As we were leaving Wat Phou, we asked the driver to take us to Jao-Ying Sodah’s house. He had to stop three times and ask exactly where that was. You would think that if you were a princess, albeit one of a now-defunct monarchy, your house would be rather easy to find. But all the directions were apparently confusing, and part of me wonders if that was intentional.
The story of how we came to know Jao-Ying Sodah (or as she is sometimes known, Ya-Mae Sodah) began long before my birth.
Laos was once divided into three kingdoms: Lan Xang in Luang Prabang; Vientiane (present-day capital); and the southern Kingdom of Champassak. Following a period of French occupation, King Sisavang Vong led the unification of these separate kingdoms.
When Pa Boun (Dad’s older sister) and her husband (Loung Lay) served the royal family of Champassak, Jao-Ying Sodah’s parents no longer held any official claim to the province. Nonetheless, the people of the former southern kingdom continued to regard them as royalty.
With the Communist Pathet Lao victory in 1975, Jao-Ying Sodah and her family members fled to France. She is the only one who returned to Champassak, several years later, where she lived in a modest-sized house with one or two loyal attendants.
And there is where we found her, at last, after meandering through the city. I had actually met her before – sometime during elementary school, she came to stay with Pa Boun in America. Although she had clearly aged, her face was unmistakeable.
We found her in good spirits, eating maak kaam (sour, unripened tamarind) with spicy sauce. Incidentally, tamarind with spicy sauce happens to be one of my favorite snacks; just writing this makes my mouth water.
Her vision was failing, and I don’t think she remembered me. Mom gave her an envelope with money from Pa Boun, a token of her undying loyalty. My aunt is not a wealthy woman, so the gesture was especially touching.
Before leaving, we each took a photo with Jao-Ying Sodah. When it was my turn, I automatically put my arm around her shoulders, because that’s what you do to show affection in photographs. Right? Suddenly, it dawned on me that this behavior was inappropriate – one does not treat the princess of Champassak like an old school yard chum, fallen empire aside. I quickly dropped my hand…right into her bowl of spicy sauce.
Embarrassed, panicked, and giggling my maniacal nervous giggle, I tried to figure out what to do with my soiled fingers. She had a bottle of water nearby, but using it to wash my fingers was out of the question. I couldn’t ask her for a napkin – that would only direct her attention to the fact that my fingers had been in her snack.
In the seconds that I was trying to figure out the best course of action, Mom captured this photo: you can see my fingers curled, trying not to get sauce on my pants.
As we were leaving, fingers now sticky from the drying sauce, I whispered to Mom what I had done. I had half a mind to walk away without saying a word to anyone; I was THAT mortified. But in the end, I was overwhelmed with guilt – how could I live with myself, knowing THE princess would eat the sauce I contaminated?? Mom laughed and gave me up, which made Jao-Ying Sodah laugh too. She dismissively pointed to a large clay water jar and asked Why didn’t you just wash your hand?
Jao-Ying Sodah passed away in 2012, and there are no more royals in Champassak. I can only imagine the things she lived through. May she rest in peace.