Monday, October 31, 2011

Getting Laid Back in Vientiane, Laos

I step onto an old, worn down, sad looking bus, its driver’s eyes glazed over, on autopilot, his only purpose in life seemingly to ferry passengers from the Thai side of the Mekong River over to the Laotian, a task he's performed dozens of times per day for at least a decade straight.
My phone rings, I stumble slightly under the weight of my gear as I try to answer. “Careful! Careful mister!” a thin, withered, elderly man cautions with fear in his eyes. I look down at the floor, my shoe hovering only inches away from a large plastic bag filled with water, two fish swimming inside.
“Sorry, sorry,” I smile reassuringly, letting the fisherman know I’m aware his day’s earnings are literally beneath my feet.

On the other side of the bridge lies the Laotian capital of Vientiane, too big to be a town, too small to be a city. I check into my guest house, simple but adequate and costing all of $25 a night, which, outside a major hotel chain, makes it the most expensive room in the entire country.
Meandering through the streets, I stop to chat with a few fellow backpackers, who I discover later I will run into repeatedly during my seventeen day trek through the country. There is only one real road heading to the North, everyone making the same two stops along the way.

The tourist area is small. I quickly find what I am looking for, Green Discovery Laos, an eco-adventure tour company, where I book a trek through the jungle and one of several national parks Laos has created, my eco-dollars one of the few barriers to the chainsaws.
Outside, it looks like rain. Five seconds after this profound observation the deluge begins, the volume of water falling is such that if I were taking a shower, I’d immediately attempt to decrease the pressure. Apparently I rotate the faucet the wrong way, the rain coming down even harder. There is no hiding from this downpour. I stand outside alone, my arms outstretched towards the heavens, my clothes completely drenched, enjoying every moment of it.


Check out the rainstorm which less than a minute earlier was clear skies

I find an Indian restaurant. A delectable three course meal, masala tea, and desert costs me all of ten dollars. Fifty dollars a day you makes you a veritable king.
Traffic is light, with the roads easily able to handle the limited number of cars. Few Laotians can even so much as dream of owning an automobile. In fact, if you make so much as $250 a month here, you’re doing extremely well.
I go for run on the waterfront, stopping to examine some of the few monuments and statues, with the exception of Buddhist temples, that exist in Laos.
First down and ten!
A mile later, the concrete riverfront road morphs back to dirt and clay. I run up the street away from the river, and find the city extending itself, like yarn being stretched too far, the economic well-being of the citizens becomes more and more frayed as I move further from tourist central.
The exhaust from the cars becomes stronger, choking me for a moment. It starts to rain again, I turn around and head back towards my guest house.
Chinese temple "Fu De Miao" on the waterfront- quite beautiful
At night, the city sleeps. Street lamps are distant, allowing much more room for darkness. A few bars, generally owned by expats, serve liquor to the locals and tourists alike, as soccer games from the British Premier League play out on TV in the background.
I am told that not so long ago, the main products you could buy on the street corners were opium and prostitutes. While I am offered both at various points, its obvious that the sex and drugs that once made Vientiane's economy go are either much more hidden, or on the decline.
The vendors here are far less aggressive and more laid back than just about anywhere I've been. Perhaps because so few Laotians have money, the all-mighty dollar seems to have less meaning than in the West, the drive to accumulate not nearly as intense. In this capital city, there's a quietness and solitude not found in the majority of the world. I take a breath, hold it and exhale. That seems like one of the most productive things I could accomplish here. I'm okay with that.

2 comments:

  1. seems like a place to put on my 'to go to when I retire' list

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  2. From my friend Jon who sent me this email about what Laos was like back in the early 1990's!!
    ------------------
    Nice blog. I visited Laos in 1991 before it had opened up for tourism of any kind. I had to take a boat across from Nongkai and the only form of transport around the country was hitchhiking on the top of a grain truck. The only alternative was Lao Aviation, which had a couple of Russian WW2 surplus machines. I went all the way to Savannaket on a grain truck and flew back to Vientiane on Lao Aviation. In Vientiane there were no guesthouses - you stayed at an overpriced Soviet-built hotel called the Lane Xiang, or something like that. It was that hotel or nothing, and there were certainly no prostitutes to be had either - the local population was too poor to afford them and apart from some Russian technitians and advisors, no-one else was around.

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