Almost as soon as I arrived in Vientiane I began searching for a way to escape.
There was nothing in particular that drove me from the Laotian capital other than the simple fact that the city was not the jungles, mountains, and rivers that surrounded it. The Laos I wanted to see was the slow boats of the Mekong River, the lush mountain jungles of the highlands and golden pagodas of rural Buddhism. All my research and traveler advice pointed me away from Vientiane’s urban sprawl. My research pointed me north, to Luang Prabang.
I sat on the couch in the hostel lobby twirling the zipper on my backpack between two fingers. Waiting my turn to check in, two German girls argued with the Lao kid at the desk about the lack of private bunks.
Behind me, pool balls clinked on a ripped and worn table. Two guys exchanged turns in what already looked like a slow game.
Who comes to Vientiane to play pool? I thought.
A third buddy trotted up with three beers, clunking them down on the chipped edges of the pool table.
“What’s the name of this place….Vinetan?” he asked, unashamed. I pitted him as American or Canadian. I wondered if he even knew what country he was in.
His buddy, clad in the signature elephant pants of tourist South East Asia and a backwards trucker hat rested his hands on the top of his cue and squinted hard, obviously in deep thought.
“I don’t know.” he shrugged after a moment. “Can I have a cigarette?”
I began to look forward to my escape.
It’s no secret that the countries of South East Asia are a hot bed for young tourists. Expenses are cheap, the weather is warm, beaches are plentiful, and drugs and alcohol are easy to find.
“What’s up, man?”
I looked up from the bus schedule on the lobby desk and was greeted by a short backpacker in elephant pants and a neon green tank top. Unable to see his eyes behind the mirrored sunglasses he was wearing I looked back over my shoulder, unsure if he was addressing me.
“Where you goin’?” he nodded towards the bus schedule.
“Luang Prabang.” I answered, hoping to keep the conversation short.
“Prabang’s sweet.” he swung his pack off of his shoulder and let it thump against the desk.
“Definitely hit up Vang Vieng.” he bent over the schedule to point out the town on the bus route. “Its real chill there.”
As he bent back down to pick up his pack I noticed his tank top read “Tube n’ Party! Vang Vieng”
From the moment I had started researching travel in Laos I began hearing about how “chill” Vang Vieng was. The town, along the Mekong River turned into a tourist haven for partiers and substance abusers. A favorite activity was over indulging in any mind altering drug and then tubing and rope swinging in the river. On several occasions the town had gotten so rowdy and overrun that the Laos government stepped in to put a stop to the number of dead tourists that would inevitably drown whilst partying. To me, Vang Vieng didn’t seem “chill” at all. To me Vang Vieng seemed like a tourist infested, drug ridden, cesspool. Vang Vieng was exactly the kind of place I wanted to avoid.
Watching Mr. Tube n’ Party swagger up the stairs I was skeptical I’d find anyone on this trip I’d be able to relate to.
Checked in and ready to start exploring I laced up my boots outside the lobby, ready to get away from the hostel atmosphere.
“Excuse me.” I looked up from tying my boots. “Do you know where the arc is?”
The accent was British.
Not your typical run-of-the-mill British. Pristine British, classy British, the type of British you’d expect to hear at a London opera or in the corridors of Downton Abbey.
I rose to meet the gaze of two Asian girls. They seemed to contrast each other. One carried an artsy handbag and wore hip round sunglasses while the other was clad with a traveler’s pack and straw cowboy hat. I moved my eyes between them not sure who had addressed me.
“My name is Ada.” The girl with the sunglasses said. She patted her chest, her handbag swinging at the elbow.
“This is Anthea.” She gestured towards her friend who smiled underneath the brim of her hat. “We are trying to find the arc. We think it is around here somewhere.”
The arch in question was the Patuxai Arch. A monument to Laotian military victory, it was inspired by, and modeled after Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. One of the more notable sites in Vientiane it was on my to-do-list as well.
“Straight down this road and then left at the Governor’s Palace.” I answered, not entirely confident, trying to remember its exact location from my map. I told them I had looked it up because I had planned on seeing it too.
“Would you care to join us?” Ada asked, with a smile.
We walked the crumbling sun-baked streets of Vientiane. I tied a handkerchief about my forehead in an attempt to stem the flow of sweat that trickled over my brow. The sun was intense, I found myself squinting, even from behind the lenses of my sunglasses.
In my mind’s eye the Laotian capital was very different from its other South East Asian counterparts. Phnom Penh was a progressive getaway. Bangkok, a commercial metropolis. Yangon, the wild frontier. Hanoi, a historical giant. Vientiane always seemed…well…forgotten.
As my eyes took in the streets and buildings around me Vientiane seemed to uphold that forgotten allure. Long ago an outpost of colonial France it was as if the French built a city in the jungle long ago then simply packed up and left.
Like the streets of Paris, vendors sold loaves of bread. Pedaled carts loaded up with baguettes and fresh rolls. The streets were lined with coffee shops and bistros, al fresco style dining sprawled out on the sidewalks.
Unlike Paris though, the city seemed in various states of disrepair. Cobblestone brick sidewalks were torn and rent, pedestrians either forced to hop over the gaping holes or detour around them altogether. Colonial style terra cotta roofs were discolored and disheveled. The European influenced facades of government buildings were cracked and crumbling. Motorcyclists and tuk tuk drivers bobbed and weaved to avoid piles of fallen brick and up turned concrete.
As we neared the arc the girls began to chatter to each other in excited Cantonese. As they took photos in front of the monument I walked on to inspect it more closely. It really was a model of the Parisian icon, but with an Asian twist. Carved with sitting Buddhas and capped with pagoda style towers.
Looking around I noticed that even the outlying streets resembled the thoroughfare of the Champs-Élysées. I wondered how many people back home mumbled the name of the Patuxai Arc in the same breath as the Arc de Triomphe.
I gazed up at the dirty and stained stone of the Patuxai Arc. Vientiane was certainly no Paris but it still had so much of its own character. It deserved to be given a chance by travelers and urban explorers not just partying backpackers on a layover.
Vientiane deserved to not be forgotten.
When the afternoon sun drove us out of the street we retreated into the air conditioning of a nearby bistro. Whirling ceiling fans circulated the oscillating smells of freshly baked bread and pressed coffee grounds. At a small corner table I got to know Ada and Anthea.
Recently graduated from university in Hong Kong the two had planned a tour of South East Asia together before they began their prospective careers. When they weren’t studying at school they made their spending money busking on Hong Kong’s busy streets. Ada sang and played guitar, Anthea was on percussion and back up vocals.
“I must play for you when we get back.” Ada said, gazing down at the sandwich just placed in front of her. “The hostel has a guitar, I saw it earlier.”
“Are you going to Vang Vieng next?” Anthea asked pausing from sipping on her iced coffee.
“No, not my cup of tea.” I said, hiding my strong feelings about the place. “Did you guys go tubing there?”
Anthea crinkled her nose, “Ugh, no too many loud tourists there. We just took the bus there to get here.” she said, pulling out her camera and switching to pictures that designated where here was.
It was a picture of the two girls sitting on the floor of a bamboo hut. A Thai family sat with them smiling up at the camera, a feast of curries, rice, and soup laid out on the floor in front of them.
“We had a homestay with this Thai family here.” she explained. “We wanted to really learn about the local culture.”
Ada nodded in agreement from across the table. “We really wanted to have an authentic experience.”
I smiled at this, maybe there was someone in Vientiane that I would be able to relate to after all.
I commented on the quality of her camera, it was a more advanced model of the one I had just purchased for myself.
Anthea nodded, “I studied graphic design, I take a lot of photos.”
“What kind of job do you want to get with your degree.” I asked.
She let out a nervous laugh. “I really want to work and freelance and keep traveling.” she looked down at her camera fiddling with the buttons as she spoke. “Working from nine to five every day in an office would be terribly dreadful.”
I felt my ears perk up at hearing this.
“What I’d really love is to get hired with a non-profit. I could travel and work and help out all at the same time.” she said, with a small smile. “Its just my dream though.” she added.
I was moved by how similar our frustrations, our dreams, and our life goals were. It’s amazing how two strangers could be such kindred spirits from across the globe.
After lunch we walked back to the hostel so the two could catch the bus to Phnom Penh, the next stop on their tour. We passed through temple gardens and golden Buddhas, along cracked sidewalks and bustling markets. As we passed a battered post office box Anthea let out a little yelp.
“Oh shoot!” she said, glancing at the box as we passed. “I forgot to mail my postcard.”
“Family back home?” I asked, sidestepping around a pile of gravel.
“No, no.” she said, with a shy laugh. “I mail a card to myself in every place I visit. That way I get a nice and proper reminder about my trip later once I’m home.”
I found the idea very clever, and put it in my mental bank for later.
Back at the hostel the two sat out on the hostel floor with a beat up guitar and ran through a short list of songs that they performed on the streets of Hong Kong. Ada sang beautifully and Anthea complimented her nicely with a soft quiet voice.
“Oh no, we have to run.” said Ada, after a short while. She put down the guitar and picked up her pack, glancing at her watch. Hurriedly they gathered their things to make their way to the bus station. Saying goodbye Athea halted her step as she walked away.
“Could you drop this in a post box for me?” she asked, pressing a colorful Laotian postcard into my hands.
I said a final goodbye and promised I would.
After they left I took a walk down the street. Mostly to take in more sights but also to find a post box for Anthea’s letter. I finally stumbled across one. Rusted and worn on a the cracked curb of a nearby street corner.
I noticed she had addressed it to herself and stamped it, but the whole space left for a message or well wish was left blank. I thought a moment and then told myself she wouldn’t mind if I filled in the space. I told her how great it was to spend the day hanging out with her and Ada in Vientiane. How I hoped the rest of their trip around Cambodia went well and they made it back to Hong Kong safe.
I also wished her good luck for her future. Not to give up on her dream job and to keep searching for those “authentic experiences”. I told her I would be doing the same from the USA.
As the post card fell into the darkness of the mailbox I sent with it the mental wish that the words would find Anthea.
Because everyone needs that reminder. A small recognition that they aren’t alone, that someone else out there shares their struggles and frustrations.
Everyone needs that little push to not give up, even from a complete stranger. Motivation to not let their dreams and goals go on and become faded and forgotten.
Everyone needs a letter from Vientiane.