There's an adventure story behind the 2,000 titles in the new Monument Books Laos.
The Cambodian bookseller opened its latest outlet, in the Laotian capital of Vientiane,
on August 9 after more than a year of negotiations with the government of Laos and
extensive renovations to a crumbling building near the Mekong River.
To stock the shelves in the new store, Monument Books shipped books overland from
the company's warehouse in Cambodia across the border into Laos. They used locally
owned trucks and buses for the 1,300 km trip.
"From start to finish, it took us 40 hours," said Men Sambo, operations
manager for Monument Books.
But for Meng Hieng, Monument Book's managing director, opening the new store in Vientiane
was worth the effort.
"Laos today is like Cambodia was eight or 10 years ago. It's difficult to get
foreign news there, and people don't have good educational materials either,"
said Hieng. "The people need information."
Meng visited Laos in 2003 to look at a proposed site for the store.
Photos of the building show walls dark with mold and a crumbling staircase that looks
ready to topple. Seeing through the decay, Meng seized on the site's prime location
near tourist attractions on the Mekong.
Renovation plans stalled while Monument Books sought a license from the Laotian government
to sell books in that country. When clearance was finally granted 10 months later,
Meng was relieved.
"I [felt] very lucky to receive a license to sell books in Laos," he said.
"We were told that Monument Books is the first importer of books into Laos."
Following nine months of comprehensive renovation, the scarred buildings in Meng
's photos were ultimately transformed. Bright yellow walls, dark wood shelves and
warm light rounded out the space.
All it needed was books.
Shipping 2,000 books across the Lao border presented considerable challenges to Meng
and his colleagues. The Monument Books warehouse is located in Cambodia, and the
journey between Phnom Penh and Vientiane contained long stretches of rough dirt roads.
But since the books weighed too much for airfreight, the company had no choice but
to drive them over the border.
Using local buses and trucks, Monument Books hauled its first load into Laos over
two and a half days in early August. They started out along the smooth road from
Phnom Penh to Kratie and covered some more challenging terrain on the way to Stung
Treng. The heavily laden trucks boarded a river ferry and crossed the Mekong before
departing to the border by land.
According to Men Sambo, Laos border officials were surprised by the large shipment
"There isn't much freight shipped across that border," Sambo said, adding
that smaller additional shipments along the route are scheduled over the coming months.
Though Monument Books Laos is now open for business, Meng has consulted the Laos
Ministry of Culture about expanding its magazine and newspaper offerings. He also
has plans to make international best-sellers available in Laos in as little as three
weeks after publication.
"Then the [publications] that were once only available in Singapore and Bangkok
will also be available in Vientiane," he said.