Friday, December 24, 2010

Bridge Over Untroubled Waters...

The first Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, built in 1994, connecting Vientiane with Nong Khai in northeast Thailand. It's the first bridge to span the lower Mekong between Thailand and Laos.

Traffic on the bridge drives on the left, as in Thailand, while traffic in Laos drives on the right. This is the changeover at the Laotian end, just before the border post.

With journalist Alina Simon (right) in front of Patuxai Monument in central Vientiane, built to honour those who fought for independence from the French. The design took a leaf from Champ Elysee, Paris.

A bazaar selling silks, woven textiles and other traditional crafts.

That's our guide posing with the Laotian version of the tuktuk.

An American Buddhist monk stopped by our table to say hello as we were waiting for lunch at a restaurant in the city centre. We exchanged pleasantries; unfortunately, I can't recall much details about him.

Homeward bound on a motorised sampan, all ready to cross the mighty Mekong back to the Thai side.

Bridge Over Untroubled Waters...

Its ancient name was Sisattanak, which is Pali (i.e. liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism) for "the royal sandalwood grove" or "the city of sandalwood"; sandalwood being the very expensive and highly prized fragrance used in Buddhist and Hindu religious rituals.

The locals commonly refer to it by its Laotian appellation Viangchan (or Wengjan), as do the Thais, its closest neighbours.

To the rest of the world however, it is known as Vientiane, no thanks to its one-time colonial masters, the French, who conveniently romanised the spelling and pronunciation to suit their unyielding European tongue.

The very mention of Vientiane conjures a vision of stark contrasts; wats and stupas, boulevards and sidewalk cafes, shrines and monuments, and working elephants clearing up debris in the heart of the city.

For two decades until the mid '70s, Laos, in particular its capital, Vientiane, saw regular skirmishes between the ruling Royal Lao Government and the communist-inclined Pathet Lao insurgents, in what was generally known as the Laotian Civil War.

In 1975, Pathet Lao troops seized Vientiane, thus ending the protracted war and in the process, drove out the monarchy. Peace has since returned, and along with it economic and structural development, and world recognition.

This charming city nestling on a bend of the mighty Mekong first appeared on my radar in 1996, at the tail end of my four years of service with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

My consultancy had handled the PR needs of TAT's Malaysian Office from 1991, until it decided to hire a fulltime public relations officer to cope with ever increasing communications and media functions.

[My consulting partner and former press colleague, a Malaysian of Thai origin from Kelantan, was offered the coveted post; it has been 15 years since and Khun Somboon is still there today, loyally and ably helming the PR department].

Working with TAT had given me an invaluable insight of dealing with the Thais. Their English may be sorely wanting (more so in the Provinces), but they were undeniably a bunch of courteous, good-natured people whose hospitality was as genuine as their smile.

Over the years during our stint with TAT, my consulting partner and I would take turns to lead Malaysian journalists to visit every nook and cranny of Thailand, covering tourist spots, festivals, celebrations and related events and places.

Because of this, I found it necessary to learn Thai, however rudimentary, to facilitate communication, particularly with TAT officers in far-flung provinces, to whom mastering even basic English was an uphill task.

And it was during one of these jaunts that we were given the opportunity of hopping over to Vientiane, albeit only for a day-long visit.

June 1996 saw me leading a group of women journalists to partake Phi Ta Khon, Thailand’s famous “Ghost Festival” (and a religious, merit-making celebration too) held annually in the region of Loei some 520 kilometres northeast of Bangkok.

Because our extensive itinerary included many stopovers, we took the overland route instead of the more convenient domestic flight. It was one of the best decisions ever; the journey was well worth it.

It was a spectacular drive from the flat plains of Bangkok to the mountainous north, taking in the beautiful countryside and spending nights in hotels and guesthouses, both luxurious and plain, along the way.

I vividly recall an unforgettable two-night stay in a nature resort built on the Nan River not far from Phitsanulok, a quaint little town surrounded by temples and rice fields.

Imagine being lulled to sleep by the sounds of gentle flowing waters underneath your chalet, and waking up to a crisp chill in the misty morning air, birds chirping on the far banks, and schools of fish swimming beneath your feet.

There were visits to numerous tourist spots enroute to Loei, the memorable ones being to the old kingdom of Sukothai (450 kilometres from Bangkok), and the three-hour climb up Phu Kradueng (Mount Kradueng) to its plateau top of savannah vegetation.

Our last destination in northern Thailand was the bustling border town of Nong Khai, the country's overland gateway to Vientiane.

Our mission; to travel across the newly completed Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge and spend a full day trampling around picturesque Vientiane, returning to Nong Khai in a motorised sampan across the Mekong, the time-honoured way of travel before the bridge existed.

Better known as Mittaphap Bridge by the locals, the 1,240-metre two-lane bridge, with pedestrian footpaths on each side and a railway line down the middle, connects Nong Khai with Tha Nalaeng on the outskirts of Vientiane 25 kilometres away.

It was the first bridge spanning the lower Mekong to connect the two neighbours, built by Laotian and Thai expertise with US$30 million funding from the Australian Government.

Vientiane was as charming and unpretentious as could be, a place where French colonial architecture existed alongside gilded temples, and where baguettes and french loaves could be purchased next to a stall selling noodles.

Unfortunately for our group, it was a whirlwind tour of the inner city due to time constraint. Still, we managed to take in a few 'must-see' attractions, before wrapping up the visit with some hurried shopping at a well-known bazaar chock-a-block with traditional items.

Fleeting as the visit was, I have never quite forgotten the exquisite beauty of Laos. I have long harboured plans to return, to explore its former capital Luang Prabang (founded in AD 698) and the intriguing Plain of Jars. Perhaps one day soon I will. Insyaallah.


anonymous said...

Salam puteri....di syorkan, supaya Puteri BUKUkan pengalaman2 sebagai journalist ... satu lagi catitan sungguh menarik~!


Pak Zawi said...

How about doing the route again? Me and my wife will want to join the tour with you as it must be the only kind available. Let us see if others will want to join too.

Oldstock said...

Lovely story Kak Kama. I love to read stories about places off the beaten track... places that have character.

Idea Pak Zawi pun bagus juga... rasanya saya pun nak join kalau boleh.

DR Bubbles said...

I spent 18 months in Vientiane as SALAM Volunteer in 2002-2003. One of the best stint in my volunteer days.

Used to travel to Vientiane by train, all the way from Butterworth. 3 days 2 nights journey.

Rasa macam nak pergi lagi.

Kama At-Tarawis said...

Pp - sapalah nak baca catatan merapu macam ni. setakat syiok sendiri boleh la.. :D

Pak Zawi - satu cadangan yang menarik.. hehehe.. saya pun dah lama tak 'merayau'..

Oldstock - i need to 'unload' all these stories in my 'storage'. kepala dah berat dengan accumulation nih ..

Is - waah, ni baru betul! thanks for the response. tetiba i yg teruja nak naik train just likke you did. perhaps fly to vientine and balik dengan train.. transversing thailand.. pemandangan yg sangat indah..

Anonymous said...

Salams Kak Putri,

Adinda pun nak join to Laos klu Kak Putri izinkan.TQ.


Kama At-Tarawis said...

wawa - ini sudah baik. jumlah yg interested makin meningkat.. nampaknya kena look it it more seriously.. from my end dah sah my family nak pi punya..and expenses to melancong ke Laos is still very manageable...

Wan Sharif said...

Satu catatan yang menarik.. elok juga fikir untuk di bukukan..
That Laos trip.. rasa nak ikut tu pun ada juga.. kalau ada ipar biras yang sanggup jaga MIL for that duration.. tentu Ayoh Wang dan Mok Wang nok gi retek..

Kama At-Tarawis said...

the more i think about it, lagi seronok pulak. maybe we should organise a two-country visit, to Laos and Combodia, at least can take in Angkor Wat as well. I sooo love places off the beaten tracks.