In The News

Vientiane Plays Host, and Dresses Up, for SEA Games

December 16, 2009

Vientiane has never looked so good. As host to the 25th Southeast Asian Games, the city has been spruced up and polished. The 10 ASEAN countries, plus Timor-Leste, are competing in 25 sporting events, ranging from soccer, badminton, and taekwondo to more regionally-specific sports such as sepak takraw and poomsae. Vientiane’s charm and beauty are well known, and even contributed to making Laos the number one country to visit on a recent New York Times’ hot destination list. At that time, Vientiane’s somewhat tattered edges – the holes in the sidewalk, crumbling buildings, and riverside food stalls with folding tables and plastic chairs – helped create the image of a sleepy, backwater post-colonial capital. But in preparation for the games, the government and business community have gone all-out to present Vientiane as a modern city on the rise. The curbs and cross-walks have all been painted, guest houses were renamed “hotels” to shake off a backpacker image, and traffic police were issued new uniforms complete with white gloves. Financial incentives were offered to encourage construction of new hotels and businesses, and to fix up old ones. The past few months have seen a flurry of construction all over town with the goal of being open for business in time for the games.

Ahead of the 2009 Southeast Asian Games, development begins on a riverfront boardwalk along the Mekong River near Vientiane.

Ahead of the 2009 Southeast Asian Games, development begins on a riverfront boardwalk along the Mekong River near Vientiane.

In preparations of such scale, glitches are inevitable. One example concerned the hundreds of flower planters positioned on the median divide of the highway leading from the airport to the city. Painted with ornate flowers, locals began to remark that the white rectangular planters bore too close a resemblance to Lao coffins. Neither the image they hoped to present nor an auspicious way to welcome visitors to Vientiane, the authorities quickly replaced them with non-controversial round flowerpots.

The human resource effort has been immense. Some government ministries have ceased their normal duties to focus completely on the games. Our offices’ computer consultant was unable to fix our Internet problem last week because their entire business closed so employees could attend a soccer match. The schedules for all schools in Vientiane, including universities, were altered to accommodate student participation as performers in the opening ceremony or as English-speaking guides for foreign guests.

Last Wednesday night, the games officially opened to great fanfare at a grand opening ceremony in the new 20,000-seat stadium constructed for the games. The Lao Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, who chairs the organizing committee, expressed the nation’s pride in hosting this – the biggest sporting event the country has ever held. In his speech, he expressed that Laos had never before been in the position to host the SEA Games “due to different, difficult circumstances.” Yet that night may have been worth waiting for, as he also pointed out that this was the first time in the history of the games that the opening ceremony was attended by the Secretary General of ASEAN and four current prime ministers (Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam).

Laos is expected to do well in muay (boxing) and petanque at these games, targeting 25 gold medals overall. But the real accomplishment for Laos will not be measured in medals but in the boost to the economy and national pride as a result of hosting such an event. The immediate economic impact will be evident in the near future from statistics compiled by government offices. Longer-term impact is uncertain, though judging by their level of investment, it appears the government and business community have high hopes. Only time will tell.

Gretchen Kunze is The Asia Foundation’s Country Director in Laos. She can be reached at gkunze@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Gretchen A. Kunze

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