Laotian prince finds peace at Penguin

THE locals know him as Phil, the guy who runs the bed-and-breakfast.

But Philippe Albert Sarasouk na Champassak has a royal tale to tell. 

Philippe was born a prince of Laos, a member of the house of Champassak that was exiled by communist forces in 1975. 

The 58-year-old said he had lived a ``Forrest Gump-like'' existence, touring precarious battle fronts and travelling the globe as a diplomat, and now checked  in guests at his motel in Penguin.

Until recently Philippe was happy to deny his origins - ignoring his past life as a royal, and even refusing to discuss his youth with wife Amanda.

``No one here in Penguin really knew about my background,'' he said.

``Even Amanda didn't know much. I mean, she knew enough. But it's something I never really talked about. 

``I knew I would never live a mediocre life, but I could live as an ordinary person in the shadow of anonymity.

``But it has caught up with me, and now I am making peace with it.''

Philippe's father, prince Sisouk na Champassak, was an influential member of the royal government, working his way from being United Nations ambassador to  dual finance and defence minister.

As the child of a diplomat, Philippe grew up in New York,   Delhi, Vientiane and Geneva, before moving to Sydney in 1970 to compete his schooling.

``My parents mixed with some very important people, but our family was a more mediaeval royalty,'' he said.

``My father never said `you are above everyone'.

``Before we could have the title of prince, we had to go out and win a few battles.''

Philippe said he had done this in his own way - but the battlefield in his home country was lost before he had time to get involved.

Philippe was a boarding student in Australia during the height of the so-called Secret War in Laos, a battle waged incognito in the shadow of the larger Vietnam War.

From 1964 to 1973, the US conducted 580,000 bombing missions in Laos to impede traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

This was equal to a plane-load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years - making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. 

As a teenager, Philippe toured the battlefronts with his father, accidentally shooting himself in the hand on one occasion, while cheating death on several others. 

``I will never forget the light, sound and fury of B-52 carpet bombings at night on the Ho Chi Minh Trail,'' he said.   ``It was 40 kilometres away, but it shook you to the bones. 

``I hate to think what it would be like to be at ground zero.''

Because of his aristocratic background, Philippe could not return to his homeland after the kingdom was swept from power by the Pathet Lao. 

Apart from a brash solo mission to return in the late 1970s, he has never been back. 

``Unfortunately, because of my name, I would not be welcome,'' he said. 

``People still go missing over there from time to time.'' 

Philippe spent a decade overseas working for the United Nations in New York, Cotonou  and Port Moresby, before returning to Australia to join AusAID and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

In 2007, after meeting Amanda, Philippe was appointed the Tasmanian director of DFAT, and they moved to Hobart.   

After three years as state director, Philippe and Amanda looked to wind down the North-West Coast.

``During my work with DFAT we had come up here and sort of loved it - Penguin is gorgeous,'' he said. 

``I said it'd be great to return one day. And then The Madsen came up for sale.'' 

Philippe and Amanda arrived in town with their two young children in October 2011. 

Their business has flourished over the past two years - much like the rest of Penguin - and Philippe keeps busy as chairman of the Penguin Visitor Services Group. 

Though he is well-known around town, Philippe said he had  been certain that no one had a clue to his heritage. 

But since hearing his tale,  a few locals had cheekily dubbed him the Prince of Penguin. 

``I guess that's just the Australian thing, cut down the tall poppy,'' he said. 

``It's one one the best things about this country, the concept of meritocracy. I like being judged on the things you do, as opposed to who you are, or who your father is.''

Philippe said he was happy to make peace with his past after years of holding it in.

``The past is the past, and I am OK with that,'' he said.  ``But I certainly don't feel like I've finished living. I feel I've got a lot more to contribute.''

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