Sunday, January 31, 2016

There's Nothing to do in Vientiane

My week long commitment to Vientiane provoked many responses from my counterparts in the hostel, most of which were along the lines of shock and confusion. The overwhelming majority of travelers did not share in my excitement for the sleepy town with just under 1,000,000 people and about just as many temples. Most people actually couldn't wait to get out of Vientiane, citing the lack of things to do as  reason enough to move on to Laos' other well known destinations such as 4,000 Islands and Vang Vien.

Admittedly, I too had my doubts within my first day. I read of various day trips from Vientiane prior to my arrival, but when tour shopping I was met with the same response in every office. "There are no tours in Vientiane." It's almost as if the Laotians themselves are surprised to see so many tourists turn up in the city, and I had a week to kill here.

I started slow, which is my suggestion to anyone visiting Vientiane. When the guidebooks call it a slow-paced city, they mean that it's moving at a glacial pace. On my second day I ordered and finished a local Beer Lao in the same amount of time in took an elderly Laotian woman to creep across the empty one lane road in front of me. So when in Laos, do as the Laotians do and don't burn through the tourism checklist in one backbreaking afternoon.

The first thing you will notice when exploring are the temples. When it comes to extravagant pagodas, Bangkok may have the size, but Vientiane has the numbers. Wandering around the city reveals dozens of elaborately designed temples, most of which don't even turn up in maps or guidebooks. Each one is unique and feels even more stunning than the last. The mosaic designs stretch to the sky. Buddhas have been woven into the entangled masses of tree roots. Saffron robes hang on clotheslines, casting their bold color onto the walls around them. The tarnished gold and silver design of grave sites still shines through the wear of Southeast Asian weather, giving you a look into the deep history of Laos. A visitor can get lost in these places for hours imagining the history of it all, and that is exactly what you need to do. Have a seat, and relax. The monks won't mind. Stare at these amazing buildings until you begin to see them in a different way.

The next big stop in the city is the waterfront area. Along the Mekong river you'll find evidence of the government's attempts to makeover the city. A string of impromptu restaurants overlook the Mekong Beach and a long stretch of flower beds. The beach is nothing more than a result of the receding river during the dry season, but in the evenings it plays host to football matches and first dates for young couples. I found the beach to be an endearing space. It's simple and small town yes, but it shows a bit of the pride and character of the people of Vientiane. It's a communal space that many of the locals frequent on a nightly basis. Young people pose for selfies with bold floral backgrounds, while small gaggles of older women power walk and gossip around them. If you come down around five o'clock, the heat of the day begins to subside and you can bask in a dramatic sunset over Thailand.

Another important factor in any destination is the food. Laos has some big competition as it is sandwiched between the gastronomic heavy hitters of Thailand and Vietnam. Honestly, who here among us knows the first thing about Laos cuisine? The country may be suffering a bit from middle child syndrome, but that doesn't mean that Laotians can't hold their own in the kitchen.

The first thing that you can expect is a lot of sticky rice. Laotians will mold this ingredient into any shape or form imaginable to fit in a dish. There are many small dishes or snacks available to be shared by the table. Fried seaweed and spicy pickled pork are best when enjoyed with beer. Sticky rice pounded into a paste and stuffed with an endless variety of ingredients can also be found on most street corners. Laotian versions of common Vietnamese soups and sandwiches can also be easily acquired throughout the city.

Another important thing to note is that if you opt to add the chili sauce to your dishes, you will be sweating. Laos is on par with Thailand and far more advanced that Vietnam when it comes to adding spice to dishes. Although Laos and Vietnam are similar in the way that food typically starts mild and is accompanied by warmer add ons, everyone in Laos seems to prefer things hot. Within my first twenty minutes in country I watched wide eyed as the elderly woman next to me scooped six spoonfuls of chili sauce into her soup. With each dip of the spoon her soup turned a deeper shade of red and she laughed more maniacally.

Finally, there are the people. From the moment the immigration officer slapped a visa into my passport without even considering my application (or the fact that I failed to produce the required passport photos), Laos struck me as a place that had the carefree culture of an island despite being completely landlocked. The people are kind, and happy to open their doors to a stranger. On my first night I found myself dining with several Laotians who were eager to test out the local foods on me and also see how much a female English teacher in Vietnam could drink. I taught them some English, although I think they taught me even more Laos. Despite our language barriers they asked me, "Tonight, you feel happy," a dozen times, and once more when I returned the following morning to buy monkey balm for my hangover.

I found this hospitality and genuine excitement in foreigners to be the case throughout the city. Again, most of the locals were quite stunned that I only wanted to visit Vientiane in my week, and even more ecstatic when I told them that I liked it here. In fact several people offered me a free drink for every night I would come to their establishments throughout the week. Just like anyone else in the world, Laotians are proud of their culture whether they always show it or not. They were elated at the opportunity to show me local food and drinks.

Look, I am not promising you that Vientiane will change your life, or that it will be in your top five destinations. Maybe you read this and want to visit Laos or maybe you choose to go somewhere else, but just remember, anymore our lives are moving so quickly around us that we can barely keep up. Holidays are few and far between for the average adult, and when we finally do get a vacation we tend to carry our maddening fast paced lifestyles over into our holidays. We have been infected by FOMO to the point that most of us spend holidays bouncing from destination to destination every other day. We actually return home feeling more exhausted than before we left.

Having the opportunity to live in and love a city like Saigon, a city that often receives harsh criticism on TripAdvisor forums, opened my eyes to something. Over the years I've given up on too many travel destinations too quickly. If a place didn't quite vibe with me at first or if I heard about something that might be a little better down the road, I packed my bags and moved on. In the search for the picture perfect holiday, I likely ended up missing more than I actually saw.

This time I gave myself a few extra days to catch the intricacies that make Vientiane special. I am so glad that I did because it gave me time to eat meals in family homes a few feet away from their beds and old wedding photos. There was time to drink a beer while the elderly couple who served me watched an utterly obscene Lil Jon music video in the background. There was time to become one of the guys with a crew of Laotian men who were highly impressed by my skills behind the handles of a moto. There was time to get lost on the dirt neighborhood roads of the city and then stumble upon some scrumptious barbecue. I am leaving feeling like I got to see a little bit of Laos beyond the hotels and city square. For me, that was absolutely worth a week of my time.

“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.” — Lawrence Block

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