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Friday, November 04, 2005

Vientiane is a city of contrasts


Laos is a small, landlocked country between Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and China. There was some sort of Lao state in the 16th century, when a King named Fa Nguem managed to unify the various regions, but for most of its existence it's been the battlefield for larger powers. The Thai's sacked Vientiane, the capital, in the 19th century, and then the French took over. In the Vietnam war (which the Vietnamese call the "American war"), Laos suffered some of the heaviest bombing the world has ever seen, as America tried to close down the Ho Chi Minh trail, while keeping the bombing secret from their own people.

So, although there are many old things in Laos (and our next stop, Luang Prabang, has temples dating back to 1550), in Vientiane, a lot has had to be rebuilt in the past century. The city resembles a building site in places: rubble, paving slabs askew, open running sewers, and dirt roads. But it's also remarkably green, compared to Vietnam. Palm trees are everywhere, ripe with coconuts, and in between the parts that are broken down, are signs that the Lao have a sense of style quite different from the Vietnamese.

The most obvious sign of Lao style is the large number of monuments and temples dotted around Vientiane. That Luang, a large golden buddhist stupa was first built in 1566, but then destroyed by the Thais, and then the Chinese. It was finally rebuilt, in the original style, this century, and is the prototype for Lao stupas everywhere.

So far, we've had an interesting time in Laos. Sara has not been well. She picked up a stomach bug in Hue, and has been getting intermittent cramps ever since, which have not been pleasant. On the other hand, one taste of Lao food has been better than almost anything the Vietnamese produced for us. The food, and fish in particular, has been very much like Thai food, although less chillied, and with more herbs and greenery.

In fact, in almost every way, the Lao are the inverse of the Vietnamese. The food is fragrant and delicious, where the Vietnamese was plebian. The people are laid-back and gentle, where the Vietnamese were assertive and on the go. There is a lot of lying around in Laos, and taking it easy, whereas in Vietnam almost every space was taken up with some entrepreneur trying to carry out a business. Laos is, without a doubt, the most laid back and relaxed country either of us have been to.

There is also a difference in the way they handle money. In Vietnam, most people felt like business people. They were out to make a fair deal, and, once made, would honour it. Perhaps it was the prevalence of the army there, but we found that even the hotel in Da Nang who quoted for our plane ticket out, was not adding anything on top.

Laos on the other hand, , has constantly surprised us with how expensive it is. Foreigners here regularly pay 3, 4 or 5 times the prices locals pay. One silk shop was selling (very nice) wall hangings, admittedly hand-woven, but when we asked how much, the prices started at $1000! I guess it's the lonely planet effect. Laos represents the next frontier in adventurous tourism, so people come here, load onto a very limited tourist infrastructure, and heavily inflate the prices by tipping wildly, and looking for things just a bit cheaper than home.

This has also been the first country we've been to in a long while where someone has tried to swindle us. The lady in the shop who switched notes on me, and swore blind that she had taken 10,000kip rather than 20,000, was perhaps a symptom of tourism growing a bit faster than the country can take it.

But, as long as you keep your wits about you, and bargain hard, it is a nice country to relax in, have a few beers, and watch the sun go down over the mekong.

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