by Emma Dowson
An ancient temple in a communist republic seemed an unlikely place to meet a budding entrepreneur, particularly one dressed in saffron robes. At Wat Si Sakat a myriad worn Buddhas perched in cobweb-festooned crevices and a teenage novice monk clutched a text book. “This is what I want,” he said, pointing to a page where cartoon businessmen shook hands: “Money is God now.”
Laos is in a time capsule, tantalizingly poised between the practice of communism and the pursuit of capitalism, but first impressions of its capital, Vientiane, were of a torpid backwater. Ochre houses blending into coconut palms stretched languidly along the banks of the Mekong River. A four-hundred-year-old golden stupa dominated the skyline. Traffic comprised bicycles and the occasional VW Beetle. Jasmine trees poked their roots through dusty paving stones and dragonflies hung like clothes pegs from telegraph wires. The local greeting – “Sawadee” – hung in the warm air like an incantation. It was Asia on valium.
Vientiane is dreamily peaceful, yet it hasn’t always been that way. Sandwiched between China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, landlocked, sparsely populated Laos, was, for centuries, something of a cross-roads for warring armies. This former outpost of the French Indochinese Empire, became the most bombed nation on earth during the Vietnam War. The communists took over in 1975, isolating Laos from the rest of the world for a decade and a half, but although Vientiane’s colonial villas are crumbling, a European, frayed-around-the-edges charm pervades, fading only occasionally into Iron Curtain solemnity.