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May 29, 2012, 12:16 pm, Stephen Johnson
A woman is sleeping next to a cash register at Laos’ capital city airport.
After a bit of gentle prodding from tourists, she wakes up and drowsily accepts 10,000 kip, or a little more than one Australian dollar, for some locally-brewed national beer.
The name of the Laotian currency is an apt description for an afternoon kip in a nation where sweaty, tropical temperatures are enough to induce a siesta as the dry season winds down.
In recent decades, though, this small, landlocked Southeast Asian nation with five neighbours has had anything but a sleepy history.
During the Vietnam War, US forces bombed the countryside hoping to destroy Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units hiding in the hills.
The Lao capital Vientiane (which the locals pronounce Vien-Jun), on the northern banks of the Mekong River, is the city which my mother Pon fled in July 1975.
Five months later, the Pathet Lao came to power.
Mum was 23 when the 600-year-old monarchy was displaced by force in favour of authoritarian communist rule.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic now stands alongside Vietnam, North Korea, China and Cuba as among the world’s few remaining one-party states.
Across Laos, red and yellow hammer and sickle flags fly prominently next to the national red, blue and white flag wherever government buildings and market stalls are to be found.
Standing near a 16th century gold temple in Vientiane, our tour guide says a 1976 lightning strike on Pha That Luang, the national symbol of Laos, was a good political omen.
“One year after the revolution, it finished the bad luck,” he said, overlooking a big empty square, interrupted only by ice-cream vendors and a woman attempting to sell sparrows in bamboo cages.
But almost four decades after communism came to Laos, many people are still living in poverty.
Three-wheeled tuk tuks powered by motorcycle engines are a common mode of transport, a sign that Laos is still a poor country.
On the city’s dusty outskirts, it’s not unusual to see a motorbike rider without a helmet covering his mouth with one hand and controlling the handlebars with the other.
While shiny new Toyota HiLux utes and Hyundai Elantra sedans are a common sight, so too are wooden huts on the side of the road with dirt floors selling barbecued chicken on skewers.
People are more likely to be seen walking a cow with a rope than walking a dog, which all roam the streets along with chickens and ducklings.
Tangled bundles of overhead wires dominate the scape of the city with a small-town feel.
When it comes to its architecture, Laos appears to have embraced its French heritage, at least in the embassy quarter.
A Parisian style boulevard with glass-ball lights on short black poles lines the route to the Presidential Palace.
Laos may have became an independent nation in 1953, but nine years after the departure of its European colonial rulers the locals built Patuxai, an eastern version of France’s famous Arc de Triomphe monument garnished with Buddhist figurines.
Its Lao name means Victory Gate.
Still, the history of Vientiane certainly hasn’t been one of victory, with neighbouring Thailand invading it in 1828 from across the Mekong River.
Wat Si Saket, then a decade-old Buddhist temple filled with statues, was the only building left standing as the city was burnt to the ground.
In modern times, Laos and Thailand are cultural allies connected by the Australian-funded Friendship Bridge, which former prime minister Paul Keating opened in 1994.
Laos opened its tourism up to the rest of the world in the mid-1990s, a decade after introducing some market-based economic reforms.
But unlike Vietnam and Thailand, where crossing the road is often an ordeal, this nation of less than seven million people has retained its unique, sleepy vibe.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Budget carrier Air Asia flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and the Gold Coast daily to Kuala Lumpur, with daily connecting flights to Vientiane from May 27.
STAYING THERE: Rashmi’s Plaza Hotel, described as Vientiane’s first modern luxury hotel, has a roof-top pool. It is situated near the city centre, a short walk from the Australian.
- The writer was a guest of Air Asia and stayed at Rashmi’s Plaza Hotel in Vientiane.