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Tumbled That; The Price Falls

Melody KempMelody Kemp's previous piece for Webdiary was Flying Free.

by Melody Kemp

Several months ago I wrote about a 17th Century That (stupa, in this case containing the bones of a sexually profligate prince) threatened by the construction of the new Australian Embassy in Vientiane. The risk to this ancient structure made of low fired friable bricks, was a matter of great concern to the guardian, Buddhist Abbot Bounyed, whose Wat (temple) adjoins the site. He told me then that if the That fell, it would spell perpetual bad luck for the Embassy and all Australians in Lao.

Well, due to Australian incompetence and lack of diligence, it looks like I am sentenced to a few years more bad luck than what I would get from a broken mirror.

I met an erudite archaeologist working in Lao.  A man of great humour and curiosity, he told me that not only had the That cracked as I had been advised the week before, but parts had indeed fallen, a victim of pile driving. An Australian environmental consultant resident in Lao had been assured earlier by Embassy staff that piles were not going to be used.
The That is older than European settlement in Australia, and part of Lao’s cultural patrimony. It is thought to be one of the oldest above ground structures in Lao, but, and this is a big BUT, it is also linked with dark energy and bad luck. The archaeologists and conservators I talked to told me that despite their science training and advanced technological methods, they had become superstitious. The experience of archeology they tell me took them to some very X Files type places.

Dr Marian Ravenscroft of the University of Melbourne, attached to the National Museum of Lao mentioned that the Swedes had taken special interest in this That and its surrounds, after many weird things happened to those living in the  Nordic enclave around the corner. Anna Karlstrom, a Ph D student at Uppsala University, is writing her Ph D on the Lao antiquities.  She supposed that the land on which the Australian embassy is being built is imbued with bad luck, luck being taken very seriously in Asia.  Her research showed that all other ventures on the land had failed, and that is why it was so easily appropriated. There will be much scoffing in Canberra halls.

With Australian conservation expertise at hand, the Ambassador Alistair Maclean, sought help from a French company to fix the tumbled That. Atelier, an  architectural not conservation consulting service, is thought to be charging USD200,000 to remedy the construction blunder. The University of Melbourne team of which Dr Ravenscroft is a member has had extensive conservation experience in the region, most notably with Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So we have a diplomatic trifecta. Don’t listen to warnings to reinforce the That, lie about it and knock it over and then give the job of fixing it to the French. It is astounding that the embassy should not seek advice from its own well qualified representatives in Vientiane.

The revitalized Bureau of Cultural Research, now a line Ministry answerable to the Prime Minister, is said to be very concerned. They take Lao’s ancient structures seriously, and in a country at times riven by ethnic divisions, feel that shared ancestry is of nation-building importance.

This latest blunder is like a Chinese fire cracker; one of many going off in sequence.

Lao is hot ... very hot. Wet season temperatures soar and sit in the 40’s, along with humidity that could make tomatoes grow hydroponically. It is landlocked. The nearest beach is 9 hours drive or a flight away.

Unlike most Asian cities, swimming pools are not a standard fitting in rented houses.  The city essentially only has three swimming pools. The most popular, Sokpaluang is always crowded with young Laos bombing and flapping, and unless one times it right, three strokes is about as much one can get in before a ten year old lands on your head. The other is said to be a large public urinal, which is why they all go to Sokpaluang.  The best is at the Australian recreation club, situated right next to the Mekong and only 100 meters from the new embassy. The facilities come at a price. Membership is open to anyone that can cough up the hefty annual fees. The Embassy wanted to close it a few years back, but the international members voted to increase fees so that it would remain open as a public good.

After the various Defence Attachés have finished their six pack swims, the pool  is a great place for parents with young children to meet and spend time. Lao has few other facilities such as parks or playgrounds, so the club plays an important place for women or unemployed partners of working spouses to meet. It is the only place in town that teaches swimming and water safety. Crowds of sparkling brown Lao kids can be seen seriously practicing their strokes while the French coach encourages them on.

It’s an international space and a great place to meet Laos, and members of the other international communities that inhabit this city. Some with pudgy bodies, others with barbeque sauce dribbling from the corner of their mouths, other screaming at their children. Passing by, one can catch bits of many conversations about current projects, corruption, intrigue and the mundane. That is if you can understand the language. The club is a place where you are merely a bloke in togs, not an engineer, spy, forester, HIV AIDS expert, or one of the other masks that people wear during the week. In a city with few other recreational facilities, like theaters of any kind (unless one is addicted to Japanese Zen harp, Lao jugglers who drop batons, or banjo players from Idaho) the club provides much needed social glue.

We were told a few months back, that at the end of this year, this facility was closing and would be available only to embassy staff. Despite a tsunami of protest, the decision we were told was final. No negotiations were to be entered into. We later heard that a similar closure was announced in Hanoi and Rangoon where Australian recreational facilities were also closing. The reasons we were given being fear of terrorism - perhaps being hit by some flying sticky rice? If this is so why did they not close it instantly? We were told that Australian tax money should not be spent on services to non-Australians. The club ran at a profit, so scratch that. The good-will generated by this facility far outweighs any real or perceived debt, and besides, all the Lao-based Aussies not associated with the Embassy would also be shut out. We were told that liability insurance costs were too high and that safety could not be guaranteed. Many of those attending the Club perform risky work, have been in war zones, and feel comfortable with high risk environments. We live with dengue, malaria, avian flu, daily road accidents and death, rebels and unexploded ordnance outside of town. It’s not like the Club is mined. But if this is such a point of anxiety, again why not close the Club immediately instead of suffering death by a thousand swims. The city wide ill-will generated by this move was clear. At the Australia Day celebrations, the First Secretary from one of the Asian Embassies voiced to me the hope that the Australian Ambassador would be recalled and the decision overturned. Very undiplomatic candour I thought ... even in another language. His comments sparked a stream of similar anger from others listening in.

It has been an unmitigated PR disaster for Australia, increasingly regarded as isolationist, racist and arrogant.

So the next cracker went off late last week. A visiting contractor expressed concern about inadequate shoring of a hole into which the refuse tanks were to be buried, but was assured by the Leightons’ site manager and the Embassy’s Robert Broinowski, himself an engineer, that the trench was safe. Minutes later it collapsed onto three Lao workers. The That’s revenge?? The soil, soaked by wet season rains, merely slumped into the hole as the contractor had predicted. Fortunately the workers were rescued by their friends and suffered only shock, but Leightons and the Embassy should have know better. Another visitor to the site commented that safety standards are basically pretty lax.

Next bang. The contractor, hoping to obtain photographic records of the job, had his camera taken and ‘inappropriate’ photographs deleted. These shots showed the multiple layers of steel mesh reinforcing the embassy. The meshing and structural details which can all be seen clearly from the road, were said to be top secret. Maxwell Smart, pay attention.

Final Burst. Later, a hapless passing Chinese tourist stopped to take photos and had his camera confiscated by a Leightons guard. The Embassy building which has all the charm of a post Stalinist mausoleum, is strong enough to sustain bomb attacks, though as in Jakarta it is doubtful if the local staff will be afforded such protection. Who knows when this small nation of Buddhist rice farmers might become bomb throwers. Though the attacks may come from the spirit of the headless prince or overheated residents of Vientiane looking for a pool to fall in.

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Send Downer to test this luck

Meldoy: A typical tale of arrogance, incompetence and an attitude of couldn't give a damn about others or their culture. It is what we have come to expect from the Howard Government. We are seeing the same thing here in the destruction of Aboriginal sites to make way for big mining in the Kimberleys.

Could we send Downer over to test his luck? We might just get lucky ourselves. 

Thank you for your interesting insights into Laos and its people. The country gets little Press and no doubt many do not know even where it is. I recall during the Vietnam War a survey done in America and a large number of people had only a vague notion of where Vietnam actually was. Yet 40 000 of its young people were dying there.  There are none so blind as they say.

I hope the That can be saved. As a student back in the 60s I was fascinated by the South Asian Buddhist culture. I recall our Professor, a Dutchman, was very worried about the future of many sites, even back then. Especially Cambodia's Angkor Wat. He must have really despaired during the days of Pol Pot.

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