When I wrote Vientiane as my current address, the bank employee asked, "Is this city in Europe?". Maybe he was thinking of Venice...or a place anywhere in France.
04.02.2011 20 °C
I sort of expected the question. Much like being Google Earth turned human. I get it all the time that I am beginning to consider a tourism job here (not that I qualify). I've been doing a lot of briefing about the place since I came - friends, acquaintances and people I get to sit with in flights. Those blank stares look familiar. Let me do it one more time. Vientiane is the capital city of Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR), otherwise known as Laos, the (once) Land of a Million Elephants. It's not anywhere near Europe but right here in South East Asia - idly draping the historic Mekong River.
The Pathuxay Monument is the Lao version (almost) of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. According to Lonely Planet, the US-cement used for this monument was supposedly intended for building an airport.
Languid and quiet, Vientiane is an icon of friendliness and warmth. All you need to get by is to wear a nice smile and say "sabaidee", a local greeting that covers almost everything from welcome to good morning, evening and night. The Laos would return that in a jiffy. A kind of warmth that does not come easy in many places nowadays. Only in Vientiane. Only in Laos.
The Vientiane night market at the Mekong River is a colorful mix of Lao handicrafts, hand-embroidered and handwoven cloths, wood carvings, silver wares and trinkets. Just prepare to bargain like crazy.
When I boarded my flight for my first trip to Vientiane, I was filled with so many misgivings - and a prick of excitement that one usually gets when visiting a new country. But I didn't anticipate fireworks to go with it (much less a marching band). I've been traveling like crazy around Asia but it took me years to drop by. Ah, I thought it wouldn't work. I cannot stay for six months, much less two years. I am beginning to eat my words as I speak. A joke going around is that the country's national motto is "Please slow down". Me, slow down? Haven't thought of the words for a long time. In this age of multi-tasking, who can run and hide from the frenzied world. Nah, it doesn't exist.
Wat Sisaket is said to be the oldest temple in Laos, made in 1819. Something tugs in your heart watching the orange-clad monks as they serenely enter the temple.
I was floored, but very gradually at least. It does exist. Surrounded by all the frenzy of growing Asian cities, it has managed to hold on to its own comfortable footing. It's like the rest of the world rushes in full speed - as Vientiane takes a stroll and gets the privilege of enjoying the view. The world is almost on full-stop. Almost. On Sundays, you can walk all you want around the city with very rare annoyances of crowding and speeding cars.
The Lao National Museum in front of the massive Cultural Hall.
I always smile (that's almost daily) when the ever-patient Lao's bring up the morning "traffic". You can't call that traffic when the car stopped for five minutes, can you? Just watch out for the tuk-tuks, the drivers could drive like crazy. Once when my friendly tuk-tuk driver zoomed in and out of big cars like a jet, I howled in fright - all I got was a baw pen nyang (no problem) with a huge grin. He's right. I survived.
The Xieng Khuan or Buddha Park built in 1958 is interestingly composed of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. A bit eerie for my taste, its unimaginable to be left behind here at night. It is, however, a calming sight watching Lao women do their worship and offerings.
Then, there's Joma. I suggest it be considered part of the city treasure - and I am not talking of Joma in Luang Prabang yet. A favorite hang-out of yuppies and expats and bums (that's my future dream, to become one and afford it), their coffee choices could give Starbucks a run for its money. Not counting their BLT, quiche (spinach for me), taco salad and cookies. Between the two - I'd spend my hard-earned dollar on Joma, anytime. A Laos trip won't be complete if you missed a visit. If you are on a diet, you are in big trouble as soon as you hit the door.
I love Joma's caramella - hot or iced. My friend Steph (visit her site http://colorcloudhammocks.com/) would willingly trade her bed (pillows and blanket included) for an early-morning coffee trek to Joma. It is habit forming. So tricky you're hooked even before you figured out. Every Vientiane trip gets more much-awaited and sleepless and incredibly breathless with the thought of slouching in the cafe's chair, coffee in hand.
Ah, well, so we end this up momentarily with coffee in our minds. Lao coffee is one the best, and I agree with a government executive's final word. He downs four large cups in a day. Only Lao coffee or nothing. There's more to life than running after deadlines, lugging bags in airports, catching-up with emails and watching your day start and end with tons of reports. Even before I got half-way with my Lao tour-of-duty, I woke up realizing a lot of better things we can do to fill our days - like doing nothing in between napping and reading the books accumulated in airport bookstores unread for months.
Your Lao world does not just turn around Joma, of course. Let's be clear on that. There's khao jji paa-tee, French baguette with Lao fillings that you can buy even at the bus station, the khao niaw (sticky rice) paired of with ping pao (grilled fish) and the absolutely heavenly avocado shake in Sabaidee Cafe. Other restaurants abound serving international dishes. Swedish Pizza does the best pasta and pizza in town. My mouth waters.
Now, let me go back to The Scarpetta Factor. I'll give you a rundown of Luang Prabang the next time I find my way to my computer keys.