Vientiane is the capital of Laos, a small landlocked country whose cultures are similar to that of north eastern region of Thailand. Laos had been ruled by the more powerful Vietnamese, Burmese, Thais and the imperialist French in various stages of its history. During the cold war, parts of Laos that are close to Vietnam were also bombed into stone age by the Americans as extension to the Vietnam war. How this small country survives all the foreign onslaughts and still exist as a nation state is an interesting topic of discussion.
Previously I travelled to Vientiane from China, via a 12 hours bus ride from Chinese border to the historical town of Luang Phrabang, from where I took a short flight to Vientianne. This time my approach is from Thailand. I flew to the northern Thai town of Udon Thani from Bangkok, and then crossed the Thai-Lao Friendship bridge across the Mekong river at Nong Khai checkpoint.
After the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, I find Vientiane to be very refreshing. The laidback atmosphere, relaxing ambience and the gentle people are the greatest attractions, from my point of view. This is the real land of a thousand smiles. One of the best way to savour this is to take a stroll along the park besides the Mekong river at central Vientiane.
There are various accommodation, eating and drinking places to cater for all sort of taste, and the good thing is that they do not hit deep into the pockets. The Lao beer is a favourite with travellers, and a small bottle is around $1. Local food is quite close to that of the Thais. Tourism is obviously booming, as new hotels are being built.
There are a few noticeable changes that I noticed in this visit. First, there are a lot more new cars on the road, as the people are getting wealthier, thanks to double digit economic boom of recent years. There is no traffic congestion yet, but its just a matter of time before it appears. The Tut-tuts still remains the most widely used form of transport within the city. Price for a short trip should be around 20,000 to 30,000 kips, I.e. around $4.
Besides tourism, Laos is a haven for all sorts of international Western aid agencies. Lots of foreign aids money are being pumped into Laos for all kind of foreign funded projects. The local English newspaper is full of advertisement from these foreign aid agencies looking for local translators and assistants.
I had a previous dinner conversation back in Sydney with someone who once worked for the UN as foreign aid worker. According to him, postings in South East Asia are the most sought after by foreign aid workers. Hence from the point of those working for UN agencies, Western donor agencies and NGOs, a posting in Laos is very cozy, when compared to other poor but more needy countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. I am not surprised if Laos has more foreign aids or Western NGO workers per capita than any other country. While Laos is officially a communist country, it seems to be receptive in hosting Western agencies. This could be one of the reasons why criticism of communist Laos by Western countries are rare or highly muted.
The second most prominent advertisements are mining jobs. There are plans by international mining corporations to develop large mines in Laos. I have seen advertisements from mining companies advertising for all kind of mining related jobs. I am not sure how the extracted minerals will be transported out, as Laos is landlocked. My guess is that they can use the Mekong river to transport ores to China and Thailand.
It is with a kind of mixed feeling that I observe the modernisation which is taking place in Vientiane. The change in the mindset is already happening, as economic considerations are accorded top priority; the people are clamouring for cars rather than contented with motorcycles and bicycles. Somehow along the way, I am worried that the Lao charm could be lost in the transition. It’s inevitable, as that’s the price of modernity, I suppose. How I wished that I could spend more time there, as it was with heavy heart that I left Vientiane for KL.