Over the last twenty years, Laos has changed almost beyond recognition. When I first arrived, towards the end of 1963, Vientiane was not much more than a country town. In the decade since the country gained independence in 1953, there had been little new construction. A single major thoroughfare ran from what is now the Presidential Palace to the unfinished Patuxai Monument and on to the great That Luang stupa. After about three kilometres in either direction, the twin streets parallel to the Mekong River converged in a narrow roadway threading through a landscape of rice paddies and occasional woven palm and thatch villages.
By contrast, Vientiane today is a thriving city with a population of 650,000 spread over some 3,000 square kilometres, connected to the rest of the country by arterial highways. It has all one would expect of a modern capital — industry, ring roads, traffic jams and a rising crime rate.
The quarter of a million people who have moved into Vientiane over the last couple of decades are indicative of what is happening throughout the country. Not only are other cities along the Mekong growing as fast, so too are provincial capitals, while strategically situated villages become country towns. Some of this movement has been driven by government policy aimed at curtailing slash-and-burn farming, but much has been voluntary, impelled by poverty and hopes for a better life.