How Vientiane Is an Analog for the World


I complained about the weather, walked the backstreets, and ate cheap.

This time the bus was a large, cyan blue thing with leather sleeping berths and cotton blankets. Upbeat folk music and the neon lights mounted above every bed gave the whole thing a strange feeling — as if I had somehow fallen asleep in a gaudy Lao nightclub. But none of this is to say that the overnight journey to Vientiane was uncomfortable. It wasn’t. It was like sleeping on a very peculiar southbound cloud.

We had left Phonsavan at dusk and arrived at the capital just before dawn. We found a tuk-tuk to our part of town; by the time the sun came up, we were already sweating in the humid heat.

Taking

Three monks in orange, one-shouldered robes collected alms from a father and son kneeling by the roadside. Here, five humble karmas convened in the early morning quiet. Man and boy offered plain sticky rice from woven reed baskets.

The dāna that acknowledges fleeting, the one that embodies loving-kindness and compassion, occurs every day here. If I hadn’t looked over my shoulder when turning left out the hostel door, the scene would’ve played out exactly the same.

Even though I didn’t take out my camera and snap a quick picture in a poor attempt to ‘remember’ or ‘honor’ this tradition, that doesn’t mean that this remarkable act of humility and grace didn’t happen. To be honest, exclaiming “Oh!” while whipping out the cell phone to take a snapshot (anything will do!) isn’t just coarse or rude — it’s straight up exoticism and objectification, undercover racism, and borderline cultural appropriation.

(I should note, however, that it isn’t always terrible to take pictures of people, but it often depends on context, the photo-taker’s intention, the photo’s use in the future, and, most importantly, how the person on the opposite end of the lens feels about being photographed. Sometimes it’s not possible to ask people if you may take their picture because of language barriers, physical proximity, personal discomfort, etc., but if that’s the case, then you should probably err on the side of caution and NOT photograph.)

Breakfast was a Laotian baguette with butter and sweet jam. 18,000 kip. Eaten quickly.

Between humility and breakfast

Future Reflected in Vientiane

The scene at the Patuxai was cool (warm, humid). Eventually, I looked away from my camera to see it all myself.

Perhaps a word in some other language can describe what I felt there at that moment; maybe a photographer or artist or somebody other than me can capture and convey it. I can’t.

Cement and gold

Luckily, I had a few miles’ walk to process the monument that is lovingly or begrudgingly called the “vertical runway.” Constructed by the Royal Laotian Government using American funds and cement intended for an airport, the Anousavali (‘memory’), as it was then known, commemorated those who died in the struggle for independence from France in 1949.¹ After the communist Pathet Lao overthrew the monarchy and came to power, it was renamed Patuxai, or Victory Gate — a symbol of their triumph.¹ Breaking out of the shackles of colonialism, “misusing” money from Western imperialists, then bucking the system and returning power to the people (in theory) is indeed sticking it to the Man.

But somehow, given its turbulent history and changing symbolism, the Patuxai also stands for the cool (hot) morning that one can spend feeling ineffable while Vientiane slowly wakes up.

The grounds of the Pha That Luang are expansive, markedly flat with grand temple halls, statues, and a brilliantly golden stupa breaking from the level horizon.

Somewhere underneath or inside the gold, multiple reconstructions, national symbolism, and history, the breastbone of the Lord Buddha is thought to rest, vanished and ever-present.²

Vanished

Return

I bought two shirts: one for me, one to give as a gift. Tried a Lao-style crepe-like bing with banana and condensed milk. Had a reasonably priced dinner. Wandered a few backstreets on the way back to my bed. Slept.

The next day I saw the Mekong again.

Miles had come and gone, time not so much — it had only been a few days since Luang Prabang. With a mixture of indifference and interest, I made my way to the River and stepped in for the second time.

A million bits of sand moved beneath my tanned, dirty feet. A billion more shifted and flowed downstream, drifting off to some southern and eastern place.

I stepped out of the river to take this picture:

Second

When I waded back in, the Mekong was complacent, moving lazily around my calves in its unhurried journey downriver. On the riverbank opposite, Thailand sat sunbathing. Behind me, on this side of the river, Vientiane sweated through another late winter’s day.

Soon the cool (sweltering) day turning into a relaxed, quiet night; the lights from cars passing the Patuxai and the waning moon created a pleasant scene.

I left the country the next day.

Nowhere else have I felt so thoroughly comfortable and still so thoroughly undone. I’m utterly unraveled by the fact that I could feel familiar that far away from anywhere familiar. Truly boundless in scope is this city, this country, this world.

Here, on Earth, I started my exploration of my planetary home.

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Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai from September 2014 to July 2015 while studying Mandarin at Fudan University and teaching English. Since then, he's continued writing and working in Ventura County, California.