I’m writing this 50 days after moving to my new home in Vientiane, Laos. I’ve spent half that time sequestered from my fellow human beings: 14 days in quarantine on my arrival and a week later a further 11 days in self-isolation after contracting Covid 19 (and yes, from which I’m now recovered, thank you for asking).
In the remaining 25 days I’ve managed to get a handle on my local area – a village called Ban Donepamai in the district of Sisattanak – but other than a couple of walks through the city centre and along the Mekong River, I can’t really claim to have seen much of Vientiane let alone Laos.
For a city in southeast Asia it’s remarkably compact and small, with a population somewhere between 800,000 and a million, depending on which source you ask (compared with the eight to nine million people inhabiting Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, or even the two million plus living in Phnom Penh).
But then Laos itself seems remarkably compact, with an area about the same as the state of Victoria. It looks like an apostrophe tucked in between Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and China, and is southeast Asia’s only landlocked country. The Mekong runs through it the way the Nile runs through Egypt, providing not just water, silt and a transport route, but character as well. The Mekong also acts as a border between Laos and Thailand, and one of the most pleasant things to do in Vientiane is listen to the sound of bells and gongs drifting across the river from Buddhist wats.
Laos, a socialist country embracing communism, is controlled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The party’s hand lays very lightly on us foreigners. From our point of view, life in Vientiane runs just as it does in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, if at a much slower pace. People own their own small businesses and mainly serve their local community. At this level at least, entrepreneurship seems to be encouraged. Everybody works, and everybody works hard.
I’m sure censorship exists at some level, but so far I’ve not encountered it personally, and AJ has been told that she can teach any text relevant to her course. The only sign that we’re living in a one-party state is the slightly Orwellian speeches given every morning over loudspeakers. None of the loudspeakers seem to be near us, so what we hear is a metallically-distorted monologue that drifts across our district like a mumbled prayer from heaven. The tone is completely even, without any emotion at all, as if all that was being delivered were aircraft boarding announcements or department store messages.
As AJ told me soon after she arrived six months ago, Vientiane in 2022 is probably what Phuket was like in 1982. In my limited experience, the locals are formidably polite and quite reserved. They are always bustling and busy, either riding their scooters to or from work, or selling vegetables, take-away food or lottery tickets from behind makeshift stalls or shop-houses (with the living accommodation on the second floor or out back). As in Thailand, thick skeins of electric cable are suspended above every main street, and the faint waft of sewage drifts up from drains.
Traffic is only busy at peak times, but even then everyone drives under 50 kph. If there are traffic rules, they’re interpreted differently by every driver, but drivers – and by necessity, pedestrians – are courteous and patient. There are some big SUVs and pickups around, but most cars are small Toyotas, Hyundais and Kias, and all of these are vastly outnumbered by the swarm of motor scooters that cough around the streets like asthmatic beetles. It’s a marvel to watch scooter-drivers spend half their time looking where they’re going and the other half checking their mobile phones while using some internal radar to avoid collisions.
AJ and I will be here for at least two years, possibly three or more, so plenty of time to get to know the city and the country, starting with the Plain of Jars in a couple of weeks and Luan Prabang in April. And, of course, once Covid restrictions ease (fingers crossed), Vientiane will make a good base for visits to Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. Rainforest, rivers, rapids, monsoons and the world’s best food bar none. I have to say, it’s wonderful being back in the tropics.