RIP VAN WINKLE IN TODAY'S LAOS By Tim Williams (Article)


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Tim and Gloria Williams

A visit to the Laos of 2011 reminds someone born in 1937 of how old his generation now is. The picture in this small southeast Asian country Laos now often differs a lot from that in 1962-63 when I served there as a member of the Canadian delegation to the International Commission for Supervision and Control. Vientiane, the capital city of 70,000 in 1962, has mutated into what by Laotian standards is a mini-metropolis of 600,000. There as elsewhere in the country foreign investment and tourism have stimulated infrastructure development, massive building and urbanization. Thomas Wolfe's plaintive dictum “You can't go back again” sums up the bittersweet reaction of a visitor trying to identify landmarks of yesteryear.

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In the autumn of 1962 the security situation outside the capital was again deteriorating, making it inadvisable for a newly-arrived civilian officer on his first posting to travel widely. I did not manage to get up to the old royal capital of Luang Prabang, and so it was logical, flying in from Bangkok, that Gloria and I start our discovery of today's Laos there. Lying on a promontory between the Mekong and a tributary, Luang Prabang lives up to the praise in the guide books, with its mixture of French and Laotian buildings, temples and a central hill with views in all directions. A pleasantly slow pace and friendly reception by smiling, courteous hosts at the Villa Santi was a welcome contrast to the hectic, polluted Bangkok behind us.

A walk on the main street out of town afforded a glimpse of life in one of the most newly prosperous small towns in Laos: motorbikes, cars and trucks everywhere; street scenes dominated by cheerful young people; ubiquitous women vendors of fruit and vegetables or cheap textiles; decaying temples still in use; and the usual auto repair garages and miscellaneous grocery stores. A highpoint was the museum in the former royal residence. It portrayed the life of the Laotian noble dynasty that, initially won over to the inevitability of a French protectorate, played along with a western orientation until the communist takeover in 1975 put an end to monarchy. The governmental commentaries on related exhibits combined the delicate task of appealing to traditional Laotian values while reinterpreting political events in the sense of independence from foreign domination and benefits brought by a new people-friendly communist regime.

Our exchanges with Laotians were fleeting, but three left a passing mark. Our tour guide in Luang Prabang, a young man named Song, provided commentaries in cheerful, competent fashion. In approximate English, he wove in the occasional query about the way it was before the communist “liberation” of 1975. Like his counterpart in Vientiane, Tui (both in their late twenties and hence reflecting the predominance of young people born after the takeover) he clearly recognized there was an official version of history and some other stories. “Was it true the Americans brought corruption in their day?” Tui had apprenticed as an electrician, but then learned serviceable English at university and like so many others found it more profitable to work in tourism. His intelligent, skeptical and friendly personality reflected well on his lowland Lao the monks.jpg>

Conversations with several expats contained more critical comments. While Luang Prabang’s charm was bringing greater prosperity – and a new bigger airport - to the region, the pace of change threatened the authenticity that was the drawing card. Foreign investment was forcing massive change – new roads as poles of development (notably one being built by the Chinese with their own workers), land purchases by foreigners and aid from many countries as a gateway to influence. The Laotians, even communist functionaries, were becoming overwhelmed by new money and sometimes unrealistic foreign recipes. Some NGO’s pursued well-meant objectives, but others, like some foreign aid agencies, were imposing their own ideas and methods not always effective in Laos. Basically - such criticisms went - the Lao majority, never having known real democracy, wanted to live better and were accepting the line of least resistance. “In a few years Luang Prabang will have disappeared as we know it now”. That was said to apply also to some of the previously marginalized tribal groups – almost half the population – who are deriving some benefit from the spin-offs of development and tourism but are starting to lose their languages and some of their artistic skills. We could not judge to what extent such perhaps apocalyptic visions were justified.

tw view from the hotel.jpg Resuming our travels in Laos with a road trip south, we hired a driver named Phone to take us to the next town reachable within six hours over what was billed as the rough main highway through mountainous terrain. This was our chance to catch a glimpse of members of hill tribes. These people could be seen in their shanties, collecting bamboo for firewood or sale, selling fruit and vegetables at roadside stands or huddling over fires where men palavered cordially. Children everywhere testified to the high birth rate (which however, an expat told us, is accompanied by a statistical life expectancy of only fifty-five). Often small, the women walked in their characteristically rapid manner as they carried wood, parcels or children to and from thatched huts markedly poorer than in the urban environment of Luang Prabang. Some were Hmong tribes people relocated because of bomb damage or past resistance, while others were identified by the driver as Lao Thai or Kha. Their tenacity as fighters and artistic skills as weavers and silversmiths reflect human talents that augur well, but their numbers – as much as 45% of the population - in difficult mountainous locations are described as one of Laos’ biggest challenges.

tw elephant crossing.jpg Vang Vieng, a small town on the way down south, proved to be the kingdom of back-packers, cyclists and mountain climbers. It faces spectacular karst mountains jutting up over otherwise flat rice fields. The best hotel, the Elephant Crossing, provided rough comfort along with a candlelit patio eating while narrow pleasure craft chugged along the wide river. The hotel is run by a Laotian married to an Englishwomen, one of many examples of the positive role played by expat women knowledgeable about business and the tastes of tourists. As everywhere, more hotels are under construction.

The following day saw another four hours’ drive south in a private car down to Vientiane. During a pit stop to take a canned drink, we marveled at a luxurious local villa wedged between grimy grocery stalls on the main street of a village. “Probably a rich Chinese merchant”, agreed our Lao driver. As we approached the capital, a qualitative difference in development became obvious. Traffic lights even on the outskirts! Added to this were light and service industrial establishments, breweries, schools and technical institutes, a myriad of governmental and party buildings, along with cars, cars, cars and of course motorcycles – signs of the Vientiane transformed out of all recognition since my posting in the early sixties. A friend had asked me to report impressions of “le Vientiane moderne, if that is not a contradiction in terms”. It is not. Modernity is omnipresent in terms of traffic, construction, signs of foreign investment, advertising and noise. Where once the down-at-heel Quai Fa Ngum peacefully fronted the Mekong, a vast concrete broadwalk covered by sales booths and peasants hawking textiles and trinkets now adjoins a waterfront street with four or five-story restaurants and hotels. Downtown a building boom has produced a busy jumble of architectural styles seemingly untroubled by zoning or height regulations. High-rise buildings, some unfinished, throne over decaying shanties, vegetable stalls or empty lots strewn with garbage or construction remnants. There is a lot that is garish, but the many tourists and the drove of foreign investors have clearly brought prosperity to what was once a peaceful backwater.

According to the local newspapers (no dailies existed in my day), the current national development plan called for 8% growth in 2011. The objective is to overcome poverty and least-developed status by 2020. All Laotian children should by that time have access to at least primary education. This is to be financed not just by foreign investment but by exploitation of mineral and hydroelectric resources stimulated by a favourable investment regime involving improved infrastructure. And signs of that investment are everywhere: hotels, auto companies, electronic and communications facilities and educational institutions of all kinds, most publicizing their merits on signposts and flashing neon lights in an atmosphere of frenetic competition. An emerging light industry jostles for space in a seemingly out-of-control expansion into what in 1962 were nearby rice paddies. To us the cries of alarm from our expat informant in Luang Prabang seemed out of place in the sunny, bustling Vientiane we encountered for three enjoyable days in this December of 2011.

tw setta palace.jpg / In 1962 French was for most foreigners the working language in dialogue with Laotians (and Vietnamese). Today the lingua franca has become English. On the one hand, the communist government in power since 1975 has in its teaching and museums emphasized how repressive the French colonial period was; more importantly, the wave of foreign investors and tourists from all parts of the world (except perhaps China and Thailand) find it practical to use the common language English has become. “Le Renovateur”, a weekly French-language government publication, reported the results of a colloquium on the use of French in the Asia-Pacific region: while the situation was varied, it reflected a decided retreat in the former Indo-China. The participants recommended linking the French language to other efforts in specific professional and technical fields, offering regional opportunities for learning and promoting the concept of learning three languages (French as well as the local one and English). Only on the last day could I locate what was once called the Lycee Pavie, now a rather run-down-looking “Lycee francais” on Boulevard Lang Xang. Some architectural remnants of the former French presence remain downtown (the walled-off Embassy, the presidential palace now being expanded, the French church, and a few forlorn-looking villas), but they no longer dominate the scene. The French still support the Hopital Mahosot, but we were told difficult cases Laotians go over to military facilities on the now populous Thai side of the river.

A stay at the Settha Palace hotel, renovated and expanded by its former owner in the early 1990’s, restored equanimity. Its high ceilings, luxurious fittings, capacious swimming pool in a spacious garden and excellent food made it – despite the open sewers in its vicinity – a most enjoyable oasis.

I tried hard to locate my apartment on what was once called the rue Pierre Morin, but no such name and evidently the building no longer existed. Similarly, I could not find our Canadian delegation headquarters on the way to the That Luang monument, now brightly refurbished and totally surrounded by busy suburbs where once was countryside.

A visitor leaves saddened by the repression after 2975 but impressed by the regime’s decision of some years ago to open the country up and by the eagerness of Laotians, especially the young, to entertain foreign contacts There is clear progress of a sort, yes, but the Laotians have a history of letting outsiders of one sort or another make decisions for them. It is to be hoped that control can be maintained by the still tiny proportion of politically active Laotians (out of a very small and heterogeneous population) in the face of the influx of foreign capital (including notably big Chinese projects) and rampant development in the cities. tw arc de t.jpg Laos is still a beautiful and is now a peaceful place. A wellwisher hopes it will retain its independence and authenticity as the Laotians enter the mainstream.

Postscript: The trouble with a short incursion such as this is that it reminds the visitor of more gaps than it closes. I neglected to visit the American USAID/CIA compound, now a museum. What of the heavily fought over Plain of Jars and the northeast? Dervla Murphy’s excellent travelogue will have to suffice. What of Pakse and Savannakhet in the south? Richard Holm’s account of his CIA activities out of nearby northwestern Thailand in the early 1960’s whetted the appetite. So much more to read now about the way things have developed and are changing, if not to visit further….

Tags: Tim Williams