Six hundred years of monarchy in the Kingdom of Laos were coming to an end, and Prince Panya had a choice to make. The Prime Minister’s son, age 32, could flee his native Laos and swim to freedom under cover of darkness, or he could stay home with the rest of the ruling family and risk being imprisoned or killed.
He had to decide quickly. The Communist Phatet Lao party, led by The Prime Minister’s own half-brother, had recently stormed the palace gates and overthrown the ruling dynasty, sending members of the royal family to re-education camps in the south, never to be seen again.
The prince was a well-connected, Western-educated man who enjoyed a good party and the company of many beautiful women — anathema to the emerging communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic. And so early one morning in 1975, he set out for the Mekong river. The idea was to swim across to neighboring Thailand, the would-be communist domino that refused to fall. His wife had already arrived in Bangkok, having fled years before. The prince had a friend in a senior position with the Thai army, so he asked him to arrange a greeting committee of government officials and journalists to meet him in Nong Khai, the closest city on the Thai side of the border, a few miles downstream. He knew if cameras were present, the Phatet Lao forces wouldn’t dare shoot.
Prince Panya left behind virtually everything he owned, including a social club he’d built called The Third Eye, but he carried with him two key possessions: His French passport and his stainless steel Rolex GMT-Master reference 1675. It was a gift from his mother, who’d bought it for him brand new as a present for graduating business school in Paris a decade earlier. With the watch, he always knew what time it was in his native Laos, where she lived, while he was in grad school at Harvard.
Safe in Bangkok, Prince Panya reunited with his wife and began building a life in Thailand. The couple had a son, Sanya Souvanna Pouma, who grew up between Thailand and France, and is today a Bangkok nightlife fixture responsible for a host of venues and restaurants, including the famous Bed Supperclub, which put Bangkok on the map for popular international DJs before closing in 2016. His latest project is Funky Lam, a restaurant serving up Laotian fare and groovy tunes
After a long and eventful life, his father, the prince, died of natural causes in 2016. A couple of years later, Sanya began asking his mother about the Rolex his old man used to wear on his right wrist. Even for a prince who could wear just about anything, the GMT, Sanya says, “meant everything to him.” His mother found it in her dresser drawer, tucked safely inside a green Rolex pouch. Sanya now wears it every day, using the bezel to track the time in Australia, where his daughter lives. “It’s my most precious family heirloom,” he says, even though, had history unfolded differently, he would’ve inherited a kingdom.