Monday, April 07, 2008

Lolling Around Laos

I am spending a long weekend in Laos, one of the last remaining outposts of communism. At the "instant visa" counter in the airport, sympathies are shown by the prices charged. Visitors from Cuba, Vietnam and China pay only $20 (interestingly enough, the fee must be paid in dollars) while Americans and most Europeans pay $35. Canadians for some reason must pay $42 and Swedes get off with only $31. Latin Americans are billed $30. I didn't notice the price for North Koreans. There are only a few few signs of the Pathet Lao government (now called the Peoples Democratic Republic, or PDR), which came to power in 1975 after a bloody civil war. I saw the red and yellow hammer and sickle flag flying from a hotel, and on signs at various government ministries, and I observed a girl at the local amusement park on the banks of the Mekong River wearing a Soviet Union tee shirt. One tuk-tuk bore Che Guevara's picture.

I'm here to get a new tourist visa for Thailand since the the three I purchased from the Thai consulate in Portland, Oregon, last summer finally ran out Saturday. But I failed to factor in Chakri Day, a holiday to celebrate the royal dynasty that has ruled Thailand since 1782 when the previous king was executed and the capital of Siam was moved from Ayuthaya to Bangkok. Monday is a holiday at the consulate here in Vientiane. So I'm kicking back and lolling around at the Chanthapanya Hotel in Vientiane across the street from the huge National Cultural Hall where a rare performance of a "Magnificent Music & Cultural Show" was put on last night.

Advertised to begin at 19:00, I arrived ten minutes early to find the large hall nearly empty. The flier I was handed at the door gave a date two days earlier and promised "Magnification Music." Forty minutes later, the mosquitoes began to nibble at my ankles. People, mostly families with small children, were slowly drifting in; they obviously knew it would not start on time. My ticket cost 50,000 kip ($5), but the usher could not find my seat so he chose one at random. The older American man to my right told his young Laotian friend that he would leave if it took much longer. Logos of the sponsors flashed on a screen while technicians tinkered with spotlights and special effects. A large Pepsi sign sat on the side of the stage. Two soldiers with guns stood on each side of the hall near the stage (were they supposed to prevent a mosh pit?). White chairs in the first row held assorted VIPs. Children ran up and down the aisles while the foreigners got impatient. The show finally began an hour late with a series of incomprehensible (to me) speeches. Finally the music and dance began and it was delightful. Aside from a man who did imitations of bird calls, it seemed to be a recital for a dance school and the talented kids were led by a woman who did everything: she sang, danced, played the drums and various traditional Lao music instruments, and functioned as the mistress of ceremonies. After an hour I left to find food when hunger trumped culture.

This was my second visit to the small Laotian capital (est. population 200,000) alongside the Mekong, which has now largely disappeared behind a huge sand island because it was the dry season. Laos (the final "s" is not pronounced here) was a part of French Indochina from 1893 until it achieved independence in 1954 and Vientiane still has a French feel. Street names are given as "rue" this and "boulevard" that. Baguettes are available everywhere, and I dined Saturday evening at La Silapa, a fine French restaurant, one of several in the city. There I heard on the PA my old favorite, "Lullaby of Birdland," which I first loved when I was 15 and heard Ella Fitzgerald sing it. Americans at another table where debating as to when the elite will give up their privileges in the face of global warming and the unrest of the poor. Food is cheap and most meals are under $3. I've eaten tasty dishes twice at the Full Moon Cafe, a hangout for backpackers with signs in English and comfortable pillows on benches along the sides of the room. They will also fill up your iPod with cheap tunes. Last night I ended the evening with sticky rice and mango with coconut sauce.

This morning I rented a bike (10,000 kip or $1 for 24 hours) and rode out to find the Thai consulate where I can apply for my visa tomorrow. The route took me up the broad Avenue Lane Xang which stretches from the Presidential Palace, past the baroque Patuxai victory monument (a four-sided imitation of the Arc de Triomphe), and up Rue 3 Sangre where many of the foreign embassies are located. The consulate, as I expected, was closed for the holiday. I didn't continue on to Pha That Luang, the large golden stupa that symbolizes not only Buddhism but Lao sovereignty (its image is everywhere here), because I toured that site on my last visit. Biking is relatively easy here because of the absence of heavy traffic (although there seemed even less when I was on foot). The proliferation of one-way streets took some getting used to. And I soon lost the lock I had failed to secure, but riding around the block I spotted it lying like a snake in the street. Because of the heat, my trips will be confined to the mornings and evenings.

Evening though the waters of the Mekong have moved closer to Thailand, the Laotian side is filled with outdoor restaurants along the sandy bank, amusements for children (including bumper cars which attracted the teenagers), games (mostly balloons and darts to throw at them), carts with tasty snacks, and loud music. Every night seems to be a party as they prepare for the New Year's celebration next weekend. I've found that my Thai mobile service works if I keep Thailand in line of site and so I can talk with Pim, who is keeping the home fires burning. We both agree that separation is not all its cracked up to be.

The streets are filled with colorful tuk-tuks, larger than the Bangkok versions, and their drivers (those not sleeping like one I saw in a hammock in the back) are insistent about taking you there. Equally insistent were the ladyboys who congregate on a corner near my hotel. Vientiane is not the wild west town it was during the Vietnam war, and I'm not aware of any open heterosexual bar scene here. Laos is full of "development" activity, with the World Bank, the UN, and a raft of NGOs headquartered here, offering funds and food for a country that is just now lifting its head out of poverty. Laos is the most bombed country in history, with U.S. pilots dumping loads on the countryside as they returned from bombing runs to Hanoi. Ladies in Vietnamese straw hats drag carts of vegetables and eggs up the streets looking for customers. As I ate my chicken and fried rice for lunch I was hounded by a succession of vendors who all offered me the same watches, massage implements and Viagra, not necessarily in that order. At Talat Sao, I wondered through three floors of shops, a low rent version of Bangkok's MBK. Many shops offered huge selections of pirated CDs and DVDs.

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