The kingdom of a million irrelevants 

I’m standing in front of an ATM in Vientiane, capital of the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos, trying to make my first cash withdrawal since I arrived in country.

I’m somewhat perturbed to see that all writing and figures that appear on the screen are in curly Lao script but, knowing that the money I plan to withdraw must last me as long as possible, I make a stab at it, and hit the highest withdrawal figure.

The machine burps out a thick wad of notes.

Worried that I have overdrawn my meagre funds backs home in Australia, I turn in desperation to the woman waiting patiently behind me and ask her what the maximum withdrawal amount on this machine is. She smiles sweetly.

“A million kip.”

A million, ohmigod, what the hell is the exchange rate, what will Westpac do my account when they discover I have withdrawn a million kip?

The woman smiles even more broadly, that comforting Lao smile, her gold teeth flashing in the sunlight. Laos smile a lot, even in the most difficult of times.

‘That is only one hundred and twenty US dollars” she says gently. My panic deflates like a pricked balloon and relief washes over me.

Like Thais, Laos have a philosophic take on life, they say ‘bo peniang’ ‘it’s OK, don’t make a fuss’, a gentler, more gracious expression than, ‘No worries’.

Thais and Laos do not get on, despite being neighbours, not since around the eleventh century, conflicts that have continued to this day, not helped by a Thai politician remarking that Thais had invaded and burned the Lao capital some five centuries ago and maybe it was time to repeat that exercise.

An atmosphere of simmering mutual hostility remains to this day, with frequent recourse to litigation over border land disputes, Thais trying to buy land on the Lao side of the Mekong (land sales to foreigners is forbidden under Lao law) or vice versa (also forbidden, this time under Thai law).

Vientiane means ‘Sandalwood City’ (although the sandalwood forests have long gone. It’s actually pronounced Vieng chang by locals and they have never really forgiven Paul Theroux for claiming their city brothels were cleaner than the hotels.

The old name for Laos used to be ‘the kingdom of a million elephants’ which cynical expats transmuted into ‘the kingdom of a million irrelevants’.

Every morning I await Mr Vong’s tuk tuk in front of the Lao Hotel, sometimes accompanied by the hotel’s small mixed breed pooch, in his home knitted dog sweater. Dogs are cared for and respected in Vientiane and even dogs from modest homes wear their owner’s cast off tee-shirts, in this, the cool season.

Mr Vong is employed to chauffeur me to the Lao Law and Trademark Agency, where I’m working on an AusAID-funded project, re-writing the firm’s documentation from bureaucratic French translated into slightly archaic sounding English, into modern business English letters that will be emailed out to in response to inquiries from all over the world.

During the Vietnam war, which resulted in tragedy for Laos, which is still a Communist state, Mr Vong, then a wiry 12 year old, led his mother and sisters into the jungle. His father, a soldier with the Royal Lao Army, never returned, and the family eventually returned and picked up the pieces of their lives.

We trundle along the broad, French-created grand boulevard, past the Ministère des Forêts (Agriculture) and le Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, (Foreign Affairs) past the mini Arc de Triomphe, built on the same lines as the Paris-sited original, but lavishly ornamented with seductive apsaras, heavenly goddesses, the Laotian touch.

Vientinois, grinning, will tell you, if they trust you, the name it’s called locally, which is the ‘vertical runway’.

During the the Vietnam war, the US trustingly donated the dollars that funded the vertical runway. It was, of course, intended for construction of a real runway, for military transports, but the then- ruler of the country used the money for what he considered to be a higher purpose.

People refer to it as ‘the monument’ and the well-tended little park around it is a popular place for girls to meet their boy friends and take photographs of each other on their mobile phones.

After work, I sit in the square by the great lotus-shaped fountain, Namphou, the city’s landmark, jets spraying silvery water, and try to imagine what it must have been like under the French, as ancient, toothless ladies shuffle past, clutching fresh-baked batons of French bread under brocade-jacketed arms.

Before I leave, I fly to Luang Prabang, aboard a tiny toy airline that soared high over the dark green mountains of northern Laos, rough jungle country where the Pathet Lao had honed their fighting skills until they, like their murderous confreres in Cambodia, invaded the cities and consigned each country into madness.

Luang Prabang was the ancient summer capital of the Laotian kings and the Thai woman seated beside me, tells me Chieng Mai and Luang Prabang share a history, both were capitals of northern kings, later overrun by southern Thais.

Luang Prabang is possibly the most beautiful ancient city in Asia, high in the mountains, a UN protected site, a city where no one is allowed to smoke.

Each night the central square comes alive with the night market, tribal women in heavy silver necklaces and earrings selling dried deer horn, monkey fur amulets and tortoise shell and slick young street traders, some of them farangs, sell everything from tee-shirts proclaiming slogans like ‘Same same’ to pirated cassettes.

As I walk back to my hotel through the gardens of what was once the royal palace, now the National Museum, under a huge silver mountain moon, I glimpse a winged, glittering apsara, a Laotian angel, flitting ahead of me on the cobbled path.

After a moment of surprise, I realise she’s real, one of the young dancers from the newly revived National Academie de Danse, fluttering home after that evening’s performance of The Ramayana in what was once the royal private theatre in the palace grounds.

Related post – Diary: Bangkok

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