Meandering for 4km along the right bank of the Mekong, CHAMPASAK is an unassuming town of wooden shophouses and recently paved roads, with a pace so decidedly leisurely that it’s difficult to imagine it as the capital of a once bustling kingdom, whose territory stretched from the Annamite Mountains into present-day Thailand. However, when France’s Mekong expedition, led by Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier, arrived in 1866, they found it to be the most important city in the south, a status later usurped by Pakse when it became a French administrative centre.
These days, the quiet cluster of ten villages that constitutes Champasak makes Pakse seem like a pulsing metropolis. On the main road, downstream from what is probably the least-used roundabout in Laos, two elegant French mansions, tanned a pale yellow by the tropical sun, stand out from the traditional wooden shophouses. The first mansion belonged to the former palace of Prince Boun Oum na Champasak. Although in 1946 he renounced claims to sovereignty over the former kingdom of Champasak, Boun Oum retained his royal title and continued to perform his ritual duties as a Buddhist monarch until he fled the country prior to the Pathet Lao takeover; he died in France in 1980. During Lao New Year, Boun Oum performed purification rites at the town’s temples to expel evil spirits, and on the final day of celebrations he would preside over ceremonies at this palace, in which a maw thiam, or medium, called the spirits of Champasak’s past rulers, and a basi ceremony was held. Since the advent of the new government, however, the pageantry has been abandoned and New Year ceremonies in this former royal seat have become a strictly family affair.
As is the case with the nagas in front of Boun Oum’s house, which were taken from Wat Phou, the area’s most exquisite pre-Angkorian relics wound up in the late prince’s private collection, some of which is now on display at Wat Phou’s small museum.