Jumping through time again, but I want to capture some impressions of Vientiane while it’s still fresh in my head. 🙂
So what I’ve learned so far is that you can get by pretty much fine on English in all the countries we’ve visited so far, but there are two words in the native language which, while not essential, will definitely enhance your experience: “Hello” is just friendly and generally useful and great for greeting kids you encounter. You will receive help and kindness from people you meet, and, especially when they don’t speak English, it’s wonderful to be able tell them “Thank you” in their own language.
To my ears, the Lao for these two words, while bearing a connection to the Thai “sa wa de ka” and “kap coon ka” (female form), sound sweeter, warmer and more familiar. The same for both gender, the Lao greeting is “sabaidee” (pronounced like it’s spelled) and thank you is “khawp jai” (pronounced kind of like “cup chai” – easy for me to remember 🙂 ).
My instant like to the language has been reflected in my reaction to the country so far. I’ve really been enjoying Vientiane and feel very comfortable in Lao’s little capitol city. It’s a total world apart from it’s neighbor Thailand’s bustling, urban capitol. For starters, Bangkok has a population about 12 times that of Vientiane. Other differences were also immediately recognizable.
Roman arrived in Vientiane earlier than I did, and had found a hotel, sussed out our neighborhood, and come to meet me at the airport that evening. We emerged from the simple airport into the deep, steamy dark of the Lao night, and the first thing I noticed was the smell of smoke – the same peat-like smell of the coal used so often in India, something I hadn’t smelled at all in Thailand.
The tuk tuk that was waiting for us at the outskirts of the parking lot (cleverly arranged by Roman – only taxis can come right up to the arrivals hall and they have to pay a heavy fee, which is passed on to their passengers) was yet another variation on the three-wheeled transportation theme that runs through Asia. A fancier, more colorful and comfortable take on the Burmese motorbike with two benches in back, but they all look worn out and rustic compared to the shiny, colorfully lit tuk tuks that zoom around Bangkok.
Lao tuk tuks
The roads we drove through to get to our hotel were mostly two-laned and flanked by low buildings. Most of the buildings in Vientiane are only one or two storeys; it’s rare to see anything above five. Once you get away from the city center and important cultural or government sites, the roads start to get bumpier and cracked and sometimes fade into dirt and gravel paths. Side walks are not consistent and it’s important to watch out for cracks above the drainage system. The city’s architecture and monuments are a bit of a mix up between traditional, colonial, communist, modern and simply functional.
This all might make it sound a bit decrepid. while it does feel a bit worn, I would say it is more simple than shabby, and the city has a down-to-earth, relaxed feeling to it. And there are lots of areas that are really beautiful.
Laos used to be a French colony, and there is still plenty of evidence of the occupation to be seen in Vientiane (even in the spelling of its name). Street signs are written in Lao and Roman script, with the Roman versions of the names often beginning with the French „Rue“. Many building signs are also in French. Some of the larger roads in the city are broad and tree-lined, reminiscent of Parisian boulevards; one even is punctuated by Laos’ answer to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, the Patuxai Victory Gate.
Walking around we’ve heard as much French being spoken by Westerners as English – something we’ve not encountered elsewhere in Asia. We’ve also enjoyed some pretty good baguettes! Apparently they can be found throughout the country. Although not as lightweight and chewy as the Parisian version, I’ve been really happy to have them since decent bread can be pretty hard to come by in Asia.
In fact, I’d like to write more about Vientiane, but I’ve got a big date with a breakfast baguette and some Lao coffee coming up shortly, so I’ll end here for now. 🙂
Baguettes for sale at a market
Tree-lined avenue, the Victory Gate at the end
Patuxai Victory Gate up close (notice the sickle and hammer on the billboard to the right)