I wasn’t expecting much from Vientiane. Reviews call it “quiet and dull”. A woman I met who had been here and had otherwise demonstrated her exceptional judgement said she was here a half day and was bored.
My first impressions were not good. They dropped us at the center of town, by the fountain you see, on one of the two main roads. I thought they had left us a million miles from the city in the hands of the tuk-tuk mafia. But no, in fact, this quiet, unpeopled, under-trafficked spot was the centre of town. My guesthouse was only 50 metres away.
I have since discovered that there is never anyone around the fountain. The shops always have lights on but no one in them. Perhaps they are fronts for Lao intelligence agencies. Perhaps there is some local custom about avoiding that spot. Perhaps it is bad luck. Who can say, but you can not argue with the emptiness.
Then you start wandering around town, and, speaking from personal experience (as always), your expectations are low. So you see the bizarre street that is like the Champs Elysees and the (unfinished) Arc de Triomphe look alike at the top end. And you wander a little more and see the golden stupa that is Lao’s most famous religious symbol and the black stupa whose purpose no one seems to quite understand.
And Vientiane becomes a little more interesting.
And then you spend a morning cruising out to and around the Bhudda Park, you take a whole roll of film of the wondrous and bizarre mix of Hindu and Bhuddist statues, you feel like Indiana Jones (or Lara Croft) wandering around inside the claustrophobic insides of a kind of giant hollow stone tomato filled with statues of all kinds of things, and you start to think that there is clearly a lot of stuff going on in this park that you do not understand.
And Vientiane starts to grow on you. You find yourself looking in your guidebook to see what else there is to do.
Then you find the cafe that sells excellent bagels with cream cheese, and the bar that is open late (till midnight – nothing ever really gets going in Laos) and you discover that both of these places are within two minutes walk of your guesthouse, and you find the internet place right next door for about one dollar an hour.
And things in Vientiane are okay. Now I won’t say it is not quiet. It is definitely quiet. But, as you might have picked up, Laos is quiet. You want noisy, don’t come here.
Vientiane is cheap cheap too. The waterfall outside of Luang Prabang (a main attraction and well worth seeing – especially with the tiger, I won’t spoil the surprise) costs 15,000 kip. About one dollar and fifty cents. The same as one night’s accomodation in a dorm bed anywhere in the country. Or two beers. The main attractions in Vientiane cost one or two thousand kip. Now the difference is minor. But still significant if you think of it in terms of how much additional time you can spend in Lao if you go to see one thousand kip attractions and not fifeteen thousand kip ones.
It seems like they are still finding their way with tourism in this town, even relative to the lack of tourism in the rest of the country. They are only just starting to realise that there is no necessary relationship between what things cost, what locals will pay, and what tourists will pay for them.
Of course they do have some parts of the tourist trade down pat. You can not go anywhere without being offered tuk-tuk transportation. Turn down that and just about every driver will offer you girls, opium or cannabis under his next breath. Tourism is coming to Lao. But not in any great rush.
Overall I really like this country. Mostly because it has perfectly suited my state of mind – almost catatonic, as I said. Don’t come here expecting amazing scenery, outlandish local customs, or hustle and bustle. Don’t come for the nightlife, the cities, or the buzz. Don’t travel by speedboat. But do come here for the speed, or rather the lack of speed, and the simple basics of decent coffee and friendly people, and slow boats, and lazy days, thrown into a relaxed Bhuddist framework with some occasionally seriously spicy food. It’s the kind of place where nothing seems really terribly important. A day or two can go by without you really noticing. Home? Work? Real life? Do these things exist?
They say that the Lao government is following China’s example of breakneck economic development within a tightly-controlled political environment. They have some way to go, he says, understatedly. The contrast between the noise of China and the quiet of Lao or even Thailand could not be more noticeable.
My cellphone is a source of constant wonder. We are close enough to Thailand here that it has started working again. Contact. The world is still there, it seems.