On the corner of the old Mekong River road in Vientiane, and the site of a now vanished river, slumps the tiled, tumbledown ruins of a French colonial building – the erstwhile home of Laos royal prince-turned-Communist revolutionary, Prince Souphanouvong.
The disintegrating ochre-hued 1909-1925 home of the “Red Prince”, who later became Laos’ first president under Communist rule in 1975, is set to be saved by an aid agency. But its decrepit condition is a metaphor for many other French colonial buildings in Laos’s riverside capital.
Vientiane became the smallest capital of France’s parcel of land in Indochina. The French arrived in 1893, having forced Siam to cede the Lao territory to them through gunboat diplomacy. They set up shop in a backwater.
Viang Chan (City of Sandalwood), as it was, had been razed to the ground by the marauding Siamese in 1827, and the decapitated temples and Buddha statues had sunk beneath arboreal anarchy. Slowly, the spiritual structures resprouted on the land that hugged the middle Mekong. The French realigned the city with broad tree-lined avenues and planted elegant shuttered villas. This month marks 60 years since Laos’s independence from its French colonial masters.
Just to the south of Prince Souphanouvong’s house is the gold and crimson shrine to the spirits of the vanished river, Nam Pasak, dedicated to Inthachakkhunag, one of the nine naga (dragon-serpent totems) of Vientiane.