My eyes burned from the frequently wafted urine splashed out of the filled toilet and onto the floor. My brain was spinning from the rock-concert loud pop music that blared all night and mocked me and my dead iPod. My legs and back were stiff from the bus’s just-too-short sleeper seats. My spirit was cracking from all of the people verbally complaining about the same things about which I was mentally complaining.
And so we pulled into the Talat Sao Bus Station in Vientiane, Laos’s capital, around 7 a.m.
The impetus for Vientiane (pronounced ‘vee-en-tee-ehn’ by Westerners and ‘wee-ehn chan’ by Southeast Asians) was due more to inertia and hope than excitement. Luang Prabang had sucked the life out of me and the two friends I had made—one of whom saved my foot—were in transit to Vietnam. They decided to forgo the rest of their trip in Laos, since the northern city deflated them as well.
My vacation still had plenty of time left, however, and Vientiane was on my itinerary. Laos needed redemption and I was ready for a city: something that wasn’t full of the alleged quiet charm of Luang Prabang. (Another swing and a miss, Lonely Planet.) I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do in the capital, but I knew I was going to do it.
After some recovery.
By 10 a.m., I was settled in my guesthouse—the friendly, clean, affordable, convenient, and highly recommended Mixay Guesthouse on Norkeokumman Road—and sitting down to comfort food: noodle soup from a street vendor and two cups coffee strong enough to cross an elephant’s eyes. My dSLR was left on my bed, right next to my burdensome and conspicuous pack, neither of which was desired for many hours. Instead, I was defined by two goals: a new book and a café. Within forty-five minutes of slurping the ends of my soup’s broth, I had bought David Mitchell’s latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and was sauntering into Scandinavian Bakery.
Yes, Scandinavian Bakery—in Vientiane; in Laos; in Southeast Asia; more than 5,200 miles from Copenhagen, Denmark, the most proximate Scandinavian city to Vientiane.
Allow me a knee-jerk defense of myself.
The bakery has the cheapest coffee in city, both air-conditioning and outdoor seating, and padded chairs as opposed to the generic, stack-able, plastic lawn chairs at any Laotian café. Moreover, the place was a ten-minute walk from my guesthouse, an appreciated quality in any location for a person—me—who gets lost while walking to the bathroom. Also, any and all comforts were welcome as I tried to refuel for the rest of my vacation.
Now allow me to unjerk my knee and say, “Shove it up your ass if you think I need to defend myself” (which I do, somewhat, maybe?).
I simply wasn’t in the mood to make a silly attempt at authenticity. I went to Scandinavian Bakery, ordered in broken Laos, and kicked off my shoes.
Afterwards, I ended up Noy’s Fruit Heaven, admittedly a home-run suggestion by Lonely Planet and exactly the place to continue Thousand Autumns. I kicked back with a star-fruit shake and plowed deeper into my book. I consumed both voraciously and appreciatively.
Five hours later, I had walked to the end of a night market and sat down at a small, family-run food vendor for dinner—eating slowly, as to watch the sun slowly sink into the Mekong.
You hear that, peninsula of Luang Prabang? Street food: totally faceless places with one burner and a tiny menu that rely more on the kip than the dollar or euro. Bastard, I chide you for the participation the rest of the world has had with you.
It was here, at dinner, where I began to see and feel the difference between Laos’s capital and Luang Prabang. Vientiane was a home; all of the markers were present: street food; ever-present language barriers for foreigners; people running for exercise; a playground; more Laotians in jeans than Caucasians in tank tops. Of course, the tourist aspects are needed. Additionally, I have no illusions about being nothing if not a tourist. But tourist money, while subsidizing the opening of doors and global-socioeconomic improvement, subsequently limits and strips the very situations of the places and people it otherwise elevates. In Vientiane, life felt like it happened around and along with tourist money, not because of it.
Nevertheless, the influx of foreign money—even if not necessarily tourist money—was obvious and unavoidably recognized. I could not walk for more than thirty minutes without stubbing my toe on a waist-high monument recognizing the donation of a foreign nation, from China to France.
It quickly became apparent that Laos, or at least Vientiane, relies heavily on foreign money. According to the CIA World Factbook, my go-to resource for almost everything, foreign sources donated $586 million to the Laotian government in FY09/10.
And why not? The country is stunningly poor. Again, just take a look at the World Factbook: the country’s GDP (or the admittedly problematic PPP (purchasing power parity)-based GDP) ranks 135 globally at $15.69 billion, based on 2010 estimates. Compare that GDP to second-ranked America ($14.66 trillion), fifth-ranked India ($4.06 trillion), and eighty-third-ranked Kenya ($66.03 billion).
Another look: Laos’s per capita income was, according to 2010 estimates, $2,500, placing it at 181st. Qatar, the world’s reportedly richest nation per capita, sits at the top with an estimated $179,000. USA’s per capita income, eleventh, is figured around $47,200. Eighty-third-ranked Botswana is about $14,000. (For consistency, India came in at 162 at $3,500 and Kenya at 197 at $1,600. Such are frightening disparities in wealth.)
In a Reuters article about a budding China-Laos/ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) railway, the first sentence describes Laos as a “poor and landlocked Southeast Asian nation.”
According to a number of sources, though, things are on up, economically.
Returning to the nascent railway system, there are legitimate hopes that it will help to better connect Laos to other ASEAN communities and, most significantly, China. Laos’s deputy prime minister, Somsavat Lengsavad, told Reuters that he has high hopes for the railway, which is expected to open by 2014 or ’15. He sees it as part of a larger system of ventures:
“To free our country from the least developed status … our government has invested much in communication infrastructure development in order to complement both intra-ASEAN and ASEAN-China integration.”
Indeed, Laos has seen drastic economic improvement in recent years. According to Reuters, “Bilateral trade between China and Laos grew by more than half in 2009 to $751.8 million.” Remarkably, the World Factbook reports, “Economic growth [in Laos] has reduced official poverty rates from 46% in 1992 to 26% in 2010,” in part due to “high foreign investment.”
Unlike the parts of Luang Prabang that I saw, which were characterized mainly by travel agencies and restaurants—and therefore arguably geared more to accommodating foreigners than more varied purposes—the markers of Vientiane’s development were often regularly self-absorbed: parks; office complexes; less-Indochina-styled buildings; well-regulated traffic.
None of the above is to obscure that Vientiane, let alone Laos, is anything but poor. The deputy prime minister himself admitted “least developed status.” Indeed, the aforementioned monuments are constant reminders of the proliferation and influence of foreign investment and, significantly, gifts. The world outside of the major cities, of which I saw slivers from the windows of my unholy buses, did not to anything to bespeak urban existence: paved roads were often interrupted by wide dirt paths (and I traveled only between major cities—never off the very beaten path, where unexploded ordinances are still a deadly problem); collections of huts on stilts that have one site of electricity, if at all; people using buckets to bathe outdoors with a towel around their waists for privacy as traffic zips by on the road. As of 2010, an estimated three-fourths of the Laotian labor force was involved in agriculture, while those participating in industry and services was “not available,” according to the World Factbook. In the capital itself, I saw tiny shanty houses erected—or, maybe more appropriately, propped—against large corporate structures.
I decided to have one more full day in this city split between gentrified and developing-world poor, and I deemed it best to spend the bulk of it on a chauffeured tour of holy structures and other landmarks.
Much like I did in Ayutthaya, I hired a tuk-tuk to take me to a predetermined set of monuments without offering a proper, guided, descriptive tour. I loved my trip to Ayutthaya—the scenery was unreal, I started to settle into my dSLR, and I felt like I carpe diem’ed the whole place pretty well because of my chartered tuk-tuk—so making the same choice in Vientiane for 130,000 kip (about $16.30, or 502 THB) was easy.
The tour’s first stop was Pha That Luang, a massive golden stupa (the cone-looking things) within a larger religious and sovereign complex. It was erected in 1566 and, according to the 15th edition of Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, legend says sits very near the site where, as early as the the 3rd century B.C., Indian Buddhists built a different stupa to house a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone. All I know is the stupa, slightly tilted, blasts out of the otherwise flat ground and makes everything else within view seem slightly more or slightly less golden; I couldn’t decide.
Next was Patuxai, a simulacrum of the unmistakable Arc de Tripomphe in Paris, France and, amusingly, a gift from China. Laos’s version had its own charm, experienced mainly in the numerous, steep flights of stairs that led to a final, staircase that spiraled to the top of the monument and was the gateway to panoramic views of Laos’s capital, but which barely accommodated my Western body. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I left some layers of skin from my forehead on the back of one of the steps as I was descending and stood up a little too tall.
Hophrakeo was third and was pretty damn boring. The monument was next to the final stop, Wat Sisaket, so I have a feeling Hophrakeo offered some padding to a tour that would feel a little trim with only three sights. Cameras were not allowed inside, which was just as well since inside was a weird, tiny museum/repository of Buddhas tossed into a room.
As I said, the final destination was Wat Sisaket, It’s construction was completed in the beginning of the 19th century and is the city’s oldest surviving temple. This wat had a charm and warmth to which I hadn’t been accustomed with prior holy sites I’d visited: the proliferation of earth tones and burnt-red clay structures supported a reverent air without imposing immediately palpable awe. As I walked around the perimeter wall, snapping pictures of the varying, mid-sized Buddhas and tiny ones stacked in alcoves in the same walls, I gently slipped into Sisaket.
Instead of returning me to Mixay Guesthouse, I asked my tuk-tuk driver to drop me at Talat Sao, an overwhelmingly boring and bland market near a bus station named for the market. The near-mile walk back to my guesthouse, however, allowed for a leisurely exploration of the city, including a couple wrong left-turns and a glimpse of a house right off of a cover of a William Faulkner novel.
For dinner, I ate at Taj Mahal, a wonderful Indian restaurant a couple streets away from Mixay, with a pair of guys I met at the guesthouse. The first, an affable, if not slightly forward, 39-year-old was in Laos to volunteer with children undergoing physical rehabilitation before he returned to Israel to apply for a medical license. The other, a 50-some-year-old Canadian looking for work, struck me as slightly off-kilter. He was in Southeast Asia to look for work as a carpenter, building furniture. He had already investigated jobs in Thailand and was beginning to worry a bit about job prospects.
He explained, “I’ve been in the region for about six months and just can’t find work.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Build furniture. I have a couple of spots scouted here, but I don’t know how they’ll pan out.”
I said, “Best of luck,” but thought—and tried my best not to say—“What the fucking what?”
Maybe he preferred the permanent warmth of the region to Canada’s snowy chill. Maybe he really likes the selection of woods in Southeast Asia. Maybe he’s finally tackling his list of dreams, which is topped by “itinerant carpenter.” Maybe he wants to live somewhere where Americans won’t regularly laugh at his distinctly Canadian ‘aboot’. I don’t know his past. What I do know is that I expected to meet a man who came to the region to be a carpenter as much as I expected to have a sea sprite sit on my face.
The following day was filled with filling time before my overnight bus back to Bangkok.
Originally, I wanted a train. Not only had I heard good things about the train between Vientiane and Bangkok, but buses had proved to eat, deeply, vulgar amounts of ass on this trip. However, the train was about 40% more expensive than the bus, and I wasn’t clear on my funds. Thus, I took a chance and opted for the bus.
No loud music—or any music, for that matter. Comfortable seats. No puddles of piss. No smell of piss. Hell, no misplaced piss! Free dinner, vegetable fried rice, at a restaurant. Guidance with customs regulations and procedures at the border.
What more could a farang desire?
For one, the unexpected relief and glee once back on Thai soil.
In Laos, automobile traffic moves on the right side of the road; in Thailand, the left. Once the bus shifted lanes from the right to the left, I felt lighter and happier: I was back. You should have seen my smile when a lizard scurried out from behind a potted plant sitting at eye-level and surprised me while I was at a urinal.
Oh, and my feet—which garnered so much attention, from pitying tears to mocking laughs—had deflated to their regular, vein-y versions and were enjoying a healthy, uninfected scab.
Time to be back, bitches.