October, 2002

Notes from a visa run to Vientiane, Laos.

Here are some observations about Laos, which is a very poor country with very good coffee.

I made it a point to try Lao coffee whenever I could. I ordered coffee without cream and without sugar (mai sai nome, mai sai namdahn). I got them to repeat it to me, but without exception, every cup came back with sugar, condensed milk, or both and had to be reordered. The coffee was fairly thick, made by a drip method using finely ground coffee and a cloth filter bag. I'm no good at describing taste, but it was very smooth and almost a little sweet but still rich. Even the weakest cup I had was much stronger than your typical Star bucks, and without the cream, sugar and other flavoring additives, they were very good cups of coffee. No I agree with the writer of the Lonely Planet guide book who wrote that Lao coffee might be the best in the world.

There were no large department stores. Come to think of it, no department stores at all. The streets are in poor repair (the sidewalks dangerous), as are most of the buildings I was in. The currency is very weak and the hotel I stayed at, all the restaurants I ate in, and even the itinerant street vendors quoted prices in dollars and Thai Baht first, then if requested, would quote in Lao Kip. $1.00 buys 10,600 kip, and the currency exchange at the boarder doesn't' give bills larger than 5,000 kip notes, so one walks around with a HUGE wad of Kip (exchanged $75 worth of Thai Baht and the clerk shoved a 750,000 kip stack of bills across the counter to me). The real reason people prefer the Baht and the U.S. dollar, is that the Kip has fallen constantly even against the Baht and sine most of the goods being sold are based on costs outside Loas (electricity from Thailand, foreign oil, imported foods and factory made products, etc.) its better to be paid in a currency that has a stable relationship to your costs. That's because very little beyond agricultural products and handmade things are made in Laos.

I passed by a couple of factories and they didn't appear to be very important to the economy. The Honda factory looked like it covered about 5000 square meters, perhaps large enough to assemble motorbikes from parts shipped from outside the country. What was probably the largest factory was the Lao Soft Drink Company, which is probably government operated.

The hotel room I stayed in was clean and had very good air conditioning, which is important in this part of the world, and the bed sheets were clean, and the shower and sink worked fine, but the building itself had fallen into disrepair with severe water damage to the ceiling, peeling wall paper, and electrical wiring exposed in several places. Everything pointed to the hotel being well run but without funds sufficient to maintain the property. The room was $25 per night.

Within easy walking distance of the town center was a pretty old temple and a museum. Between the two of them, there were nearly 10,000 Buddha figures, many dating back to the 1500's, though the buildings themselves were reconstructed in the 1800's and early 1900's, the originals having been destroyed by the Siamese in earlier fighting. It was fascinating.

One of the things that I found to be fascinating is that there were centuries-old Buddha figures that had been damaged by war and other elements of time to the point that the human form only barely recognizable, but because the Buddha is held is such high esteem all images are sacred and are warehoused rather than destroyed. So, even these images, some half-melted, others with the features worn off are still kept in prominent places after hundreds of years.

A curiosity nearby is the Lao version of the Arch de Triomphe in Paris. From a distance it appears truly out of place, rising majestically over a dusty road with cattle browsing the grass along the roadway and palm trees shading the lawn immediately below. You may have seen the one In Paris during one of your trips to Europe. In the one in Europe, there is a museum at the top. In Vientiane, there are souvenirs shops on each level. The structure was built from concrete supplied by the U.S. to build an airport during the Viet Nam war. Ironically, it was built as a war memorial to commemorate those who died in the struggle to kick the French out of the country. This, as well as heavy French influence in building architecture, signs posted in French, and French bread are strong signs of the continuing influence from French rule in the middle of the 1900's. I've enclosed a picture of the Arch -note that the Palm trees just don't look like Paris. See the enclosed JPEG.

Vientiane is kind of an expensive place by my standards. A bowl of soup at a restaurant at the bottom of a shophouse costs 30 Baht (70 cents) while the same bowl of soup would cost 20 baht in Bangkok. The restaurants catering to foreigners had prices close to similar restaurants in Bangkok or even the U.S., in other words dinner was in the $10 to $15 per person range (this without wine) -a shockingly high price in a country where the average worker makes less than $1 a day. Other than the prices, it was a nice place to visit. I picked up a battery powered short wave radio (with the worst selectivity I've ever seen, but it pulls in BBC and VOA and FM works ok) for $7.00 and a laser pointer (which I already disassembled to use as a component in a possible project) for $2.70, so I got some deals.

I may need to go back for a visa run next year, in which case, there are a few more sights to take in. And as I indicated, the Lao-grown coffee is excellent.

This picture was taken near the hotel in the center of Vientiane. I'm trying to smile, honest, but the sun's in my eyes. The big thing behind me is referred to as the Black Stupa ("That Dam" in Lao). It probably contains the earthly remains of some prominent person or family and is hundreds of years old. Local lore has it that it contains a dormant seven-headed dragon that came to life during the 1828 Siamese-Lao war and protected the local residents. Now its pretty much overgrown with weeds and there is no sign of any dragon whatsoever.

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