The Awakening
Stephen, Mansfield
28/08/2012 23:16 (GMT+7)
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As the driving force behind Laos' move towards a market economy, its capital city is emerging from years of seclusion and stagnation. Stephen Mansfield witnesses Vientiane's revival.

Buffeted by the whims of larger, more powerful nations and isolated from the international community, Laos, at least until only a few years ago, remained more rumour than reality. Its capital, Vientiane, an anomaly on the world map. With the completion in 1994 of the Australian-funded Mittaphab, or 'Friendship bridge', connecting Vientiane with neighbouring Thailand, and the increasing economic interest in the development of the lower Mekong basin, Vientiane's days of charming obscurity could well be numbered.

To the French who colonised the country from 1893 to 1954, Vientiane was little more than the administrative centre of what many of them considered to be the back garden of their empire in Indochina, the capital of an unprofitable colony run, in the words of one colonial officer, with 'benign neglect'. If Laos ever resembled a kind of landlocked Tahiti to the French, the Vietnam War brought an abrupt end to that. For more than 10 years, Laos was a battleground for the US's not so secret war in Indochina. As the conflict escalated, Vientiane soon became the centre for covert US operations in the region. But with the communist Pathet Lao victory of 1975, Vientiane reverted to its former semianonymity. Between 1975 and 1990, the city's influential French and US contingent was replaced with teams of Soviet advisers, aid workers and technicians. Most of these have now returned home.

Three decades of colonial and civil wars have left Vientiane remarkably intact. Most of the damage to its buildings has come more from neglect – a lack of funds and the seditious tropical climate -- than from warfare or civil strife. Vientiane remains an urban time capsule, a minor but intriguing mosaic of French, Chinese and Lao influences. Pavements are broad, bedevilled with missing or lopsided flagstones, and tend to sprout with banana fronds, weeds and sundry fauna. This backwater of old Indochina, where few buildings rise to over two storeys, may appear to be little more than a minor Mekong port town to the casual observer, but there are clear signs of a re-awakening.

Buddhism has regained much of its former official approval and is again in favour with the authorities. Until a few years ago, monks were persecuted, but now the temples are again centres of activity and learning. Brightly painted billboards proclaiming the achievements of the 'World Proletariat Revolution' can still be seen along the streets of Vientiane and elsewhere, but most Lao would agree that these sentiments are little more than token anachronisms. The word 'prosperity' replaced 'socialism' in the national motto in August 1991 at the same time that government cadres were discreetly airbrushing the hammer and sickle from the national flag and other official insignias. Under the government's 'New thinking' reform program, the country is moving increasingly towards an open market economy and the driving motor behind these changes is Vientiane.

The outward signs of this release of entrepreneurial energy are evident on almost every street corner of the capital. Well-stocked shops and busy street markets foment with activity well into the evening, and the sprawling Morning Market (now renamed the New Supermarket), a covered emporium of shop lots selling every conceivable type of consumer goods, is well attended by Lao customers and the small groups of foreign tourists who have just started to trickle into Vientiane. Once elegant French villas, Chinese style shop-houses and offices, fronted with peeling stucco, boast gleaming new business plaques. A large board along nearby Samsenthai Road saying 'First Class Hotel and Shopping Centre' dwarfs the largely unvisited Revolutionary Museum next door, a taunting reminder of the triumph of capital in a city that still maintains a token use of socialist rhetoric. Vientiane is not a city that burns bright with neon, but there is nothing, with the exception of good taste, to stop it from being as dazzling as Kowloon or Singapore; particularly given Laos' massive hydroelectric potential, which has already earned the country the epithet 'the battery of Southeast Asia'. Most of the electricity produced at the Nam Ngum Dam, 80 kilometres north of Vientiane, is now exported to Thailand, a country eager to see the completion of a series of larger dams just a few kilometres upstream from the capital.

As the political and commercial hub of the nation, all of the country's ministries, overseas embassies and consulates are located in Vientiane, and an increasing number of overseas development agencies, NGOs and larger bodies like the UN have their headquarters here. Over a quarter of Laos' GDP (double the nation's export earnings) comes from foreign aid, much of which finances the import of essential foreign goods such as food, oil and machinery. Without a significant manufacturing base of its own, Laos is heavily dependent upon these funds, which is one of the highest per capita aid flows in the developing world.

The most conspicuous change to come in recent years to this once sleepy capital has been the completion of the Thai-Lao bridge across the Mekong river. This 1,174- metre construction connects the northeastern Thai city of Nong Khai with the Lao port of Tha Nalaeng, 16 kilometres southeast of Vientiane. The bridge, the first of its kind to span the Mekong, boasts two traffic lanes and a walkway, and there is provision for a central railway track should Laos, the only country in Indochina without a railway system, decide to build one. Although the bridge is destined to introduce great changes, traffic flows have been restricted by Vientiane's reluctance tomove too fast, and there is an inability to agree with Bangkok on certain key issues, such as the use of checkpoints insisted on by the Lao, and which side of the road traffic should take. Thailand favours the left, Laos the right. At the endearingly quaint instigation of the Lao, the bridge closes every day before dark and on Sundays.

After years of seclusion and stagnation, the pace of change and economic development evident in Vientiane is increasing, but not at a rate, government officials are keen to stress, that will turn their capital into a seminal Bangkok, or harm the Laotian way of life. The bridge, however, is certain to be an enormous harbinger of change in the long run, and one that is already putting Indochina's smallest and least altered capital back on the map.

Geographical Magazine,  Pp. 40-42
Copyright by Geographical Magazine

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