The Gateway to Laos

Lao monk, That Luang Festival, Vientiane
The next morning we filled out the visa paperwork in Alan's office in an adjoining room about three staggers from the bar. He pulled out a pair of glasses and looked over our passports. A poster of a voluptuous woman hung on his office wall. Outside on the patio Alan's wife and son ate breakfast, the black dog sitting at their feet. We handed Alan sixty US dollars each, and he handed us the paperwork that would get us into Laos.

The border between Thailand and Laos was teeming with tourists. We shuffled through the commotion a little faster than those travelers without the "Alan stamp of approval," and crossed over into Laos. We climbed into a songthaew (the flat bed of a truck, covered with a metal roof and welded to a motorcycle) and headed down the road to Vientiane. The songthaew pulled over from time to time as other passengers got on and off. A young Lao woman, walking along the road, smiled at me. She wore a traditional Lao skirt - a large piece of cloth gathered at the navel that sweeps down to the ankle. Reaching from the hem to the knee are intricate designs, sewn with bright, colorful thread.

The songthaew stirred up dirt from the roads, and a train of dust followed behind us. As we neared the city, little wooden houses gave way to big hotels. We jumped off at the Lao Paris Hotel in downtown Vientiane. For 20 US dollars a night, we got a nice clean room with comfortable beds, hot water and toilet paper. The lobby was paneled with polished teak. The stairs, the beams, the doorways were all cut out of that native red wood. We dropped our backpacks and ventured out.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos (technically the Lao People's Democratic Republic). The country's origins date back to 1353 when several feuding kingdoms unified into one nation called Lane Xang, the "Kingdom of a Million Elephants." The French officially occupied Laos from the late 1800s until 1953, when the country finally won its independence. But the newly crowned monarchy had new problems. President Eisenhower declared that Laos would be the next country to fall in his "domino theory" of communism. This remote country, long since considered the backwater of Southeast Asia, suddenly attracted the international spotlight... much the same way perfume attracts mosquitoes. Pounded by American bombers during the Vietnam War, riddled with corruption, and frustrated from a history of foreign domination, the domino didn't fall - it was kicked over. The communist government of the Pathet Lao took command on August 23, 1975.

I had never been to a communist country before, and in truth, if I didn't know the history, I wouldn't know it was one. There were no political signs, no massive statues of leaders in peasant shirts, no red banners, no context clues. There were merchants and tourists. Quiet temples, wandering monks. Baby powder and Crest toothpaste in the local drug stores.

One of the many Buddha images of Vientiane
Unlike other communist governments, the Lao P.D.R. didn't outlaw religion. It was a wise choice. Laos without Buddhism would be like bread without yeast: it is the shape and texture of the country. We wandered the streets of Vientiane and visited a couple of the local wats. The first wat, Wat Si Saket, was hemmed all the way around with statues of the Buddha. Crafted in the Lao style, these statues featured the Buddha with long dangling ear lobes and stubby mounds of hair that look like dreadlocks lobbed off at the root. They were all sitting with crossed legs, one hand resting palm up on their calves and the other hand raised, elbow bent and palm out. I placed a white flower in a statue's palm.

Andy and I ate lunch at an open-air restaurant along the river. The waiter brought us steaming hot baskets of sticky rice. As soon as he walked away, we noticed that the baskets were crawling with tiny red ants. It looked like the ants were only on the basket and not actually in the rice, so we went ahead and ate. I left a layer of rice along the inside of my basket though. I didn't want to know if the ants had burrowed their way through the straw.

A crowd of young men sat a couple tables away. They laughed and drank tall mugs of Beer Lao, the national beer. I wished I could speak Lao so I could understand what they were talking about. In essence it probably wasn't much different from a conversation between young men in New Jersey. But all the same, I wished I could hear the jokes, the nuances, the inflections.

After a short nap Andy and I wandered to talaat sao, the central marketplace. Merchants sat under their tarp-covered stalls, eating lunch or reading. We wove through stacks of flip flops, bottles of medicine and mountains of toilet paper. Unlike most of the other markets we had been to, this one didn't seem to have anything targeted at tourists. This was simply the Lao version of a supermarket. From there we caught a ride to Vientiane's most magnificent monument, Pha That Luang.

Pha That Luang is an enormous stupa surrounded by a small market. It was built between the 11th and 13th centuries and "rediscovered" by the French in 1867. From ground to pinnacle its entire 45 meters tall body is plated in a fresh coat of gold. The effect is phenomenal, a mirror for the sun. As we circled the grounds we passed perhaps 100 saffron robed monks. Ranging in age from little boys to old men, the assembly sat around in the shade of the stupa, as if waiting for something to happen. Loudspeakers blared instructions and prayers in Lao. Some of the monks smiled at us and posed for pictures. Others ignored us. I felt like we were gatecrashers at a conference - like we didn't have the right name tags.

Pha That Luang, Vientiane

Three novice monks visiting Pha That Luang
The surrounding marketplace overflowed with monks, vendors and locals. Young novice monks, dressed in their saffron robes, played with cap guns and fired slingshots at empty tin cans. T-shirts sold next to pots of soup. The sun beat down on the market, somehow cutting through the awnings and tents.

Back at the hotel, we ate spicy ginger soup, chicken and rice. Michael Jackson and MTV blared from the lobby, but our room, three flights up, was dead quiet. I flopped into the fluffy bed and fell asleep.