Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vientiane Solstice

December 23-24, 2009

...started the day in Sabadee Cafe, with a coffee that was the best I'd had since starting the trip. The poster above me showed a collage of photos of various menu items, each one with a time and date signature in the lower right corner. Equally hard to ignore were the BGM Xmas Carols being sung slightly off-key by what I presumed were Laotian kids. There probably weren't many tracks on the CD, for the same song would repeat every 15 minutes.

First up this morning was the National Museum. Downstairs was the cultural history, many exhibits made of styrofoam and papier-mache, like in a elementary school history project. The Buddhas were, of course, lovely. Upstairs was all political. Paintings showed the devil French acting in their usual barbaric French ways, with lots of dead babies and monks tied to posts. Later, photos showed Laotian rightists meeting with men only identified as "American imperialist." Another exhibit showed the cultural traditions and clothing of the various SE Asian countries. Singaporeans were represented by their stewardess uniforms.

We rented bikes and rode along the dirt trails paralleling the Mekong, through open air restaurants and past lazy dozing dogs. Some Chinese tourist was taking a photo of the Don Chuang hotel which rose like a tombstone above the rest of the older French architecture. Midday we arrived at the Linda Sisaphon, which did a great Thai lunch of crab and tofu puffs, and spicy noodles. The ubiquitous corner television was showing a karaoke video of Ram Wong, Laotian style. Unlike in Cambodia where the hands seem to delicately trace the Khmer alphabet in the air, the Laotians instead keep their arms stiff at their sides like David Byrne.

Bellies full and sinuses clear, we biked through a series of gradually posher suburban neighborhoods to Sok Pa Luang, where we sat awhile on the steps of a small, unoccupied temple and watched the dogs sleep and the leaves fall. Stomachs finally ready, we walked across the grounds to have a sauna and a massage. The former was wonderful, a handful of us clad in sarongs and roasting in the steam. Water and herbs were boiled in a steel drum, from which a pipe fed a small opening in the floor of the shack.. The shack and the heat began to make me feel a bit like a Vietnam War era POW. The light streamed through a small square window and was backlit by steam. Slipping further back in time, I was now a 1950's European cinema-goer. Sitting and passing the afternoon in this way was a wonderful thing, in the company of two Frenchmen, a Columbian, and a Puerto Rican guy ever hitting on a gorgeous Persian-American
girl. The massage that followed wasn't quite as good, done by a young, obviously untrained guy who pawed me like a weak kitten. A return to the sauna was a nice consolation.

The light fading, we followed a dirt path along the Mekong. There were quite a few rickety wooden decks built over the river, where people could drink and watch the light fade further still. We took a seat on the deck furthest west, well beyond the dusty construction zone nearer the city. Below, fishermen brought in their boats, women bathed, and kids played, everyone eventually fading to silhouettes and becoming figures of art, the subjects of our photos. And the miracle of the sunset followed, as it would again tomorrow.

We returned to our new hotel, Mixay, and got into a conversation with David, who'd been staying here for 5 months. He'd been offered a job with the UN, who'd then reneged upon his contract when he'd arrived. The length of his stay in country was due to the fact that he was in the process of suing them. A lawyer and former anthropology teacher, he'd been living in Hanoi for the past 8 years. We had an interesting chat, but for his bile against aid groups, he insisting they were all corrupt. Most interesting was his take on the Vietnamese, forseeing an inevitable decline in their currently booming economy, since their main investment was in their children and in feeding them. Once the resources have all been eaten, it's all over...

...In the morning, we took a jumbo out to the Buddha Park, which is an older version of the work by Luang Pu that we'd seen a few days before on the other side of the Thai border. Here too was the same jumbled array of towering Hindu and Buddhist figures, built in a somewhat amateur fashion. The setting though was better, alongside the Mekong, looking in the direction of the other park, a few kilometers and a whole country away. We had a good time climbing in and around the hollow, pumpkin-like tower, but didn't feel that the expensive tuk-tuk ride out here was exactly worth the fare.

We were dropped off at Pha That Luang, a big, gaudy, gold gumdrop that is a source of pride for the Laotians. There was a pretty impressive temple being built next door, roofs folding in atop one another. A group of ladyboys posed in front for photos. We left them behind and began to walk across the city, past a sign for a shop called, "Scoubidou," and past bus stops which all had those large plexiglass walls that in China would hold newspapers for commuters to read. Here, they held only advertisements.

We'd hoped to have lunch at the infamous Pyongyang restaurant, being naturally curious about what passes for North Korean food, but the restaurant seemed to have been closed down. We walked hungrily through the city, having a snack at the mall, which was filled with hundreds of young girls in a frenzy over some boy band that was scheduled to play later. We quickly escaped to the Scandinavian Bakery, where we passed the afternon reading and writing. We also had a war of attrition on the balcony, with a workman blowing dust outward into our drinks. We finally gave in due to the chemical warfare that followed, consisiting of fumes from floors newly stained. We ducked into a supermarket geared toward Vientiane expats, stacked with a far better selection than anything I'd seen in Japan. Appetites whet, we sought out dinner...

On the turntable: Sonic Youth, "Daydream Nation"
On the nighttable: Edward Abbey, "The Brave Cowboy"

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