"There's noting to do there, y'know," they all told me, as they drew on their great tumours of fruit metastasising from ridiculous cocktails in the slick, marble-lined bars of Bangkok's fancy hotels. "It's like going back through time to a country town in the '50s". Sounded pretty interesting to me, and I was sure a town isn't dubbed "The Paris of the East" for nothing ... although I think that term may have been attributed to at least half a dozen other places I've visited in the last couple of years. Still, it was worth a squiz, so I donned my best 50s gear, slicked my donkey mane up into a great, greasy wave, and took to the open road.
The "highway" into Vientiane certainly checks out with the idea of a country town in the 50s. I remember seeing old photos of my parents' house, just after it was built in the mid '60s. It was on one of those new, outer suburban housing estates, and theirs was one of the first to be completed. I recall this one photo of my Old Man, wearing a pair of tight, checked bathing shorts, mutton-chop sideburns like a couple of dead possum carcasses hanging from a shed wall, and a grin from ear to ear as he proudly presents his own bricks and mortar. Behind him stands his beige-brick castle, and beyond that ... nothing. Apart from Mum and Dad's house, there was nothing but empty paddocks, as far as the eye could see.
Fifty years later, as my fat, Donkey ass was turning puce with each jolt of the rickety tuk-tuk, my occasional glimpse of the landscape outside revealed a copy of those old photographs. Something seemed wrong – Vientiane was a capital city, and my guide book told me it was a 30 minute ride from the border to the centre of town. We'd been travelling for 25 minutes by this time, and all I could see through the spaces between the rickety buildings lining the Friendship Highway, was paddocks. Surely we should have been in the outer suburbs of a great, Asian, urban sprawl by this time? Thinking I'd been conned like so many inexperienced tourists before me; that I was being taken on the long road via Mandalay, where I'd be bashed, raped and sold into slavery, an embarrassed rage leapt to my cheeks, and I began pounding on the window of the driver's cab, shaking my fist at him in fury.
The poor little fellow immediately pulled over, and was nearly crying as I threw a bunch of notes at him and stormed off along the road with my backpack.
By the time I had paled a little, I found myself walking along beautiful, tree-lined boulevards. Where these grand promenades began was not discernable; the rickety, paddock-backed shops simply vanished, to be replaced by moulding, but immense, stately homes. I panicked that maybe I had accidentally evaded a security check point, because it was clear I had wandered into an exclusive area in which vehicular traffic was forbidden. Later I learned that I had finally reached the centre of Old Vientiane; the driver had been doing the right thing after all ... but still, something was not quite right. Where was everyone?
And that's about the first thing you notice about Vientiane when you arrive – there's no one about. For the next twenty-four hours, I reasoned with myself, "Oh, it's Sunday, people must be inside relaxing" ... "Oh, it's only early on Monday, perhaps work starts late here"... "Oh, perhaps they don't leave their offices at lunch time, but eat at their desks", however by "peak hour" on Monday afternoon, there was no denying it – just like a 1950s country town, only a few vehicles exist in Vientiane, and the population is really very, very low.
But fortunately for Vientiane, and for a visiting Donkey, there are some really great things to remember about the '50s. For starters, one is able to walk right down the middle of the road, completely unmolested by traffic as one gazes into the canopy of overhanging elms (not yet cut down to widen the bursting arterials and to make way for electricity wires). You also get to sit in the open air at one of dozens of wonderful, alfresco cafes – say what you will about the French and their [lack of] manners – of course, I never would – but their culinary legacy is one to be applauded. For mine, sitting back at a gingham- clothed table on a neat little sidewalk while eating exquisite baguettes and sipping on the finest coffee in Asia is truly a delight in the literal sense of the word. And the best part of 1950s rural culture, is that they are unashamedly vocal about their hatred of foreigners ... especially Europeans, so you get all the joy of French cuisine, without the scowls, cigarettes and unwashed bodies. Magic!
But in case you needed just that little bit more evidence to convince you about Vientiane's time warp, allow me to share with you the contents of the laundry price list I found in my guesthouse bedroom. It looked much the same as any other laundry list, anywhere in the world, although very much at 1950s prices (did I mention that Laos is very cheap?). I scanned down; trousers, skirt, dress, shirt, t-shirt, safari suit, socks, underpants ... hang on, what? A safari suit? You mean to tell me that people in Laos still wear safari suits for events other than fancy dress parties or to play military board games and toy soldiers with their nerdy mates?
After two days of wandering around the quiet, but elegant "Paris of the East", I am prepared to concede that Vientiane is very, very much like a country town in the 1950s, not only in its appearance, but in its attitudes and its fashion. Of course, your urbane, cosmopolitan Donkey didn't quite fit-in with the quaint scene, but as soon as I get myself a pair of long, khaki socks, a pith helmet and a beret (the later to be worn on casual Friday) I'll be ready for an alfresco croissant extravaganza. I'll be oooh-la-la-ing with the best of 'em.