Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Laminated Fixed Price Menu Courtesy of the Vientiane Tuk-Tuk Drivers’ Association

Vientiane

It was Monsieur M’s first time in town, so we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Wat That Luang, the missile silo-cum-temple that is considered Laos’ national symbol. Another sign of fierce independence awaited at the ticket gate: Yankee imperialist dollars were no longer accepted, the gatekeeper demanding instead kip or baht. We scrounged up around 75% of the demanded sum, and he waved us past without giving us tickets in exchange. Look like the Laotians have mastered not just capitalism, but corruption as well…

And indeed, for a country where nothing supposedly ever happens, Vientiane is growing up at astonishing speed. Beaten-up bamboo shacks by the Mekong that a few years ago served only Beerlao and mosquitoes now have DJs and cocktail menus, hip cafes serving up quiche and organic muffins proliferate, the crusty old Morning Market has been torn down to make way for a shopping mall and shiny new Toyota Land Cruisers sit in every other backyard. Even the tuk-tuks have learned to maximize their earning power through collusion: any enquiring falang are promptly treated to a laminated menu of “fixed” (and, by Lao standards, outrageous) prices for trips in and around town.

Lest that sound too negative, there has been a lot of positive development as well: Vientiane’s once lethal sidewalks are now paved over through the city center, considerably decreasing the odds of tippling over into an open sewer, and street signs, previously rare as hen’s teeth, now decorate most road corners. Traffic remains far less murderous than in Thailand or Vietnam and even the few modern few green glass-plated temples of consumption that have sprouted up here and there are, by and large, far less hideous than the Communist-era concrete egg cartons they’re replacing. All in all, Vientiane right now strikes a pretty good balance between modern amenities and preserving the past — I’d like to hope they can maintain it, but alas, it’s unlikely they will.

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