Friday, January 22, 2010

Laos - Vientiane I

We landed in Vientiane after dark on Christmas Day, and the landscape looked desolate from the window, and black. With a population of around 6 million, Laos is one of the world's least densely populated countries. Even the biggest cities - Vientiane, Luang Prabang - have the feel of another country's rural towns. The airport in the country's capital was small; we exited the plane from a staircase wheeled to the door. Two government officials sat behind plain, worn wooden desks to collect our passports and money for the visa. Neither wore a smile above their faded, drab olive, one-size-too-small military shirts, the kind of shirt that, when i was a kid, hung in the back of my dad's closet after 4 years of US army service in the 70's. Now they are the standard dress of 3rd world military regiments and low-level communist party officials.

The streets seemed deserted on the short walk to our guest house. Though the country-wide 11 o'clock curfew hadn't fallen yet, few people were about. One local bar still sounded quite lively, and closer to the center of town, just before the city abuts the Mekong, a handful of tourists glided past on bicycles and sipped Beer Lao on cafe patios. The night was quiet.

We booked a room at Saysouly Guesthouse for 90,000 kip (11USD at the time). From outside it was very ordinary looking, but walking into the upstairs interior felt like entering a hotel from the French colonial age. The dark chestnut paneling, deep mattresses, and heavy linens had the feel of old-world luxury and smell of history, something that first-world hotels always try to recreate but always destroy with sanitizers and air fresheners.

We wandered down the neighborhood street towards the river. The air was cool and a touch humid and made me wish I owned linen pants. There was a tex-mex restaurant on the corner with a balcony (I'm a HUGE sucker for balconies) and live music (sucker again) and enchiladas (sensing a trend?). The place was clearly made for us. We ordered two Beer Lao - our first of many - and listened to the solo Lao guitarist's crooning covers of Hotel California and other Western oldies, which were popular with the expat crowd.

Shortly after 11 the bar closed, and we returned to our guesthouse. Though most places observed the curfew religiously, others kept their doors open until 11:30 or sometimes 12, as if to test the limits. After two Beer Lao and a longer-than anticipated day of travel, however, we didn't feel like testing ours, and we were asleep before the city's final door was closed.

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