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Vientiane charms

May 20, 2009

Can this really be one of Asia’s capital cities? Vientiane (‘Wieng Chan’, meaning city of sandalwood) is an overgrown village of a place, whose muddy grass verges slope down to the Mekong. Its one skyscraper is a 10-storey block that stands forlornly in a wasteland east of the town. Pretty French villas stand side-by-side with the worst and best of communist architecture on streets whose names are written in Lao script and French. Kittens act out scenes of great ferocity around the lazy sprawl of their weary mothers. Frangipani flowers litter the pavements in the most delightful way. And everyone seems to have time.

The people here are a mix of Vietnamese, Lao, tribal refugees from elsewhere, Western ex-pats from France to Australia, NGOs, diplomats, tourists.

P1010331I rent a bicycle to see the town and head first for the vertical runway, so called because it was built with US aid money donated to build an airport in Vientiane. In fact, the Lao leader decided he wanted a concrete Arc de Triomphe instead. Amusingly, the government sign posted on the site – which is probably the capital’s most visited monument – describes it honestly as the concrete monstrosity it is.Vientian's vertical runway

Laos’ national museum is housed in the former government building, opposite a strikingly hideous Cultural Centre donated by China. The museum is hysterically funny – unintentionally – and contains all manner of weird objects. There are paintings of anatomically bizarre dinosaurs, primary school standards papier-mache mock-ups of areas of the country of interest, copious photos of prominent Lao people looking important behind desks or computers, displays of the country’s industrial prowess, including bottles of generic medicines. The labels are particularly amusing, especially those referring to the many wonders of the Party and its leaders. But my favourite was a simple wooden and glass cabinet of “crimes”, which, along with ‘The First Calendar of the Ministry of Interior’, displays various drugs, including opium, 200 tablets of methamphetamines, heroin “which is pressed into bricks and weighs 338.48g” and a big mound of hash. Anyone could come in off the street and walk off with the block of heroin and become an instant millionaire.

I, however, visited the museum for a different reason – archaeology. The woman I was meeting is a fantastic character, originally from Sydney, who has lived in Laos for 15 years. Vientiane has changed a lot in that time, she tells me. The last of the opium dens shut down 8 years ago, so people have to take valium instead “which is not nearly as good for you.”

We share a dish of rice, vegetables and bamboo shoots (like artichokes) and she tells me tales of debauchery and intrigue, espionage and drama.

Fascinating as this is, I’ve come to delve further back into Laos’ past, though, to learn more about the people who inhabited these lands thousands of years ago. There is growing evidence of massive migrations by civilizations in this part of Southeast Asia as far as the South Pacific islands and beyond. The first people to inhabit the Americas may well have been Southeast Asians. Cambodian words have been discovered in Samoan islands, and pigs, it was recently discovered, are not indigenous to South America but were introduced from the Pacific islands.

So what sort of people were they? She (I promised I wouldn’t use her real name because of Loa government restrictions on talking to people like me) has recently been working in a site east of here called Plain of Jars, for the huge carved stone burial jars that litter the terrain. Surrounded by pine forest, and yet weirdly devoid of trees, this plain has been little studies, partly because of the enormous amount of unexploded bombs carpeting it, but also because of national protectionism: the Laos government and chief archaeologist don’t want experts from another country claiming important discoveries here. This last, is peculiar to archaeologists, particularly paeleoarchaeologists, who really do behave like primadonnas where a find is concerned and refuse to share their research data with anyone (something I discovered in my previous incarnations at science journals).

Excitingly, a skeleton was removed by my new friend’s Lao team-mate, and she sent it to Australia for analysis. It turned out to be three skeletons dating back 2000 years of two adults and a child.

2000-year-old beads from the Plain of Jars siteAnd she has recently analysed the soil surrounding the bones, discovering minute beads of stone and tooth fragments (which I secretly snapped). The skeletons and beads haven’t been published – again, it’s the same issue, and a moratorium has been put on any further excavation of the site. Frustratingly, the Lao cannot afford to do the work themselves, and anyway, don’t have the manpower and skills for such an enormous site – there are 66 jar sites in all. So it looks like we will have to wait years for answers as to who these people were and why they made the jars.

my new friend thinks that the site may well have been an iron mine and trading centre (iron artifacts have been found in quantity) and that they represent a huge city of quite wealthy people who could afford to spend months carving the jars. The lack of trees, she says, may be because they were chopped for smelting, which led to erosion and meant the land could no longer support ecology there.

The Thai and Laos practice of putting dead people in jars still continues today. Apparently, the Thai queen mother was put in such a jar after her death in 1995 and left to drip for 100 or so days, as is customary for noble families, before burial. And babies too are often kept in jars to drip in a corner after death rather than being buried.

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