Humvees, hammers and sickles

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After more than ten years, it is not so much that Laos has not changed but that the rest of the Mekong region has transformed at such a rapid pace as to make the place seem like it is standing still.

Angela and I lived here for just over three years in the early nineties. Laos, like Vietnam and Cambodia, was just opening up. I vividly remember the Saturday afternoon that I first flew into the capital, Vientiane, from Thailand to meet up with Angela (who had already been living there for several months). It was the peak of the dry season and the entire city looked deserted, old buildings and fading billboards commemorating the 1975 revolution stood in the hot sun covered in red dust.

We lived in a building, the lower floors of which were a hospital, the upper apartments. Every few days we saw the doctors cleaning out the drains. There was a curfew at midnight. Foreigners had to have official permission to travel more than 30 kilometres outside the capital city. There were two international phone lines using a Soviet era satellite and they did not always work. As amazing as it seems to me now, we often had to travel across the Mekong River, the border between Thailand and Laos, to the northeast Thai town Nongkai to make an international phone call.

In the early nineties the Australian government was building the first bridge over the Mekong River, between Laos and Thailand, and many people thought it would flood Laos with Thailand’s freewheeling capitalist ways.

A week ago, we drove across the same bridge to visit Laos, my first in ten years.

We head straight for Vang Vieng in Central Laos, to visit friends. It is a beautiful little town overlooked by a mountain range. In the mornings it is shrouded in mist, at night the sun setting behind the mountains is amazing.

If I am not mistaken, we first came to Vang Vieng in 1993. It was a small collection of wooden buildings, with one guesthouse, one restaurant and power for only three hours each night. The main attraction was swimming in the icy cold water of the lime stone caves on the outskirts of the town.

Going for an evening walk on my first night back it is clear that the place is now firmly on the tourist trail. The main street is now a mini-Khao San Road (the main backpacker district in Bangkok). There are dozens of identical bars, many with menus in German and Hebrew, where you can check your e-mail or watch a re-run of an episode of ‘Friends’.

Although construction is going on everywhere, the set up is rather tame compared to similar places in Thailand, Vietnam, or even Cambodia. Still, it’s a good place to contemplate the great cliché of globalisation: people who a few years ago were happy just to have power for a few hours a night can now play with their latest mobile phone and watch Hollywood films. Thirty minutes out of town people eek out a subsistence living growing rice. For them and most of the population the world depicted in those films is almost unimaginable, let alone attainable.

Back briefly in Vientiane and I repeat a similar exercise, and walk by myself around the city at dusk.

It is the day after Laos’ Buddhist New Year celebrations and the populace are exhausted but happy after three days of drinking to excess and dousing each other with water.

Obviously there is a lot of money around, some say it was always here. Whatever, flaunting it is far more permissible than it was in the early nineties.

I count two Humvees in the space of a few hours and numerous other luxury cars in a country that is still one of the poorest in Asia. They are a bizarre contrast next to the red hammer and sickle flags that still fly over all government buildings and more than a few private houses.

There are now at least three bridges across the Mekong between Thailand and Laos and umpteen land crossings with Thailand other countries, more than enough entry points for freewheeling capitalist ways to come in if they want.

The other major change is the increasing economic power of China. There are cheap Chinese goods in all the shops and many of the signs are now in Chinese as well as Lao. Hydropower, rubber plantations, mining, you name it they are the number one foreign economic power hands-down.

Not everyone is happy about the growing influence of Beijing. The lightning rod for discontent is the Lao government’s decision to allow the construction of a high rise Chinatown in the centre of Vientiane. The speculation is that this is in exchange for building the sports stadium Laos needs to pull off its hosting duties for the 2009 South East Asia Games.

It is not clear how many Chinese could come and live here but one figure that has been thrown around is 50,000 Chinese families (a huge number in a city of 460,000). There is major, if not public, discontent, about this project not only because of what it means in terms of China’s growing influence but because it will be built on an ecologically important marsh land near the That Luang monument, the country’s most sacred monument.

The Lao Government recently gave a press conference on the subject, a rarity in a country where the ruling party seldom feels the need to explain any of its actions to its citizens. They call it a “New City Development Project” not a “Chinatown”.

On another level, however, little seems to have changed in Vientiane. The banks along the Mekong River still have the dreamy feel that they did in the early nineties. There is not a lot of traffic on the roads and smoke from the cooking fires covers the place in a haze.

While there is a lot of new construction, much of central Vientiane appears untouched. There are rows of Chinese shop fronts, villas dating back to the French colonial period, some marvellous Soviet-influenced construction. It’s a huge contrast to Phnom Penh, were the real estate boom is having a devastating impact on the city’s architectural heritage.

I am reassured that the down market hotel Soviet-era hotel that I used to stay in when I used to visit Laos as a journalist is still there. Even my favourite abandoned Chinese cinema is still standing. The foyer now hosts a soup stall during the day. A faded poster for an Eastern Bloc film called ‘Greta’ is still pinned up in the ‘What’s Playing’ section.

I should have bought it in the early nineties when it would have gone for a song. It would have made a great nightclub or bar. I hear it was recently sold for over one and half million US dollars.

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One Response to “Humvees, hammers and sickles”

  1. sooz Says:

    Shudder! Laos is frozen in my mind as it was when I visited you guys there in 93 and 94. I can’t imagine it. Can you still swim in the caves? Even at $US1.5m, you’ll probably be saying in just a few more years how cheap it would have been to buy it now. The growth curve is really frightening.

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