As you already know if you read last week’s entry, Jenia and I spent the majority of our spring break in Thailand. But there was one day when we went elsewhere: Laos.
Laos is, if you didn’t know, the landlocked country between Thailand and Vietnam. The capital is called Vientiane (Vee-en-tyan, or perhaps Ven-shun, or some variation, depending on who you speak with), and the prefecture has a population of roughly 780,000 people, or more than a tenth of the country’s population. The Mekong River separates northeastern Thailand from Laos, and to get to Laos, we had to cross the Friendship Bridge, an unimposing structure which is currently celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. Previously, people were ferried across the river from the Vientiane area to Nong Khai, Thailand.
We went through Thai immigration, crossed the Friendship Bridge on a large passenger bus which cost 15 baht each, and then purchased visas upon arrival in Laos on the other side. The Laotian visas set us back $35 each, and we stood around outside while the border guards stamped our passports and such. Incidentally, when you enter the country, you’re supposed to supply a passport-sized photo, but we didn’t have any, and they simply used the pictures they snapped of us at the immigration counter anyway. Immigration would take any of three currencies: American dollars, Thai baht, or their own Laotian kip. As luck would have it, we were low on baht, and I had to use the ATM right nearby and withdraw some kip, since it was the only currency the machine dispensed. I took out 1,000,000 kip, and parted with 980,000 of it to get our visas. It was nice to be a millionaire, if only for a few minutes.
I did not realize, which shows my lack of preparation, that Laos was a communist country until we were in the bus, rolling over the Friendship Bridge, and I saw the red, white, and blue Laotian flag alternated with red and yellow hammer and sickle flags. In fact, as I soon found out, the history of the country is fascinating: it was a major part of French Indochina all the way up until 1954, when it gained more or less complete independence. During the Vietnam conflict, the North Vietnamese Army invaded and occupied Laotian territory, and there was a major bombing campaign by the United States to try to expel the invaders. The 1970s were a bracing time of war, and in 1975, the government was overthrown by Pathet Lao, who allied Laos with Vietnam.
Until I visited the area, I confess that I’d been quite unaware that the Vietnam conflict took place partly on Laotian soil. To this day, the conflict’s legacy is marked by undetonated explosives, and it’s not unusual to hear a story from an expat about innocent kids playing in a field and getting a limb blown off as they happened upon an unexploded ordnance.
The first thing I noticed about Laos was that it seemed poorer than Thailand. And Thailand, to be sure, doesn’t exactly strike me as the most cosmopolitan place in the world. Laos is a rung or two down the socio-economic ladder from its more popular neighbor. A short drive, taking perhaps 20 minutes, into the capital city made quite a difference. Vientiane has an interesting multi-national flavor, but it is obviously dominated by its own culture (which makes it remarkably different from Abu Dhabi, where we live). There were lots of temples and buddhist monks wearing orange walking on the sidewalk. There didn’t seem to be a single American chain restaurant in town. The city itself had a charmingly small feel, although the roads did get crowded sometimes. I’d have never guessed the population is as high as the statistics say it is (I’ve seen others say the city has about 250,000 residents, but Wikipedia lists it much higher).
We had a friend acting as our guide, and she showed us around various areas, though she was much constrained by the brief tenure of our stay–a mere 26 hours. We saw a college, where undergraduate students worked in neat-looking 2 storey buildings, a classroom on each floor, which had only benches inside and the wooden shuttered windows were wide-open, since there was no air conditioning. We drove past a few nice looking, large, new buildings in the city, “The Japanese government paid for that; the Chinese paid for that,” said our friend. On the curb, tuk-tuk drivers reclined in hammocks rigged up inside their conveyances, snoozing until someone came along in need of a ride. The same proliferation of dangerous-looking, low-hanging telephone wires we saw in Thailand continued in Laos.
In the evening, we went downtown in search of an authentic and delicious meal: we found just what we were after at the Lao Kitchen. What tasty grub! We hoofed it a bit afterward, walking the poorly lit downtown streets, and waiting to cross the road at an intersection, we were warned: “Watch out for motorbikes. They could come from anywhere. I’m not kidding.” She was right. We saw scooters zip onto the sidewalk, motoring along illegally until they found a gap in traffic that allowed them to nip over to the right-lane, where they were supposed to be.
We stopped at Patuxai, a monument known alternately as “The Arch De Triomphe” and “The Vertical Runway.” The story of the monument is as colorful as any: it was built in the late ’50s and early ’60s with cement that the USA gave the country to expand an airport. The arch itself is both picturesque and slightly grotesque; a large gray oriental block rising up 8 stories.
Next, we visited a night market, just in time to have a hurried look at the wares: clothes, both traditional and not, some tourist shtick (some of which is genuinely cool, like the coconut wood kitchenware), and other such. There, again, Turtle was a focal point. At one point, the little fellow got tired of being carried in the Boba carrier, so I put him on my shoulders and walked around. That attracted lots of grins, and I was actually stopped by some friendly folks for the sole purpose of having a group of people take a picture with my little blond son. It was humorous, and had I not already grown accustomed to this kind of treatment in Thailand, I’d have thought it even more so. The market was soon shutting down around us, so we called it a night.
The next morning we ate at a French bakery, then shopped for souvenirs at a little place across the road. We spent most of our remaining kip on breakfast, unfortunately having to make an ATM run to get more money to fund our souvenir goodies, since the store’s credit card machine wouldn’t work. The ladies inside enjoyed Turtle while we shopped; he had a ball pointing and waving for them. Speaking of kip, if you go, withdraw plenty of money when you use the ATM, because many places don’t accept credit cards.
After that, our schedule dictated that we head for the border. We walked to the bus station, a fairly grueling little journey because of the heat and humidity. After a while figuring out what bus went to Nong Khai and when, never mind where the bus departed from, we parted with our friend and ended our time in Laos.
In reflecting on visiting Vientiane, it must be said that the area is not spectacular. The Mekong may offer a good sunset photo somewhere, murky water reflecting the brilliant hues of the sinking sun, but it’s not beautiful in and of itself; Vientiane has a few interesting sights (not all of which we saw; there’s also a Buddha Park, which we skipped, having already gone to one in Nong Khai, and not feeling like walking around in the sweltering afternoon heat), but it’s mostly unremarkable, and while it’s possible to get lots of interesting photographs of people, and perhaps some nice city/town shots, it’s hard to find landscapes that are astounding. Like Thailand’s northeast, the land is generally flat. That said, Vientiane is noticeably nicer than what we saw of Nong Khai. Walking around Vientiane is a different experience from Thailand, and a dramatically different experience from exploring the grand capital cities of the West; it feels humble, it’s a bit hectic, there are street food vendors all around; tuk-tuks on every corner. It’s a bit grubby; it retains a French influence in the architecture and street names. Like Thailand, Laos is inexpensive. We ate at nice places, bearing in mind that it’s important to be choosy, as food poisoning is a real possibility (our host had it 4 times in less than a year), and we found the food affordable. The markets offer inflated fares to foreigners, but even the higher prices aren’t so bad, and it doesn’t take much effort to bargain and get the prices closer to what a local would pay. In contrast to nearby northeastern Thailand, Vientiane seems to have a lot of foreign visitors, and it has a more international flair about it.
Were I doing it again, I’d visit Vientiane. It’s a neat place. But I’d try to allow enough time to venture to Luang Prabang, which is, judging by photos, an area of magnificent natural beauty.