Welcome to Laos

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If you didn’t visit Vientiane when it was a nest of spies in the 1970s, you can get an idea of what you missed from these descriptions in the new novel Hustle the East.

Rue Samsenethai was a jumble of two-story shophouses that mingled the sights and smells of Siam, China and India with those of France, Corsica and the Hippie Trail. The main drag’s distinctive characteristic was a mélange of motorcycle fumes mixed with the pungent aromas of curry, incense and the Vietnamese soup called phở. There were few cars. Three-wheeled bicycle taxis took up the prime parking at the Constellation Hotel. Samlor drivers parked willy-nilly near the curb, sitting on their bicycle seat, or lounging on the passenger seat under its canvas awning the way to the American Embassy you couldn’t miss Tat Dam, the Black Stupa.

Recently relocated 12 miles from town, the American Embassy once occupied a shady compound near Tat Dam.

I discovered a dilapidated bell-shaped Buddhist monument. Tufts of grass and little trees reached out from its cracks. The sooty pile of broken bricks and century-old mortar looked like a twelve-layer cake topped by a stone party hat. Plopped down in the middle of the road, the resolute black hunk compelled traffic to circulate around it. What a stupid place to place an ancient monument! Once it was a golden stupa protected by a naga, a seven-headed dragon. Buddhists revere naga. An old adage holds that one should never argue with something that has seven heads. They believed that if they banged on a certain gourd, the indomitable dragon would rise to their rescue. But when the Siamese invaded, gourds were banged and, surprise! No naga. The Siamese sacked the city and peeled the gold off the stupa. Now it’s covered in soot and the Lao people are letting it rot.

The U.S. Embassy compound stood on Rue Bartholoni, a short street named for a French aristocrat who drowned when a mail boat went down in the Mekong River. Behind equally high walls, the Consulate stood on one side of the shady little street, the Chancery on the other. Within the ramparts, the whitewashed buildings were chockablock with puffy-faced, paunchy Americans. The diplomats who were fighting a war within a war wore a hangdog expression that foretold the futility of their mission.

One of the places where Americans interacted with Lao students and socialites was Café de la Pagode

Sunlight streamed into the Café de La Pagode like custard oozing from an éclair. The buttery aroma of baked goods provided a sensory link between the patisserie and its Parisian forebears. Seated beside an open window with a wrought-iron grille, Gaines tried to make eye contact with every phuu sao who passed. The sharp-eyed girl-watcher must have seen a spark of disapproval in my eyes and proceeded to fan the flame.

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Tat Luang Stupa is a gleaming golden symbol of Laos.

The soaring spire of the Golden Stupa Tat Luang shot shadows through the holy compound. Some said Tat Luang was built to house pieces of the pelvic bone of the Lord Buddha. The monument was enlarged when it became one of the many monasteries in Asia to receive ashes of the Buddha. It was rebuilt again in the Sixteenth Century. A plaque informed visitors: “This royal stupa was built in 1566 by Setthathrath, King of Lan Xang, who called it the Crest of the Earth.” Cast in bronze on a pedestal in front of the temple, King Settathirath sat on a throne. I walked softly on the hallowed ground. I was strangely aware of every footfall I used to cover the sixty-three-meter perimeter of the sacred preserve calmed my restiveness by recalling the last teaching of the Buddha under the trees of Kusingara.

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Vientiane’s version of the Arc de Triomphe is now called Patuxai

One of the places I liked was the Anousavari, or Monument aux Morts. Standing at the foot of Lan Xang Avenue, the monument was impressive and audacious in a peculiarly Lao way, and still unfinished after two decades. The showoff Lao architect who won the design completion took a basic Arc de Triomphe and crenellated the top with lotus leaves. Not content with that bit of differentiation, he added five ornate towers, a domed central tower and smaller boxy towers at each corner. The upper adornments to the arch reminded me of temple buildings for housing sacred scriptures. Each of the five towers was further topped with spires reminiscent of the elaborate spiked headdress worn by Lao classical dancers. As a former monk, I understood that the towers further topped with spires reminiscent of the elaborate spiked headdress worn by Lao classical dancers

As a former monk, I understood that the towers represented the five ethical precepts of Buddhism while the ponds surrounding the monument suggested the four elements of the lotus. Ironically the French-style monument was built to honor the Lao patriots who died fighting for independence from France. Sadly for the monument makers, a more costly war kept the Government from completing the project. Inside the arch, frescoes of flying Buddhist and Hindu gods and angels were left half-done. Parts of the concrete walls were bare.

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