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By Michael Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 11, 2001; Page E01
Vientiane, capital of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, sometimes seems to be all things to all tourists. I've met American veterans of the Vietnam War who remember the city as a dark jungle hideaway where opium was easier to buy than beer. Across the Mekong River in Thailand, people warned me that Vientiane and all of Laos is primitive and dangerous. For low-budget backpackers, the city is a paradise of hot showers and sit-down toilets. Well-heeled Western tourists admire its fine European-style restaurants and luxuy hotels.
As an American living in Thailand, I've savored Vientiane's unique blend of Asian charm and Western comforts. While booming Thailand has become increasingly Westernized, Laos, which had a cool relationship with tourists a decade ago, has been frozen in time.
Most tourists take the overnight train from Bangkok and arrive midday, when clouds of dust rise skyward from passing cars and a hot sun beats down. But once you've found your room, taken a cool shower and sipped a cool drink, the city becomes more inviting. After Bangkok, Vientiane is gloriously quiet, with fewer speeding motorcycles, clanging trucks and blaring television sets.
From the balcony of my $2-a-night guest house, I can see schoolgirls in long black dresses holding hands, laughing and casting sidelong glances at foreigners. Tanned farmers pushing carts of sliced pineapple, watermelon, sugar cane and guava pass by, ringing bells as they go. Across the street a woman squats before a mortar and pestle, grinding chili peppers and shredded papaya into a fiery salad, her rhythmic bok-bok a sort of national anthem.
As the setting sun highlights the red-tiled roof and garish murals of the temple across the street, I go for a walk, for that is the way to see this city of half a million people. In fact, a friend described it as being "too slow for a bike."
Vientiane has many reminders of French colonialism. France ruled Laos from the late 19th century until 1953, when the Southeast Asian country was granted full sovereignty. (The communists took over in 1975, but have encouraged tourism in the past decade.) On street signs, French is as common as Laotian. And the French influence lives on in shuttered colonial villas, with their pastel paint peeling and a lone buffalo feeding in one overgrown garden.
I pass the American Embassy, which has a poster out front showing what the new U.S. dollars look like. Farther along, a university flag sports the communist hammer and sickle. There have been a series of bombings around the capital for nearly a year, but from my own experience, the combination of moonshine and holes in the sidewalk is much more dangerous. The road I am on, however, is safe. It ends at the Mekong, where farmers tend lush fields of vegetables in the middle of this lovely capital.
If you come to Vientiane for history, you will be disappointed. Guidebooks list a handful of Buddhist temples and stately landmarks -- That Luang; Wat Sisaket, with 6,800 Buddhas; and the climbable Victory Monument -- as well as the Revolutionary Museum, but the city was largely razed in 1828 by invaders from Siam (today's Thailand). Little of historical importance remains.
But what Vientiane may lack in history, it charms with its present-day details, as dazzling as any gold-leaf-flecked Buddha. The labyrinth of stalls at the morning market sells imported manufactured goods, wood carvings and furniture, silverware, gold, jewelry and fabrics. Unlike in Thailand, the shops open late, the dogs are friendly and taxi drivers don't cheat you.
The tourist neighborhood surrounding the city's central water fountain is full of higher-priced hotels. This area also caters to the tourist who has overdosed on fried rice and noodle soup. I've enjoyed Indian buffets, Italian pizzas and prix fixe French dinners prepared by expatriate chefs for less than $5. But don't miss such local favorites as paté sandwiches on freshly baked baguettes, sticky rice with grilled chicken and papaya salad, iced limeade (nam manow) sold by vendors with a blender and stack of limes. Several watering holes are also here, where tourists and expats share $1.25 pitchers of Beer Lao or local moonshine rice whiskey called lao-lao. A shot costs about a quarter; be sure to pour the first one on the floor for good luck and to please the building's resident spirit.
Vientiane's real treasures, however, are its people -- residents and non. Vientiane has plenty of hotel rooms ranging from $5 to $500 a night, but low-budget travelers congregate at the Sabaidee ("Hello") Guesthouse. Two dollars buys a bunk bed in a fan-cooled dormitory, a shared bathroom with hot water and a balcony where you'll meet a motley crew from all over this world. On my last visit, I encountered a Malaysian who was walking across Asia (and was desperate to find a good shoe store), a young Frenchman who'd just married a much older Laotian woman while drunk on rice whiskey, and a filthy Japanese man who kept asking us to go drinking with him.
And then there are the locals you meet by happenstance.
On my last visit, I strolled over to a park that overlooks the Mekong. A young man approached me, dictionary in hand, and asked if he could join me to practice his English. Instinctively I pulled my bag closer, wary of some scheme to relieve me of my money or passport. But he was just a kid hoping to learn enough English to get a job in the blossoming tourist industry -- and to dazzle girls with Western phrases.
He was exuberant when I said I was an English teacher and would be happy to help him -- and even more so when I bought us a couple of quarts of Beer Lao from a passing vendor. He told me that he has uncles who live in Texas, not far from my two uncles, and who had fought the communists 30 years ago, as one of my uncles had. When I asked him if his uncles would ever return to Laos, he shook his head and looked through his dictionary until he could point to the word "dangerous."
Perhaps he aspired to be more than a tour guide, because he asked me the polite way to ask a girl's name in English and to say that she is beautiful. In turn, he taught me a lovely Laotian saying that translates, "When you smile you are twice as beautiful."
Three schoolboys eventually joined us, and I showed them pictures of my privileged life in America: my parents, glamorous in evening dress; the beautiful house where I grew up in Waterford, Va.; my sister, whose long blond hair and blue eyes always draw murmurs of approval in Asia. I gave them photo stickers of me and my Thai girlfriend, which they promptly stuck on the front of their notebooks as if we were movie stars.
Walking back to my guest house, I thought that it was ironic that I had shown them the pictures of my comfortable life in America, because I may not return to that life for a long time.
Michael Patrick Anderson last wrote for Travel on teaching English in Thailand.
The U.S. State Department warns Americans traveling to Laos to be on alert and exercise caution in public places due to a series of bombing incidents in Vientiane and other cities.
GETTING THERE: You can fly to Vientiane from Washington for about $1,640 round trip on ANA or Thai Airways, with at least one connection (Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Bangkok, etc.), but most visitors take an overnight bus or train from Bangkok to Nong Kai, Thailand, where they can purchase a Lao visa for $31 at the Friendship Bridge. Vientiane is about a nine-mile taxi ride from the bridge. United, British Airways and other major carriers fly round trip from the Washington area to Bangkok, with current fares starting at $1,500.
GETTING AROUND: Scooters and bikes can be rented, but the best way to see this slow-paced city is on foot. A taxi ride across the city should be no more than $1.50. Vientiane is centrally located and offers buses to the mountains in the north where tourists often go trekking.
WHERE TO STAY: Sabaidee Guesthouse, a popular tourist gathering spot, is one block from the water fountain (nam poo) and offers dorm-style accommodations for $2 a night. The Mixay on Nokeokummane Road is a popular budget hotel with rooms from $6 a night. The Santisouk (77-79 Nokeokummane Rd., telephone 011-856-21-215-303), near the Revolutionary Museum, has air-conditioned rooms from $12 and a restaurant down below. The sprawling Lao Hotel Plaza (63 Samsenthai Rd., telephone 011-856-21-218-800, www.laoplazahotel.com), also near the museum, has Western-style luxuries (pool, sauna, nightclub, bookstore, etc.) from $75. For more hotel options, check the Lao Hotel Group, part of the country's chamber of commerce, at www.laohotelgroup.org.
WHERE TO EAT: For Western food, restaurants in the water fountain area offer excellent lunches and dinners for around $5. Noodle soup, grilled chicken, sticky rice (eaten with your fingers) and papaya salad are available from vendors all over the city for about 50 cents each.
INFORMATION: The Rough Guide's "Laos," by Jeff Cranmer and Steven Martin, is by far the best guidebook available, with excellent cultural, historical and practical information for any class of tourist. Raintree Books, near the water fountain, has maps, as well as cool communist posters for sale.
-- Michael Patrick Anderson