Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mekong River Towns in Southern Laos

                                               by Jim Goodman

the port at Thakhek
       Along the portion of the Mekong River that runs alongside the western border of Laos lie several towns.  Most travelers, however, confine their exploration to just two of them:  Vientiane, the capital, and Luang Phabang, the former royal capital and World Heritage site.  If they venture south of the capital, to Thakhek, Savannakhet, Pakse or Champassak, they usually stay just long enough to catch a ride to somewhere beyond. 
       From Thakhek they head for the caves east of the town or rent motorbikes for the three-day ride in a loop through the craggy limestone mountains past the caves.  From Savannakhet they take a bus to central Vietnam.  From Pakse they either go east to the Bolavens Plateau in southeast Laos or south to the ancient Khmer ruins of Wat Phu or to the Four Thousand Islands, perhaps without even stopping in Champassak town.  While none of the four towns can arouse as much interest as Vientiane or Luang Phabang, they all have their own intrinsic attractions, individual histories and special roles played in the development of Lao history.
Sikhot Stupa
       Thakhek, a town of about 26,000, six hours drive south of Vientiane, lies opposite the much larger Nakhon Phanom in Thailand.   The town’s name means “Visitors’ Landing” and its founding dates to the 8th century.  At that time it was the capital of a state called Sikhottabong, named after its founder King Sikhot, said to have superhuman strength from eating rice with dirty, but magical chopsticks.
       To the north lay another state, around present-day Vientiane, troubled by rampaging elephants that were driving people off the land and taking over villages.  Its king offered half his realm and his daughter in marriage to whoever could rid the land of its pachyderm plague.  Sikhot took up the challenge and successfully expelled the marauding elephants.  The king kept his promise, turned over half his kingdom and gave his daughter to Sikhot to wed.
       He was not happy about the deal, though, but what to do about a man that seemed to be invulnerable?  His daughter remained loyal to him rather than her new husband and together they plotted Sikhot’s downfall.  By one means or another she wheedled out of him his secret—that he could only be killed through his anus.  When she conveyed this information to her father, the king ordered an archer to be placed in the pit of Sikhot’s latrine.  When Sikhot came to relieve his bowels in the morning, the archer shot him with an arrow through his anus and killed him.
colonial era shop houses o Chao Anou Street
       Sikhot’s ashes were eventually interred in the Sikhottabong Stupa about six km south of Thakhek and the town’s most important religious monument.   Standing 29 meters tall, it was erected in the 15th century, though the temple beside it only dates from 1970.  The state was eventually absorbed by the Kingdom of Lanexang (Land of a Million Elephants), the first Lao state, founded in the late 14th century.  This part of the new kingdom was still called Sikhottabong, included land on the other side of the river, and its governor was basically the administrator of the southern half of Lanexang.
       Thakhek’s real transformation took place after the French established control towards the end of the 19th century.  To develop its potential for commerce, the French encouraged an influx of Vietnamese, who at one point constituted 85% of the population.  After the conclusion of World War II, when in the winter of 1946 the French re-imposed their control over Laos, Thakhek was the venue for the first major armed resistance, by a mixed Lao Issara and Viet Minh force, led by the leftist Prince Souphanouvong. 
Buddhas in a private garden of a Thakhek house
       French artillery and air strikes quickly prevailed and Souphanouvong was wounded escaping by boat to Thailand.  During the civil war that convulsed Laos in the 60s and 70s Thakhek was relatively unaffected.  The fighting was far north, the bombing far to the east and the town’s casino was busy with Thai customers.  With the victory of the Pathet Lao in 1975, the casino closed and many of Thakhek’s Vietnamese fled to Vietnamese villages around Nakhon Phanom.
       Today Thakhek is a quiet and pleasant town, easy to get around on foot, with lots of colonial vestiges.  Some of the old houses could use some renovation, but the shop houses lining the riverside Chao Anou Road are in good condition and make this the most atmospheric street in town.  A walk along the river offers views of the port and Nakhom Phanom on the other side.  It is especially active during and just before full moon day in October, when rowing crews in long boats practice for the races that day.
practicing for the boat races in Savannakhet
       Going downriver, the next town is Savannakhet.  With a population of 125,000, it is the second largest in the country.  Though there are villages in the area that are much older, at this location the town itself began developing in the 17th century.  The French marched in to directly administer it in 1893 and began improving its infrastructure and conscripting laborers to build a road to Quảng Trị, Vietnam.  As in Thakhek, they also sponsored an influx of Vietnamese and Chinese, who still form significant portions of the population and have their own Mahayana Buddhist temples, in contrast to the Theravada Lao temples.
       But before that, the French had to deal with an insurrection shortly after their takeover.  In 1899 preachers in the area began predicting the arrival of a holy man who will save people from a disaster to happen the second week of April 1902, when the earth would turn dark for seven days, provided they follow his instructions, the taboos on certain foods and the use of money and made pilgrimages to That Phanom.
St. Teresa Catholic Church
Wat Ing Hang
Soon a man called Phò Kaduat claimed to be the holy man, promising a Golden Age about to dawn, the disappearance of the Thai and the French in the arnd the resurrection of Lanexang.  He urged his followers to venerate a Buddha statue he claimed floated down from Heaven and performed magic tricks that the credulous thought were miracles. 
       In November 1901 the French, growing nervous about the mass meetings, arrested several of the leaders, though not Phò Kaduat.  This action turned a millenarian religious movement into an anti-colonial, political campaign that quickly became violent.  Both sides attacked and counter-attacked, but by the end of 1902 the French had killed Phò Kaduat and suppressed the movement, though similar disturbances rocked the Bolavens Plateau until 1936.
16th century Ing Hang Stupa
Vishnu on Garuda, That Ing Hang
       Kaysone Phoumvihan, the Lao PDR leader from 1975 until his death in 1992, himself born in Savannakhet, called Phò Kaduat one of the country’s five great historical heroes.  Government propaganda extolled his anti-colonial credentials, without any reference to the ‘superstitious’ aspects of the movement.
Champassak Palace Hotel, Pakse
       Savannakhet today is a relatively quiet city with an abundance of trees in the urban zones.  Colonial era buildings still stand in the old French Quarter, near St. Teresa’s Catholic Church, erected in 1930 for the French and Vietnamese Catholics and still used by the latter nowadays.  Among the city attractions, the oddest is the small Dinosaur Museum, with a display of a collection of bones found during excavations carried out in the province in the 1930s.  The second oddest has to be the Savan-Vegas Casino on the river, drawing customers mainly from Mukdahan, the Thai city across the river.
carved shutter, Wat Luang, Pakse
       In the heart of the city is the venerable Wat Xayaphoum.  First erected in 1542 and since then renovated and expanded, it is now the largest temple in Laos.  Even more revered is the stupa called That Ing Hang, 15 km outside the town.  It commemorates an alleged visit by the Buddha, when he preached his sermon here between two trees (the meaning of Ing Hang).  The present structure is the one remodeled in 1548 and features sculptures of guardian deities and of Vishnu on Garuda between two coiled serpents.
       Flowing south past Savannakhet, the Mekong passes into Champassak province, where it ceases to mark the boundary between Thailand and Laos.  As a result of the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1893, part of the river’s western bank became part of Laos (as did Xayaboury province opposite Luang Phabang).  In 1905 the French founded Pakse, at the junction of the Sedon and Mekong Rivers, today the largest and most important town in the province, with a population of 88,000.
      Little of the colonial era architecture remains, but Wat Luang near the river, built in the 1930s, has fine wood-carved window shutters and doors.  Next to it stands Wat Phabat, which is supposed to house a footprint of the Buddha.  In garish contrast to the temples is Pakse’s most famous (or notorious depending on one’s view) building—the Champassak Palace Hotel.  With its sort of Southeast Asian ‘wedding cake style’ it was intended to be the palace of Boun Oum, the last in the line of Champassak’s former royal family.  Construction started in 1968 but Boun Oum was forced into exile and died before he could live in it.  In the end it wound up in the hands of a Thai businessman, who turned it into a hotel.
Lao in red, Thai in blue, Pakse Museum painting 
       A little further down the road past this is the museum.  In a secluded spot just outside of town, the museum holds ancient stone sculptures from the Khmer ruins in the south, bronze drums and other items, plus a painting of a 19th century battle wherein the aggressive Lao in red thrash their Thai foes in blue.  This must have been a moment of temporary advantage, however, for according to history, Chao Anou’s attack on Thailand led to a resounding defeat and the loss of full Lao sovereignty.
Mekong RIver below Champassak
       In ancient times the province was successively part of the Khmer states of Funan, Chenla and the Angkor Empire.  In the 14th century Fa Ngun, residing in Angkor, won the backing of the Khmer emperor in his claim to the throne of a vassal state in northern Laos.  But as soon as he established his authority he declared an independent Kingdom of Lanexang and then solidified his position by defeating a Khmer army from Champassak.
       Eventually, as the Angkor regime collapsed, Lanexang absorbed the territory of Champassak.  But in 1711, due to a vicious succession struggle, Lanexang split into three kingdoms:  Luang Phabang, Vientiane and Champassak.  The former two continued periodic hostilities, sending refugees streaming south to the southern kingdom.  Champassak’s population grew as a result.  This phenomenon would continue the first decades of the following century.
fishing on the Mekong at Champassak
       Champassak could not keep out of war entirely, though.  King Taksin of Siam attacked in 1777, a year before his campaign against Vientiane.  From then on the Thai became the power brokers in Lao politics.  Champassak’s rulers acceded to a slight loss of sovereignty, but otherwise carried on unimpeded.  That changed in 1819, when the Thai-appointed King of Vientiane, Chao Anou, suppressing a revolt led by a Champassak monk, had his son Chao Nho installed as Champassak’s ruler.
     At the end of 1826 Chao Anou, deciding to re-assert Lao independence, attacked Thailand.  Chao Nho led an army from Champassak in support.  Grossly underestimating the strength of his opponents, Chao Anou suffered a disastrous defeat, including his capture and the destruction of Vientiane.  Chao Nho escaped back to Champassak but found the populace, under the leadership of one of the princes from the dispossessed royal family, had closed the gates.  Forced to flee to the forest, he was soon captured and sent to a Bangkok prison.
royal mansion at Chanpassak
       Champassak remained a Thai vassal state until taken by the French.  During World War II, as an ally of Japan, Thailand invaded Champassak and seized the lands on the west bank, including Champassak town.  After the war ended, the French reasserted control and the Thai were forced to withdraw from the entire province.
       Contemporary Champassak is the smallest of the Mekong River towns.  It is all but bereft of vestiges of its past, other than a modest mansion used by 19th century rulers.  Evidence of its former incarnation as a Khmer outpost lies at nearby Wat Phu and Chanpassak itself is basically a stopover for visitors to Wat Phu or the Four Thousand Islands further downriver.  It has its charms, though.
       The town stretches along one long street beside the river.  Restaurants, hotels and temples are mostly on the riverbank.  Fishermen in small boats come out on the river at sunrise and in the late afternoon.  The atmosphere of Champassak is much more rural than urban.  But that’s true of most of Laos.  With its alluring, unspoiled scenery, relics of history and relaxed, leisurely pace of everyday life, of all the southern Lao river towns, Champassak is the most representative of Laos as a whole.

sunrise at Champassak
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