18 August 2002

11. - 18 AUG: Pakse to Vientiane

Early rise and uneventful flight to Vientiane, the rather plain looking capital. We check in our hotel and take a walk around the city. A wine shop just a couple of doors from my hotel is perhaps one of the single most surprising sites in Laos. It is a gently air-conditioned, softly lit shop, with a very pretty multilingual Lao lady working at the counter and eager to step up and explain the most detailed nuances about French wines. In a way this shop is a cultural shock, given the context in which it is located. However, come to think of it, it is a shock only inasmuch as I assume that in poor Laos there would be no chance of finding a good shop with excellent wines. Worse, if I subconsciously assumed that no one could possible want this expensive wine in a 300-dollar-a-year salary population. In fact, it should be quite normal for a capital city, albeit of a small country, to have at least one good wine shop, should it not? Not everyone in a poor if the country is poor, of course, and in a capital city there are the embassies, foreign visitors, etc. all of whom can afford expensive wines and as far as the the Lao state is concerned this activity of course generates a revenue in the form of income and excise taxes from the sales, plus a few jobs in commerce, distribution, etc.

I decide to spend the afternoon to walk around downtown Vientiane under the heavy monsoon rain. Much of the town is pretty well run down by years of neglect. Decrepit traditional constructions stand side by side with dreary government office buildings, many constructed in the sixties and seventies and obviously never properly maintained.

Vientiane has a human dimension which one rarely finds in a capital city. Even the most powerful ministries are made up of two or three-story constructions which look more like villas than ministerial buildings. In some ways it reminds me of Tirana, in Albania, which I visited in the mid-nineties. Everything was small scale, everywhere was within walking distance.

The Vientiane river bank faces Thailand, but when I go there it iss raining hard and the mist was so thick that one could see absolutely nothing on the other side.

I walk into one of the many internet cafes that have opened up in central Vientiane. A couple dozen computers are neatly lined up and a good half of them is taken by an Italian group, who judging by their conversation must have been spending most of the afternoon in here. Some of them are playing a chess game on line against an opponent who is lord-knows-where in the world! Now who would come all the way to Vientiane, of all places, to sit down at an internet café and play electronic chess!

One of the few imposing buildings in Vientiane is the culture palace, a huge white construction. Again a similarity with Tirana, where Skanderbeg square remains the most ostentatious architectural heritage of the dictatorship of old. By the entrance, a young lady was selling CDs and tickets for the evening performance. She had a stereo system set up on her table and it was blasting some ear piercing pop music at an unimaginable number of decibel, so much so that even if we were in open air I could hardly hear a word of what she was saying. I had been told some Lao music would be played and had entertained the thought of spending an evening savoring traditional melodies, and when I saw she had a book of tickets to sell I pulled out my wallet in anticipation. Wrong! When the lady finally turned the volume down, she explained that the evening’s program consisted of Lao pop singers who would perform the very same songs I was listening to as we spoke. I said thanks but no thanks and left, disappointed.

I later regretted having missed the concert, however. Yes, the music would have been of the same kind of imitation pop culture one often finds in countries where that kind of art was forbidden until recently – again Albania in the mid-nineties came to mind, but Albanian musician have evolved quite a bit by now. Yet, this is Laos today, and it would surely have been interesting, sociologically if not musically, to attend the event and see a crowd of young Laotians enjoy a pop concert. My expectation of a traditional music performance was based on obsolete stereotypes some travellers always have when visiting exotic places. I unreasonably expected old Lao music just as I had visited old Wats. But surely the people of Vientiane can not be expected to live in their past! They would expect from a concert in their culture hall what any of us would expect in a concert hall in our home town.

A city tour on tuk-tuk can be an exhilarating experience. Drivers like to race each other along the wide boulevards of Vientiane, and thin traffic allows them to test their little growling machines to the limit.

We all get another “seeing hands” massage and sauna (Turkish bath) at the Red Cross headquarters, herb scent in steam coming from under a wooden shack.

In the evening we decide to go and eat at the evening market. We found a smiling lady who was busy grilling chicken. The fragrance was irresistible, and we sat down at a table next to her stand. Price are obviously set way higher because we are foreigners, they do not seem to understand this will quickly become counterproductive. They do not realize that they can get away with it once, but we would probably not go and eat there again, and if we did we would negotiate a Laotian price first. More generally, when word spreads that visitors get ripped off somewhere, the damage can be long lasting. It takes far longer to attract tourists than to lose them.

Not that this is a problem unique to Laos, far from it. My own country, Italy, is a prime culprit in this respect. How many stories have I heard of foreign visitors being overcharged by some – a minority for sure – Italian restaurants, hotels, taxis, barber shops, etc.? Even if only a few cheat, bad reputation sticks onto the whole country. And if one is to believe statistics Italy has paid a price for that loss of reputation, slipping consistently down in world tourism rankings. I can only hope that countries which pin their hopes for foreign currency earnings on tourism will not repeat the same mistakes, but from what I have been able to see in my travels it is likely that they will. Anywat we eat our chicken, it’s rather good, and when we are about done a few children come around asking for leftovers.

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