After passing through the Thai border, Bjorn and I were hurried onto a bus filled with random foreigners (read: white people). The bus was one of the first to cross the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos. (While at first we thought we were getting special treatment, it’s due to the customs process. We waited forever at the Laotian border checkpoint while the Filipinos in our visa-run group, who had arrived 5 busloads after us, breezed through.)
The Friendship Bridge spans the great Mekong River and goes through a sort of no-man’s land; it belongs neither to Thailand nor to Laos. Flags from both countries adorn the bridge, including one that I had only seen in ’80s movies that usually involved guns, dastardly plans to take over/destroy the world and/or James Bond.
“Why is the old flag of Russia on this bridge?” I blithely asked Bjorn.
“Baby,” he said with European worldliness creeping into his voice (he always sounds vaguely British when he knows something I do not), “that’s not the Russian flag. That’s the communist flag.”
Before this moment, the closest I had come to communism was watching “The Buena Vista Social Club” on PBS. However, I spotted neither American cars from the 1950s, nor groups of elderly men performing masterful feats of musicianship (but who knows, maybe they were tucked away in a back room somewhere (the men, not the cars)).
What Laos does have is a fantastic park-like area that runs alongside the Mekong River in Vientiane, its capital city. It’s a fairly broad, well-kept strip that is home to a rather small night market (it’s around 1/3 the size of the Farmers Markets in Chico or Montrose Park) and scores of aerobics enthusiasts who jump, grapevine and clap to deafening, pulsating music at the base of the Fa Ngum statue there (Fa Ngum was the founder of Lan Xang, the kingdom that eventually became Laos). It also has much cooler temperatures than Bangkok, becoming downright chilly in the evening.
Across the street, running parallel to the park strip, were bars and restaurants galore. However, a pronounced lack of activity pervaded the place, which I thought odd given that Vientiane is Laos’ biggest city. From the city center to the river, shops were filled with stuff and remained open until 11 p.m. — with no one but the vendors inside. Many streets were quiet and eerily deserted by 9 p.m. A few streets were alive with tourists, but not in the volume I expected.
The next morning, we went on a tour that included the Patuxay Monument, another market and the mall (apparently, consumerism is alive and well in Laos). The Patuxay Monument, also known as the Victory Gate, looks like an Asian version of the Arc de Triomphe in France. Bjorn and I thought it was solid at first, but staircases inside the towers lead to several floors inside the monument. To get inside you have to pay a fee of about $3 US. At least 2 of the floors are dedicated to the selling of stuff, with stalls selling various handicrafts and souvenirs — even the top floor had a shop. It also features a viewing deck, and one can see a panoramic view of the city, including the presidential palace, other government building and temples.
The market was a maze of stalls crammed together in dim lighting. Dried frogs, vacuums, musical instruments and wonderful pieces of carved wood were just a few of the items found there. I was tempted to buy a beautiful silk sarong that many of the local women wear on a daily basis, but it was the kind of item that I knew I could only wear while in Laos. You know, the kind of clothing that awkwardly screams, “Look at me! I’ve been to a foreign country! Isn’t that neat?” (MC Hammer/balloon-pant-wearing tourists in Bangkok/men who wear flowy, loosely-woven linen shirts, I am talking to you.)
The mall was right next to the market and less impressive, both in its store offerings and the fact that the top 2 floors had absolutely no stores. However, someone in the group pointed out that just means there’s lots of room for growth and development. Plus, it had air-conditioning (a definite benefit as it dramatically warmed up in the morning) and escalators that moved slowly until people stepped on them (pretty cool).
After that, we were off to the border again and dumped in front of the duty-free area (yet another opportunity to shop). Once on the Thai side of the border we were reunited with our original driver and van — which still contained the snacks that I had inadvertently left behind, hooray! (Don’t worry, they were still good.) Nine hours later, at around 12:30 a.m., we were back in our part of Bangkok and this tale finally, and mercifully, is at