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Andy’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 21 Dec 2006

Location: Vietntiane, Laos


Laos is the least developed of the three former French Indochinese states, a small country with a population of nearly seven million.

We hired a tuk tuk to Vietntiane, the capital which rests on the banks of the mighty Mekong.

The city is barely worthy of the name. Expecting a teeming, smoggy metropolis we were confronted by a sleepy 'village of villages' uncomparable to any other city in Asia. On route to our hotel we drove past the highest building in the city, a 14 level 'skyscraper' compared to the low buildings surrounding it; past a crumbling wood and plastic sheet market that belonged in a desert backwater; and on the banks of the river we spotted a small theme park with a tiny creaking ferris wheel, a dilapidated merry go round and an open air arena used on friday nights to hold hilariously quaint concerts of a hundred or so people and which doubles up as a place for small groups of lao women to practice aerobics.

Vietntiane is a tatty city but with an air of charming decay. Tree lined avenues house few modern buildings and contain little traffic and sparse crowds. The city is a quiet affair matched by the people who live there.

Laotians are renowned for being relaxed and laid back. They did not dissapoint. No aggressive entrepeneurism. No pestering tuk tuk drivers. Walking down the road became a sedate walk again rather than a fast game of avoidance. Everyone smiled when we said hello or walked into their store. Thailand can hand over its tourist slogan 'The Land of Smiles' to a more deserving country.

If they were any more chilled they would be asleep. I can't help thinking that it may be to do with the 'Happy Pizzas', 'Happy Shakes', 'Happy Coffee' or numerous other foods and beverages all with added herbs (wink wink) that appear to be sold everywhere in full view of the authorities.

Half the time it was hard to get served many of the shopowners would be dozing at the counter or playing cards, failing to notice a customer was in their shop. Two women minding a bookshop happily mulled over some conversation or gossip for ages while I stood at the counter expectantly. They weren't being rude, there was simply no need to rush.

Even the revolution that brought the communists to power was a prosaic episode, refusing to fulfil the grand upheavals commonly evoked by the term. According to a TIME corespondent who witnessed the event, "It began with a series of 'popular' demonstrations, some of them so tamely orchestrated that bored crowds began to wander away before the big finale." At each event King Savang Vatthana and his coalition were thanked for having helped the revolution - and then courteously advised that it was time to go". A polite revolution!

We booked into a really awesome hotel close to the downtown area of shops, cafes and restaurants. All largely idle. This was easily one of the nicest hotels i have stayed in. It even had CNN and a movie channel. Luxury. From here we explored what the city had to offer, temples, monuments and most importantly food.

In the evening a number of stalls are set up along the banks of the river. Our first night in the city we sat down on the mats and cushions laid out around a low table and ordered some traditional Lao cuisine. A small round clay pot full of bland broth was placed on a terracotta urn of glowing hot coals. A plate of sliced meat, basket of mint, basil, cabbage and jelly noodles were placed down along with a bowl of spicy peanut sauce, another with lime slices, and a third full of chilli and garlic. As with fondue we cooked it ourselves, chucking in the majority of ingredients until we had a bubbling, steaming concoction of satisfying soup. Why one earth would anyone go to ex-pat Tex Mex restaurant when you can sit on the floor under the stars eating a hearty meal?!

Other evenings we sat and had beers whilst watching the bright orange sun set into the milk chocolate river and thick haze which hung over it. Very relaxing and serene, a perfect compliment to the sightseeing we had done that day and which my next post will be about.


Favourtie beverage:
Beer Lao! South-East Asian beers are the best.