|Our Really Big Adventure|
| When it comes to
great capital cities of the world, Vientiane doesnt get a look in.
At less than 200,000 people and with match and plastic bag production among
its major industries, it isnt an economic powerhouse deserving attention
on the world stage. However, for the traveller it strikes a delicate balance,
large enough to have all the amenities of modern life but still remaining
intimate. This, combined with the Laotians easygoing attitude, puts
Vientiane on my list as one the most chilled out and hassle-free cities
in the world.
We had a recommendation, from an Australian couple, for a newly opened guesthouse, not yet in the guidebooks. So while it was great value it was nearly impossible to find. Armed with just a name, we pestered tuk-tuk driver after tuk-tuk driver until we found one that knew where the guesthouse was. He agreed to take us there for the princely sum of 50 cents, the two minute journey confirming what his toothy grin had already told us - it was just round the corner.
The Australians hadnt done us wrong. The guesthouse was fantastic and we luxuriated in its facilities. For only the second time in Laos we had hot showers, drying ourselves with our rooms soft, fluffy towels, not the nylon, see-through ones we had become used to. The in-room television was the first one we had seen with English channels and we caught up with WorldCom and other scandals, until we realised we were glad to be away from it all. But it was the bed, or rather the sheets, that really excited us they were real cotton. That may not seem like a big deal, but when youve spent five months on shiny artificial fabric, or in the clammy embrace of your rank sleeping bag, the feel of real cotton will have you wriggling around the bed like a dog having its tummy tickled.
It is easy to while away a couple of days in Vientaine just wandering down the various promenades admiring the decaying French architecture. The local markets take up a few hours and are a remarkably easy place to buy local handicrafts, with the concept of a hard sell seemingly an alien one. The national museum had a surprising well-put together pre-history section, but the highlight had to be the captions from the Indochina war displays. Phrases like barbaric slavery under the imperial yoke of France, capitalist running dogs and imperialist puppets where used without even a smidgeon of irony.
One of the legacies of French colonialism is an appreciation of good food. Some of the best restaurants fell within our budget and we took full advantage. One night, as we indulged ourselves with Laoss famous pâtés accompanied with a glass or three of good red wine, the heavens laid on a show that put the worlds millennium celebrations to shame. All around us lightening lit up the skies and with one shattering thunderclap the entire citys electricity was cut. We sat on the veranda by candlelight for three hours transfixed and trapped by the ferocity of the storm.
Eventually, well after our budget had forced us from wine to beer, the storm abated. We left the restaurant to find Vientiane unrecognisable. The streets were flooded, at times as deep as our knees, and without electricity no lights lit the city. The pavements being too flooded, we waded down the centre of the streets, occasionally giving way to motorcycle drivers with their legs awkwardly held aloft. We enjoyed the moment laughing with the locals as they pushed each other into the murky waters.
Avoiding a sudden onslaught of traffic we made our way to the submerged pavement. All of sudden I was falling, the security of the concrete beneath the water gone. An ineffective yelp was all my diminished reflexes could manage and with a sickening thud my knee collided with a slab of concrete. The rain, which had turned the streets into canals, cunningly hid the many open sewers lining the roads. I had blindly walked directly into one, my knee stopping me before I bottomed out. I clambered out of the hole and was relieved to discover that nothing was broken and that pain and embarrassment were all I suffered.
All too soon it was time to leave Laos. We had spent three amazing weeks there and would have given it longer if we hadnt already purchased our tickets to Bangkok. Needing consolation, we upgraded to first class on the overnight train. So it was in our own private cabin with a bottle of Beaujolais Village that we closed the door on our Laos adventures.