Smiling With a Beerlao

Vientiane relaxes with a smile on the Mekong

That's the way to drink beer, from a packet!
They wish it was Beer Lao!
I wonder where all that UNDP money goes...
Let me guess.. its the UN!
I'm so happy to eat chicken now!
A Lao alarm clock
How can ya dislike a religion that produces beauty and tranquility
Buddhism is so creative!
I really should have the Lao flag on this page, but since I haven’t seen
it yet, and the Beer Lao sign is so popular, I’m gonna use it instead. Of
course, if you really want the official version, visit the Lao Embassy
site
, though the Beer Lao flag prevalence is an indication of just how sleepy
Vientiane is.

Okay, its not literally sleepy, that’s China, where the clerks and
staff of many businesses nap in plain view most of the day, but more like
relaxed. Just how relaxed? Well, after I woke up a taxi driver to take me
from the airport to town, I checked into the hotel with a promise to pay
after I changed money.

So far, so good, but then I went for a run, and
afterwards, a shower and change, before heading out for cash and food.
After changing money, and tasting a long, leisurely lunch, I returned to
the hotel in time for the staff to all be at lunch themselves. Feeling
sleepy after my long day (my flight was incomprehensibly early), I took a
nap. I finally paid, with a six-inch brick of cash (no shit!), for my $5,
or 45,000 kip-a-night room, around 6pm.

This speed reminds me of Ulaan Bataar, where no one was in a rush
because there wasn’t anywhere to go if ya did bust ass to try and get
ahead. In Vientiane, the handful of Mercedes I saw belonged to the mafia or the
government (is there a difference in communist countries?), and the
smattering of Land Rovers all belonged to the UN & Embassy crew, with
the rest of the population riding mopeds or motorcycles.

Unlike UB, I liked my lunch since Laotian food is much better. There
aren’t any weak pelmini or tomato/cucumber combinations here, just fresh
stir-fry or cold mixed vegetables and rice. All very filling and very
healthy, with real man-sized shashlik separating Lao from Chinese food.
Only the constantly smiling chief was unsettling.

I’m used to the dour faces of Moscow and Beijing, so when the Lao, a
naturally happy and curious people, smile at me I’m of two minds what to
do. With the men, I’m instantly on guard and wandering how the guy wants
to rip me off, while with a girl, I’m thinking she wants to form a
Lao-American union, but neither aspect is true. Lao smile because they are
genuinely happy people, as reinforced by every single interaction I’ve had
in the past few days.

Luckily, the colonial French masters of Lao did not leave much behind
besides baguettes and funky architecture, so the Parisian arrogance hasn’t
spoiled these people. What does spoil my tranquility on the occasion is
the flashbacks to all the Vietnam movies I’ve seen. Looking across the
Mekong, I remembered the opening scene from Apocalypse Now, when the
helicopters are flying past palm trees as napalm explodes below them. The
main square is straight from Full Metal Jacket, but without the working
girl or the camera thief.

Actually, there seems to be very little crime here. All those smiling
men have given me directions, answered my odd questions, and unlike Turkey, politely returned my money when I got confused with the 7600 kip
to a dollar exchange rate. The government is trying awfully hard to
attract tourists, and one commercial, showing a Lao returning money to a
confused Aussie would fill every flight from Bangkok!

This sleepy little town is definitely worth the flight for me. After
China, its nice to see a ‘Democratic Republic,’ once intertwined
with the Soviet Union, make a concerted effort to accommodate different
peoples and customs into a homogeneous-looking society. Now if Vientiane
only had a decent nightlife.