As part of the planning exercise I had written to all the Indian missions in the countries I had intended to visit in the South East Asian expedition. One of the early confirmations I had was from the Laotian mission. A couple of days ago I reconfirmed the meeting at 10 am this morning with the Charge d’Affaires, Subir Dutta.
I was not too keen to take the car out as I did not have a working GPS system. However, the smiling girl at the reception coaxed me into trying to get to the embassy by car. I ventured out and while reversing the car out of the hotel hit a scooter parked on the side of the road. Fortunately, not much damage was done even though it annoyed the owner a lot, who shouted at me and banged the car a couple of times with his frail hand. All I could say was “sorry”, which he did not seem to care about at all. After that incident I took the route that supposedly would take me to the embassy and reached some place that did not have the Indian embassy. Enquiring from local people was extremely frustrating. I did the next best thing that could be done. I drove back to the hotel and asked them to hire a tuk tuk for me. The driver certainly quoted a steep charge to go to the Indian embassy and to a couple of monuments that were not too far from the embassy. Later I came to know that he may have charged me double that he should have!
I reached the embassy a quarter hour late and apologised to Subir Dutta, an affable diplomat, who has been in the embassy only for four months. The mission has been without an Ambassador for the past six months. The Laotian government is democratic on the outside, but is that of a single party rule with regular elections when the party puts up its candidates for people to choose from. People are free to indulge in any enterprise as long it has no political overtones; there are no trade unions or politically affiliated organisations in the country. Law and order is maintained and it is safe to travel around, Subir Dutta said. The resources of the country such as gold, copper and ores are exported in arrangements with foreign governments such as China and Vietnam. Power generated by numerous hydro-electric projects is exported to neighbouring countries. Indian business houses such as Tata and Aditya Birla groups did try their hand in developing business interests in Lao DPR, but failed to consolidate. Lao government receives substantial aid from foreign countries and international organisations for development of the country – 70 per cent of the GDP is reportedly aid to the country! The government, it seems now, is seized of the need to promote industries that could add value to the resources available thereby generating local employment. I, for one, did not see poverty on the streets of the country and Subir Dutta confirmed that people got by with what they had and were a contented lot. I observed this in Myanmar too. Perhaps, it has all to do with religion, where people were not overly ambitious or commercial. They were happy with what they had and ‘keeping up with the Jonses’ was certainly not part of their culture.
From the embassy I went to the That Luang stupa, at the entrance of which is a wooden sign board which says that the original stupa was established in the 3rd century. The stupa is said to contain the bone relic of the Buddha. The small original stupa was replaced by a larger one by the then king when the capital of the kingdom was shifted from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in the 16th century. The That Luang stupa is the national symbol of the country. The rich temple was repeatedly plundered during many invasions in the centuries between 17th and 19th and bombed during the Thai war in the 20th; naturally, it has undergone many reconstructions over the years. The temple compound is now gated to keep vehicles out. The compound has a Bodhi tree around which are gold gilded depictions of the Budhha in many poses.
It was so unbearably hot when I reached one corner of the large complex that I was happy to see a lady vending cool drinks. She made me a delightful cold coffee with lots of ice in it. I intended carrying it with me till I finished the schedule set for the rest of the morning. Then I told the tuk tuk driver to take me to the Patouxai. When he saw the cool drink in my hand he remarked, “Very hot day” and proceeded to pour water on his head; even the locals could not bear it!
Patouxai the Victory Gate in the middle of Vientiane, on the Lane Xang Avenue where ceremonial parades are held, is flanked by buildings that house the Prime Minister’s office on one side and Ministries of Justice, agriculture, public works department and the like on the other. The Laotian ‘Arc de Triomphe’ was built between 1957 and 1968 to signify the struggle of the Laotian people to gain independence from French rule. When the Pathet Lao seized control from the constitutional monarchy in 1975 they designated it as the symbol of their victory! The interior decoration of the monument has depictions of Hindu gods such as the Vishnu, Indra and Brahma, gilded in gold. The Patouxai Park surrounds the monument. At one end of the park is the World Peace Gong. The Chinese donated a musical fountain system to the park, which is a favourite with visitors in the evenings. It is also a popular meeting point for young lovers wanting to share a cool drink or warm hearts, or even both, I saw.
When I returned to the hotel the Sun was at its harshest. Moreover, the heavy breakfast I had tucked into – toasts and scrambled eggs, banana pancake, fruits, cake and many glasses of passion fruit juice – kept me away from lunch. However, I could not resist many glasses of chilled water to temper the weather. The Vientiane Garden Hotel is located in close proximity to the sites that are to be visited in Vientiane. It also had many backpacker hostels near it. This had spawned many enterprises to serve this category of tourists. Laundry could be done at any one of the many centres that undertook the work - 8000 Kips (Rs. 60) for one kg. Enterprise was everywhere, tailored for backpacking and budget tourists – bike and cycle rentals, bars and eateries, massage parlours, pool tables and reading rooms; name it and it was there. The best way to move around in Vientiane, I later learnt, is definitely to rent a bike or cycle.
After a short rest to stay out of Sun’s reach I ventured a walk to savour the sights of the city not very far from where I was lodged. The Presidential Palace and the Sisaket Museum are on the Rue Setthathirath. The Inpeng temple is another delightful diversion on this road. Local handicraft shops, modern and traditional restaurants, fruit juice shops and many stupas dot the road. I finally ended up in the night market just in time to view the sunset and the lights going up in the lively night market, which is beside an important road of the city beside the Mekong River. One side of the road is closed at 5 pm every day to facilitate the night market. The area has wide open spaces which youngsters use to expend their energies positively.
I was famished after the long walk. Before a shower I helped myself to a couple of bottles of Beer Lao I had bought on the way to the hotel. By the time I reached the noodle shop I could have had an elephant for dinner. The large bowl of noodle soup, however, served as a worthy and filling substitute. I will be leaving Vientiane for Luang Prabhang tomorrow morning.