Well-wishers from Minnesota's Lao and Hmong communities gathered Saturday at the Wat Lao temple in Farmington to meet members of the deposed Lao royal family. Hundreds of cars, many with Minnesota Laos War Vet license plates, crowded the parking area at the 80-acre site.
Families in elaborate costumes, conservative business attire or street clothes joined in Buddhist prayers for departed relatives, many of whom died defending the monarchy from the Communists.
There was a political undercurrent to the day's events. The visit was a tangible connection to the former Kingdom of Laos for emigres who hope that the constitutional monarchy will be reestablished, ousting one of the few official Communist regimes to survive the Cold War. By some estimates, one-tenth of the country's 5 million people left in the 1970s for the United States, France and Australia.
"We hope to peacefully restore multi-party elections," said Prince Bouavong Kattygnarath, a member of the royal family. "I cannot guess what year we will reach our goal."
Many older Lao and Hmong refugees, who fled their homeland after the Vietnam War, yearn to spend their retirement years in a homeland more familiar and far less expensive than the United States. "If the prince can lead us back where we came from, that will give a lot of hope to the elders," said Laxa Yabandith, 36, a legal investigator from Minneapolis.
Some younger emigres share that dream. "There's no place like home," said Dakota County Deputy Sheriff Phouthaivanh Sourignavong, 27, who was on hand to help with security. Her family fled Laos after her father, a police officer, was murdered in 1974. "I mean life is great here now, and America has opened doors to me, but I would love to go back and live" in a democratic Laos.
Attendees contributed to the cause by purchasing autographed color photos of the visiting heir to the throne, Prince Soulivong Savang, whose father perished in a Communist reeducation camp, and audio tapes reporting on the situation in Laos and exile communities overseas. The temple contributed $3,000 and a carved wooden Buddha.
But politics was for the most part an afterthought to a day of remembrance and worship.
In the lavishly decorated temple, monks with shaved heads led worshipers in chanted prayers to the sound of reverberating gongs. Families made kong boun offerings, symbolic gifts of food, cash and other comforts to ensure their departed relatives a pleasant afterlife. In a traditional basi, or "wishing ceremony," visitors tied white cotton yarn on one anothers' wrists for good fortune.
Yabandith admitted to feeling "a bit lost" amid some of the ceremonial pomp. He was born in Laos and lived with his resistance-fighter father in Thailand until they resettled here in 1987, but he had no memories of life under the monarchy. "It's very exciting to see a tradition that I have never seen. I've always heard about it, read about it, but never saw it until now," he said.
"This visit makes it feel like we're still part of a Laotian community," said Khantharack Soudavanh, 32, of Rochester, Minn. "It's nice for us to get together and remember our religion."
Because she left Laos when she was 7, she said, the royal visit meant less to her than to her parents.
The prince, shaded by attendants carrying grand red-and-gold parasols, planted six seedling apple trees, symbolizing the area's growing Lao community.
Chris Bounphalaksa, 10, of Minneapolis, looked on, his purple Vikings No. 80 jersey vividly contrasting with the bright orange robes of the monks standing beside him.
Coming with his aunt to see the prince was "cool," he said, but he allowed that he'd rather see Cris Carter.
Members of the exiled Lao royal family are visiting the Twin Cities. Join them at these events:
- Today: There will be a memorial ceremony from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Lao Temple (Wat Lao Minneapolis), 1429 NE. 2nd St., Minneapolis.
- Monday: Crown Prince Soulivong Savang will address U.S. friends and the Lao community at 11 a.m. at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, 301 19th Av. S., Minneapolis.