All Smiles in Vientiane
At Wattay International Airport we come face-to-face with a promising vision of happy hour, half a day too soon. On the outstretched banner tall glasses of beer stand in neat formation, each of them furnished with smiley faces drawn flawlessly into the foam. Our eyes follow the bold, curvaceous white lettering splashed across its lower half. “Beerlao,” it proclaims. “Beer of the wholehearted people.”
“Where are you from?” The taxi driver smiles into the rearview mirror, a palpable sense of ease permeating the cool, air-conditioned interior.
“Hong Kong…” I motion over to Bama. “… and Indonesia.”
“How long are you visiting?”
“Oh, six days.”
“All in Vientiane?”
“Nope. Two days here, and then we go to Luang Prabang.”
“Ah,” he declares. “Luang Prabang – very nice!”
Silently we observe the steady stream of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and shiny new minivans humming along in the bright morning sun. Along the streets tangles of telephone cables contrast sharply against the dripping foliage and faded rows of two to three-storey shophouses. Eventually we cruise past a wat, its roof a cascade of red tiles drooping low to the ground.
Encouraged by our driver’s sunny disposition, I decide to quiz him in return.
“So how do you say “hello” in Lao?”
“Sa bai dee.”
“How about thank you?”
“And thank you very much?”
“Kup jai lai laai.” He finishes it with a slow, melodious drawl.
“Easy!” The three of us burst into laughter.
When we bid goodbye to our taxi driver and step into the tiled lobby of the hotel, a soft-spoken young lady glides over to the front desk. Clasping her hands together in a traditional nop, she greets us with a sa bai dee and a gracious bow. She could easily have been my age. To my utmost surprise we are offered two champagne glasses filled with orange punch. This is not at all a five-star hotel, but I wonder if it is really one in disguise.
“First time in Vientiane?” The receptionist’s voice breaks gently into my chain of thought. We nod, and after delivering a detailed orientation of the city, she escorts us up the stairs and into our room, where the towels and toiletries are arranged in a beautiful bundle on the bed. By the doorway the key is already plugged into the card reader. “We reserved the room especially for you.” She beams.
I clasp my hands together and practice what the taxi driver had taught us. “Kup jai lai laai.” The lady reciprocates, bowing, and disappears back down the hallway.
After a sleepless night in Kuala Lumpur and a 5:00am breakfast of sweet chilli chicken with rice – which leaves me with a pervasive upset stomach – Vientiane is the unlikely antidote, a sanctuary conducive to a quick and easy recovery.
Even on a Saturday afternoon the streets feel almost devoid of human activity. Tuk-tuk drivers doze and mill about in the shade, the odd saffron-robed monk strolls leisurely down the pavement, while shopkeepers sit languidly on plastic stools, gazing out from among their wares. At night the only sounds that come through our window are chirping crickets and the musical ge-ko of the resident lizards.
This sleepy capital by the Mekong has a raw, gritty charm, tempered by a discernible French influence. Perhaps its most surprising traits are the ubiquitous baguettes and the profusion of Gallic signage. Then there’s Patuxai, the Lao version of the Parisian Arc de Triomphe. Commanding the view down Lane Xang Avenue, this hulking mass was built with cement donated by the American government – a resource that was originally meant for a new airport.
Although it’s entirely possible to visit all of Vientiane’s main sights within the span of a day, Bama and I choose to break up the sightseeing with hours spent lounging in the comfort of our hotel room and a handful of watering holes. After all, conventional wisdom holds that the acronym Lao PDR really stands for Lao, Please Don’t Rush.
We kick back over two of the smoothest mango shakes, blended to absolute perfection at JoMa and the appropriately named “Fruit Heaven”, where I forfeit the promise of a warm baguette for a stack of fresh tropical goodness. In my twenty-odd years I have never tasted such sweet, aromatic mangoes. We have unknowingly timed our visit to the hottest month of the year, but much to our delight, early May also happens to mark the middle of mango season.
Fruit shakes aside, I will never forget the way to Pha That Luang, hunched over in the back of a tuk-tuk. We are being piloted by a man who must be in his 60s, dressed in shorts and a cheerful shirt with bands of white and crimson red. He picks us up in front of Patuxai, appearing moments after we begin pondering our next move. This is my first-ever tuk-tuk ride, and like a child on a rollercoaster I jump excitedly aboard, stepping on via a flimsy wooden plank that groans and bends under my weight.
At Pha That Luang the sun seems to be playing hide-and-seek behind the ominous clouds, their darkened undersides threatening to unleash a small but sudden rain shower. We find refuge on a shaded, whitewashed bench in the grassy courtyard, gazing in silence as the afternoon shadows drift lazily across the stupa. Even the man in bronze out front, a certain King Setthathirat, is clearly smiling.
That night we settle for dinner at Kua Lao Restaurant, not far from the backpacking haven around Nam Phu and Samsenthai Road. It is mostly occupied by rows of long tables, prepared in anticipation of large families and a Mandarin-speaking delegation. In our quiet corner we order beef and duck laap, two sides of steamed rice, and a bowl of chicken or lahm. The or lahm is a genuine surprise – it yields the fresh tang of dill, tender slices of chicken, mixed greens and soft aubergine, slowly stewed to the point of creaminess.
All this, of course, is washed down with two large bottles of Beerlao. It reads 5% a.b.v. on the label but Bama and I are both doubtful. Even on a full stomach we can’t ignore the telltale light-headedness, amplified by the thumping beat of traditional Lao music and the sight of two dancers, swirling rhythmically in robes of gold and sapphire blue.