Journey into the Heartland - Essay on the Archeology, History, and Revival of Laos
Written and photographed by Xaixana Champanakone
Part Four: The Standing Stones and Samneua
On to Samneua. 60 km before reaching the town the Standing Stones (hintang), menhir(s) if you like, beckon with the mystery of a pre-historic civilisation. To get us there, a good driver will cover 35 km per hour; the road keeps winding up and down and twisting around forever.
The forests we are driving through generously make space for fantastic vistas that extend across lush green valleys to the mountains defining the horizon. The countryside is patched by ’slash and burn’; there are few villages, the people live beyond the hills, untouched and undisturbed. 60% of the population of Laos is made up of innumerous ethnic groups, in touch with nature beyond civilisation and progress, hidden in this undulating landscape, living a life totally of their own.
This same landscape had given cover to the Pathet Lao and Vietminh soldiers on their marches between the Caves of Viengxay and the Plain of Jars; this was the liberated (war) zone. The Royal Lao army and the Hmong auxiliaries tried desperately to take it back for their American paymasters in pursuit of their war in Vietnam. On our journey 10 years ago father Chanty pointed to some far away ridge along which they had passed during the war and recalled: “In those days we had no salaries, we owned nothing; everybody gave their best, we were happy.” Inspired communism.
The Standing Stones, it’s 6 km from route 6 to the beginning of their various sites. The rain has turned the dirt track into ankle-deep, soapy goop, impassable even for our four-wheel drive car. A 6 kilometer hike slogging for hours, there and back, through gooey mud is not our idea of a Sunday outing; we postpone the visit to a dry season in the future. For the twelve years of my life spent in Laos (twenty four in Thailand before that) I have wanted to visit, it’s a pretty far out of the way destination. Going by the few accounts available it must be quite a sight, rarely visited, little understood; enough to titillate intense curiosity on my part. No Stonehenge, mind you!
Our driver Chai had a few years back taken care of Kanda Keosopha and Anna Kallen during their three months long research of the area over which the sites are spread out. They have published an excellent, very comprehensive booklet about their findings and the varying, to this day still evolving legends surrounding their origins and how the legends’ purposes were quite obviously conveniently adapted to suit historical needs and to match historical events. A man with foresight, Chai had wisely kept an edition which he then copied for me after our journey.
To quote from their booklet ‘Hintang, standing stones of Hua Phan’: “The Hintang stones are tiny by comparison with Stonehenge, and the first sight of them would certainly disappoint any on-site visitor. Nevertheless, as you shall see, Hintang has much to offer if you look beyond the first sight, for quite other reasons than simple enormousness. For despite its name, Hintang is a lot more then standing stones. And once seen within its own context, it truly starts to shine.” What does it matter that their origins remain unknown; there’s much more to them beyond scientific knowledge, like with the “Jars”. One will have to visit these sites to experience their elusiveness to understand immaterialism and timelessness; solitude, next time, what time.
Pix by B. Verweij/SNV
“In our surveys of Hintang, we have registered 1546 stones and 153 discs. They are arranged in groups, on saddles along a mountain ridge some 1100 – 1500 metres above the sea, like beads on a 12 km string. So far, we have located 72 groups, or sites, along the ridge. They are often found to be situated in beautiful settings with astounding views of a vast landscape, of endless mountaintops and valleys all around”
Pix by B. Verweij/SNV
Travel tips: visit either Tham Piu or Hintang on your way to Samneua and the other on your return. Taking in Hintang alone will easily make for ten hours on the road. If your trip happens to fall into the cold and clear winter months, leave Samneua on your departure day at 6:30 in the morning. Some fifteen minutes out of town you’ll find the valleys below you shrouded in white mist fringed by brown-green mountain ranges while the bright sun is rising in a deep blue sky above you. Cloud Nine, you’ve always wanted to visit!
Samneua becomes visible in the deep valley below. We drive down, and straight into a stunning, modern-abstract sculpture three storeys high, smack in the middle of the road entering town. You can’t avoid it, can’t help to not notice it; WE Samneua, this is We! There is something tragic, and at the same time hopeful and confident about this sculpture. Besides, this and another equally prominent sculpture at the entrance to Savannakhet happen to be the only modern sculptures, small or large, displayed in public anywhere in Laos. What a pleasant welcome, glad to be visiting.
Samneua with Viengxay 35 km to the east became the birthplace of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) here in Houaphan province. The town, capital of the liberated zone during the war, housed the civilian population while the caves sheltered the government, attendant troops and workforce. For this role Samneua was certainly heavily bombed, part of the free-fire zone, but never completely destroyed; inattentiveness on the part of the Pentagon?
What a clean city this is, my friends immediately commented, struck by this very first and immediate impression! Yes, what a change from that poor and depressing place ten years ago. A town on the move; something, somebody has energized this place. An attractive steel bridge spans the Sam river to connect the center of town with its massive new market hall, and a shopping-what-not monster that remains to be finished.
The old market has been torn down, the site lies vacant, ready for something to arise from the ashes. New shophouses, a real hotel, a Cultural Hall (a reduced version of the one in Viangchan, paid for by the Chinese in their battle for influence with the Vietnamese in their very backyard!), everything is very neat and tidy. The town is bisected by well paved boulevards along which flowers and trees grow.
Yes, a BCEL ATM, too; where before the availability of Beerlao alone was enough to inspire confidence that there was a real world somewhere out there awaiting, BCEL now instantly connects you. The new river embankment complete with footpaths running its length is nearly finished. Our ramshackle hostelry at the time is making space for a deluxe hotel along the river. What a pleasant place this is. The balmy springtime temperature obviously helps, for all of four months; afterwards it gets COLD again.
The statue which was designed by the Laos’ preeminent architect Dr Hongkad Souvannavong, a man with a vision driven by his vision, was erected in 2009 as the crowning touch to Samneua’s amazing renaissance. The story goes back to 1999 when Dr Hongkad was invited by the late President Nouhak Phoumsavanh to join him on an inspection visit to Samneua and Viangxay to develop plans for the betterment of the local population.
Dr Hongkad is very familiar with the area because he had lived the final two years of the War (until 1973) in the Caves of Viangxay. Following President Nouhak’s initiative, he took it upon himself to research and produce, over the next three years, highly impressive 3D perspectives together with very detailed explanations for the revival of both places along modern urban planning guidelines. This feat was accomplished by 2002 but at the time there was nobody to join him in his vision for the future.
Come 2005 and Dr Phangkham Viphavanh was appointed governor for Houaphan province. Committed to contribute to the people’s welfare he found the complete set of town plans waiting for him to be implemented. With energetic drive backed by the authority of his position he set out to give the city of Samneua a complete makeover, with ‘green’ and ‘clean’ very much on his mind.
The success of his endeavours found public acclaim when Samneua in November 2011 won the Asean Green Clean City Award, only the third city within all of Asean to have been thus recognized.
In 2010 Dr Phangkham, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the wellbeing of the various peoples of Houaphan province (lowland Lao and ethnic groups alike), was elected a member of that most exclusive committee, the politburo. At the same time he was appointed minister for education to now apply his energy and can-do attitude for the benefit of the whole country. Congratulations and thank you, sir, may you continue on your path of success.
The sculpture, the symbol of Samneua, is called Nouay Kaeo after the crystal ball gracing its steeple. It represents the unity and aspirations of the peoples of Houanphan in all their ethnic diversity. As part of a far ranging interview with Dr Hongkad about his architectural outlook, the very essence of his designs, he explains to me his long-time, in-depth research and the thoughts that have let / lead him to design this very sculpture: the four pillars first move up and outwards to symbolize a bowl made of open hands – togetherness - and then rise inwards and up reaching towards the sky - development - to meet at the tip where they join the crystal ball – happiness. The lower part of the pillars are clad in replicas of the Standing Stones – antiquity – followed by representations of the texture of the fabrics for which Houaphan is justly famous – continuity.
And there is more, much more, go see for yourself. Based on the findings of his intense research into local arts and culture the sculpture proudly represents upland ethnic art in all its various aspects as distinctly different to the art of the lowlands. Samneua’s theme song is called Samneua bpen nouay kaeo – Samneua is a Crystal, an old and very popular revolutionary song. Dr Hongkard happens to be, as well, a superbly gifted musician. But what is this? We find Thai TV soap operas broadcast even here in Samneua, the heartland of the revolution, the birthplace of the Lao PDR. When is Lao TV finally going to offer the desired and required alternatives to its people to stop this pollution and colonization of the mind via the airwaves from abroad?