In this essay, the author proposes 99 keys that the reader could interpret as the keys to the Lao paradise, and particularly to Vientiane. “The Lao capital is probably one of the global capital where people smile the most”, he writes. And it is true, that the foreigner who discovers Laos is quickly charmed by both its beauty and its charming and refined art of living.
(André Escoffier, cited in the book)
The visitor can thus discover the extent to which the Lao, more out of love than pride, are attached to their country, its story, its culture, and everything that gives it its both multiple and singular identity, that borrows elements from the diverse ethnicities that inhabit it together.
This author certainly doesn’t escape from having the deep attachement to the country that Laos knows so well how to produce out of its citizens. His keys are akin to wonderful and complex tableaux that reveal his deep knowledge of the country that has been his home for so many years. The perfumes, flowers, houses, music and dancing, the influence of buddhism, the “bo pen yang”, the gastronomy, the elephants, the artisanal crafts, the festivities, the Mekong, the street of Vientiane, so many “keys” that the author describes with a fervent simplicity that paints a colorful, poetic and thoughtful portrait of the country’s history and culture. Furthermore, the generous and in-depth amount of bibliographic ressources that Michel Treutenaere has assembled should also be mentionned for all the details they add to the essay.
This “stroll” around Vientiane rehabilitates a city that has been too often ignored . Indeed, as while the country has opened to tourism, the world’s eyes have been focused on UNESCO World Heritage Site Luang Prabang. While Vientiane’s artchitecture can’t pretend to be at the same rank as his rivial, the city is full of numerous treasures to be discovered. Many of them count among what Unesco calls immaterial heritage, meaning that it’s based upon arts and artisanal crafts, oral traditions, social customs, cultural festivities, and everything else that constitutes in itself a certain vision of the world and humanity. Even more than immaterial heritage, one can talk of spiritual heritage.
A paradise there. But will it soon be lost? The fear is present here and there in the pages of this book. And, it is true that Laos has been metamorphosing incredibly quickly, notably in its capital. Urbanization, foreign investments,new economic activities, and tourism’s influence… the whole country seems to be continuously evolving . But will those changes cause the paradise to disappear? Today, many seem to be asking this same question , while others believe the life of habitants is the better for it. Over the last few years, Laos has beneficiated from strong economic growth and can therefore not afford to ignore the current global push towards economic integration, especially as it is a member of ASEAN.
The dilemna between tradition and modernity is one that many countries have already had to face. Other asian cities have seen spectacular transformations during the last few decades, but not without serious inconvenients. The final question to ask is what development model will allow the country to modernize, while still preserving its soul? However, the answer belongs to laotians, who will answer it, however they feel appropriate.
Former Director of Relations with Member States (UNESCO),
Consultant, shares his life now between France and Laos.