[108] Vientiane – Divide et impera

Darkness sets in, at least at this side of the river. At the other side, lights twinkle bright. This is Laos, that is Thailand. We’re in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and I’m thinking about how electricity can divide.

I don’t know when I realized there was something wrong. Maybe when I was walking on the street in the middle of Vientiane, when everything became dark. Music stopped playing. Lights went out. Darkness set in.

Yet, after a couple of seconds the light returned and life continued. As if someone had pushed a huge pause button which was now released. As the others, I continued my road, not thinking too much about it. Until the next blackout occurred and lasted longer. Now for a couple of minutes.


Freeze. Life stopped when the lights went out and continued when they were turned on again. I gave it another try and continued the road. This time I was inside a bar when the lights went out and did not reignite after a couple of seconds, nor after a couple of minutes. This time, it was serious.

I don’t mind the darkness; however, I do mind it when I’m in a confined space. So, I found my way out and went back on the street. The darkness was immense, it reminded me on that night in Guatemala, in San Marcos, when the electricity faded away during a Christmas concert and whole at a sudden the starts lighted up brighter ever before.


Dark Christmas

This times it is hard to see the stars, since I’m surrounded by tall buildings, and I have to pay attention the road. Motorcycles continue driving around and I notice how invisible I must be to them. Moreover, the road is not that safe, potholes and obstructions are everywhere. I have to focus on the road, rather than on the sky.

I wonder what caused the black-out. Maybe the night market which consumes a lot of energy, all the lighted stalls, the eateries, and the music playing. It is like the Christmas days in Honduras, when the use of Christmas lighting caused large black-outs in other areas of the capital. There was simply not enough electricity, or the grid was not reliable and could not handle the increased demand.


Energy Justice

So, I try to make my way to the night market to check it out. While walking through the dark streets, I see restaurants installing candles on the tables to keep their customers in. I guess a lot of them are cooking on gas, so they can continue operations. Only a few restaurants and hotels still have their lights on and continue business as usual. They must have emergency generators or backup systems to continue the energy flow when it is cut out from above.

Energy – equal to education and money – is a way to make the wealthier wealthier and keep the poor poor. The wealthy businesses can continue operating and hence continue earning money, because they have expensive back-up systems installed; while the less wealthy businesses have to stop operations, and hence will not make money tonight. It is a circle. An Unfair circle.

Once again, this would be a case in which distributed renewable energy grids would provide a just and more reliable energy source.


On the other side of the river

Finally, I make it to the night market – without having been run over by another motorcyclist or having choked with a pedestrian.

The lights are still out, the market continues in darkness and in the light of candles and phones. However, at the riverside many people are gathered, and the atmosphere is cosy. Moreover, the view is magnificent. At the side of the Mekong I see the beautiful array of twinkling bright lights of Thailand.

In Vientiane, the Mekong serves – as in many other places between Laos and Thailand – as the border with Thailand. Interestingly it shows how one country has light, while in the other lights are out. It becomes even more ironic if you know that a big part of the electricity produced in Laos is actually exported to Thailand. So, while giving their electricity away, the country remains in darkness.


Disclaimer – Not in My Backyard

That Thailand still has electricity and Laos not, might have nothing to do with electricity production as such, but for instance with the electricity distribution or functioning of the substations.

Yet, It is a fact that Laos sells the electricity to Thailand, hence the country does make money of it, however it is known as well that thye often have to import the electricity again at increased rates. In addition, while this commerce might serve the national interests, it does not always serve the local interests. And on top of that: if Thailand buys the hydro-electricity produced in the Nam Theun 2 hydropower plant among others, it takes the benefit of energy, but it leaves the mess behind in another country. This is the ‘not in my backyard syndrome’ taken to extremes.


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