14.11.05

Laos 05 p1

Vientiane


It takes over 20 hours to reach Vientiane, including the formalities at the border and a number of toilet stops (in the bushes once we'd left Việt Nam). I think we got lucky with the bus, which was unusually comfortable: the only catch was the half-ton of onions we shared it with.

The reason it takes so much time is not distance so much as the state of the road on the Laotian side, and how endlessly it winds through jungle-covered mountains. For a few hours I contemplated the virgin landscape with the occasional house on stilts, feeling increasingly emotional about an entire nation's struggle to survive and the terrible unfairness of its fate. This is where this account goes cheerless for a little while, but there are things that need to be said.


The rise of Communism in South-East Asia was Laos' doom, but does not justify the "war that wasn't" waged in secret on this powerless country by the US. Despite a Geneva accord guaranteeing Lao neutrality, the CIA bombed it like no other place was bombed in history. I'll quote from my guidebook: "By 1973, when the bombing stopped, the US had dropped 2,093,100 tonnes of bombs on Laos – equivalent to 300 kg of explosives for every man, woman and child in the country. To pulverize the country to this degree 580,994 bombing sorties were flown. […] In the 1960s and early 70s, more bombs rained on Laos than were dropped during the Second World War – the equivalent of a plane load of bombs every eight minutes around the clock for nine years. […] Few of those living in Xieng Khouang province, the Bolovens Plateau or along the Ho Chi Minh Trail had any idea of who was bombing them or why. […[ But the bombing campaign has also left a more deadly legacy – of unexploded bombs and anti-personnel mines. Today, over a quarter of a century after the air war ended, people are still dying and being maimed in the fields and forests of provinces like Xieng Khouang. The greatest irony of all, perhaps, is that most of Xieng Khouang was not even a military target – pilots would simply dump their ordnance so that they would not have to risk landing with their bomb bays packed with high explosive. Making farming in this part of Laos a highly dangerous occupation was simply one of those 'accidents' of war." (Footprint Laos handbook)

All this in vain, because all this bombing cleared the field for the Pathet Lao (the Lao Communist Party), that secured power the moment the war ended, resulting in the population suffering further hardship and humiliation at the hands of the regime. The US "never offered reparations or aid to the country. Washington even expected the Lao government to allocate funds to help locate the bodies of US pilots shot down in the war."

Fortunately the Communist regime has lightened up considerably, but the poverty is still striking. Yet I found the Lao to be the sweetest, friendliest people, truly good-hearted and with a kind of serenity I didn't feel in Viêt Nam. "Sabaidee!" greets anyone you cross pass with, with a smile almost child-like in its sincerity.
Vientiane, the capital

Contrary to what one might imagine when looking at a map of the world, with South-East Asia a lump of countries huddled together, the people of Laos and Việt Nam have very little in common. It makes sense when you realise their respective borders are less political than ethnical, meaning they do not cut through the dominant ethnic group (as is the case in Africa for instance) but were established so that Laos would be the land of the Lao and Việt Nam that of the Việt (the borders do cut across ethnic minorities). The Lao are ethnically and culturally close to the Thai, while the Việt are close to the Chinese, so you can imagine how different they are. Language, houses, boats, food, clothing – all change once you cross the border. Lao houses are built on stilts, and the women all wear the national dress, a very elegant straight black skirt with an elaborately embroidered band at the bottom. Closed shoes are rare in this country: people spend so much time on boats or crossing streams that they all wear sandals, so that a brief hitching up of skirt or trousers is all that's required to pass through water. Even their physical appearance is different: unlike the Việt, the Lao have very faint eyebrows. Mine being strongly defined, I again I attracted attention, this time being mistaken for Indian.

The Mekong separates Laos from Thailand south of Vientiane.

Little girls in the Lao skirt
Despite being the capital, Vientiane feels more like a border town, lazily spread on the bank of the Mekong, a town you quickly realise you want to spend as little time in as possible. It's not entirely without charm, but there's just not enough charm to make up for the fact there is nothing to do save eat (the food IS good), shop, and visit wats (temples), which can quickly become monotonous. Besides, the weather is really hot and humid – I was there in late November and daren't imagine what summer must be like. I did discover a great way to kill time in Vientiane: traditional massage. Unlike Thai massage which can be more akin to a torture session, Lao traditional massage is gentle and wonderful. I was made to change into special, loose clothing and lie down on a wide mattress, then was ever so gently twisted into a pretzel. After that I went for a massage anytime I could!

What saves Vientiane from architectural misery is the great number of wats that blossom all over it in great splashes of red and gold. A wat, or vat (which I suspect is the correct pronunciation) is a Lao Buddhist complex, which consists of a sim (ordination hall where the altar is and the most conspicuous, ornate structure) within what looks like a garden but shelters other features of religious significance: relic chambers, a bell tower and/or drum, and the kutis (monks' quarters). Wats are open to any and all visitors, but I learned to keep to the front of the sim to avoid mutually embarrassing encounters with monks fresh out of the shower. The sim on the other hand is often closed, opening only to admit the monks for ritual purposes several times a day, but they will gladly open it if one wishes to have a look. Shoes must be taken off before stepping onto the sim's platform though. Wats own nothing: they depend entirely on monetary donations for maintenance and on food donations for the monks, hence the familiar sight, early in the morning, of monks marching out single file, a silvery container at their side, for the "morning alms". All males are expected to be ordained as monks for a few months or years: this is their chance (and often their only one) to get an education, not only in Buddhist matters, but also in secular subjects. It's why a lot of monks one encounters are very young. They are then free to return to the world or to embrace monkhood permanently. 


After the morning alms, monks having their morning meal
That said, Vientiane's been levelled by invadors so often that the oldest wat is Wat Sisaket, built in 1824. The others are either recent or rebuilt. The town's pride is probably That Luang, the country's most important Buddhist shrine.

Wat Sisaket
A door of That Luang with votive incense burners/
candle holders made of banana leaves.
That Luang
Talaat Sao, the Morning Market

The pharmacy section

Geckos. What I like best about Vientiane. At dusk they can be seen scurrying across walls by the dozen, chirping as they hunt and whirring a war-cry at fellow geckos that get too close. I would observe them above my head while having dinner, but also, more strangely, inside the airport terminal while waiting for my plane to Luang Prabang. Interesting airport, the domestic one, where each clock indicates a different time and a sign demands: "SHOW ALL WEAPONS". The sun had set by the time we took off, and during the hour the flight took, I didn't see a single light on the ground…