“Changing rapidly? I’ll tell you – ” said the Australian-who-wasn’t-one-anymore (we can call him Herc, instead – later, he’ll ask us to), with his characteristic smile-wink (head tilt and eyebrow raise included – it was a marvelous gesture/facial expression that I immediately wished I had the charisma to pull off) “this street was mud last year.””Last year? This street?” I echoed.
It was a broad street equipped with ATMs, office buildings, and souvenir shops; expensive new cars (incongruous but omnipresent) were parked densely along both sides of the street. We were seated at “Fruit Heaven” enjoying fruit shakes and baguette sandwiches (of all the legacies of the French imperialism, the lifespan and quality of the baguette is indeed noteworthy).
“This very same street,” Herc confirmed, “paved just this year. That tells you something, doesn’t it?” He rolled himself another cigarette, pausing as if to offer a moment to let the thought sink in.
A few years ago the majority of the educated Western world couldn’t name the country, much less place it on a map; today its one of the most popular tourist destinations – a “must see” destination even outside of the backpacker circuit, well on the way to becoming a holiday destination for the middle class. Officially designated as one of the “least developed countries” by the UN (according to an edition of the Vientiane Times found on a coffee table at breakfast), the government has been hoping to achieve promotion by 2020 – an utter impossibility (according to an official interviewed in the same article). Two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (more than were dropped on the entirety of Europe during both World Wars combined) and only 15% of those have exploded or been cleared.
Laos is, indisputabley, a third world country – but the average visitor wouldn’t know that. The Yellow Brick Road has been freshly painted and scrubbed ’til it shines. Tourists breeze through the “charming UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang” (say that to yourself in a posh British accent) before “relaxing in the scenic Vang Vieng” (that gets a wink and a nod, for the happy pizzas and special shakes) and possibly (possibly) make it as far as the Plain of Jars or the Four Thousand Islands before utilizing Vientiane’s airport to leave – say, straight to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, or Bangkok.
Laos is doing its best to emulate Thailand, particularly when it comes to building an tourism-based economy – it’s now been the Official Visit Laos Year several running – and this means creating a tourist-based infrastructure – the sort that while many come to South East Asia to avoid, they secretly draw great comfort and strength from having available. All the comforts of home (air conditioned hotels, broad paved streets, and dozens of pizza parlors) to keep the tourists comfortable – and quite isolated from the rustic charm and idyllic pastoralism that drew the first visitors.
Take, for example, the bus. Bus trips are almost a rite of passage for the hardened backpacker, a universal that alongside plastic bags in dormitory rooms, toilet paper, and motorbike burns (oh – and let’s not forget the Asian pop) will trigger story after rant after story in any group.
There are buses, however, and then there are buses. The former category includes those that give birth to travelers’ horror stories – double-digit hours on rock-hard benches with screaming babies and bleating livestock, acute bouts of food poisoning, motion-sick locals, bags lighter at the end of the trip then the start. Laos, however, has taken the second category to heart: complimentary drinks and snacks, beds with pillows and duvets, and karaoke through the night (may the lord have mercy on your soul – and your ears).
Having invited myself southward from Luang Prabang with Martin, we boarded a bus to Vientiane the next morning. An air conditioned, well upholstered, comfortable and modern piece of machinery that traveled over amazingly well-paved roads. (If you hear a backpacker grumbling about that road – and I actually have – don’t believe them for a moment). Trading seats to sit next to each other, we found ourselves under the curious gaze of an Australian schoolteacher traveling with her husband and teenage daughter that we’d met on the slow boat. “You’re together now?” she said, smiling. “We’re going to Vientiane,” I said, not quite catching the implication in her words until after I’d answered. We chatted a bit and I tried to read. I shivered in the blessed cold and Martin laughed at me (prepared for the enthusiastic cooling system, he’d worn a long sleeved shirt) I pulled out a large piece of silk I’d bought in Laos and wrapped it around myself. Forsaking the collection of O’Henry, I squirmed in my seat and eyed Martin’s shoulder – regardless of the sort of bus you’re on, I’ve discovered that they are far more comfortable with a friend, preferably a taller friend – and asked if he minded if I leaned on his shoulder. The Australian woman laughed. I blushed – I hadn’t meant it like that – but fell asleep on his shoulder regardless.
Vientiane was uninspiring, but to be fair, we may not have given it much of a chance. We didn’t plan on spending much time in there – just long enough to take care of some administrative details: Martin needed a visa for Cambodia and my passport was out of pages.
We quickly checked ourselves into the first guest house we found, a nondescript cement block that we affectionately dubbed “the opium den”. (Note: in Laos, if they ask you if you smoke when you check-in, they’re not asking if you want an ashtray.) Our room came equipped with a cubbyhole of a “balcony”, overlooking a crawlspace to the building next to us with a view of the neighbors surrealist collection of mannequin body parts. Every time we walked by the front desk, we were offered a drug or two and a deep breath walking up the stairs and down the hallways when we returned in the evenings let us know that at least some of the other guests accepted. No Persian rugs and water pipes, unfortunately – nothing so romantic – just nylon curtains and sheets with cigarette burns in a room that could have existed anywhere, at any time in the last few decades.
We watched a lightning storm brighten the sky on all sides the first evening while enjoying a mediocre meal on the riverbank. I spent the next day at the US Embassy; Martin went to the Post. Nearly two dozen simple bars, an identical series of woven mats and triangle pillows served beer on the colder side of lukewarm – we spent a few evenings doing nothing more than lounging and chatting. A fairground with a ferris wheel and machine-gun carrying men in camouflage (what fair is complete without them?) blasted Lao pop. A Buddhist temple sat across the road, its grounds filled with inflatable Christmas icons – from Santa Claus to Snowmen. We saw the museum – cute kindergarten dioramas of village life – and a market, wandered the town less than we should have, and managed to get a bus ticket to out of town – a feat that only took us two bus stations, one helpful-but frightening tout, one helpful-but-vague American tourist, three uniformed-yet-utterly-uninformed Lao men, a women pulled from the back of the shop who actually knew what she was talking about, and a surprisingly long tuk tuk to the outskirts of town.
We found ourselves at Fruit Heaven a few hours before our bus to Pakse, The most stereotypical American I’ve ever met, a large man in a Hawaiian shirt (tucked into his khaki pants), the zip-pulls of his fanny-pack held together by a small combination lock approached us – obviously desperate for a chat. He’d been teaching English in and out of South East Asia for the last several decades and was the sort of conversationalist who didn’t converse – he only spoke – and loudly at that. He only spoke to complain, albeit affectionately, about every place he’d been. Martin found him interesting; I didn’t make space on the bench for him to sit and, instead, stroke up a conversation with Herc, who did his best to explain Vientiane to me. He loved the place – he’d been living there for years.
“It’s changing, like the whole damn country is changing – but here, here its real change, real progress. Here it’s changing for the people,” he said. “This is what Laos will become – fortunate or not, who knows – this is the prototype of what Laos wants to become – not the fairytale amusement parks they’re tossing you backpackers – just the fairytale for the country’s rich.”
Vientiane, end of the Yellow Brick Road, was it turned out, neither on nor off of it.