I’ve plunged off my beaten path into the beating heart of Laos, the capital city Vientiane. For all her dust, roaring motorbikes and lumbering lorries, and tall ugly concrete edifices, I’ve discovered I like Vientiane. Her chaos is manageable, her dust easily shaken off, and her brutal mid-day sun sufficiently escaped by hunkering down in a cafe.
Laos produces excellent, rich, smooth coffee beans. Marry this with the influence of the French, and you find a city with cafes lined up on every street, from air-conditioned American-style joints popular with the office crowds to expansive shady verandas that tuck back from the traffic exhaust for genteel conversation. I’m sipping my way through the city, from café to café, until I locate my own Vientiane hangout.
Laos doesn’t feel much different from Thailand on the surface. The streets feel the same, the businesses hang the same large advertising banners over their open-air fronts, and the food carts ply the streets with fresh juices and grilled meats. The best meals are the noodle and pho restaurants that are no more than rickety tables and a steaming food cart out front. People chatter full speed in the same musical lilt, a language cousin to Thai.
Beneath the surface, some differences emerge, as I slowly observe the people and culture around me. The first thing I did upon arrival was buy the local English-language newspaper and read it cover to cover. Laos is a Communist country, although not to the same hardline extent as North Korea. It appears to follow the model of China, opened up to consumerism, foreign investment, and social media, but with state-owned industries and party-approved newspapers. The first few pages of the paper focused on government community initiatives to improve local health and life, business investment (mostly from Japan and China), and efforts to increase use of the local libraries. World news focused on the ASEAN region – I learned more about Asian on-goings in one hour than in one year of reading US newspapers – with one single article about the USA, the resigning of Flynn. The turmoil of home and Europe seem worlds away.
Plenty of consumerism lines the streets – cell phones, fancy hotels for foreign tourists, clothing boutiques, and night markets piled with Nike, Adidas, and Lee jeans. Young women wear the latest fashions, yet the traditional skirts still dominate everyday business wear. They are elegant silk and cotton patterns, the sleek silhouettes of pencil skirts joined with high heels, only these are skirts you step into, wrap around your waist, and clasp tight. I bought one of my own – ringed at the bottom with an intricate hand-stitched design in bright jewel colors.
In the evenings, everyone congregates along the river to watch the sunset, a blazing deep red orb that looms over the sandy river bend as teenagers in school uniforms drink cold blended beverages and couples share bowls of noodles. Behind us, people jumped to choreographed calisthenics enmasse as tinny pop music blared from a speaker. A second calisthenics group set up further down, the jarring music choices clashing and mingling until I was driven into the night seeking relief.
Early morning I duck into Buddhist temples – central Vientiane is filled with temples – and observe the rituals around me. As long as you are quiet, respectful, and not pointing a camera everywhere, you can enjoy the serenity of the temples and witness the rituals these spaces serve as a stage for. I sat inside Wat Simoung as the sun lightened the sky, ensconced in incense, listening to a monk intone blessings on two women as saffron yellow candles danced and flickered shadows on the soot-stained frescoes.