“Gold, after three years without care, will turn to stone. Loved ones, after three years without visits, will turn into strangers” - Lao proverb
Another proverb says, “If a meal is untouched, it will rot. If old lessons are unrevised, they will be forgotten”. These centuries-old sayings have come down to us from the era of King Souliyavongsa, Laos’ golden age of art and culture. One of the best known chronicles of Lao literature from that same period, Sang Sin Xay, was compulsory learning in schools at one time. Today, it is almost forgotten.
Everything around us, even the trees and the animals, have their own historical value and we must know how to protect and preserve them.
My interest in the tourism industry recently took me to Luang Prabang. In reply to some of my questions, the Tourism Information Centre, directed me to the grave of noted French explorer, Henri Mouhot. I was struck by the neglect of the site. Graves of other explorers have met a similar fate.
I remember the extreme sadness I felt when I found out that some unknown engineer had demolished the French-built Sedon iron bridge across the river near Wat Luang in Pakse, which had once connected Laos to Cambodia and southern Vietnam. It should have been preserved to remind us of our colonial past, no matter how unpleasant that period might have been. Monuments that remind us of our subjugation, would surely make us appreciate more fully our freedom.
As a writer, almost 70 years old, I had always seen this bridge as an integral part of Pakse District. Although I cannot recollect when it was built, I clearly remember the Lim Ki Hotel opposite the Wat Luang temple, with “1904” across the front entrance. The bridge obviously pre-dated the hotel which must have been built later to cater to the business that came from traffic crossing the river. It’s a shame that the hotel was demolished too. Today all that remains is the skeleton of the bridge deep in the river.
Across the Nam Kan River in Luang Prabang, and the Red River in Hanoi, lie two bridges built by the French imperialists. They are protected and preserved so that younger generations may learn about their history during colonial times. These structures also draw countless tourists from around the world.
With a heavy heart I asked myself, why hadn’t the Sedon iron bridge been preserved?
Another example is the prison in Phonekeng where Lao revolutionary leaders were detained during the war. The prison was demolished and a new one rebuilt. Contrast this with the Hoa Lò prison in Hanoi (better known as the Hanoi Hilton) which the authorities turned into a museum (earning substantial entrance fees). Here, visitors can see relics from a brutal past, andVietnamese can learn about, and appreciate the struggle their leaders went through in the fight for independence.
To use another analogy; no matter what bad memories a child might have of its mother or father, its parentage cannot be changed.
We should keep in mind that when we destroy our past, we impoverish our future.
- By D. Donjae -
Auguste Pavie meeting with Laotian princes circa 1895.
Auguste Pavie (third from left) and Pierre Lefèvre-Pontalis in 1893 with Cambodian interpreters trained at the École Coloniale.