Apparently the French had a saying that went something like “the Vietnamese sow rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, the Laotians listen to it grow.” I think they were onto something there. This place is nothing like any other Asian city I have been to. It’s actually not a city in that sense and long may it stay that way. More like a big country town. And very atypical if you have any familiarity with Asian infrastructure. The “cable index” is off the chart here – fibre optic and phone cables nicely hung and untangled (mostly). It’s a clean town and the pace is well, one of listening rather than planting.
I ‘m not sure exactly how it happened but I found myself in the markets. Turns out there is a bright and shiny entrance off a main street but I came in the side along a canal under bits of plastic strung together in a patchwork of blue and white and black. In another section I was impressed to discover the roof over my head was mainly polystyrene boxes all stitched together with twine and plastic. I bet it leaks like a sieve but the sun is off our heads. Though mine was bent to the ground since 98.3% of the population here barely make it to my shoulders.
The streets are quiet too, even in the backpacker strewn close quarters of the centre of town. Everyone seems to be on their best behaviour, and walk the streets looking a little puzzled and curious. We are all here wondering at a country and city that is so off the map its slumbering catches us by surprise. I hope they hope what I hope, that not too many uncover it. I overheard a Ukrainian and an American discuss the appeal of this slow town, both hoping that no one finds it, and both planning on pointing their friends at Bangkok, not Vientiane.
I have now criss crossed this town on enough occasions to be recognized by locals and for me to recognize folk on the streets I have seen two or three times – or more. And I’m not counting the tourists, most who appear to be Dutch or German and seem perplexed to find themselves in a place with nothing to do. There are no touristy things in this town such as you might find in Bangkok or Hong Kong or KL. Thank goodness for that. But I have had a lengthy conversation with a gent about the economics of a train link from Kunming to Singapore which will pass through here at some point, about cross border trade, Australian investment in bauxite and potash, the WTO agenda to drag the country into the global economy, various ASEAN agendas none of which really align with what these folk want (according to him), foreign investment and expertise from all sorts of obscure places which land in this place and the price of grapes grown on the border of Vietnam. Yes, grapes grown in Laos. It was a fascinating and rambling conversation with a guy in a country backwater yet who is acutely aware of so many things out there which are impacting his country and culture. As with conversations we had in Nepal, it’s a tough mix of decisions for these people to make – they want the seclusion and peace that comes with being a backwater, but cannot deny their citizens the things the rest of the global citizenry enjoy. He resigned himself to the idea (or rationalized all this development) of Laos being the Switzerland of South East Asia (though he preferred the old French label of Indo China (we got into the subject of the influence of Sanskrit and Hindu culture on ancient Laos)) in which his vision was a country able to pick and choose from the options that surround it. I am not so sure he will have the luxury of doing that. Things just move way too quickly for such careful selection.
But out in the markets and on the streets there seems to be little concern about that. There are people selling dried monkey fetuses (for what I have no idea) on the sidewalk, colourful silks the price of which sky rocket when I hove into view (it’s the off season so I eventually get one who is prepared to discuss a sensible price), bocce is played by men who probably should be working, school kids demurely say hi, though if from a safe distance the greeting can be a raucous shout, soldiers lift their shirts up over their bellies to cool down in the heat, rifles stacked away under park benches, and fat mothers ladle beef soup into your lunch bowl as if you were one of the family. It’s slow and familiar and viscous and soft all at once. I can wander into four lanes of traffic with some ease and not be too concerned about looking the wrong way – you can’t do that in Beijing or Ho Chi Minh City. Or Sydney for that matter. The occasional boy racer rips his 125 bike up the street in a cloud of dirty smoke but on the whole this population seems pretty content to just trundle along. After all, if you create too much racket you will never be able to hear the rice grow.
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