Journey into the Heartland - Essay on the Archeology, History, and Revival of Laos
Written and photographed by Xaixana Champanakone
Part One : Phou Khoun to Phonesavanh
We begin by leaving national highway 13, which runs from Boten on the Chinese border in the north to Veunkham on the Cambodian border in the south, at Phou Khoune (1400m above sea level) located between Viangchan and Luang Prabang. Route 7 heading east lies ahead of us crossing Xieng Khouang province with the Plain of Jars and the provincial capital of Phonesavanh, and on to Muang Kham and the Vietnamese border.
Like most of northern Laos this is steep, rugged mountain terrain and we don’t count kilometers but hours spent navigating endless bends along the way. Like everywhere in the north during this month of June, at the beginning of the rainy season, the road offers extremely scenic panorama views of ultra lush green. At long intervals Hmong hill -tribe villages border both sides of the road.
As far as the eye can see the mountains are nearly denuded, with only a few scarred trees left standing having experienced the effects of ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. The steep slopes are planted in May with corn and pineapple, which are harvested three months later – leaving the soil and its nutrients without a protective cover only to be washed away as a result. The area is then kept untended for seven years to recover its health - swidden agriculture, causing nowadays devastation that overwhelms the countryside.
It was more acceptable in the past when less land was needed in this seven year cycle to feed an ethnic village. With their populations growing, this traditional agricultural practice has turned into an environmental disaster! The government has been trying for years to persuade the hilltribes (by providing new crops and technical advice), to abandon their destructive ways of producing food and move out of the mountains to settle along the roads in focal villages. Here schools (we saw many new ones), healthcare, and access to markets for their new produce are available, which allows them to abandon their traditional practice of ‘slash and burn’. Where persuasion and subsidies have not worked in the past, the law is now enforced; STOP!
The well-meaning souls among our readers who do not agree with the wisdom of this government policy only need to travel the north of Laos during the month of April. What was once lush green becomes a smoldering black death-scape, a horrifying nightmare; the wanton annihilation of anything living, animals and plants alike, everywhere you look. If you are lucky you drive straight through a burning inferno engulfing you from either side of the road. Soil erosion? On our way back in seven days’ time, we have to negotiate, following a torrential rainy season downpour, one landslide after the other blocking the road.
Two hours later and sixty kilometers before Phonesavanh the terrain evens out and the road becomes less winding, we have reached the pine tree covered highland of central Xieng Khouang. Leaving the main road, a short dirt track takes us to Tham Phra, the Buddha Cave. Like all the numerous caves found between here and the Vietnamese border it was used to shelter the local population against the never ending bombing raids. Unlike another cave we shall be visiting, this one escaped being targeted, and its inhabitants wiped out, by missiles. The cave is graced by a large Buddha statue.
The last stretch of road takes us through a delightful countryside of rolling meadows studded with pine trees and paddy fields deep in water having recently been planted with rice. Coming from the lowlands the cool climate at this time of year is very pleasant, very welcome, indeed.
Phonesavanh, the new provincial capital of Xieng Khouang has been built from scratch after 1973, a new beginning because the once prosperous royal and ancient town of Muang Phouan, some 35 km to the south, had been totally flattened by bombs. Its reincarnation today is called Muang Khoune.
Phonesavanh was originally meant to become the new national capital, moving the seat of government from Viangchan to this location in the heart of northern Laos. The town is laid out with capital size in mind; broad highways make up the road grid. Well, Viangchan has remained the capital (since 1560, the oldest in Asia), with traffic jams worsening from day to day, while Phonesavanh won’t have to suffer from anything like it for a long time to come.
In 2000 there was no permanent electricity available, generators kicked in at 6:00 pm for three very short hours. The benefits of daytime electricity are immediately obvious; the town is on the move, trade with Vietnam has made it prosper, and people have become active. Three hotels have opened up offering a choice from the rather desolate guesthouses of the past but Hotel Phoupadeng, built in 1990 overlooking the town, remains in a category of its own, unrivalled nationwide to this day (see adjoining story).Like in so many other towns around the country today, the new, bright red building of the Banque pour le Commerce Exterieure Lao (BCEL) with its smart red ATM booths is a reassuring sight.
The old airfield, built for the war and ever since happily abandoned, finds itself smack in the middle of this new town, prime real estate. It’s being put to peaceful use. A vast shopping area is under construction to surround the future fresh market (the current site of which will then be redeveloped) while an impressive new golf driving range takes advantage of the runway of this former impromptu military base.
We visit the large old market and find trestle tables laden with fresh produce: fruit, vegetables, herbs, fish and meat of great choice and quality are available in abundance.
Just outside of town there is “Mulberries – silk – tea – fruit”, the silk farming and training center covering many hectares that was established in 1996 by Mrs. Kommaly Chantavong, who in recognition of her efforts was nominated for the “1,000 Peace Women” for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. To quote from their leaflet “Mulberries is the brand name of the Lao Sericulture Company, a certified fair-trade enterprise, which seeks to improve the lives of villagers through organic silk production” (see www.mulberries.org). An insightful guided tour takes us from the growing of mulberry bushes to the raising and feeding of silk worms to turning the cocoons into silk thread to spinning and coloring with natural dye and weaving it into the final product, fabulous silk fabrics bedazzling with their strong colors.
We enter to a graphic display of the ‘other side’ of the Secret War. Old photographs and posters take you back to a time of political evolution and gruesome fighting. One would rather forget but cannot. Here on the Plain of Jars the war is still with you, constantly, wherever you look, wherever you walk, whatever you talk about with whomever you meet, the War is still very much part of everybody’s life, always lurking with the unexpected UXO ready to blow up, taking your limbs, or your life, away with it.
Hotel Phou Pha Deng
If you have not at least visited one late afternoon the hotel’s terrace with its panoramic view of the paddy fields and the town of Phonsavanh down below, surrounded by rolling hills and encircling mountains on the horizon, you have not visited Xieng Khouang.
Nestled among the pine trees on the upper slope of Phou Pha Deng (Mountain of the Red Cliff ) overlooking the highland of Xieng Khouang, this resort endears itself to the visitor with its old world charm. It was built back in 1990 by Claude Vincent (see accompanying story) to welcome his many friends.
The rustic-cozy chalets, built with a skillful combination of rough hewn rock and timber, are spread out underneath the canopy of a pine grove. Each chalet has its own layout and character featuring open fireplaces for the many cold nights at 1,175 m above sea level. They provide all the creature comforts (except TV but wireless internet access) one does expect from such an exquisite establishment.
The adjoining restaurant, lounge, bar, music corner and mini library have not only one but three fireplaces to provide warmth throughout inviting guests to follow their mood and to move leisurely about in pursuit of a very memorable, companionable evening.
The music corner, equipped with a piano, guitar, harmonica and three kaen (traditional, intricate bamboo wind instrument), the fully stocked bar and comfortable armchairs are arranged around a central open chimney where a blazing fire is kept going in the evenings. Guests are welcome to play a tune for everyone’s enjoyment.
Fine Lao and French dining is served in the restaurant with warmth radiating from fireplaces on both ends of the room. The service provided from breakfast to dinner is excellent, refined with a sweet Lao smile and attention to detail, all to the delight of the guests.
The Hotel Phouphadeng is still, to this day, unrivalled among all the new-fangled hotels springing up all over the country.
In Memoriam Claude Vincent
In Memoriam Claude Vincent
He, the man who envisioned tourism to Laos. He, who had taken the first pioneering steps to make this vision become reality. He, who was always aware of the potential negative impact that a not well managed inflow of tourists and tourist related investments would – and does have today - on Lao society.
Xaixana Champanakone interviews Sanya and Soulivan, Claude Vincent’s two oldest sons
The hotel Phouphadeng was built by Claude Vincent as far back as 1990 when tourism had yet to be re-introduced to Laos after the country’s closure over the previous 15 years.
Claude Vincent was born on 15 October 1939 in France. In 1950 he moved with his parents to Laos where his father would be working for an import-export company that looked after the colonial protectorate government at the time while his mother would teach French. He attended school in Viangchan where he just happened to be classmates with the very people who would eventually become part of the future government. Upon his return to France in the mid-1950 many of them joined him there to further, like him, their studies. He became very much part of the local expatriate Lao student community, imbued by French socialism and communism which had already inspired Ho Chi Minh in the 1920’s when he lived in France.
Studies completed, he was bitten by the travel bug and set out to roam the world throughout the sixties as did so many other restless youth at the time, in the exploration of their new found freedom to discover this world for themselves.
Having seen interesting sites and gained unique experiences during his travels, he was able to compare and contrast different regions of the world. He then decided to come back to Laos. That was in 1968 at the age of 29.
In 1970, he opened the country’s first travel agency, Lao International Travel (LIT), supported by Royal Air Lao with offices at what we know today as the Diethelm Travel building next to the Nam Phou. With the country at war LIT blissfully organized tours around Viangchan, and to Luang Prabang with cruises down the Mekong (which were occasionally stopped by the Pathet Lao, and let go for the sake of tourism), and Champasak.
Meanwhile, in 1972, he married Miss Saymanila of the Xieng Khouang family. The communist’s peaceful takeover of the government in 1975 meant, nonetheless, the end to tourism, and the end to business for him. Socialist at heart and friends since childhood with the mid- to upper level officials of this new government, he stayed on in Laos, one of the very few foreigners to do so.
A departing expatriate, owner of the import-export company Transpack Lao, who was in a hurry to leave, handed his business over to Claude; lock, stock and barrel. Combining entrepreneurship with communism he took care of all the logistics for the large remaining western diplomatic corps (contrary to Vietnam where everybody had left with the fall of Saigon) and any international agency that came to town. He was the person to talk to if you were a foreigner in need of getting something done. He prospered.
Laos and Thailand, after two years of intermittent, low-key war (it had been more than skirmishes) finally made peace in 1988. The future beckoned, and the Lao government appointed Claude Vincent, at the age of 49, to become the first director of the newly founded National Tourism Office; a very high ranking position, bestowed upon a foreigner who enjoyed the trust of the country’s leaders.
He resigned in 1990 when the government granted him permission to open the very first private company under communist rule. His had to be a travel agency, of course, which he, fully aware of the enormous task ahead, appropriately called SODETOURS (Societe de Development Touristique), not just a travel agency assisting tourists but very much an agency that saw its larger social responsibility in helping to develop and facilitate tourism to and in the country. SODETOURS pioneered tour programs, and provided guides (training) and related services. Laos had been entirely closed to the rest of the world for the previous 15 years, and there was at the time zero “tourism infrastructure”, as we know it, in place. Hotels, restaurants, roads, transport, personnel, communications, promotion and such did not exist – for example when we wanted to visit Luang Prabang in 1991 we needed, as tourists, an official permit to leave Viangchan.
The year 1990 had obviously been a busy year. Arranging tours, etc. was not enough when tourists had no place to stay at their point of destination. With remarkable drive Claude Vincent proceeded to design, build, or renovate, and opened in northern Laos the Hotel Phouphadeng in Xieng Khoung, Hotel Phou Vao in Luang Prabang and in southern Laos Tad Lo Lodge in Salavan, Sala Vat Phou in Champanakone, Sala Done Kong and Sala Done Kone on the Four Thousand Islands.
Also, in 1990 the government decided to privatize the international routes of the renamed Lao Aviation. Claude Vincent bought the business and leased two Tupolev 154 jets from Bulgarian Airlines (I was in one of them in 1991 they had fog coming out of the vents instead of air-condition. This Bulgarian connection now explains the bottle of excellent Bulgarian wine my older brother and I enjoyed to our great surprise and delight, of all places in the middle of nowhere, at Claude Vincent’s Hotel Phou Vao in Luang Prabang on the same trip). He was flying high, indeed: a fledgling airline, a tourism development company and seven intimate hotels and lodges!
Claude Vincent was met with a tragic accident in 1996 (I read about it in Thailand’s Bangkok Post). He is survived by his wife and three sons. Soulivan and Souliya looks after the Hotel Phouphadeng and Tad Lo Lodge, respectively, while brother Sanya is starting their jointly owned travel agency, Tad Lo Ecotourism, in Viangchan.
Claude Vincent was a visionary about the development of tourism. He achieved fabulous success under extraordinary circumstances, opening the eyes and minds of those around him while doing so. Many of his future projects died with him, still on the drawing board. With all his enthusiasm and drive to develop tourism he was very protective of Laos, fully aware of the negative influences, if the tourism was not managed well could have on Lao society.
His fears have become our reality today.
The name Claude Vincent is still frequently mentioned in tourism circles (newcomers included), always with greatest respect and admiration for his pioneering spirit and very real advancement of the local tourism industry. He is uniformly acknowledged as the man in whose footsteps we walk today to continue his work in a responsible way. RIP