Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vientiane: Southeast Asia on Silent Mode

Patuxai, Laos' Arc de Triomphe
Patuxai, Laos' Arc de Triomphe

"You gotta go to Laos," backpackers kept telling me. When I asked why, it was hard for them to explain. But they assured me that the country was awesome. It reminded me of when I was in Europe, and travelers kept saying I should go to Prague. There's no one famous thing to see; the whole city itself is an attraction.

Countries acquire reputations. Cambodia has Angkor Wat, Vietnam has its war history, and Thailand has spicy food (and spicy girls) . But at the mention of "Laos," my mind was a blank. There was no preconceptions or stereotypes to fall back on. I didn't know what to expect, and that promised for an interesting experience.

Even more than that, I was looking forward to meeting up with Colin and Brynn, the two friends I missed before I moved out of Taiwan. In a pleasant surprise, they greeted me at the airport with cardboard signs! I was so happy to see them. Ken, a long-time traveler we had met in Taiwan, orchestrated our grand summit.

Colin, me and Brynn at a baguette restaurant in Vientiane
Reunited, it feels so good: Colin, me and Brynn at a baguette restaurant

It's the best possible way to start a trip: meeting up with friends who also love traveling, in a country that you're eager to visit. We piled into a taxi and went to the Syri 2 guesthouse, where Colin and Brynn were staying.

We were so excited to see each other, we talked really quickly to try to catch up. They filled me in on the trials and tribulations of cycling through Malaysia and Thailand, and I told them how Vietnam was a living experiment in Chaos Theory. Ken talked up how great Laos was, pointing out the delicious food and the relaxed atmosphere of the place.

When we got out of the taxi, it hit me that our taxi was the only car on the road. The street was stunningly quiet and dead empty. And this was one of the main thoroughfares! Ken laughed at my confusion and said, "That's what passes for traffic around here."

Honking horns, roaring motorbikes and ear-pounding construction are all part of Asia's soundtrack. It's like some god aimed his remote control at Laos and hit the mute button. Where was all the noise?

Vientiane is such a sleepy town, it's hard to believe it's the capital of an Asian country. It could have been a provincial town in Thailand. The language and culture of Laos have a lot in common with Thailand, except Laos feels more untouched.

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Altar in Wat Ing Peng

It was one of the few places I've been to that had absolutely no foreign chain restaurants. American ones like McDonald's and Starbucks, and not even Japanese ones like Mister Donut and Yoshinoya.

I used to take it for granted that foreign restaurants have taken over the world in a way that Alexander the Great could only have dreamed of. Thanks to its French colonial past, Laos had better coffee and pastries anyway, as well as other food.

To illustrate, I had my first meal in Laos at Joma Bakery Cafe. The hardest part was deciding what to get! Everything looked delicious. In the end, I got a ham-and-cheese croissant, two large chocolate-chip cookies, and a mango smoothie. No regrets. If Joma opened up in America, it would be the coffee chain that could kill Starbucks.

Vientiane has a really perplexing dining situation. For a town of its tiny size, it shouldn't have any Western food at all. But every restaurant had baguette sandwiches and European cuisine. The French influence was much more prevalent here than in Vietnam.

Ken explained that a lot of diplomats and NGO workers operated out of Vientiane because it was the capital. As one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, foreign aid was a big part of Laos' economy. Laos was also a popular destination for French travelers, so the eateries cater to their tastes (read: high standards).

Similar to Vietnam, Laos has a mandatory curfew, so everything shuts down by around 11:00 p.m. to midnight. In Hanoi, police would barge into every bar at the stroke of 12 and stand around menacingly until everyone left. There were after-hours clubs, but they always appeared closed on the outside. I've heard the nightlife in Laos was even more underground, so you had to know friends who were throwing private house parties to get any action.

This had a positive effect. Laos had far fewer of the drunken dumbass foreigners you find in places like Thailand (the exception being Vang Vieng). Or if they're in Vientiane, at least they're sober most of the time. In any case, the slow pace of the country has a way of seeping into your DNA. Even tourists seemed to walk slower and talk quieter.

I really cherish being in places that don't have obvious sights. I can be free to just wander around and relax. Vientiane was perfect for this, as it had lots of great restaurants and no big-draw attractions.

Every afternoon, we would all head to one of the riverside restaurants along Fa Ngum Road. The important business was simply to lie down on pillows, sip fruit smoothies and watch the sunset. Relaxing is a lost art in the modern world, but Laos has perfected it.

Note: My beloved red Casio camera broke upon my arrival in Vientiane, so I wasn't able to take any pictures. Colin and Brynn kindly donated their photos of Laos to me. Thanks guys.

2 comments:

Lisa Delmar-Edmonds said...

Laos sounds like my kinda place!! I am so glad that you went so that you could tell the tale about it because now I know that Laos will definitely be one of my stops when I travel to Southeast Asia (one day...) Otherwise, like you, it wouldn't have even crossed my mind.

Hope you are doing well, Marcus!!

Colin said...

hum..yes Laos was a favorite stop over for me as well in South East Asia. It's not a great place to live because its just too small and gets old fast.. but for a week - this country devoid of even a movie theatre - can really be a relaxing and charming place to visit.
NOTE to all non-drunks, do avoid Vang Vieng

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