Laos: Temples, Forces and Culture

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An ancient temple sits on top of Mount Phousey in Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos. You climb the 300-odd steps (unhelpfully counted out by a sign half-way up) leading to the temple to a wonderful view of the surrounding hills and valley. The view is not unlike the Dome view in Dawson City.

Wandering around the temple and rocks at the peak, you come across an odd sight. There is a chassis there for what looks awfully like an WW2-era artillery gun. The barrel has been taken down at some point, leaving the carriage behind, presumably if needed in the future.

The only thing more pêrplexing than the thought of hauling a gun emplacement up to a sacred temple is what they would do with it. While it would afford excellent lines of sight, you have to wonder just how effective a single small gun would be in defending the widely-scattered city- and a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot. Considering the forces likely to face the Laos army, by the time you needed that gun in Luang Prabang, it would be game over anyway.

You can see similar installations along the brand-new river walkway along the Mekong River in Vientiane- pins ready to hold larger-calibre guns pointed at some little farm town in Thailand, a kilometer across the half-empty Mekong. Just how useful would such placements be in a modern hot war.

In a way, Laos is much like Canada. Rich in farming, resources and hydro power potential but small in population, and surrounded by vastly powerful neighbours.

And the people seem to be following a similar path. If you can’t beat them, have them invest in you. Facing a tiger in Vietnam’s economic and political force, China has been wooed as a capital investor, funding high speed rail projects and hydro dams. Balancing China’s integration into their economy, the Laotians build bigger and better bridges and rail links into Thailand.

Talking to Laos people, you get a sense of a growing unease about the pace of development, foreign investment, and the cost to them in the long run. Yes, they have a sparkling new sports stadium and the promise of future cheap hydro power… but the concern they could become tenants in their own land.

Thinking of the single rusting gun emplacement greeting the morning sun on Mount Phousey, though, it’s probably a better defence in the long run.

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