15 November 2009

Asia Journey Part III: Laos - 2/Ventiane

Ventiane. The capital of Laos. Pronounced wen-chen. 200,000 population. Feels so much larger than the villages we’ve visited on the way, but also small, a small city. Right out of Graham Greene. Provincial, colonial. Lots of temples, of course, the oldest of which, 3rd century, is a compound of beautiful small buildings. Wonderfully serene. Another, c. 15th century, all gold leaf. My travel mates call it the bling temple.
Again, lots of mopeds here, also cars. Traffic is slow but steady. And again, little extraneous noise. A mini-de triomphe, installed by the French during their occupation, has the added flourish of dragons on the upper cornices.
I forgot to mention the morning walk of the monks in Luang Prabang. 5:30 AM they make their pilgrimage to the hillside temple and people line the walk to offer them alms. It has sadly been polluted by swarms of tourists who are only interested in taking photo’s and thus disrespect the monks as they go, who ignore them. I arrive early on a side street and have the good fortune to see them pass, without interaction, and before I see the circus it has become, but I’m told it’s better some mornings than others. Photo above.
This is the most sophisticated Lao city I’ve seen, by a long shot. Shops with wares different from other places, the kind of shops that might be fun to work in. Elegant. The café’s offer more for a more sophisticated palette, and environs more suited to travelers, with large bars and outdoor seating areas. Much more Western in style. I sit one morning in a bakery café with dark wood tables and chairs, beautiful pastries in the glass case, pizza, quiche and artisan breads on the menu. Around me mostly Brits, Germans, some Americans. Feels more European here. Latte’s on the tables. Students immersed in their laptops.
Last night we had an especially enjoyable, festive dinner on the upper terrace of a café that served Lao, Thai and Indian food, plus burgers and pizza for good measure. I’ve noticed that my comrades now and then seem to need a fix of western food, especially pizza, but I find comfort in the indigenous menu’s, prepared to order. Lao food is less spicy than Thai, but servers always offer an option: “you want spicey?” Chili peppers and oil always on the table just in case. Koni [short of Konrad, our Swiss tour leader] offers to share a half bottle of wine with me. I haven’t had wine at all on this trip as this is not the land of wine, mostly beer. In fact the group has been crazy excited about Lao beer which I taste and even I, who has no taste for beer, finds smooth, almost buttery. I see the appeal. However we’re told it doesn’t travel well, so drinking in the country is best, like most micro-brews. We split a carafe of Merlot, nothing of note but fun to have a wine glass in my hand. Everyone was in especially good spirits, enjoying hot water showers and higher level civilization, but also the relaxed pleasure of this city.
I take a long walk around the neighborhood and dawdle in a bookstore – the first real bookstore I’ve enjoyed, others merely stalls of used paperbacks likely left behind by tourists – lots of Grisham and such. This store, Monarch Books, has sections in English, French, German, Thai and of course Lao. I feel very much at home here as I always do in bookstores. However the national library, which I enter with great enthusiasm, turns out to be more manuscripts and political documents than books.
Lao women all wear long skirts [ankle length] and often with a striped border at the hem. Always with crisply pressed blouses with sleeves usually to the elbow. Display of shoulders, chest or knees is forbidden. Even little girls on their bikes are in long skirts and school children always in uniform. Modesty is a virtue for women, men are suitably conservative, while monks once again in golden orange robes off one shoulder. I must remember to research the origin of this uniform. Women to are also expected to wear closed shoes, no sandals, but children wear flip flops. Their hair is usually shot, no longer than shoulder length, or pulled back with lovely barrettes. All conform to codes of conduct, so I’m told.
A river borders the city, once again, and there is little development on the river, but I see several signs signaling preparations for new buildings and centers, coming into the new millennium. I hope they don’t ruin the view.
Food is delivered as prepared [did I mention this before?] Always fresh and hot. So that a party of ten, which we often are, might have some of us half finished before the other half begins eating. One learns to eat slowly to try to maintain the balance. I’ve not liked being served first, but better than last.
I would have liked more time in this city. We will leave Laos for Vietnam too soon. I’m not quite ready for a big bustling city, which I’ve been warned Hanoi is. And I’ve come to appreciate the general tranquility of Lao culture. I find myself wondering what it would be like to live here for a while, teach English. I could see myself here as well as in European cities. And they definitely are in need of English tutoring.
On a prop jet from Ventiane to Hanoi, the sound of the motor brings tears to my eyes. One of the sounds of my childhood, on those rare occasions when we flew to Virginia for summer holiday, rather than drive. So much closer to the ground, above squares of green conjoined to slivers of road, rivers, lakes. We fly so near the clouds one might reach out and touch them. This is flying as it once was, exhilarating like driving a stick shift car, a throwback to another time. As is Laos.

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