champasak.

the crystal buddha
Legend says that Phra Keo Phaleuk Mok was found in a river in Southern Laos by local hunters

The king named the image Phra Phuttharoup Keo Phaleuk Met Nam Khang Bai Bone but it is also known as Phra Keo Phaleuk Mok, “The Crystal Buddha that Pierces the Mist”. Installed with great fanfare in a temple in Mueng Kao south of Champasak town Phra Keo Phaleuk Mok became the sacred palladium of the kingdom.

buddhist shrine
King Soysisamout’s remains are enshrined at Wat That, Champasak (Right-hand stupa pictured above)

The Golden Years

With a sacred Buddha image to bestow power and virtue on the kingdom and a location that controlled important trade routes, this was the golden age of Champasak. On his death in 1737 Soysisamout was succeeded by his son King Sayakouman. All went well for twenty years until a family feud erupted between the king and his younger half-brother Chao Thammathevo. Faced with an army led by Thammathevo, King Sayakouman fled from the city. His position was only restored two years later by the intervention of their mother who went on hunger strike to force the two brothers to reconcile.

map of champasak
A map showing the extent of Champasak’s dominion across modern day Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam

Loss of the Crystal Buddha

The years of independence were not to last long. In 1777 Siam, resurgent after Ayutthaya’s total destruction at the hands of the Burmese a decade earlier, pushed to gain control of the territory that is today north-east Thailand. Siam’s King Taksin sent out two huge armies. One force of 20,000 men led by Chao Phraya Chakri, the future King Rama I, headed out east from Nakhon Ratchasima. The other army of 10,000 led by Chao Phraya Surasi, Chakri’s younger brother, moved through Cambodia and then travelled north up the Mekong River. Each town they encountered was brought under Siamese control. The two armies finally converged on Champasak in late 1778, whereupon King Sayakouman took flight (again) rather than face this overwhelming force.

statue
King Rama I, commemorated here at Bangkok’s Memorial Bridge, led the armies that subjugated Champasak in 1778.

Sayakouman was captured by the Siamese and taken back to Thonburi as a prisoner. He was permitted to return as ruler of Champasak in 1780 but now as a vassal of Siam. During his absence the Siamese appointed Chao Thammathevo’s son Chao O as deputy-ruler (Oupahat) of Champasak. If this was a deliberate ploy to cause instability in the kingdom it was successful. A dispute soon broke out and the king sent his own grandson Chao Nou to resolve it. Over zealous in carrying out his grandfather’s command Chao Nou had Chao O executed, but not before the latter had placed a curse on the royal line of King Sayakouman praying that none of his descendants would rule for more than seven days.

Over the ensuing years as Siam grew stronger the demands placed on vassal states such as Champasak for taxes, goods and labour increased. But the biggest shock for the people of Champasak came in 1812 when King Rama II of Siam ordered the Phra Keo Phaleuk Mok to be brought to Bangkok. Many of Champasak’s nobles and monks accompanied the Buddha on the long journey and on its arrival in Bangkok a seven day celebration was held, but the loss of the image was a devastating blow to the people of Champasak.

Many years later King Rama IV (r.1851 – 1868) in Bangkok renamed the image Phra Phutthabutrat Jakphanphimlomnimai and later still Prince Damrong (A son of Rama IV) asserted that this image was one mentioned in the northern chronicles that had previously been in Chiang Mai together with the famous Emerald Buddha. Phra Keo Phaleuk Mok still resides today in Bangkok’s Dusit Palace.

The French Take Control

Siam reduced the power and influence of Champasak but worse was to come as the nineteenth century progressed. The French arrived on the scene with dreams of building a colonial empire and using the Mekong River as a highway for trade with China. In 1866 they financed the Mekong River Expedition to explore this territory barely known to Europeans. For several decades they competed fiercely with Siam for control of the Mekong basin culminating in 1893 in the Paknam Crisis when French gunboats threatened Bangkok. The subsequent Franco-Siam treaty handed control to France of all territories east of the Mekong.

drawing of bassac
A scene in Champasak drawn by Louis Delaporte of the Mekong River Expedition, 1866

Many books have been written about the impact of the 1893 treaty on Siam but far less written about its impact on border polities such as Champasak. Champasak town still fell under Siam’s jurisdiction but over half of its traditional subjects now lay out of reach in French Indochina. In fact the situation proved to be temporary. In 1904 France and Siam signed a new treaty giving France some territory west of the Mekong including Champasak town.

These changes caused massive disruption to the local societies. Trade routes that had traditionally passed west to east were now blocked. The French directed all communications along the Mekong River introducing steam boats and even railways to try and make the Mekong commercially viable. The social disruptions started by the Siamese and compounded by the French caused several popular rebellions up until the 1930’s.

The Cursed Dynasty

King Sayakouman who had been taken prisoner by the Siamese before being allowed to rule at their discretion died in 1791. For the next hundred years all rulers of Champasak would be appointed by the King of Siam and the line of succession became extremely disjointed. Nine kings were appointed between 1791 and 1863 and there were three periods during which there was no king at all.

During this period the legendary curses on the royal house appeared to play out. Chao Nou, the grandson of King Sayakouman mentioned earlier, became king in 1811 but died just three days later. His son Chao Boua was nominated as king in 1853 but died before his investiture. Thus Chao O’s curse was fulfilled. But his own descendants did not always fare better. His son became King Houy who in 1837 had to abandon his capital north of Champasak town due to a disastrous fire. Four years later King Houy was killed after falling from his elephant and striking one of its tusks.

statue
Statue of King Yuttithamathon (Chao Kham Souk) in Wat Thong, Champasak

Some dynastic stability was finally achieved in 1863 with the appointment of King Yuttithamathon (Known as Chao Kham Souk), son of the ill-fated King Houy. Chao Kham Souk reigned for 36 years during which time he saw the incursion of the French into his territory and had to powerlessly accept the division of his kingdom by the Franco-Siam treaty of 1893.

old photograph
Chao Rasadanai with his fifth wife Princess Chansamout who bore him 9 children

On his death he was succeeded by his son Chao Rasadanai. But just like his father Rasadanai was powerless to influence the second Franco-Siam treaty of 1904 which now absorbed Champasak into French Indochina. Whereas the French rebuilt Vientiane as the capital of their Lao colony and maintained the Luang Prabang kingdom as a protectorate, Champasak was never given such recognition. The principality of Champasak was abolished and became a province administered from Pakse north of Champasak. Chao Rasadanai was no longer a king but a mere provincial governor, a position he was forced to retire from in 1934 when he reached 60 years of age.

old house
Chao Rasadanai’s French colonial style house in the centre of Champasak

On Chao Rasadanai’s death in 1945 responsibility for the royal house of Champasak fell to his son Chao Boun Oum who had been born in 1911. During World War II Chao Boun Oum joined the French commandos to fight against the Japanese. He hoped that in the aftermath of the war the fortunes of Champasak could be revived, but this was not to be. After the war ended the French returned to their old colony. Chao Boun Oum renounced his claim to the throne of Champasak in order to take up the position of Inspector-General in a new French controlled Kingdom of Laos under King Sisavang Vong from Luang Prabang. But France’s position was rapidly weakening and in 1953 Laos was granted independence. Chao Boun Oum continued to be highly involved in the complex politics of that period and became Prime Minister from 1960 to 1962.

ornate hotel
In the 1970’s Chao Boun Oum built himself a large palace in Pakse but it was still unfinished when he left the country in 1975. It is today a hotel.

His political duties kept him mainly in Vientiane but Chao Boun Oum returned to Champasak regularly to keep alive ceremonies that had traditionally been performed by the ruler of Champasak. These included an annual festival at Wat Phou in January or February, traditional New Year ceremonies held in April and boat races on the Mekong held in November. Despite his formal renunciation he was still viewed by many in the south as their king.

old photograph
Chao Boun Oum drinking rice alcohol with ethnic minorities in a traditional New Year ceremony

But Chao Boun Oum represented the right-wing royalist faction in the Royal Lao Government and in 1975, after his brother Chao Bunum had been assassinated in Vientiane, he left the country never to return. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established in December that year and all royal positions in Laos were abolished. Many members of the Champasak royal family followed Chao Boun Oum into exile, predominantly to France where Chao Boun Oum himself died in 1980.

Curses and Tragedy

The history of Champasak is one of tragic powerlessness in the face of much stronger outside forces. Whether Nang Pao’s indiscretion or Chao O’s curse played their part in this tragedy we can never be sure. But when Chao Rasadanai died in 1945 the line of Champasak kings ended. His remains were interred in a stupa next to that of his father King Yuttithamathon in the grounds of Wat Thong adjacent to the old palace.

temple cemetery
The royal cemetery at Wat Thong, Champasak

Today this very modest temple looks almost deserted with neither monks nor visitors apparent. But on closer inspection one notices that these royal stupas have been well maintained and cared for. Clearly some in Champasak still remember the former royal family and continue to pay their respects even seventy years after the last king passed away.

Header Image: The stupas of King Yuttithamathon (front) and his son King Rasadanai (behind) in the grounds of the royal temple Wat Thong, Champasak.

Where to Go

How to Go

Buses run daily between Vientiane and Champasak. The journey takes about 10 – 11 hours.

Several flights operate daily between Vientiane and Pakse, the flight time being about 1 hour 30 minutes. From Pakse it is a 30km taxi or minivan journey to Champasak.

An alternative route is via Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand which can be reached by train, bus or plane from Bangkok. Buses or minivans run regularly to either Pakse or Champasak, taking 3 – 4 hours. The border crossing is at Chong Mek / Vangtao. Be fully prepared with passport, photos and money for the visa formalities in either direction.

There are great accommodation options available in Champasak ranging from budget guesthouses, boutique hotels in restored French colonial villas to luxury resorts.

Chao Boun Oum’s unfinished palace in Pakse is now the Champasak Palace Hotel and despite its (faded) grandeur is very reasonably priced.

References

  1. Archaimbault, Charles. The New Year Ceremony at Basak (South Laos). Cornell University Southeast Asia Program. 1970.
  2. Baird, Ian. Champassak royal sacred Buddha images, power and political geography. South East Asia Research. 2017.
  3. Baird, Ian. Millenarian movements in southern Laos and North Eastern Siam (Thailand) at the turn of the twentieth century: Reconsidering the involvement of the Champassak Royal House. South East Asia Research. June 2013.
  4. Evans, Grant. The Last Century of Lao Royalty, A Documentary History. Silkworm Books 2009.
  5. Simms, Peter and Sanda. The Kingdoms of Laos: Six Hundred Years of History. Curzon Press. 1999.
  6. Stuart-Fox, Martin. The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang: Rise and Decline. White Lotus Press. 1998.
  7. https://www.royalark.net/Laos/champasa.htm

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