On being detailed for a trip to Laos, I was rather pleased as it was one country I could hardly ever think of visiting. A small delegation led by the then Foreign Minister, Mian Khurshid Kasuri, and including a few officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the armed forces, was scheduled to participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a sideline to the 10th ASEAN Formal Summit in Vientiane (pronounced ‘viangchan’), the capital of Laos. I briefly wondered how on earth had Pakistan had been able to demonstrate that, ‘it had an impact on the peace and security of Northeast and Southeast Asia and Oceania’, to qualify for ARF membership, but that wasn’t my concern, really. Perhaps it had to do with keeping up with the Joneses in the neighbourhood.
I was glad that I could learn more about Laos People’s Democratic Republic regarding which, I knew little more than the fact that it was one of the last surviving bastions of Communism (though nominally), besides being the most bombed country, per capita, in the world during the Vietnam War.
We took a PIA flight to Bangkok, from where a Lao Airlines ATR-72 picked us up for a short flight to Vientiane. Prompt in-processing at the Wattay International Airport was followed by a leisurely drive to Novotel Hotel where our delegation was staying. Traffic on the well-maintained roads was sparse, largely due to low car ownership; motor cycles, bicycles and rickshaws (locally known as tuk tuk) were the principal means of transport. After checking in at the hotel, I took a short walk to sample the sights and sounds of the placid city that had seen many an upheaval in its tumultuous history of foreign occupation.
Just near the hotel, a statue of Fa Ngum, a ruthless 14th century warlord and founder of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (million elephants) – precursor to what is now Laos – stands menacingly, clasping a huge sword in hand. The road is named after his son and successor Samsenthai. As I walked down the road towards downtown Vientiane, I came across someone looking like our own countrymen, idling outside a shop. Indeed he was a Pakistani, which came as a surprise to me, as salaams were exchanged. He introduced himself as Gulzar Khan who owned a travel agency. He surprised me even more when he told me that about 100 Pakistanis are settled in the city, of whom the younger ones are mostly married to local girls. This matrimonial arrangement provides permanent residence to the Pakistani youth, while the local girls get to live in much better conditions than their less privileged counterparts. Another fellow Pakistani, Somboune Khan, originally from Haripur, emerged from somewhere and introduced himself as a director of a thriving garment import-export company. He also represented the Muslim Association in Vientiane. Both the Khans gave a good rundown of the city and its people and, helped me with some of the must-see places during the short time I had. We again met next evening when the two gentlemen, along with some Pakistani residents, came to call on the Foreign Minister at the hotel.
In the evening, we relaxed in the hotel lobby for a while, listening to the soft captivating music being played on traditional instruments, the khim (a stringed instrument struck with thin bamboo sticks) and the saw-duang (a two-stringed instrument that is bowed like a violin). We found everyone to be very courteous, though the language barrier prevented fuller communication beyond clasping both hands in the Indian-style namaste greeting. Modesty in dress and manners was evident even in the hotel, which seemed typical of the stiff communist societies of yesteryears. Jeans and long hair amongst men are particularly frowned upon. Women mostly wear the sarong-like long skirt (sinh) and blouse, with a broad sash going over the shoulder on formal occasions.
On the way back, we drove by an imposing monument known as the Patouxai or the Victory Gate, located on the city’s main Lan Xang Avenue. Completed in 1962, the monument is dedicated to the fallen soldiers of various wars. Patouxai’s similarity to the Arc de Triomph in Paris is readily apparent, though Lao motifs and figurines have been used to embellish the structure most aptly.
The third day was busy with a day-long security seminar at which we were uninterested listeners as the subjects had little to do with us. In the evening a cultural show was followed by a farewell dinner. The trip to Vientiane came to a tame end and next morning we left for Bangkok, where we had time for a brief shopping spree. Our ambassador at Bangkok hosted a sumptuous lunch which was all the more enjoyable, as it was peppered with hilarity stemming from some uninformed remarks by the host. His constant addressing of everyone as ‘yara’ (buddy) got the ruddy complexioned Foreign Minister turn maroon, but he somehow managed to maintain his poise. A number of questions by the worthy minister, pertaining to our mission in Bangkok, drew unqualified blanks. Finally, the ambassador confessed in all candour, that being a political appointee, foreign affairs wasn’t quite his forte; hearing this, all eyes popped out much like those of the lobsters in our plates! Thus ended an interesting trip to the laid-back sleepy capital of Laos PDR, where the watchwords could well be: Please Don’t Rush!
© M KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 25 December 2011.