12 July 2008
Most Perfect Place On Earth
I am addicted to Southeast Asian coffee. I have never in my life actually enjoyed coffee until this trek. Of course this probably has something to do with the fact that it doesn’t taste like coffee. No, coffee in Southeast Asia tastes like heaven. 50% Coffee, 50% Condensed Milk, 100% Magical (On ice, of course).
We arrived in Vientiane (the capitol of Laos) with no expectations whatsoever. Everyone I’ve ever talked to who had been to Vientiane said it was enchanting. Intoxicating. Perfect. I couldn’t agree more. The town’s population (it is in no way a city, which is a good thing) recently passed 150,000. This is the biggest city in the country. The downtown is 4 blocks wide and 3 blocks deep. That’s 12 square blocks of “downtown.” The entire city is nestled right up against the Mekong river, which is lined with stilted thatched-roof restaurants and corrugated steel-topped homes. There are no buses, no large trucks and certainly no subway routes, which makes this place even more perfect. The guide book labeled it “sleepy,” which fit perfectly. Bikes and small scooters dominated the roads. The three street signals in town were being strictly followed despite the lack of traffic (in fact, it is road law in Laos that the car closest to the Mekong has the right of way at stop signs, leading people to get out of their cars and discuss who is, in fact, closest the river).
We checked in to our windowless room and headed immediately for the Scandinavian Bakery. Years of French occupation have led to an abundance of baguette, fromage, croissant and other bready deliciousness all set in front of a charming backdrop of French colonials and Buddhist Wats (temples). Two cinnamon rolls and a chocolate chip cookie later we rented a scooter and cruised the streets, first to the Independence Monument, then the Mini Arc do Triumph and on to the Main Market. There are zero multinational chains here. No Starbucks, no McDonalds and no Carrefour or Target. Instead, there is a central market made up of roughly 200 stalls that each sell one department of a Target-esque store. It’s totally brilliant. Everyone specializes, every need is met and everyone has a livelihood. Loved it.
We finished night one at Sunset Bar, watching the light drift past the horizon over Thailand (located just at the other side of the river). Of course, that was after a three-course dinner of salad, rib-eye steak smothered in Roquefort cheese and French fries on the side; all for a whopping $6. It was perfect.
Day two welcomed two Americans and a Brit to our circle of fun for a half-day cooking lesson in several Laos specialties. Before heading to the bus station we stopped off once more on the river to take in a delicious cocktail (which I helped make behind the bar), followed by a stock-up trip to the bakery. Overnight bus meant provisions were necessary. Next stop, Pakse.