Soaking in Luang Prabang

Benedict Anderson attends the Water Festival in Laos

In 1994, torpid Unesco awoke to the reality that Luang Prabang, the tiny royal capital of colonial-era Laos – core population about 16,000 – is the best-preserved, most beautiful old town left in South-East Asia, and so, the following year, solemnly declared it a World Heritage Site. ‘Besides, it’s true,’ as we used to say. The town is set on a remote bend of the legendary Mekong River, which runs almost 4500 kilometres from the Tibetan plateau down to the China Sea near Saigon, with only two bridges along its entire length. It is ringed with majestic, bluish tropical mountains that, when the burning swidden fields create the right pollution, seem to come straight out of the most bewitching Sung landscapes. In its heart is the hundred-metre-high hill of Phou Si, crowned with a restored Buddhist stupa (nicely floodlit at night) and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun. Below is a town that one can stroll across in 25 minutes but which has about forty elegant, modest Buddhist temple complexes, almost all warm browns, blues and whites, backed by huge bo trees, and opal-fired with the saffron robes of monks and novices. Here and there, one picks out former residences and office buildings of French colonials, which have by now acquired the charm of gentle provincial decay. Not a Hilton or Hyatt in sight: no Burger King, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. One BMW.

‘Best-preserved’ indeed. But by whom or by what? First of all by French imperialism at the end of the 19th century, which, anxious about the brutal British conquest of neighbouring Burma, seized the left bank of the Mekong from the Thai monarchs in Bangkok, who had the bad habit of razing Lao townships that did not behave themselves as loyal vassals. This démarche created a new border far away from Luang Prabang, leaving most Lao-speakers, on the right bank, to become the industrious and despised ‘Irish’ of a Siam that was on the way to becoming Thailand. It made possible the absurd singular English noun ‘Laos’, stupidly taken from the French plural ‘les royaumes Laos’ (the three Lao petty principalities of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak). It led to the construction of a colonial headquarters in the Thai-razed, but ‘central’ locale of Vientiane rather than the remote and northern Luang Prabang. Ultimately the creation of ‘Indochine’ as a vast administrative unit run from Hanoi left Laos as the place where, in the Thirties, six hundred Frenchmen could peaceably indulge themselves, off location, in opium, girls, boys and drink. So to speak, the lotus-eating end of the colonial world.

In this the French were quite typical. Virtually all the colonial (and present-day) capitals of South-East Asia are, luckily, boring imperial-commercial creations, not gussied up ancient royal centres: Batavia/Jakarta (not Surakarta); Phnom Penh (not Angkor); and Rangoon (not Mandalay). It would be hard to think of a single architecturally spectacular creation – by the Americans, British, French, Spanish, Dutch or Portuguese – in the whole region, which one would dare set against Angkor, the Borobudur, Pagan, Ayutthaya and even little Luang Prabang. (The ominous imperial British buildings in Rangoon took on a new sheen when, after nationalisation in 1962, many were turned into apartments. The most ravishing sight in Rangoon today is the massive display of newly-washed, bright green, yellow, red, lilac, blue, orange and black underpants, bras and sarongs, hung out to dry from the broken windows of Orwell’s Burma.)

American imperialism also played a big part. It is easy to forget that in the post-World War Two era, the regime in Washington has killed or maimed more foreigners than any other country in the whole world: a world-class killer, one might say, matched arithmetically only by the Maoist regime’s cruelties towards its own citizens. Laos is a good reminder. On this UK-sized country, with not even five million inhabitants, the US dropped a higher tonnage of bombs than on the Axis powers, and per capita the most in world history. (Today, local murderers in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda are to be hauled before international tribunals, but Kissinger is still luxuriously at large.) Being the seat of the nominal head of state of post-Independence Laos and a playground for the reactionary, residual Lao aristocracy hired out by Washington, Luang Prabang was spared the Americans’ sky-borne fury. American brutality made possible the triumph in 1975 of the Lao Communist Party, which shrewdly based itself less on the lowland Lao than on the ‘tribal peoples’ of the mountainous zones where the bombing was fiercest. For a year or so thereafter, the dim, stout King Savang Vatthana was kept on as figurehead of state, but when in 1976 he was implicated in an attempted right-wing come-back, the monarchy was abolished. Since then the ‘petit château’ palace the French built in 1905 for his long-lived father has become a people’s museum.

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