It was Tuesday morning, and the Royal Palace was supposed to be closed on Tuesdays. That morning, however, the gate was open, it was our last day in Luang Prabang, and we had not yet seen the mysterious Phra Bang statue that was said to reside within the palace walls.
The history and existence of the Phra Bang, a 33 inch, 110 lb, golden Buddha, is shrouded in mystery and controversy. Legend has it that the Phra Bang was crafted more than 2000 years ago in Sri Lanka, from where it made its way, along with Buddhism, to the Khmer kingdom centered in present-day Cambodia. When, in 1353, the Khmer king decided to gift the Phra Bang to his son-in-law and first ruler of Laos, Fa Ngum, the statue began a long journey up the Mekong to present-day Luang Prabang. When it arrived in the capital, the city was renamed Luang Prabang, “shrine of the Phra Bang.” The statue became the Lao symbol of the right-to-rule, which, along with its religious significance, established it as a prize to be had. The Thais stole it twice, each time giving it back when instability and problems at home were deemed the result of their illegitimate Phra Bang possession. To this day, rumors state that no one really knows where the original Phra Bang is – some argue that the statue held at the Royal Palace is a replica, others say that the Buddha was sold to the Soviets during the Cold War in return for military support and now sits in a warehouse in Moscow – but regardless, the statue is considered one of the most important pieces in Lao history and culture, and we needed to do our best to see it.
If the real Phra Bang is in Luang Prabang, it is at the Royal Palace, and the fact that the gates were open on a day when they were supposed to be closed could have been an auspicious event in itself – the Phra Bang summoning us to find it.
We entered the Royal Palace grounds. We stood alone amidst trees, ponds, and carefully sculpted landscape of the residence of last King of Laos. But where was the legendary Phra Bang? All we had was a crude map of the grounds, and it was likely only a matter of time before someone realized we weren’t supposed to be there and ushered us out.
Hurriedly, we worked our way around the Palace, trying to match map with the buildings in front of us, peeking in windows and doing our best to conduct discreet surveillance of the estate. Ducking under lines of laundry and stepping over pots of flowers waiting to be planted, we circled the main buildings and some outlying ones several times, but the Phra Bang was no where to be seen. Did it even exist?
We paused to review our search strategy. From where we stood, not 10 yards away, an old gardener sat in the shade, taking a break from his work, and he hadn’t yet noticed us. Perhaps this man, the gardener, would prove to be the key to finding the Phra Bang.
A bribe. In a country where more than 75% of the people live on less than $2 per day, it wouldn’t be hard to make a significant statement of interest to a man who must know these grounds well. I pulled 80,000 Lao kip from my pocket – approximately $10, a week’s salary for the average Laotian – and showed it to Jess. She understood what I intended to do, and her face revealed her disagreement with my plan.
So I stood there, kip in hand, with a decision to make. As I saw it, this scene could play out in one of several ways.
- Man gets money, boy meets Buddha. I approach the gardener, startling him from his moment of peace and quiet on the Royal Grounds. After a muttered sabadee and a suspicious glance over my shoulder, I flash my wad of kip, and drop the words “Phra Bang.” Without hesitation, the gardener puts a dirtied finger to his mouth, shushing me and ensuring that no one will hear what I’m about to say. He draws close, smiles in acknowledgement of the clandestine operation about to unfold on this humid Tuesday morning in July, and he gently takes the kip from my hand. The three of us quick step to a hidden room around the back of the Royal Palace Museum which reveals itself only after the gardener pushes on a faux brick. The glow radiating off the Pra Bang is almost too much to take in the late morning sun, and after fighting back tears from either sun blindness or joy of discovery, he ushers us out of the room as quickly as we entered it. A tip of his conical hat and a wink of his good eye is his final acknowledgement of our transaction. That night, he feasts on Mekong catfish and Beer Lao, happy to have suckered another overly inquisitive tourist into seeing a replica statue.
- Tourist goes to Lao prison. I approach the gardener, startling a man who thought he was alone in the sacred grounds of the Royal Palace. He can’t understand a word I’m saying as I stumble through sabadees and Phra Bangs and pleases, and it becomes quickly clear that I’ve startled and scared an old man who also happens to be a devoted communist. The bribe ignites within him a fire of anger so intense that he grabs my wrist and pulls a whistle from his pocket (for years, only communist party members and police were permitted to possess whistles) and his red siren quickly draws the attention of a crowd. After a quick trial, I’m sentenced to live out the rest of my days being “first dig” guy on jungle searches for Vietnam War era unexploded ordinances (UXOs). At night, I take up the hobby of penning songs about Frangiapani and the Rainy Season in attempts to climb the Lao Top 40 charts. My children grow up hearing strange tales of how their father is a Lao prisoner who has penned 13 of the top 40 Lao hits over the past decade – all of them about the Lao national flower, species plumeria. One day, Anthony, intrigued by these rumors and the mysterious disappearance of his father, sets out on his own quest for truth and the existence of his chart-topping incarcerated father. Hopefully, his adventure will end better than dad’s. Don’t bribe the gardener, Anthony.
- The exchange is lost in translation. My inability to communicate in Lao, coupled with the odd scenario of a foreigner holding cash while trapped in the Royal Palace on an off day terrifies a man who feels most comfortable with plants. The gardener, who is partially if not entirely blind, cannot see the money I desperately hold out to him, and he shoos me like a pigeon from his bag of grass seed. With little experience trying to bribe people in foreign lands, I awkwardly back away from the messy situation unfolding in front of me and realize that I will never actually see the Phra Bang, if it in fact exists at all.
What was meant to be the pivotal moment in my quest for the Phra Bang, the turning point that would bring me glory and a great photo, turned out to be nothing more than a bumbling, confused, and awkward encounter with an old man trying to take a break from his job and the hot July sun. Perhaps it was the strong moral fiber of Mr. Gardener who, entrusted with the safekeeping of these historic grounds nobly stood firm in the face of my corrupting influence. More likely, it was my inability to communicate in Lao and read a map that prevented me from seeing the Phra Bang that Tuesday morning. I backed away from the bribe-gone-badly, found Jess who was hiding horrified behind a frangiapani, shoved a week’s worth of Lao pay in my pocket, and left the Royal Palace grounds. The mystery of the Phra Bang, it seemed, would live on another day.