Slow Motion Vientiane

posted by: Emma

We approach a set of traffic lights on our way to the COPE visitor centre in Vientiane and I can’t help but wonder where I last saw the familiar sequence of red, orange and green. Certainly the capital must be the only place in Laos with traffic lights. I wonder if this is a sign of modern times, but I quickly change my assessment as I pedal closer. As if the lights are an apparition, not one road user is paying them any mind.

Korean cyclists in Vientiane Emma + Remo at night markets

Vientiane is possibly the most laidback capital city in the world, or at least in the small part of the world that we’ve traversed since leaving London. Everything moves in slow motion, from the traffic, to the promenading monks who wander out to the Mekong on dusk. We’re charmed by wide tree-lined streets, brightly coloured wats and an extensive fresh produce market which sells every edible plant and critter imaginable. Our first burgers since Istanbul are devoured with gusto and we start an extensive survey of smoothies (winning flavours being coffee and coconut shakes tied with lemon, mint and pineapple).

Not long after we’d announced our safe arrival via Twitter, Remo (last seen in Kunming, China) sends us an email saying he is also in town. We arrange to meet for dinner the following evening. Before long we bump into Martin and Catarina (two Swiss we’d met on the way into town) again, plus a Dutch cyclist we’d briefly spotted on the road and three Korean cyclists who are staying at the same hotel as us. We spend a few social evenings with the Swiss bunch and secretly wonder if Vientiane has some sort of powerful magnet attracting long distance steel framed bicycles from miles around.

Fish seller at market Eels for sale

A late drink with Eeva, a friend of a friend from Finland who is working for the EU, fixes our ,plans for the next week. She needs a cat-sitter for a few days and we decide we quite like the idea of a real house to stay in. She leaves us with a set of keys, instructions to feed ‘The Annoying Cat’ whenever she turns up and a heavily annotated map showing her favourite places in town. Our Eeva-inspired eating highlights include mango pancakes at a tiny eatery around the corner from her house, and a night at a Pakistani restaurant where the gregarious owner films our reaction to dinner and posts the results on his Facebook page. He was evidently delighted with this new marketing tool.

Aside from a few bakeries and high class restaurants, there’s little left of Vientiane’s French colonial days, with only a few of the old French buildings left standing under the bulldozer of modernisation. We left the expensive baguettes alone, but tried lunch at a guidebook recommended restaurant one day, finding the whole white linen tablecloths and fast fluent French surrounding us incredibly surreal.

Fishing in the Mekong Vientiane building

Our one important task in town is to extend our Laos visas. The process goes smoothly enough until the officials notice that I don’t have a Laos entry stamp. I quietly curse the bumbling border guards at the Sop Hun border who seemed more interested in collecting dubious fees rather than inking papers. The man-in-charge disappears into a backroom with my passport and Justin and I spend an impatient 15 minutes waiting for the verdict.

Back behind his desk, he beckons me over saying with a small smile -  “Okay, you can stay.” Unfortunately it takes us two more visits to the office to get the correct extension stamp. Perhaps the attitudes can sometimes be a little too relaxed here.

Monks walking by Mekong Sunset fishing on Mekong

Five days of living in a real house goes far too fast. Despite the best intentions to be productive, most of our time is spent trying to root a cheap tablet we buy at the Laos markets so it will run on the Android operating system rather than the fake-Android it comes with. Aside from this time-sucking task, we buy a few days worth of vegetables at the fresh produce markets and cook as often as we can, plus take bike rides along the waterfront and out to Pha That Luang, the temple which features on the national seal. On one of our last evenings we finally catch a sunset on the banks of the Mekong with cold beers in hand.

Pha That Luang

There’s a little darkness in Laos’ blue sky days, as witnessed during our visit to the COPE centre. COPE provides prosthetics and mobility devices in Laos, a service all the more critical because of Laos’ dubious title of the ‘most heavily bombed country in the world’. Despite ongoing bomb disposal efforts there are still 300 casualties a year caused by detonation of UXOs which were dumped on the country during the Vietnam war. After wandering around the exhibition we sit in the attached movie theatre to watch Bomb Harvest, a documentary about bomb removal squad training. We vow to watch our step as we cycle south.

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2 responses to “Slow Motion Vientiane”

  • Hello Emma and Justin

    Wow I am so enjoying reading your adventures and looking so forward to seeing you both. When approx do you arrive in NZ.
    We are planning on some biking while at the Mount over January but can only dream about what you two have been up to. HAve a great XMas and see you when you get home.
    We didn’t get to Laos but did Cambodia and Vietnam.
    Love heaps

    Annie and Rex

  • Aunty Annie Hines on December 15th, 2011 at 10:50 pm
  • Annie and Rex,

    Thanks for your comments – we’re looking forward to being back on the 14th of February which is suddenly not very far away at all…

    Emma and Justin

  • Emma on December 22nd, 2011 at 1:26 pm

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