Monday, August 01, 2011

First Day Vientiane

December 23, 2009

...We tuk-tuk to the Immigration post, get processed, then board a bus that crosses the Friendship Bridge. On the Lao side, we switch from the left of the road to the right, then have our tires sprayed. It's a bit like being part of a child's toy car set. Off the bus now to apply for our visas. We wait under a banner that proclaims Vientiane to be a non-smoking city. It isn't a long wait, and after getting our stamped passports, we go to the tuk-tuk queue. Rather than the usual chaos, we are shown a sign with fixed prices, held up by a handful of smiling drivers. One is chosen for us, and upon paying the fare upfront, we are given a receipt and climb into a jumbo. the whole process has been quick, neat, and polite. The same can be said about the roads, the driving, the city itself. no rush, little dust or trash. Laos begins to work its magic spell early.

We check into a hotel, and begin to walk. A few blocks over is the fountain of Nam Phu , and nearby, we grab a tuk tuk to take us to Patuxai. This large concrete slab stands in the center of a roundabout, showing what Soviet architects could have accomplished had they been allowed to design the Arc de Triomphe. The Champs d'Elysees then would be the broad avenue leading past the moneychangers and fancy hotels to a mock-up of the White House, painted pink in this particular version. On the way, we detoured through the 'Development Center,' a fine euphemism for the up(-per) scale Malaysian shopping mall built on the grounds of what had for centuries been the city market. This places enables the rapidly increasing middle class a place to spend their kip while simultaneously crushing the chances for the lower wage earning sellers of the former market to join them. Seems that the socialist economic policy here is a slightly less than level playing field.

Nearby is That Dam, a stupa whose former gold leaf was stripped by Siam invaders nearly 3 centuries before. The US Embassy stands beside it, reminder of yet another cultural theft.

Took a lazy stroll amongst the Buddhas at Si Saket, then crossed the street to Haw Pha Kaeo, squeezing between Chinese tourists to walk through a building that can't seem to decide if it's a temple, a museum, or a gift shop. Inside, a Buddha had a large fleck of gold stuck to its forehead, as if playing Indian poker.

There was much more space out by the Mekong. A construction team was in the midst of some huge project which stretched halfway across the river to Thailand. (It dawned on me later that in this, the dry season, the river is always that low and dusty.) After buying a painting from a young mother, we ate some ping ka and learned from a former Thai expat that all this construction going on was the building of a park. He'd come here a dozen times on visa runs, but hadn't visited for over a year. He'd noticed a lot of new businesses and hotels over that time, probably due to the Southeast Asian Games which had just finished the week before. The vibe however, hadn't significantly changed.

We worked our way slowly through a few other Wats, their gilded facades even more brilliant in the fading light. Kids played volleyball in an adjacent lot, and others, clad in saffron, knelt before the Buddha and followed the chants of the head priest. We wandered the alleys of Chinatown back to the riverside, where hundreds of people sat drinking Beer Lao and watching the last of the day's light. Up the street at the Hare & Hound, I found my own beer to wash down my first Bangers and Mash in five years, to the accompaniment of a Laotian boy singing along to an Abba CD.

Our hotel had a special show for us, perhaps inspired by this town's popular "Dumb Show." It began when I tried to make a phone call, but the guys at the front desk couldn't figure out how to make the phone work, then finally said, "Broken." When I said that I'd just used it a few minutes before, they went and got someone else. Later, when Miki and I asked them a few questions, they just looked at us. In the past, I've found that even if you don't share a common language, it is possible to convey information if both parties are patient listeners and have a small share of common sense. These guys appeared to be operating at a deficit.

The highlight of the show began later. We'd already suffered for a few hours from noisy Thais in the hotel fiercely competing with the street noise coming through a window frame that had no pane. This was all nearly drowned out by the sound of water (along with the accompanying smell of waste) rushing through the pipes just outside the aforementioned windowless window. Somehow, Miki and I both fell into sleep, but an hour later, the A/C unit (which we purposely hadn't paid for) began to turn on and off by itself. I guessed that someone in a nearby room had gotten the remote control for our unit, and perplexed as to why his wasn't working, kept turning ours on and off for at least half an hour. I noticed that our own remote control was marked with 206 rather than 209, so I went down the hall and knocked on that door. I was answered by a German voice, which continued to speak in German, rather in than the English that I spoke, or in the language of the country in which we were all guests. (Somewhere, there is probably a German blog entry about all this.)

I eventually went down to the front desk, waking and scaring a poor girl sleeping in a cot in the lobby. She seemed reluctant to wake the manager, who, when he came out, was rubbing sleep from his eyes. I explained as simply as I could about the problem, then led him to our room. He stared at the offending unit for about 5 minutes, during which time it was silent, of course. Then, he said something like, "Too cold, it becomes ice," and left in apparent incomprehension. Ten minutes later, after I was on the brink of sleep, the phantom A/C resumed its earlier routine, until someone somewhere finally grew tired of the monotony of pushing buttons and gave up.

Until 6 a.m. the next morning...

On the turntable: David Byrne, "Growing Backwards"

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