Vientiane – The World´s Slowest Capital?
Spent a few days in Vientiane, Laos’ rather compact capital.
This city of some 200.000 is just waking up from 35 years of communism induced slumber, but, like a child that’s slept too long, the awakening is a little disconcerting, reluctant and modest. Traffic has increased in recent years, but crossing the riverfront road that runs along the eastern shore of the Mekong during rush hour could still be managed by a blind man doing dance steps. A few new guest houses and restaurants have sprung up, but a few old ones have disappeared as well, so there’s hardly a change. Along the river-road a small night market sets up in the evenings, but there’s not much business on a cool March evening. The tourists look slightly lost. There´s not much to consume.
For years, the river embankment had been covered in brush and mosquito-infested grasses, but no more. Now, a long concrete promenade runs along the mighty Mekong. This stretch of open space is bordered by a two-lane road on its eastern side. On the western side, it falls straight down to the river, where another concrete road meanders along. Enough tarmac for a good stretch of German motorway. It´s called development, I suppose.
Sitting along the promenade, it’s possible to make phone calls to Thailand, using a Thai SIM card. As I am talking to a friend across the border and beyond the bamboo curtain just before midnight, four soldiers, all armed with machine guns, suddenly peel out of the darkness and crowd around me and my friends. The man in charge, a pimply young officer barely out of his teens, stands right in front of me, and asks, rather uncertainly, “Speak Lao?” Unfortunately, tonight no one in my company utters a single word of Laotian. I shake my head and try to continue my phone call, but the soldier is having none of it. “You move,” he says and steps so close to me that his crotch is directly in front of my face – he is standing on a concrete step slightly below me, blocking my view of Thailand – physically forcing me to move. Foreigners cannot be trusted on the new river promenade and anyway, who’d want to sit in the dark by one of Asia’s greatest streams after midnight?
Elsewhere, people are more welcoming. A man in Dalat Sao, the morning market which has been almost entirely demolished and replaced with a plastic-looking super mall, is very insistent about my purchasing his viagra, which he claims, will enable me to have intercourse four times a day. Besides consumer outlets and some laughable pretensions by the state-run media to reform its propaganda style media landscape, the number of sex workers has steadily increased in the last couple of years. Perhaps the government has relaxed its formerly fairly interpretation of the laws against prostitution in Southeast Asia’s last communist nation.
Clearly, money is flowing in, mostly from China, and the city’s infrastructure is expanding, as is the number of wine shops. Beyond the trappings of consumerism and the fast moving 21st century that we are asked to love back home, across the river in the free world, the usual meandering pace of Laos, the Land of a Million Elephants, continues to survive. In a local late night convenience store, draught beer is sold over the counter, ideal to combat that little thirst while queuing. I take it as an expression of the Laotian desire for convenience rather than a sign of progress.
But it’s Tiger Beer and who wants to drink that in Laos – Beer Lao remains the country’s most important brand export and visitors to the country sing high praises as to this unique (and, in Laos, uniquely cheap) beverages. And after a long night out (apart from a few discos, Vientiane pulls up the sidewalks around midnight and re-enters aforementioned slumber), there’s nothing to look forward to more than a cool Beer Lao on the river promenade.
For now, Vientiane is content with its provincial obscurity, hardly challenged by a new batch of communist edifices (the city now has at least three museums that cover the revolution in all its glory), that may remind citizens of their patriotic duty, but hardly contribute to anyone’s well-being. Luckily, the communist party of Laos does have one thing in common with its people – it has, so far, shown modest interest in the temptations the global circus of consumerism has to offer, but this is likely to change in the coming decade. Today, the capital of Laos does not even have a McDonalds. It can’t be long now.
Images by Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewchatturat.