On being detailed for a trip to Laos, I was rather pleased, as it was one country I could hardly ever think of visiting. A small delegation was scheduled to participate in the 2004 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a sideline to the 10th ASEAN Formal Summit in Vientiane (pronounced ‘viangchan’), the capital of Laos. I briefly wondered how on earth had Pakistan been able to demonstrate that, ‘it had an impact on the peace and security of Northeast and Southeast Asia and Oceania’, to qualify for ARF membership, but that wasn’t my concern, really. Perhaps it had to do with keeping up with the Joneses in the neighbourhood.

I was glad that I could learn more about Laos People’s Democratic Republic regarding which, I knew little more than the fact that it was one of the last surviving bastions of Communism (though nominally), besides being the most bombed country, per capita, in the world during the Vietnam War.

We took a PIA flight to Bangkok, from where a Lao Airlines ATR-72 picked us up for a short flight to Vientiane. Prompt in-processing at the Wattay International Airport was followed by a leisurely drive to Novotel Hotel. Traffic on the well-maintained roads was sparse, largely due to low car ownership; motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws (locally known as tuk tuk) were the principal means of transport.

Just near the hotel, a statue of Fa Ngum, a ruthless 14th century warlord and founder of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (million elephants) — precursor to what is now Laos — stands menacingly, clasping a huge sword in hand. The road is named after his son and successor Samsenthai. As I walked down the road towards downtown Vientiane, I came across someone looking like our own countrymen, idling outside a shop. Indeed he was a Pakistani, which came as a surprise to me, as salaams were exchanged. He introduced himself as Gulzar Khan who owned a travel agency. He surprised me even more when he told me that about 100 Pakistanis are settled in the city, of whom the younger ones are mostly married to local girls.

This matrimonial arrangement provides permanent residence to the Pakistani youth, while the local girls get to live in much better conditions than their less-privileged counterparts. Another fellow Pakistani, Somboune Khan, originally from Haripur, introduced himself as a director of a thriving garment import-export company. He also represented the Muslim Association in Vientiane. Both the Khans gave a good rundown of the city and its people and, helped me with some of the must-see places during the short time I had. We again met next evening when the two gentlemen, along with some Pakistani residents, came to call on the foreign minister at the hotel.

Walking by the roadside, I spotted a drab colonial building that houses the Revolution Museum. A rather modest affair, the museum covers the country’s struggle against the French when it was ruled as part of French Indo-China (1893-1953). Some heroic pictures of the Vietnam War showing ‘patriotic guerrillas fighting US imperialists’ and, memorabilia of the 1975 communist revolution spearheaded by the Pathet Lao (who ousted the royalists), are also on display. Incredibly, items like socks worn by Politburo members when they escaped from prison, also find a place of honour! The furniture and display boxes for various artefacts were rather worn out and the explanatory labels were on handwritten paper. For a full hour of my stay, I was the only visitor, which said a lot about the lack of enthusiasm for the turbulent past, I thought.

In the evening, we relaxed in the hotel lobby for a while, listening to the soft captivating music being played on traditional instruments, the khim (a stringed instrument struck with thin bamboo sticks) and the saw-duang (a two-stringed instrument that is bowed like a violin). We found everyone to be very courteous, though the language barrier prevented fuller communication beyond clasping both hands in the Indian-style namaste greeting.

Modesty in dress and manners was evident even in the hotel, which seemed typical of the stiff communist societies of yesteryears. Jeans and long hair amongst men are particularly frowned upon. Women mostly wear the sarong-like long skirt (sinh) and blouse, with a broad sash going over the shoulder on formal occasions.

I took a ride on a tuk tuk to the That Luang, the huge golden stupa, which is the most important monument as well as the national symbol of Laos. Construction of the stupa was ordered by King Settathirat when the capital was moved to Vientiane in 1566. The stupa was later destroyed during the Thai invasion of 1828 and completely reconstructed a century later. Many tourists had thronged the beautiful parks and open areas around the stupa and were busy in photography, as the monument offers immensely picturesque views.

After spending an hour at That Luang and some adjoining monasteries (wats), I took another tuk tuk ride to the Morning Market, a busy shopping area where one can buy just about anything, from fresh fruit and vegetables to electronic goods. Shops and stalls are mostly run by old women while the younger lot is away at work. I haggled for a beautiful inlaid wooden box meant for knickknacks; starting from USD25, the price rapidly fell to USD5 as superior Pakistani bargaining skills took the better of Lao talents. The shopkeeper, a university student, was so excited that he called his mother to inform her of the sale. When I enquired about the matter, he said that the money was enough for the whole family to be able to eat well for a week, so it was important to put the family matriarch in the picture. I was gratefully offered a bowl of sticky rice and fish sauce — the staple food of the Lao — but I declined it as I wasn’t sure about some other ingredients visible on the surface!

On the way back, we drove by an imposing monument known as the Patouxai or the Victory Gate, located on the city’s main Lan Xang Avenue. Completed in 1962, the monument is dedicated to the fallen soldiers of various wars. Patouxai’s similarity to the Arc de Triomph in Paris is readily apparent, though Lao motifs and figurines have been used to embellish the structure most aptly.

The tuk tuk driver dropped me off near the hotel from where I walked down to the banks of one of the world’s great waterways: the Mekong River. Considering that Laos is a landlocked country, Mekong is the lifeblood of its people. To someone used to seeing our emaciated rivers, Mekong seemed almost in flood. The river bank had scores of small restaurants, but I thought it was safer to choose a kosher fare at the hotel. The sound of flowing waters amidst croaking frogs and chirruping insects in the thick foliage was almost primal. It was late in the evening and I could imagine the reflection of a full moon in the river, a theme so creatively interpreted on the national flag of Laos. As I walked back to the hotel, I wondered if there could be a more idyllic city — almost a cosmopolitan village — where life is slow, everyone speaks softly and, anger seems like an extinct emotion.

The trip to Vientiane came to a tame end and next morning we left for Bangkok, where we had time for a brief shopping spree. Our ambassador at Bangkok hosted a sumptuous lunch which was all the more enjoyable, as it was peppered with hilarity stemming from some uninformed remarks by the host. His constant addressing of everyone as ‘yara’ got the ruddy complexioned foreign minister turn maroon, but he somehow managed to maintain his poise. A number of questions by the worthy minister, pertaining to our mission in Bangkok, drew unqualified blanks. Finally, the ambassador confessed in all candour, that being a political appointee, foreign affairs wasn’t quite his forte; hearing this, all eyes popped out much like those of the lobsters in our plates! Thus ended an interesting trip to the laid-back sleepy capital of Laos PDR, where the watchwords could well be: Please don’t rush!

 

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The year was 1976, and a group of probationers at the Civil Services Academy were assigned to undertake field training in Balochistan. The concerned authorities found us to be most suitable for getting acquainted with the actual working of the government in places like Kalat and Khuzdar. This was also the time when the elected governments in Balochistan had been dismissed, the army had pitched its tents on the hilltops to counter the insurgency in the length and breadth of a province that was nearly half the size of the country in terms of the area.

The stay was quite comfortable — lunches with the deputy commissioners, briefing at the army messes and eventual stay at a rest house that happened to be part of the residential compound of the Khan of Kalat. Everyone who joins the federal services relives the illusion of its colonial grandeur till jolted to the rough and tumble of native reality. We travelled in official vehicles under some kind of protection mostly to touristy spots like Ziarat, Mastung, Chaman and Fort Sandeman, feted lavishly by government functionaries.

Getting tired of official escort and briefings on the people and situation, we decided to be on our own and explore the area.

Anjum Bashir and I got to know that an RCD highway, under construction from Quetta to Karachi, reduced the distance and time between the two provincial capitals considerably. So, one day we decided to go from Kalat, where we were loitering around in the name of field training to Khuzdar, Wad, Bela and then onwards to Karachi on the dream RCD Highway.

From Kalat to Khuzadar the journey was uneventful, the road was metalled with some traffic, the usual buses and Hiaces with people hanging from the rooftop as on the ridges one could occasionally see army pickets. The journey of about a 150 kilometres took about six hours and it was relatively trouble free.

On reaching Khuzdaar we made inquiries and were told that the bus for Karachi would leave at the crack of dawn to reach there by nightfall. We booked our seats, front VIP seats, and arrived at the bus station at the crack of dawn. The bus was stationed but there was no sign of anybody else there. After about two hours the cleaner arrived, unlocked the bus and let us in. About ten other passengers had arrived by then, another hour before the drivers arrived and by that time the bus was half full. It started to get filled up, the seats were taken, then the aisles, then the rooftop was stuffed to an ever-increasing capacity. Last but not the least, sheep and goats too were bundled in — and as the space lessened, their heads and necks were put out through the windows with their rears resting where ever. Finally, we started our journey at about 10am, after waiting another hour for the diesel pump owner to arrive for the tank to be filled to the brim.

The bus moved at a painful speed, creaking and cringing as I tried to save myself from being injured by the horn of a menacing mountain goat that bumped into me with every jolt. The bus covered a distance of about 70 kilometres by the mid-afternoon and reached Wad which was the centre of insurgency and from where the Mengals hail. Everybody got down to have lunch, taking a leisurely one hour over it, and we kept wondering as to how we were to reach Karachi by nightfall. We had only covered 70 kilometres by mid-afternoon with another 300 to go.

We started at about four as the metalled road gave way to a shingled track, the bus heaved and sighed as I constantly ducked from being grazed by the horn of my neighbour — the goat.

We continued like this for another couple of hours and as the twilight appeared on the horizon there was a sudden crunching sound as if something had broken. The bus stalled, and after a primarily inspection, the news was broken to us that the axle of the bus had cracked. The axle had to be taken to Karachi then brought back, re-fixed for the journey to resume and that could take from one day to God knows how many.

We looked around, it was a plateau with no person in sight. On the road, too, a truck passed after about three hours and the rest were all bushes from where the partridges come out in full innocence, attracted by the unfamiliar sound of a moving vehicle and chattering people.

As Anjum Bashir and myself wondered what to do, we saw the rest of the passengers take their belonging off the bus, unroll their tents, wipe their utensils, gather dried grass and twigs, light up fires and settle down for a comfortable stay for the night.

The night deepened — with people huddled in their shacks and tents, eating and chatting, the moon came out and lit the shrubby landscape that stretched for as long as the eye could see. It was beautiful but it was hazed over by our worry of the prospect of spending time in the open. It had started to get freezing cold — in the middle of nowhere, in territory that was totally unfamiliar. Everyone went off to sleep. We two seemed to be the only ones awake. By about midnight, the headlights of a vehicle in the distance could be seen. It was almost like a passing ship sailing just beyond the shores of an uninhabited island where a few stranded wave hopelessly with whatever they lay their hands on. It took almost an agonising hour before the truck arrived — as the headlights appeared and then disappeared, the truck went up and down the hilly terrain negotiating turns.

The moment the truck reached the spot, the people who seemed to be asleep in a flash wrapped up their belonging, boarded the truck within no time, while we wondered what to do and how to climb on the truck, competing with men, women, children, tents, utensils and goats and sheep. More than a hundred people packed in the truck with about a hundred cattleheads — but the truck did not move for another hour as the negotiations on the rates between the bus and the truck drivers stretched endlessly.

The truck started to move eventually at a snail pace. We were literally packed like sardines and could not even shift our weight from one leg to the other. The only thing we could move was our finger.

It seemed that the truck most of the time was travelling in ravines. We could only see the sky being stuffed but could hear the splashing sound of tyres hitting water. After sometime, even the pretence of a dirt road ended and the only pathway seemed to be the water ways created by ravines, which, in late October, had partially dried out. Occasionally there was water, at times only puddles as the truck heaved through a combination of slush, sand, shingle and rock.

And then at about dawn the truck stalled and kept stalled for more than four hours.

So tightly was everything packed on the truck that we could not get down; worst we could not even make inquiries, because through the volleys of Balochi, Brahvi and Sindhi dialects, the only word that we could figure out was diesel. It appeared that the diesel supplies had run short.

From dawn it became almost noon before the truck started again as  another truck passed by and some diesel was exchanged after hectic haggling in Balochi, Brahvi, Makrani and Sindhi. The various dialects flew in the air, their richness of intonation only matching our frustration. 

The truck heaved and sighed as it crawled for another three hours and then suddenly accelerated. We had hit metalled road, 10 feet wide but it appeared newly built as the jolts ceased dramatically.

After about a couple of hours we reached Bela — the local all got down with great alacrity with their belongings and goats and melted away in the crowd while all organs in our bodies minus breathing had gone off to sleep. Our limbs were in a paralytic state. We were helped down and laid on the charpoy of the wayside hotel, paid five rupees for the night and it was hours before the blood circulation normalised and we were in a condition to make enquiries.

We were told that the first bus for Karachi was to leave at the crack of dawn and that the front VIP seats were available.


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