23 October 2004

The Ruins of Vientiane, 1867

In June 1866, a French expedition began exploring the Mekong, heading upriver from Saigon.
[T]he explorers were increasingly anxious to reach the once important city of Vientiane. They knew it had been sacked in the 1820s, but they thought it just possible that there might be some some trace of the rich market described by van Wuysthoff more than two hundred years earlier. Vientiane, after all, was set in unknown territory; outside the area explored by Mouhot in his travels in Laos. Their hopes were not very high, not least because they had already found how hollow were the claims made about the supposed riches of Laos by two of the most erudite geographers in France, Cortambert and de Rosny. Writing in 1862, these pillars of the Ethnographic Society had suggested that Laos might hide riches beneath its soil that could make it another California. At this stage the explorers hoped for rather less, yet even for their more modest commercial hopes the sight of an almost deserted river that greeted them as they drew nearer to Vientiane was depressing. And when they reached the site of the formerly important city; on 2 April 1867, any remaining expectations of its providing commercial opportunities vanished.

It was immediately clear how thorough had been the destruction wrought by the Thai king in 1828. Yet the vestiges that remained of the city's former greatness impressed the explorers. The royal pagoda, Wat Pha Kaew, still preserved its basic form, with delicately carved wooden panels, fading gold leaf on the pillars supporting the roof and decorative chips of glass that glistened in the sun like a gigantic setting of diamond brilliants. Wat Si Saket was virtually untouched by time or the advancing forest, having been the one temple spared by the Thai invaders, and That Luang, the most famous monument in Vientiane, had only recently been restored when the explorers saw it. They had some sense of this great stupa's importance, but they could scarcely know how deeply it was held in reverence by the population of the Lao principalities. Nor, of course, could they have predicted that That Luang was to become in the twentieth century a potent symbol for Lao identity; So much so that when Laos was caught up in the Vietnam War the communist-led Pathet Lao forces used the monument as one of the decorative motifs on their banknotes, aligning the traditional past alongside such decidedly modern scenes as delicately engraved soldiers shooting down American aircraft over the war-torn Plain of Jars.
SOURCE: The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000), pp. 92-93

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