The 25th Southeast Asian Games were launched with a bang on Wednesday evening in Vientiane. Literally – the first of thousands of fireworks exploded as the flame was lit by a flaming arrow launched by Lao folktale hero, Sinxay (├а la Atlanta 1996, if I remember correctly, minus Sinxay of course). I have not seen other SEA Games opening ceremonies but this one was impressive given the well-documented limitations faced by games organisers.
Though the ceremony followed a fairly standard script of Olympic-inspired rituals – athlete’s march and oath, official speeches, flame lighting, etc – and ‘cultural performances’, it was localised in the cultural program: from Sinxay to favourite songs like Dok Champa, the wisdom of the first King of Lane Xang, Chao Fa Ngum, and the promise of Laos’ younger generations as they adopt ‘modern technology’. Thus the theme of the games as the climax of Lao history and a developmental force for the future was made manifest. Notable in its (almost) absence was revolutionary history, though Kaysone Phomvihanes’s belief that Sinxay provided a model for Lao youth was mentioned and strident marching tunes formed part of the soundtrack.
Regional themes were also performed, most obviously in the generic forms of the athletes’ march and dignitaries’ speeches as well as in certain sections of the cultural performances. But without having yet analysed the ceremony in detail, national themes seemed much stronger overall.
I met one group of disappointed Thai visitors outside the stadium who complained about the organisation and transport and, like others, I was sent on rather a circuitous route to the stadium so that the renovated four-lane highway to the stadium, located 16km from the city centre, could be used by designated shuttle buses and VIPs. But the stadium was full at the appointed time, suggesting the more than 30,000 athletes, officials, spectators and performers made it on time.
All things considered – from my vantage point at least – this was a triumph for organisers and the Lao government, whose mantra has always been that the honour hosting the SEA Games for the first time will make the country and its people proud, even if the event is less grand than others have been and dependent upon massive foreign support. While performances like these obviously paper over social, political and cultural divisions, the local crowd went home joyous and proud, many lingering to retain the feeling and take snaps of themselves and their friends.
Here are some photographs of the ceremony. Hover over the pictures for captions. Captions 9-14 are the titles of the ‘cultural performances’.
For more photos see the official gallery here.