by Don Webster

This is a five page photo documentary of a trip I took to Laos in December, 2003.  Having grown up in Taiwan, for me this was a step back to the way Taiwan was in the 50s and early 60s.  


When I left Seattle for Bangkok on December 1, the plan was to meet my brother, Sam, his wife Debryn, their two year old son, Kaizen, and Debryn's brother, Doug, for a one week trip to Chang Mai in the Thai highlands.  I flew from Seattle to Tokyo in the last coach row, sitting next to a tall Chinese basketball player returning to Guangzhou from a tournament in the U.S.  From Tokyo,  I rode in the cockpit of the 747-400, and after comfortably airborne, I excused myself from the captain and first officer and slept in the bunk for the six hour flight to Bangkok.  We arrived in Bangkok near midnight on December 2, and it was nearly 1 AM when I arrived at the Swiss Lodge Hotel.  I went straight to bed, expecting that Sam and Deb were already asleep, and that Doug would arrive from Taiwan about 2AM,  but before I knew it, Sam and Doug were in the room and we went over our plans for the week.  Each of them had already been to Chang Mai, so it was proposed that we go to Laos instead.  We could get a visa on arrival in Vientiane, and we might stay there in the capital city, or we might go on to Luang Prabang in the Laos mountain country.  I was happy with the change, as I had been to neither place.


As the Air Lao 737 descended into the Vientiane airport, I could see a checkered country of rice paddies, cane fields, and lush banana plantations sectioned by canals to carry runoff from the flat valley to the Mekong River.  After a smooth landing, we entered the terminal through a jet way, and one form and $30 later we had our visas and were whisked through customs.  The few taxis outside were 1950s Toyota Corollas, so we bundled into one of these and headed for the Lane Xang Hotel.

It was dusk when we arrived at the hotel, so we quickly dropped off our bags and walked across the street to the park which followed the low bluff along the Mekong River.  By now, people were starting to fill the assortment of out-door restaurants which were scattered along the bluff.  An adult soccer match was going on in a clay field in the park.  The goal posts were sticks held up by rocks, and the players were barefoot, but the game was vigorous and well played.  Two young men were flying radio controlled airplanes out over the river, and when it was time to land they simply landed them in the soccer field.  The players gamely leaped over the incoming airplanes and continued on with their game.


Diners on the Mekong River.

Across the street were various ethnic restaurants featuring Lao, Thai, Indian, and French cuisine, as well as a pub or two.  These were more high end restaurants frequented by the expatriates, and entrees here ran $1.50 to $2.00 each, a bit more in the French restaurants.  

Following a pleasant dinner of curry and lemon grass soup, we wandered the streets looking in the shops that were still open.    Shops here sold Lao crafts, the specialty being hand loomed silks with intricate designs. The shop owners were knowledgeable and described the different styles of weaving and some of the symbology used in the designs.  

Outside, the streets were surprisingly quiet, in fact, it was like an Asian city in slow motion.  Small Honda motorcycles glided by quietly, there were a few pedestrians and an occasional bicycle, but there was little of the frenetic hustle seen in Bangkok or the cities of Taiwan.  Vientiane had the feel of a medium sized Taiwan town in the 50s.  The pace was slow and people had time to visit in the cool of the evening.

Sam pricing a silk.

At 5 A.M. I was fully awake on Seattle time, so I fumbled in the dark for some walking shorts and a T shirt, not wanting to wake Doug, and slipped out onto the path running along the Mekong River.  The air felt cool, perhaps 65 degrees, and while I was  comfortable walking, I noticed that the few other joggers at that hour were more bundled up.  Vientiane is only about two degrees north of the equator, so 65 degrees is mid-winter for the local residents.

One of the main highways through the city. 


A block to the north took me past the presidential palace, an attractive, sweeping building that was between colonial and French provincial in style, surrounded by a  white stucco wall.  It too looked across the street to the Mekong River.  

I walked for perhaps an hour and a half, and watched the city slowly wake up.  In the city, it was typical for the home to have a shop in the front with living quarters to the rear and above the shop.  On the sidewalk, residents were lighting small round charcoal hibachis and setting pans of rice on them to boil.  Other pans of soybean milk were warming as well.  Family dogs wandered freely, but only one bothered to take a run at me, stopping short of nipping my heels.  


In a small square, I saw a backpacker juggling four balls in the air, a strange sight so early in the morning.  I walked back to the park across the street from the Lane Xang hotel, hoping to catch sunrise over the Mekong, and the backpacker caught up with me.  He was Canadian, in his early 20s,  and had been traveling for six months around the world.  He had already done Europe, and now had finished Thailand and northern Laos.  He had arrived on the10 hour  bus ride from Luang Prabang at 6 o'clock this morning, so he was killing time until the guest houses opened up.  He planned to take a boat into Cambodia, and then on to Vietnam.  


He said that Luang Prabang was extremely beautiful, in a mountain setting, and that the word among the backpackers was that it was a much better place to spend time than Vientiane.  

The river-front park was alive at this hour with ballroom dancers, jazzercise enthusiasts who were very fit, and others doing the  traditional Chinese exercise routine, Tai Chi.  

The sun rose an angry red in the hazy air, hiding first among the palm trees, and then giving the flat Mekong valley a reddish tint.  With the sunrise accomplished, I noticed my hunger, and I followed the backpacker back to the "Scandinavian Cafe," where we got an authentic Continental breakfast with a freshly baked croissant and rich Laotian coffee.  I paid for his breakfast, $1.20, and listened to the stories of his travels.  Finally, at about 8 A.M., he set off to find a $6 room, I went to waken my traveling partners.




Don Webster: