Meeting the Princess

Thursday 7 December 2006

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.


14 thoughts on “Meeting the Princess”

      1. yes . . . that may be true as you are probably my favirite blogger to read.

        In the land of teachers and preachers it’s refreshing to find a little girl who was born in a Thai refugee camp and who can spin her yarn without all the usual “stuff”.

        I had been to that part of the country as a soldier in 63 and I often regret what we could have accomplished had we not been playing the ugly american at the time. . . .

        When I look at you I am looking at the entire SE Asia (if that makes any sense :-)) and what we could have accomplished had we lived up to our own PR

        Love your “shire” idea and have one of my own. I am one of those drop outs that moved to the woods to get away from the chaos of the life style in this country. . . old people just want to sit on the porch, bullshit with the neighbors and be left alone . . . just like they probably do in your culture and every other one. . . course that is hard to do when we seem to love electing sociopaths to lead us . . . 🙂

      2. I wanted to write this stuff down as a way to express gratitude to all the people who made my life possible. I thought if just one person picked up on what I was laying down, it would validate my mission. So, thanks for that. 🙂

        My parents don’t talk about the U.S. in negative terms; they always seemed very grateful for being accepted here. But life is not easy for any of us. We can only keep trudging and do our best to live well, despite the poor decisions being made on our behalf. I always contemplate how much worse things could have been, when remembering what happened in Laos during the war. Nothing can be gained from dwelling in the past.

        It is very interesting to see things from your perspective too… It gives me hope in humanity when people on opposite sides of a conflict can share some common ground. Even if we are decades apart and had very different experiences. 🙂

      3. yeah . . . I know, and what I now know makes me sick to think about how I used to think . . . your humanity bleeds through your writing and I am learning from it.

      4. yeah . . . I know . . . and I don’t sit around wallowing in the past, but as ones past often designates ones future it is a HUGE learning tool . . .

        anyway . . . 0n another subject . . .

        I think your blog writings would make a nice book for your Lao family and kids. That’s what I’m doing now with mine and it is quite easy to publish on Createspace . . . make one book or 1ooo for a few bucks apiece . . .

        If you were interested I could show you how cause I did two other ones already . . .

      5. Yes…I won’t lie, I have started to think about publishing. I think it would make my parents very happy. It’s one of those things I keep dismissing as a possibility, so maybe 2014 is my year to stop making up excuses.

      6. It’s really easy . . . I took about two days to get my whole blog on paper and will send it in as soon as I finish up sometime this morning . . . all for free . . . andways the offer stands if you need any help . .

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