Travel

Quick! What’s the capital of Laos?

Before 6 months ago, I had to look up the capital of Laos. I had little idea about the place.

Here’s an interesting fact. At one point in the 70s, the US Embassy in Vientiane, Laos was the largest in the world with over 3,000 Americans posted there. Having passed through several of our modern large Embassies, and their casts of thousands, I can only imagine the hive of activity. They occupied their own neighborhood nearby. A remote suburb of northern Virginia. It even had its own 16 bed hospital.

Which could be a good thing, as just 5 hours up the road, over a period of 9 years, the US dropped more conventional  explosives than it used in all of WWII. Much of this in the form of cluster bombs that remain in exploded and continue to kill to this day. One of the main misions of the current Embassy, now much smaller, is assisting in the clean up of all that mess. So far, they’ve cleared over 90 square miles, in a country with a total area of 91,000 square miles.

In a weird sort of twist, they harvest the metal and turn it into bottle openers and silverware and trinkets, and sell it back to us tourists.

Vientiane, is a sleepy city on the banks of the Mekong river, across the river lies Thailand. Like Vietnam, the remnants of French influence is deep. Street signs and architecture all harken to Paris, as do the croissants and baguettes, and the steak!  God bless steak and fries with red wine shallot sauce!

The Chinese are investing heavily.  Buying up waterfront property and putting up huge hotels catering to Chinese tourists. There are Chinese malls selling Chinese goods to people who’ve flown in from China. It’s rather a closed system that brings up some resentment.

There are also beer halls. The Lao love their beer. A. Lot.  Before 11 pm, when everything closes up, they can be found with friends downing large bottle after large bottle of Beer Lao poured over glasses overflowing with ice. The clinking of cubes and bottles keeps the darkness at bay. Plates of noodles and meats accompany.

At one point the heat and the setting briefly disoriented me.  Driving down the road, passing shop after shot with gift baskets displayed, trimmed in red tinsel. Large piles of stuffed animals. I can’t figure it out. Then the driver, says, “So much red. For the special holiday.”

“Yeah? What holiday is it?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s the love holiday. From overseas.”

“Oh, right!  Valentine’s Day! I forgot!”

“Yes! It is Valentine’s Day”

And, sure enough, as the day progressed, more and more red appears. Flowers, balloons. Down at the river market, all the lingerie sellers had their red or pink bras up front. The perfume sellers, were pushing anything red. And people had on anything red that they could find.

They take it really seriously. At the end of the day, one of my staff, passed on after work, that he was going to the market to get some seafood. He said, “well, it’s the love holiday, so we’ll spend it together with family.  Just family time.”

I thought it was kind of sweet.  Instead of courtship and dating, they’d made it about spending time with family and those we care about. Lord knows, we need more of that.  

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