fka The Land of a Million Elephants (and the White Parasol)
Can one tell, solely by observing the urban design of a city (ignoring any suggestion of Brutalist etc architecture or design), that it is communist?
It hadn’t registered that Lao People’s Democratic Republic was a communist state until we drove into Vientiane from Thanaleng train station and there, the newly constructed Chao Anouvong Park promenade next to the Mekong River and parallel to Fa Ngum Road seemed to me an extraordinarily communist space.
On hindsight, there was no logical reason for this conclusion. Yes it was very similar to the riverside promenade of the Shanghai Bund for the sheer number of people using it as a communal space – cycling, exercising, rows of street snack vendors (selling food, souvenirs, toys including that yappy pink toy dog that does flips, now zhng-ed out with green laser eyes); the mere existence of photographers offering their services also recalled the Shanghai Bund as well as places of local interest in Vietnam (eg, the HCMC zoo). Perhaps it was the communal use of the public space that gave it the commie feel? But the Doha corniche is similarly occupied on Saturday evenings, and Qatar assuredly not of that political persuasion.
Also, the towering statue along the promenade isn’t of a Communist great but, in fact, of Chao Anouvong – the last Lao king of Vientiane. Altars had already been set up in front of the statute and there was a constant stream of worshippers. Just slightly ironic? Marx would have had words.
Up in northern Laos, no trace of practical communism either in Luang Prabang, which was very pretty in a self-conscious gentrified way. According to an ex-local monk I happened to chat with, many of the buildings were actually newly-built to look historical and you can see this in progress about town – old buildings smashed and colonial-style architecture rising from the rubble. The epitome of Baudrillard‘s Disneyland? Well whatever the heritage of Luang Prabang pre-UNESCO World Heritage List, the influx of tourists coupled with a healthy double dose of both observer effect and observer-expectancy effect must surely have messed with The Real so that by the time i visited, simulacra would have been splattered everywhere. Like a theme park, the whole get-up of the town exists to be seen by tourists, yet like residents of Ubud, Malacca and Penang, there are those make their livelihoods outside of the tourism/hospitality industry, and to whom the tourist-saturated markets are, like Souq Waqif in Qatar, a place for groceries (thereby partaking and encouraging the simulacra?).
Since present-day tourists have become conditioned to the stimulation of hyperreality, they act as if they are in a theme park. The tak bat (or bintakbhat or sai bat – daily dawn alms-giving for making merit, according to the Buddhist system of thought), especially, is a major performance for them – the temple drums at 5am, the roosters crowing, a line monks emerging from the morning mist from 6am to 6.20am…and despite pleading signs posted everywhere, loads of people either literally shoved their SLRs in monks’ faces yelling at each other as they ran after the monk line:”Oh my this is wonderful! Did you get that, Sue, didya? Hey Sue? Did you get that photo?!”, or buying inferior rice from touts (the women with baskets hung on poles across their shoulders, offering you rice and biscuits to give to the monks) and getting themselves photographed and videoed giving alms, looking straight into the monks’ eyes and talking to them (“Hey how are you? Here’s a big chunk rice for you. I’m sure it’s tasty. Right?”) and then declaring in rapturous voices afterwards how spiritually good this made them feel.
Every camera-touting tourist should read: “Important information concerning the monks’ morning almsround (tak bat)“.
In any case, one would be hard-put not to meet a saffron robe going about his business amongst the more than 34 wats that dot the city: after receiving the sticky rice alms (plus biscuits or fruit), the monks return to their temples and place a ball of rice as an offering to a Buddha statue. Then after some chanting, they eat communally in silence – some folk bring tiffin carriers with more food straight to the temples. Later, you’ll see novices sweeping the temple grounds and by 7.20am when the sun comes up, they head off to classes across town with their bags and brollies.
On a far less photo-opp scale, the Hmong people sell their goods at the night market – some seem to be the real thing but others are Lao-tian who allegedly sell “weavings” from Chinese or Thai factories. I wonder if they have all been told to tell tourists that they made the goods themselves. After all, we’re very accepting of horrendous imperfections if what is on offer is marketed as ethnic authenticity.
Still, it’s early days yet. The tuktuk drivers are not too insistent, and though children selling exorbitantly-priced tchotchke (“Sir buy something otherwise tomorrow I no school sir”) – that barometer of the impact of tourism, have already made their appearance, they aren’t at all driven by the enterprise and will wander off to look at something else before you can respond.
Unfortunately, thievery is on the rise – two Caucasian women (one Amercian and one English) separately said they had recently been robbed by people on motorcycles – one at night and the other in broad daylight.
What to think about the different systems of government? What to think about countries or towns moving to tourism as the main source of income generation – tourists want the mod-cons and yet authenticity and the locals want mod-cons and not the authenticity of outhouse toilets and lack of money or education? What to think of the attractiveness and aesthetic beauty of the spirituality of local belief systems?
Happened to be reading the Book of Isaiah during the week. Since Isaiah was written so long ago, it is relevant to us in a somewhat different way – Judah has long been destroyed, as predicted by Isaiah, but God has not changed and will act in the same way to similarly rebellious people .
1. God claims to be God over all the earth, not just the provincial god of Israel. Therefore we do not have the option of saying it is ok for Christians to have their God and other religions to have their own gods or their own beliefs about ultimate truth (Isaiah 13-23).
This is perfectly legitimate because it is God who gives rain for food and pasture for cattle, and who has control over all the natural world (Isaiah 30:23-26). He consults no one (Isaiah 40:9-17), since he himself made everything.God has authority over people and not people over God – humans cannot tell the true God what they want done by many offerings or rituals. Neither should people who successfully persecute God’s people think they are more powerful than God. Rather in certain cases, they are merely instruments in God’s hand (Isaiah 10:5-15) to punish his people for their rejection of him.
2. In the presence of this great and living God, the absolute folly of worshipping helpless and dead idols:
” Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.
Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.
Fear not, nor be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
And you are my witnesses!
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any.” All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
3. Yet many to whom God has revealed himself and to whom he has given many opportunities to turn back to him; many to whom knowledge of the truth has been gifted, have scorned Him for worthless idols and rejected truth for lies (Isaiah 5:1-7). They, like all of us, rely on things that cannot help us – not just physical idols but also the idols (so-called because they promise to save but are powerless to do so) like diplomacy, the latest advances in warfare technology or the advice of seemingly powerful or successful people (Isaiah 31:1-3).
Whom should we trust and worship? Surely not our own fallible thoughts or the constructs of other similarly fallible humans but the One who made all things and controls all things and will judge all things in the end.
While nice ladies at Vientiane banks might give you a local map together with the kip they are exchanging for your Thai baht or US dollars, you’ll need to purchase one in Luang Prabang.Very useful maps for Vientiane and Luang Prabang are produced by Hobo Maps. You can obtain an LP map at the Luang Prabang International Airport tourist information counter for US$3.
Because I love different modes of transportation:
Getting to Vientiane from Bangkok
Travelling from Bangkok to Laos was fun. Thanks to The Man in Seat Sixty-One, i knew to book a ticket online or at Hua Lumphong station itself. Boarded Train 69 – an overnight sleeper from Hua Lumphong, Bangkok. Air-conditioned second class was not bad at all – a man said to give him two minutes and very quickly and expertly laid the two facing seats flat to form a bed, made up the bed with clean sheets, accessorised with a clean comfy pillow in white case and sterilized cloth blanket in a sealed plastic bag, and hung up privacy curtains. At the “head” of the bed, there was an individually-controlled lamp and netting for small items. Dining staff came to take orders for dinner and breakfast from small kitchen in dining carriage. The toilets weren’t wet or smelly and there was even toilet paper. People also kept coming through to clean stuff and pick up rubbish. There were hot water flasks in each carriage and when they took them away an hour before we arrived at Nong Khai at the Thai-Laos border, people charged their phones at the sockets. THB778 (S$31.35) was a good price for a nice night’s sleep (if you like me love to be lulled to sleep by the motion of a travelling vehicle) and the soft adventure of staring out at padi fields and getting snapshots of farmers’ lives.
At Nong Khai, the town at the border of Thailand and Laos, I bought a THB20 ticket for a much smaller ferry train (“International Train: Nong Khai – Thanaleng”) that would bring us into Thanaleng, Laos. No Lao PDR visa was necessary for citizens of ASEAN nations.
Chatted up a bunch of Japanese and Thai travellers and we shared an airconditioned minibus into Central Vientiane for 40,000 kip.
Getting around Vientiane
Most of the attractions were within walking distance – The Presidential Palace, Wat Si Saket, Wat Ho Phra Keo, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Talat Sao morning market, That Dam, Lao National Museum, Lao National Cultural Hall and the Nam Phou Fountaine which people use as a landmark.
The Russian Circus, Patuxay and That Luang were a little further out so I hired a jumbo tuk-tuk for 40,000 kip (S$6) for an hour, down from 100,000 kip after some smiling and laughing at the ridiculous first price offered.
Guesthouse charged 50,000 kip (S$7.58) for an airconditioned minivan to Wattaya International Airport. I was late, so didn’t have time to shop around.
Getting from Vientiane to Luang Prabang
Car: Two Thai chaps I met when we shared a cab into town were on a southeast-asian Harold & Kumar roadtrip and asked if I wanted to come along for the drive along route 13 from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. I declined, suspecting they might appreciate their couple privacy.
Coach: The young people at hotel counters (except for the girl digging her toenails at Lao Youth Inn who said she’d never heard of The Plain of Jars) said domestic travel by VIP coach would be “no problem”. But I decided to go with the advice of an older Laotian travel agent in a little bare office who warned me against travelling by bus during rainy season:”Yes you can travel on coach but I am not sure what time you arrive.” There were reports that a bus got bogged down along a narrow muddy road for 3 days, causing an enormous tailback.
Plane: Since I’d promised to meet friends in Bangkok over the weekend, this meant the Vientiane – Phonsavanh – Sam Neua – Luang Prabang route had to be nixed, so I took my chances with Lao Airlines direct to Luang Prabang instead.
Lao Airlines, the national carrier, was a pleasant way to fly, even though the German chap next to me was sweatily nervous. In its previous incarnation as Lao Aviation, it didn’t have a good record of arriving at its destinations intact. If you’re headed from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, definitely get a window seat on right of the plane (an A320). There were beautiful views of lush hills and winding rivers when the plane tipped its right wing several times and even a fantastic rainbow (pointed this out to German neighbour but he only managed a grim smile).
Getting Around Luang Prabang
Taxi transfer from Luang Prabang International Airport is run by a monopoly charging a fixed fee of 50,000 Kip (S$7.58) into town. Price is same-same per minibus for up to 3 people.
While quite a few attractions were about the central area (thereby making said area the central area), there were some places further away so I rented a bicycle that came with a basket and China-made bicycle lock for 20,000 kip for the day (S$3). It would have had been prudent to check the brakes before encountering the first downhill slope. Helmets are apparently necessary only for mountain bicycles not city bicycles, and policemen are known to enforce traffic rules (eg. not travelling against traffic on one-way roads – see maps for details) against farang.
The left window seat on Bangkok Airways flight PG942 gave lovely panoramas (if you can stop your brain screaming “ox-bow lake development in progress!”) of the landscape between Luang Prabang and Bangkok.
Souphaphone Guest House seemed to be in a central enough location. Ensuite bathroom and toilet, television, air-conditioning worked fine. There was a cupboard with hangers and a safe. Heavy sliding doors were secured by padlocks, the keys to which you had to leave at the reception on your way out. My bed contained stray hairs from different parts of the body(ies) of previous occupant(s). No problem – I just slept in a silk sleeping bag instead.
Ban Pack Luck Villa also seemed similarly central but was more sumptuously decorated and the bed runners and sheets were very clean. No safe in room. The best room was the newer superior double (No. 3) room upstairs. You could soak in the bathtub and look at the top of Wat Nong Sikhounmuang or sit on verandah in the morning and watch the monk procession, out of the way of the milling crowd. It’s also across the road from L’Elephant Restaurant and Ock Pop Tok, and round the corner from Saffron and the Mekong.
There are loads of restaurants willing to give you an introduction to Lao cuisine.
In Vientiane, there are the farang eateries around The Fountaine or
Khop Chai Deu where locals bring guests and monks. The tasting platter above includes a full shot glass of lao-lao, local whisky.
The night market in Vientiane gives you an idea of what locals really eat but they only do takeaway.
If I had the time, I would have totally gone to the Beerlao factory just outside of Vientiane – nothing like a cool, refreshing lager from a company half-owned by Carlsberg.
In Luang Prabang, Tamarind (they’ve moved to King Kitsalat Road) is most well-known, with an Adventurous Lao Gourmet set as well for a minimum of two people. Tamnak Lao has ethnic performances some nights.
Both Tamarind and Tamnak Lao hold cooking classes, which are helpful for identifying flavours and generally understanding what you’re eating.
Most of the food places in Central LP were restaurants, though Canadian-owned Dyen Sabai has the added advantage of being in a slightly more exotic location across the Nam Khan river.
You get there by boat during wet season and by bamboo bridge that will be built during dry season. They have tasting platters and happy hours for cocktails while you lounge around and stare at the milk-tea-coloured river. Platter 2 consisted of smoky eggplant dip, Luang Prabang sausage, dried pork topped with sesame seeds, dried Mekong seaweed (usually called riverweed ‘cos Mekong is a river), sweet chilli sauce, sticky rice.
The night market in Luang Prabang accommodates tourists with 10,000 kip buffets – this includes just one serving of the carbs and veggies with fish and meat are extra. This wasn’t a really Lao food experience but a tummy filler for sure. With all the charcoal-grilling going on under the canvas, it was really hot and smoky – the Korean lady i was chatting with was dripping sweat into her Beer Lao.
In a special category of its own:
Coffee and pastry
There was a little house called “The Little House” on Rue Manthatourat in Vientiane which advertised, intriguingly, “house-roasted coffee”. Unfortunately, they were closing when i got there. To be investigated.
I had a good latte at Joma Bakery Café in Vientiane made by the chap in the photo above at the branch near the Fountaine. Smooth and very much dark chocolate. But stodgy pastries. The quality was passable at their Luang Prabang branch though the Bagel Egger (egg, ham and cheese bagel) was warm and nice. Bought a bag of their beans – from the Jhai Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative (JCFC, Fair Trade), allegedly through middleman Lao Mountain Coffee. In any case, most coffee in Laos comes from the Bolaven Plateau in Champasak Province – Arabica beans in cool climate and volcanic soil.
Le Banneton in Vientiane and Luang Prabang were excellent for croissants and other pastries were crispy and flaky out but hot, buttery and chewy inside. It would be magnificent if they could be paired with the coffee from
Saffron. The even more intensely rich dark chocolate in the milk (compared to Joma’s) made for a delicious cup.
Cafe Ban Wat Sene in Luang Prabang (run by the same folk who own L’Elephant, Coconut Garden, Le Patio Cafe at TAEC and, allegedly Les 3 Nagas) was populated by older French men. Lonely Planet says they have the best croissant in town but these had been sold out by 9am. The remaining pastries seemed to have spent a touch too long in the microwave and were difficult to cut through even with a knife.
The best things about the American-run Arthouse Cafe along King Kitsalat Road were the bottomless cups of coffee (nutty chocolate, drip-brewed), very lemony lemon pound cake and Nam Khan River-side views. Their complimentary water comes from bottles – just so you know.
Lao silk weaving in the country now known as Lao PDR has a long history. It was suppressed when the communists came to power but in the recent decade they have seen the economic and political benefits of legitimising links to royalty, encouraging Theravada Buddhism and entrepreneurship. You can purchase couture-quality silk products from Oudone Phimphrachanh‘s atelier or several Falang-owned air-conditioned shops in Vientiane: Mixay Boutique, Lao Silk Store and Carol Cassidy‘s >Lao Textiles all on Rue Nokeokoummane
In Luang Prabang, the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre is a good place to learn more about Lao textiles. In town, Sandra Yuck’s Caruso Lao sells pretty homeware with prices to match. Hmong folk sell some silk at the Handicraft Night Market (but keep an eye-out for Chinese/Thai reproductions) or you can trek out to Ban Phanom, the former royal weaving village 4 km to the north of Luang Prabang.
Ock Pop Tok runs weaving classes (US$45 for half a day!) at its weaving centre out of town – go to their town store to book a class and they’ll drive you out in their tuk-tuk. I won’t be changing my day job any time soon… The beal fruit tea and silk worm poo tea were interesting.
Personally not too keen on purchasing from foreign-run places especially when the interaction between farang boss and native employee in full sight of customers sounds very much like the good old money-making colonialism of the East India Company days and less about care for the disadvantaged or preservation of tradition or other such feel-good marketing spiel.
Thithpeng Maniphone used to craft silverware for Luang Prabang royalty before 1975. There are other silversmiths around Ban Wan That as well.