Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Vientiane, Laos

Posted on May 5th, 2005

Patuxai, Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe, built with US donated cement meant to be used for a new airport. Excuse the angle, I took this from a moving tuk-tuk.

Crossing from Thailand into Laos was surprisingly easy. I shared a tuk-tuk with two Dutch girls from Mut Mee to the aptly named “Friendship Bridge.” The Friendship Bridge border crossing between Thailand and Laos is about as smooth a land crossing as I have ever experienced (outside of the EU). We walked through the Thai border in seconds, caught a bus across the bridge, meandered through the slightly muddier, but still trouble-free Laos border and we were done.

The Laos public bus that is reputed to pick up people at the Laos border and ferry them into Vientaine, Laos’ capitol, 25 kilometers down the road was nowhere to be seen and after some haggling with the tuk-tuk drivers and finally flouting them, looking supreme uninterested, a desperate taxi driver offered to take us into town for a total of 200 baht (US$5). It was 2:00PM and the heat was absolutely pounding us, so when the driver added that the taxi was air conditioned, we jumped into that taxi like it was the last taxi out of town during the fall of Saigon.

After suffering through two days and nights in relentless heat in Nong Khai I was ready to pay anything for an air conditioned room and I pretty much did. The Orchid Guest House had single rooms with air con that were more expensive than I was paying in the middle of Bangkok, but I wasn’t going to let a trivial matter like a ridiculous price keep me from my comfort, so I checked in.

It’s always a good idea to remind oneself that the prices listed in Lonely Planet are at least two years old by the time they go to print and that conceivably prices can change a little during the interim, but the price differences between the book and what I was finding in Vientiane were stunning. Clearly the people in the Laos tourism industry, from the people booking the package trips on down to the people selling water by the side of the road, have gotten wind that they are one of the fastest up and coming travel destinations in the world and everyone has scrambled to adjusted their prices in anticipation of the coming payday. Prices for nearly everything had doubled or more in the scant two years since LP last did their fact checking. Even the few sights that were formerly free were now charging entrance fees. Though this raging inflation rate was a true test of my patience, I had to continually remind myself that, by and large, Laos was still the cheapest place in SE Asia (though with the speed at which prices are climbing, this might not be the case by the time I get around to posting this to my travelogue.)

For those of you who have never had the pleasure, here’s a little background on how deals are done in much of Southeast Asia. To start, depending on where you are, prices for many things are negotiable. Food, transportation, wart removal, you name it. So, for example, when a tuk-tuk driver gives you a wildly inflated first offer, five times what you know to be the going rate for that particular journey, it’s expected that you will talk him down to something reasonable, unless you are a Gomer just off the boat from Japan, dripping with money and immediately hand over whatever they ask for, which could feed the tuk-tuk driver and his extended family for a week and pay for a new 10 piece dinette set. For someone not raised in this environment, this exercise can be fun and challenging at first, particularly if you are out to do some serious bargain shopping, but after you go through this trial 15 times a day, it starts to becoming irksome and tiring. The ordeal becomes a full-on test of fortitude when the lowest price anyone in Vientiane is willing to give you is double what the f*cking Lonely Planet says! So, despite the overall buying power that a westerner has in Laos, it is still wearing to be comparatively soaked all day long by grinning idiots that know that you have no other choice than to pay double the price for a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride to the bus station. OK, I’ve said my piece, on with the good parts.

Compared to other capitol cities in SE Asia, Vientiane is like a sleepy small town both in population and in the quiet wheeze that passes for rush hour traffic. Currently there is a poorly planned, overly ambitious street resurfacing project going on that has made the city a little less picturesque than normal. Rather than going at it street by street, some genius decided to go ahead and demolished half the streets in the city all at once and then start resealing them one by one at a rate of one block every three weeks. Consequently, Vientiane was a dirt and dust cloud rivaling Bagan at the time of my visit. When this isn’t going on, Vientiane is (reportedly) very green and quaint with a skyline that more closely resembles a Hawaiian village than a counterpart to Bangkok.

Vientiane’s overall aesthetic and tourist offerings aren’t going to merit any National Geographic pictures, but it’s a unobtrusive place to acclimate, hang out and stage your assault on the rest of Laos. Moreover, as Lonely Planet confirms, the place has food offerings to beat the band. On my first night, I walked a short distance across town to Le Vendôme, a French restaurant that was not only LP recommended (not always a solid indicator, but it doesn’t hurt), but someone back at Mut Mee made me swear to pay them a visit, so there I was. The meal was amazing. I ordered a beef fillet, with mushrooms and seasoned potato wedges - actually, I ordered the garlic mashed potatoes, but the servers spoke zero English, not even having gone through the trouble to sort out the terms on the menu, but I didn’t complain as what I was served was still wonderful – vegetables and two glasses of very decent red wine. The total bill came to US$9, leading a casual observer to contentedly conclude that French imperialism isn’t all bad.

I pissed away the next morning and early afternoon wading through my continuing backlog of work on my epic Myanmar material. I finally wrenched myself out of the hotel at 2:00PM to investigate the Laos Revolutionary Museum. Built with full Communist regalia, the Revolutionary Museum is massive, imposing and drearily square. There’s a giant statue of former Prime Minister and communist revolutionary Kaysone Phomvihan gazing down on the football field length approach leading from the front gate to the entrance. On either side of him are statues showing action scenes of soldiers fiercely driving off imaginary imperialist dogs. The entry fee, 3,000 kip according to LP, had jumped up to 10,000 kip.

No pictures are allowed inside the Museum, though that doesn’t stop the people at the gate from charging a camera fee, but photographic evidence of the exhibits would be mostly unsatisfactory anyway. Much of the display is limited to photo essays of various Laos groups arming themselves and fighting off invading forces. There are a few exhibits showing examples of tools, weapons and vehicles, but simple black and white pictures take up the bulk of the revolution side of the museum. The descriptions of the pictures are decidedly frosty and grudging. There isn’t a single instance where the words “French” or “American” aren’t trailed by the word “imperialist.” It understandable that Laos might still be a bit salty about how they were overrun, twice, and bombed back to the Ming Dynasty (God bless America!) with little thought to the welfare of the people, but Jesus, after the 119th time you read about how out of line your country was, you just want scream, “All right! We screwed up! Give the Imperialist Pig shtick a rest already!”

The second part of the exhibition, devoted to modern Laos, loses focus a bit. You go from seeing walls of pictures showing Kaysone Phomvihan gallantly engaging in revolution-related deeds and a display of a real life military jeep, straight to glass cases with hardhats, cell phones, manufactured goods, PVC piping and bottles of Coke and Pepsi. Wasn’t imperialism supposed to be a bad thing?

Kaysone Phomvihan's House

From the Revolutionary Museum, I raced to the nearby private home of the man himself, Kaysone Phomvihan. Lonely Planet had me a little worried about this visit, saying that the whims of the guard at the gate had more to do with whether or not you were granted entrance than the posted hours of business. The Phomvihan House closes as 4:00PM and it was 20 minutes to when I crashed the gate, so I was prepared to be testily shooed off, but the guard met me with a big smile. He collected my 10,000 kip (US$1) entry fee (formerly free, according to LP) and got busy arranging my tour.

The compound where Kaysone Phomvihan’s House is located was originally a U.S. military complex. Phomvihan moved in after the U.S. military jumped ship in 1975 and he lived there until his death in 1992. Aside from the conserved Kaysone Phomvihan House, the compound also currently functions as a police station. The guard not only alerted the guide that she had a customer, but he also grabbed a guy lingering nearby in plain clothes to act as a translator (the guide didn’t speak a word of English, apparently they don’t get too many non-Laos visiting the House, despite LPs gushing paragraph on the place).

Both the guide and my translator were infallibly kind and courteous. They took their time leading me around and carefully explaining everything we saw like it was 20 minutes after opening, instead of 20 minutes before closing. They get extra kudos for this conduct as they knew all along that I was an American Imperialist donkey! Though he was only prime minister for one scant year, Kaysone Phomvihan is a standout national hero due to his efforts in liberating Laos, so one might expect that the home of someone of his standing, particularly in his golden years, might be on the stately side, but in fact the opposite was true. I was dutifully shown Kaysone Phomvihan’s office, library, meeting room, living room, exercise equipment, closets and even his bedroom, all of which were housed in two, single story, unembellished buildings in the center of the compound. Everything was as Phomvihan left it. His Buddha shrine with melted candles, the books – treasured gifts from Ho Chi Minh - and reading glasses at his bedside, family pictures, his exercise bike and chest expander lying at the ready, his impressive number of economics books written in Laos, Vietnamese, English and French and even his half consumed bottles of wine. Phomvihan’s home was remarkably plain, lacking anything beyond modest furnishings and décor. While other Communist leaders were hypocritically surrounding themselves in luxury, Phomvihan stuck to his moral guns and lived an admirably humble life. I left with a newfound respect for the guy.

Even though it was nearly 5:00PM when we finally returned to the front gate, my translator was loathe to let me go. He was very serious about improving his English and happened to be carrying a ratty newspaper with jottings of fairly difficult English words that he needed explained. I did my best to translate the meanings of these words using the limited terms that he understood, failing only at “comprised.” As I left, he sweetly said that if I returned to Vientiane, that he would like to guide me around the city. These people are just wonderful!

Wat Sok Pa Luang

After a break in my room to briefly stop sweating and re-hydrate I dashed out for one last tourist excursion that day to Wat Sok Pa Luang. Sok Pa Luang is located just off the southern thoroughfare leading out of Vientiane, in a quiet wooded area about three kilometers out of the city center (after much haggling with three tuk-tuk drivers, I got a ride out there for 10,000 kip, up from 6,000 kip from two years ago). It’s just your everyday wat, with the exception that they offer “herbal saunas” and one hour massages for 40,000 kip (versus LP’s listed 24,000 kip. See how this can get aggravating?).

I’m not a big fan of hot stuff in any form. Hot drinks, hot food (spicy food not withstanding), hot showers, hot tubs, hot season, hot flashes, none of it. So, it goes without saying that I was planning to skip the sauna and go straight for the massage, but the lady running the place was insistent that I give the sauna a try. Well, like every other hot thing in Laos, the sauna was incredibly, remarkably hotter than what you would expect. I stepped into the shack wearing nothing but a borrowed longyi and the steam was so thick that I couldn’t see my own feet. Therefore I wasn’t aware that I was in the company of about five people until I had recovered from the initial shock of my entrance and taken a seat at which point someone said hello, scaring the bejesus out of me. The air was so hot it actually felt like it was scorching my nose hairs. I had to breath through my mouth to keep from tearing up. I managed to tough it out for nearly five minutes before I felt like I’d given it a chance and lunged for the door. I walked unsteadily to a bench where I was served tea that must have been brewed in the sauna because it was lethally hot. After a period of regaining my composure, the women led me to a bed and a young man went to work on my massage.

I know a massage is just a massage and I’m as comfortable with my manhood as anyone could expect to be, but I have simply never been able to fully submit to a massage from a man. There’s something about it that just doesn’t seem right. The sensation is all wrong, the touch of male hands isn’t as soothing and there’s definitely a disparity in the level of professional, yet palpable tenderness being dispensed. My guy was a little too rough with me all around, causing me alarming pain on several occasions, coming dangerously close to dislocating my knee and repeatedly tweaking the persistent pinched nerve in my neck and shoulder even after I had made a point of warning him about it and then reminding him each time he drilled it. It was an all-around letdown, but it was only US$4, so I didn’t let it eat me up.

There were a few tuk-tuks still hanging around the entrance to the wat when I left - the drivers had clearly already started boozing it up for the evening - and none of them would go any lower than 20,000 kip for a ride into the city. I had no intention of paying a drunk double the price to take me to my hotel in what was little more than a three-wheeled death mobile at the best of times, so I walked.

The evening was half rescued by my dinner. As I meandered down the street facing the Mekong River, I was nearly dragged into an Indian restaurant by one of the employees sitting out front. I didn’t put up too much of a fight, because I love Indian food, but then I was sorry I didn’t. I was handed a menu and then harshly informed that I had to hurry up and order now, like right now!, because the kitchen was closing. I wanted to ask the guy why then I was grabbed off the street by one of his cronies if my being there was such an nuisance, but I had already spotted the chicken tikka masala and garlic nan on the menu and just ordered. The food was fantastic, though it was slightly spoiled as the man who took my order, apparently one of the owners, was shooting hate rays at me the entire time for keeping him from his own dinner. Though I ate at a good pace, the bill was presented to me half way through my meal and then he and the rest of the staff disappeared into the back to eat themselves. My tiny glass of water was never refilled and I was ignored for the rest of the meal. Considering this treatment, I felt I was justified in doing a dine-n-dash, but my guest house was only four doors down the street and I was going to be there for another day, so I reluctantly laid down the exact change on the table and left without a word.

I feel that I need to jut off on a tangent here and address what I’m starting to believe is the common, disagreeable disposition of Indian people. Perhaps this has just been a long series of freak occurrences, but for years now I have only encountered Indians (mostly men) who are mean, pushy, rude, inconsiderate and unforgivably sloppy. The countless offenses I have witness in just the past month include; standing directly in a doorway, unmoving knowing full well I’d like to pass, shouting and making a dramatic scene at a restaurant when the food they were served was not to their liking, having yelling conversations across hostels full of sleeping people, planting themselves directly between me and a picture I’m looking at in a museum (this has happened so often that I’ve lost count), walking into a room full of people intently watching a serious report on CNN and without a word changing the channel to an Indian soap opera and finally treating all areas, indoors and out, as their personal garbage can. These displays have really put me off ever wanting to go to India. Could someone who has actually been to India please write to me and tell me if this abhorrent behavior is universal or if I have just been fantastically unlucky? Thanks. End tangent.

The next day was again ¾ devoted to catch-up work. Later in the day I paid far too much for a tuk-tuk ride out to Pha That Luang. LP reports that this place doubles as an important religious monument and symbol of Laos sovereignty. Dating from 1566, the central compound (entry fee 10,000 kip, up from 3,000) is bulls-eyed by a 45 meter (148 foot) golden stupa, with a massive square cloister (also gold) as its base. The cloister has two levels, but you are only allowed to ascend to the first level to wander around to get a closer look at the Buddha images on each side. There were originally four wat surrounding the compound, but there are only two now, one on either side, which are slightly less gargantuan, but still a sight even for the wat-weary. There was also a gigantic “hall” of some kind under construction, that appeared to be built in the traditional style of the surrounding building, but with very unbecoming prefabricated materials.

I lingered long enough to get my 10,000 kip worth of enjoyment and headed back to the city. Again, the tuk-tuk drivers at the entrance wanted double the price for the return trip, but when I gave up and made to walk back, one frantic guy in a dilapidated tuk-tuk stopped me and agreed to take me for the same price I had paid for the ride out.

The rest of the day was taken up with more work and arranging transport for the following morning to Vang Vieng, coming a whisker away from an Ugly Tourist moment when I was cheerfully informed that the price of the bus had doubled.

Although my pride was kicking and screaming the entire way, I returned to the Indian restaurant that night only because I couldn’t stop thinking about the delicious food. Even though I made a point of arriving hours before closing this time, the same asshole from the night before served me with the same curt, irreverent attitude, managing to take my order and serve me while speaking only three words. Because I’m a little shit, I laid into him with the kill-‘em-with-kindness act, particularly while I was paying, lauding his establishment and the food (I really did love that food!) with a zeal that made him squirm and grimace. With my work done there, I retired early knowing I was staring down the barrel of a rough bus ride the following day.

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