Sleeping Beauty: Colonial architecture in Vientiane, Laos

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Even more than 50 years after the departure of the French from the tiny, landlocked Southeast Asian country of Laos, its tranquil capital Vientiane still boasts an amazing amount of colonial buildings, formerly the playgrounds of a bourgeoise elite. After decades of neglect and deterioration under a communist regime, efforts to restore and preserve these witnesses of a bygone era have only started in recent times. (Photos available upon request)

Vientiane, Laos — Together with Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Laos’ capital Vientiane once comprised the three classical cities of French Indochina.

The former colonial power developed its administrative seat on the bank of the slugglishly-flowing Mekong River in strict adherence to French city planning rules.

Along wide avenues lined by casuarina trees, government offices and the mansions of the French and Laotian elite were erected.

It was in those villas where the priviledged few enjoyed an elegant European lifestyle with garden parties and festive receptions.

What is left of this colonial idyll? After all, Laos suffered a decades-long civil war after the departure of the French that culminated in a communist takeover and a socialist experiement that took the country to the brink of economic collapse.

But a visit to present-day Vientiane quickly reveals that the slow and relaxed lifestyle of colonial times still prevails.

Even baguettes, the renowned French bread, can be bought all over the city. Fresh and crusty, and stuffed with Laotian pate, this delicacy continues to remind of the colonial era even today. The flair of old French Indochina is alive and kicking.

Bicycles and motorbikes still dominate road traffic, although the number of cars has increased steadily since the government introduced a more market-oriented policy that allows private enterprise.

In the oldest part of town along the river where the majority of the former colonial masters’ villas are located, the charm of Vientiane, which can be translated as “City of the Moon”, is most evident.

Occasionally half hidden behind dense tropical greenery, many of the elegant edifices lie in a sort of “Sleeping Beauty” slumber.

Expropriated from their former owners by the communists and transformed into government property, the once proud residences often fell into a pitiful state of neglect and decay.

The government lacked the financial means – and perhaps will – to upkeep the historical architecture.

New residents generally balked at the monetary effort to maintain their dwellings, which they didn’t own but were merely allocated by the state.

Luckily, the government has become more conscious of its historical heritage in recent years. Comprehensive restorations, primarily of buildings accommodating government agencies, have returned the former glory of many edifices.

The National Library, for instance, for years an eyesore, was subjected to a complete renovation. Private efforts, mostly of foreign origin, have additionally contributed to the preservation of Vientiane’s cityscape.

Since the government announced its “New Economic Mechanism” in 1989, (capitalist) foreigners have been allowed to invest in the country.

In fact, they are even encouraged, as reported by Carol Cassidy, a former UN employee and textile expert who in 1990 founded her company, Lao Textiles, in Vientiane.

“When I established my business, I naturally had to look out for a suitable building,” she recalled her pioneer act.

“I leased the former residence of a Laotian prince from the government and renovated it, paying for the work from my own pocket. I would like to claim that it is nowadays one of the most stunning old buildings in Vientiane,” she said.

It is, indeed. Located amidst a generously laid-out garden on Rue Nokeo Khoumane, in the vicinity of the river, the two-storey house appears extraordinarily attractive with its gleaming white facade.

Carmine red roof tiles contrast eye-pleasingly with the whitewashed walls, and the Lao-style gables further emphasize the magical character of the building.

Built around 1925, the mansion was luckily in a relatively well-preserved state when Cassidy took it over. At least it was spared the sad fate of a neighbouring villa, which also belonged to a Laotian aristocrat.

“After the forced disownment, the communist converted the grond floor into a pigsty,” Cassidy explained.

The French Embassy is situated in a quiet side street off Rue Setthathirat near Wat Sisaket, the city’s oldest Buddhist monastery.

The complex may be concealed from all too inquisitive eyes by high walls, but the ambassador is nevertheless stylishly residing in a chalet from the Indochina epoch. Within the confinement of the encircling walls, time seems to have come to a standstill and the mythical air of French Indochina lingers on.

The cathedral of 1928 close-by, an architectural masterpiece, used to be the Sunday meeting point of Vientiane’s catholic community. It needs a little imagination to revive these scenes. Close your eyes and listen to the beckoning of the bronze bell that silenced a long time ago.

Today, the cathedral attracts a small gathering of Laotian catholics to its regular masses, a practice that was banned in the not too distant past but is nowadays permitted again under a less hardline leadership.

The “Champs Elysees” of Vientiane, Avenue Lane Xang, bisects the inner city on a north-to-south axis. On its northern end visitors are even confronted by the local counterpart of Paris’ “Arc de Triomphe”.

But “Pratu Xai” (victory arch), built in 1958 with concrete originally donated by the US government to upgrade Vientiane airport’s runway, turns out rather disappointing when viewed close up, an ugly concrete monster brandishing uninspired frescoes depicting scenes from Laotian mythology and history.

The avenue’s southern end meets the former palace of the French governor, today the residence of Laos’ president. This miniature Versailles lies amidst an ample, landscaped garden.

Alas, a row of marble fountains gracing the front square have relinquished their bubbly life long ago. High above, Laos’ national flag flutters in the tropical breeze and reminds brazenly that the colonial era has departed forever.

Despite newly found consciousness and consolidated efforts to save and maintain Vientiane’s colonial building substance, modern development occasionally exacts its toll.

The dilapidated carcass of a villa near the presidential palace was demolished in the late 1990’s to make way for the posh branch of a bank from neighbouring Thailand. Vientiane was deprived of yet another historical building.

It is sheer luck coupled with the Laotian government’s constant lack of budget that such “deolition crimes” are far and between and not more old buildings have vanished.

It has to be hoped that restoration efforts will persist. In the meantime, many of the architectural witnesses of times bygone continue to sleep towards their awakening all over the city.

Tired and ruined, their windows broken, their walls exposing brick masonry, they patiently wait behind unsightly walls or thickets of tropical shrubbery.

Who knows, someone with sufficient funds and a sense of historical appreciation may find their dream house here in Vientiane. In the process, they might just also discover the greatest love of their lives: the love for the architectural heritage of old French Indochina.