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
Vientiane was little more than the administrative centre of what many of
considered to be the back garden of their empire in Indochina, the
an unprofitable colony run, in the words of one colonial officer, with
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
US contingent was replaced with teams of Soviet advisers, aid workers
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
energy are evident on almost every street corner of the capital.
shops and busy street markets foment with activity well into the
the sprawling Morning Market (now renamed the New Supermarket), a
of shop lots selling every conceivable type of consumer goods, is well
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
business plaques. A large board along nearby Samsenthai Road saying
Class Hotel and Shopping Centre' dwarfs the largely unvisited
Museum next door, a taunting reminder of the triumph of capital in a
still maintains a token use of socialist rhetoric. Vientiane is not a
burns bright with neon, but there is nothing, with the exception of good
to stop it from being as dazzling as Kowloon or Singapore; particularly
Laos' massive hydroelectric potential, which has already earned the
epithet 'the battery of Southeast Asia'. Most of the electricity
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
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
change and economic development evident in Vientiane
is increasing, but not at a rate, government officials are keen to
will turn their capital into a seminal Bangkok,
or harm the Laotian way of life. The bridge, however, is certain to be
enormous harbinger of change in the long run, and one that is already
putting Indochina's smallest and least altered capital back on the
Magazine, Pp. 40-42