Monday, November 29, 2010

The Way France Was - November 29th, 2010


The first time we arrived in Laos, in 2001 (, we were moved by the faint footstep left here by the French.

Cities like Vientiane were centres of massive investment for the administrators of the French Empire and are full of the graceful homes no Frenchman could live without back in the days of her former glory.

In France today, of course, companies like Buygues or Phoenix are polluting the landscape with ugly little homes in suburban development areas with names like Sunset Acres or Hollywood Hills.

But there was a time when the French really knew how to build! Anyone who has visited France or had the good fortune to know the country well has been seduced time and again by French architectural beauty; its call to pleasure, its sensuality and its genius.

In France, architecture meets landscape meets climate meets culinary tradition meets great wines meets deep wine cellars meets wondrous dinner parties meets family histories meets tragedies meets life and all of it gets tied up in a bundle of intense experience.

In French Indochina, they tried to do the same. Anyone walking through the Hotel Métropole in Hanoi cannot help but feel the ghosts of that great adventure, the great colonial frontier!

Of course, for the 'natives' that adventure was not always Chantilly cream and that may help explain why a lot of these buildings are now just being allowed to fall to dust.

Even outside the great centres every now and then you stumble upon yet another of these monuments to France. It is often when you least expect it, like on these forgotten little four thousand islands.

The terra-cotta roofs are caving in, the great pillars are crumbling. Their hallways are now used for refuse. Some of them could collapse at any moment and yet children play in them, oblivious to Canadian safety standards.

The modern Frenchman is probably the most un-patriotic person alive. Long gone are the days when French explorers here or in Africa would set up camp, raise the Tricoleur and write in their journals that they had recreated a “petit coin de France”. The best they can muster in the way of national pride is when they go home after a trip abroad and sigh, “On est quand même bien en France”.

And yet despite themselves when passing in front of these vestiges, French tourists will stop and remember that they too once had a spirit of Manifest Destiny.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Sacred Spaces of Don Khong - November 26th, 2010

Sacred Spaces

All our lives are hustle and bustle. Don’t think they aren’t. It is very difficult to find the time in Vientiane to stop and breathe and go into a temple and relax. Also, just like in France, many temples are locked now.

But on Don Khong we did have the time, and while we were pouring over the island on bicycle or motorbike we stopped and visited every temple we saw.

Temples are prayer places and they are also living places; monks and novices move silently in their saffrons, drowse in the shade and eat.

The pattern is usually the same, the statues of Buddha larger than life, his nirvana now gold-plated. In many of these island temples the primitive artwork has been left on the walls.

One very old temple building is abandoned; next to it stands a spanking new temple that looks like a Chinese restaurant in Markham, Ontario. And yet the old structure is so beautiful I wanted to cry.

The People's Museum - November 26th, 2010

The Khong District Museum

Yet another old French building is falling apart, even though this time it is nominally maintained.

This beautiful French villa sits back a tiny way from the road. It used to belong to Madame Hang Kham-Tan and was built in 1935 when the French were still building well.

The garden is protected by walls and it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine a table set for lunch in the shade of a tree, old Citroën cars bringing dinner guests, long warm evenings with a glass of Pernod and the tinkling of ice.

All that is gone now, of course, and the Kham-Tan family has gone to France. The building now belongs to the People.

The eves are rotting and under the roof a wasp nest now grows. The well-laid plaster is falling in chunks under the weight of humidity and neglect. You can still admire the staircase and the old cement floor tiles.

The first time we went the museum was closed, of course. But the next day I went and when the Party cadres showed up for their meeting next door I grabbed someone who knew someone who knew someone else who knew who had the key.

Phone calls were made and the man with the key showed up. Inside the museum there are a few exhibits labeled with bits of Styrofoam, an old statue and a piece of the island’s mythological railway.

But the most interesting parts of the museum aren’t part of the museum at all: they are all the posters and presentation panels from previous Party conferences that have been crammed into the place like a second thought and left there, safe in the knowledge that no-one, ever, would want to visit the museum.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A River Song - November 26th, 2010

A River Song

The way down was confusing. Flying here, taking a tuk-tuk there crossing rivers and waterways.

In the end, I really had no idea where I was and I didn’t even want to look at a map to try to understand: I was enjoying that feeling of disorientation.

Disorientation, a strange word to use in the Orient; I was, after all, as orientated as I could possibly be. But the never-ending parade of stilt wooden Mekong houses and fish cages, boats and ferries, crossings and pagodas had left me teetering and blessedly confused.

The mark of a good trip is, after all, dépaysement.

Everywhere we went we were surrounded by the smell of water, that fresh water smell you get in Canada, for example, in the summertime when the lake water laps up against the dock. In that part of the Mekong the water not clear and bright, however, it is muddy and wide like the Mississippi. But the smell is almost the same, though warmer somehow.

One day we rented a boat with Danielle, a friend we met in Vientiane, and went down the Mekong to the smaller sister islands of Don Kong and Don Det. Don Det has become something of the backpackers’ magnet and little bungalows dot the banks of the river with hammocks on their balconies. Too many people, I thought, remembering the horrors of Vang Vieng.

Instead we went for a walk on Don Kong island and visited a waterfall, passing through the village and admiring the destitute French buildings and French bridge.

The ride down was splendid. Little fishing boats dot the river with children throwing nets out to catch the catfish. Families bathed in the shallow muddy waters at sunset, and everywhere we were greeting by the joy of recognition, by a Sabadee! and hands joined in reverent welcome.

On the river there is a filtering of the senses, as though the light and the air and the lazy water conspire one to complete rest.