They have inspired the story of my book “A Lao Wedding” and have inspired many things in my life too. It is a sad and happy story interwoven with our country’s history. I don’t know if this is sad because our world has disappeared or because they have been through much hardship. Beautiful souls should be spared of tragedies but we know from the Greek mythologies and the Ramayana that things never go as planned.
1950s-1960s... the festive post-war atmosphere reached lands as far as Laos. The French and American allies brought from their countries the music, the food and a certain lifestyle. French was still the official language for schools and the administration. Children of the Lao elite received scholarship to study in regional universities in Saigon, Phnom Penh, Manila or sent to France and the USA. The wind of freedom blew in Vientiane where the youth adopted rock-n-roll, twist, flat shoes and twirling dresses.
Bouasambhon is the 6th child of phagna Bong Souvannavong. He is a teacher by training, then raised the ranks of the administration by becoming the general inspector of schools, fought the war, created a political party, became president of the constituent national assembly in 1946 at the end of the WWII, occupied all levels of the government, became several times minister, headed the literary committee, the sports committee, but was also a respected member of the Council of the King. Siphrachanh was the son of Sibou, a successful entrepreneur in the south of the country, trading coffee and various goods between Stung Streng in Cambodia and Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand. He married gna mae Onechanh and entered into the royal family of the south, the Na Champassak.
They met in December 1959 at the funerals of Prime Minister Katay D. Sasorith. This was just before the coup d’Etat by general Kong Lê. The young woman was 15 years old and just returned from Japan. She had spent a year studying at the high school of Sacred Heart in Tokyo, an exclusive girl’s high school established by Australian nuns in 1908 that Empress Michiko also attended a few years earlier. She lived with the family of Prince Khammao and Princess Khamla, then ambassador to Japan. Siphrachanh came back from Paris, where he was sent to look after his sister’s children. They saw each other on and off as the young man returned to Paris. It was not until 1964 that the families decided to get them married after an epic episode. The son of a powerful senator from the Directorate of National Coordination (DNC) – which will foment a coup d’Etat later that year - threatened Bousambhon with a gun to marry him. Somewhat she managed to get the gun, gave it to her mother, gna mae Boualay and told her she could not marry him, she loved someone else. She fled to Pakse the next morning with Siseng, Siphrachanh’ sister as this was the stronghold of their family. Her brother Viravong flew a few days later to discuss on behalf of the family when the two should get married. This happened on April 21st, 1964, just three days after the DNC took power.
The families negotiated with General Koupasith, head of the new government, the curfew to allow the ceremonies to continue after 9 pm. It was a beautiful wedding presided over by Prince Samdech Chao Boun Oum, who reigned over the south of Laos, the province of Champassak. The whole mandarinat was there: elders from the Souvannavong family, the Sananikone, the Inthavong, the Chounlamany. Many still recounts years after, that this was one of the most beautiful weddings of the year.
The ceremony was prepared by the old aunties from the two sides. The floral arrangement for the wedding - phakhouan - was prepared by the elderly women. There are nine levels in the arrangement, typical of grand families - consisting uniquely with dok hak flowers, the calatropis gigantea. In Lao, “dok hak” means literally “flower of love” and this is the reason why one would use exclusively this flower for the phakhouan. In those times, the phakhouan is also prepared at the groom’s house, that will be brought by the groom during his procession to the house of the bride. That’s why we have a set of two phakhouan during the ceremony. After the soukhouane ceremony of marriage, the bride and the groom offered their respects to the elders (ask for pardon) in offering a pair of candles and flowers tucked into a banana leave folding, the “bang”. Only ten couples are selected for the pardon ceremony, the “phinong san cham” or elders of the highest rank in the family.
The families have chosen auntie pa Chansone and her husband, respected couple selected among elders, who represent a solid and loving union, to lead the bride and the groom to the ceremony Soukhouane and to their room after the ceremony. The hope is that they will serve as model for the young couple.
The two lived in the house of the bride’s father, as it is the tradition. A minimum of three days is required before they settled somewhere else. The couple stayed in the house located at Sengaloun neighborhood in downtown Vientiane until their third child was born in 1967. They then moved to their own house at Kilometer Four until 26 April 1975. The Communists had won the war. All over Indochina, in Cambodia, in Vietnam alike, the exodus of hundreds thousands people started.
With a few suitcases, they left for France, before all the borders were closed. Phagna Bong was captured and sent to a “re-education” camp where he died in 1978 of exhaustion and illness, in a camp nearby the place where the last King and last Queen of Laos also died.
In Paris, Bouasambhon and Siphrachanh rebuilt their life, as blue collar workers. Bouasambhon worked as a clerk in an accounting firm, her husband in the Asian grocery set up by a wealthier family member. This was a cruel difference with their life in Laos but they never looked back in thinking about the grandeur of the families. Focusing on raising their children and providing for their needs, rebuilding the community of Lao in France, they have had their highs and lows, conflicts and peace, the return in the mid nineties to their homeland. Now in their seventies, they are still together and are caring for each other. I looked at them with love, so many years have passed. This is the lesson I have learned from their 60-year of resilience and love: It is when things are really though, when there is every reason to abandon the fight, to abandon the other, that strength reveals itself. Strong people stay together when the odds are tough.