Last year in Laos, I remembered a passage from The death in Venice that I could not really understand when I was a teenager.
Back then, I did not enjoy the book. Its long sentences sounded unnecessary complex; the fears and doubts of an ageing man were too far from my sensibility. Now I see how the complexity of the prose mirrors the complexity of the inner life of the protagonist, and passages like the following make much more sense:
“Lively, clear-outlined, intellectually undemanding presentation is the delight of the great mass of the middle-class public, but passionate radical youth is interested only in problems.”
[T. Mann, The Death in Venice, 1911. English translation by David Luke, 1988]
This sentence came back to my mind after visiting Luang Prabang, the delightful, and Phonsavan, the problematic.
Luang Prabang is Laos’ ancient capital. It enjoys a unique location, on a hill facing the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The jungle that surrounds the city is still very present in the center, where nowadays a most perfect marriage of nature and urban architecture is achieved: tall, thick trees caress the many buddhist temples and the wooden colonial villas. And speaking of colonization, French influence is most evident in food: you can have excellent croissants for breakfast, or enjoy the typical sticky rice in those kind of restaurants you can afford once per year back home, and everyday here. The bar Utopia, faithful to his name, condenses the western concept of Heaven on Earth, and spices it up with cocktails and flirting backpackers. You can also stop at the night market or book a tour to remote villages or the breathtaking Kuang Si Falls.
All this you can do in the 1km stroll between the two ends of the main street, and on the neighbouring roads. The few who dare to exit from this tourist ghetto will find a town more chaotic, dirtier, equally dominated by nature, and which surprisingly also hosts some Laotians (whom you cannot see, for instance, in the pictures on the Utopia website).
Phonsavan has instead been described as a “charmless town” (Guide du Routard), “pervaded by a feeling of incompleteness” (Lonely Planet), “like the set of a Spaghetti Western directed by David Linch” (Wikitravel). To me, it looks like a gigantic gas station. It has been established only recently, in substitution of the neighbouring town destroyed during the bombing of eastern Laos. They chose to build it where road 1D from central Laos meets road 7 to Luang Prabang. Most buildings in fact face those streets, and they are modern – in the ugliest sense of the term – and covered with the dust lifted by running cars. Behind them, fields and huts, but also governmental offices, shops selling building materials – everything needs to be rebuilt here – and mechanics working on old soviet cars, those donated by URSS when Laos was just a pawn in the cold war chessboard.
If Luang Prabang satisfies your senses, Phonsavan and its problems pose questions stimulating them. How does a government that cannot afford to be generous with his citizens give a future to a region that did not yet recover from a war that ended 50 years ago? How to cope with the never-ending problem of cluster bombs that did not explode, and that today blow up farmers hoeing the ground and kids playing? How can one be positive about the future if even the local Buddha statue had his usual smile defaced into a sad sneer by a bomb?
Despite all this, Phonsavan is growing. The ambition of the government scattered official buildings quite far away from the main streets 1D and 7, hoping that one day the empty space will be filled by a developed town. Small neighbourhoods with villas popped up here and there. MAG is clearing of mines larger and larger areas. The Lone Buffalo foundation teaches English and tries to recompose a split up community through soccer. And the neighbouring Plain of Jars with its mysterious civilization may bring to the area the attention it needs for further development. But neighbouring countries deny having stolen archaeological finds, whose return could ignite a deeper investigation of the area – for which, by the way, no money seems to be available at the moment. So the problem is nowhere close to be solved.
In Phonsavan, I met an Israeli couple that came back to Laos 20 years after their first trip. Back then, travelling in the country was a serious hazard, because of the attacks by rebels. They visited Luang Prabang when it was a troubled city, much as Phonsavan is today. “I am not completely happy how the problem was solved there”, the man told me.