I didn’t really know what to expect in Vientiane. Some people say its an uninteresting city compared to the small Asian villages, others say its a nicely paced city compared to places like Bangkok or Saigon. I’d say the truth lies right in between – it certainly doesn’t have the crazy traffic and the aggressive hawkers but it also doesn’t really have much vibe to it either. My centrally-located hotel was clean and comfortable although a bit on the pricey side I thought for Asia ($50), and the next morning I walked to the central plaza. Up until now I haven’t really mentioned the heat – its not unbearable but neither does it go unnoticed. Its in the high-30’s with stifling humidity, much like a summer heat wave in DC. For me its doable if I drink about 3 liters of water each day – for others its a bit debilitating by the end of each day.
One unique thing about traveling to strange places is the rollercoaster of euphoria and disappointment, excitement and trepidation that you go through. I was excited to be in Lao but as my bank cards failed at ATM after ATM, I started to be concerned about my funding. Its really a terrible feeling to run out of money, or to just have it inaccessible. As I sat in front of a corner store downing a cold 1.5L of water I drew up a revised budget, allowing $10 a day for food, $10 a day for activities, and $30 a day for lodging. It was a frugal but realistic budget that would stretch my $200 cash to my pre-paid flights back toward home.
Feeling only slightly better about my predicament, I walked off toward the Lao National History museum to see exhibits about “vicious French colonialism” and “murderous American imperialism” (remember, Lao became a communist country in 1975 and remains so). One block further I found an ATM that accepted my bank card, and given that $1 = 8000kip, I became an instant Lao millionaire. With pockets stuffed and spirits much higher, I kept walking toward the museum. One block later a mirage appeared in the sweltering heat – a Swenson’s ice cream shop. That’s right, a Swenson’s ice cream shop just like the one we had back home when I was a kid. I got myself the biggest, coldest, and best goddamn milkshake I have ever had in my life. And the rollercoaster continues on.
After kicking around the museum for a while inspecting tons of confiscated M-16’s and Colt 45’s, I hopped on my next flight to Luang Prabang, or just Prabang as its known in Lao. The airport was small and as I walked across the hot tarmac to the awaiting prop plane I could almost imagine American pilots 40 years ago prepping their Air America flights to supply the ‘Secret War’ just across the border from Vietnam. There was no anti-aircraft fire for us though, just a smooth flight over intense jungle before touching down in Prabang.