It wasn’t too long ago that Vientiane laid down its silken fabrics along the Riverbank.
Later, folks would sell these and other wares under moon- and floodlight. Real and fake sandalwood prayer beads would be presented alongside the pa-biang scarves, laid out from left to right, overlapping, like a textiled rainbow.
Laos’ burgeoning capital stretches in three directions as if it were a three-headed naga: upriver, downriver, and inland.
The city itself is the economic and political heart of Laos and geographically central. It hosts several noteworthy sites: the That Luang decked in gold [Tiles 1 and 2], Patuxai of many names, the Dtalat Sao (Morning Market) [Tile 3] and the Night Market on the Mekong, the National University of Laos far to the north, Wat Sisaket (which withstood the Siamese razing of 1827) [Tiles 4-6] and Wat Hor Pha Keo (whose namesake Emerald Buddha was seized during the same razing and is now the palladium of Bangkok).
Notable people also call the city home. Some of them teach in the afternoon, party at night, and then wake up the next day still being smart and educated as hell. Others work for USAID and prove themselves [I have mad respect]. Countless people work the hardest I’ve ever heard learning English and Mandarin on top of university classes.
Others sweep the floor, do laundry, and help open a new hostel by the Mekong. Sometimes they’re back in Hanoi opening a hair salon. Many work for international development orgs. Some lead tours, organize, translate documents as a freelancer.
Single threads — awesome and grounded in reality and slightly vacuous but altruistic (in a self-interested sort of way) and moody when it rains but just fine when it’s sunny — put together in some sort of geometric pattern, their daily actions weaving the fabric of Vientiane.
One aspect of life in the city is this: going to the market for fruits and veggies for the day. Haggle with the tuk-tuk driver. Tourists might attend an English-language weaving class.
Work in the cafe or ride to the office. Ask about the bus route, seek out a breeze, buy yogurt and watch the sun melt into Thailand, join the evening Zumba class behind the Night Market, grab a coffee or Beer Lao, listen to covers of Thai Top 40 hits. Stop by the roadside stand for som pak (pickled veggies) and grilled chicken for dinner. Accompany for sour mango and spicy jeow dipping sauce or just an ice cream from the corner market. Take a shower before bed. Chat.
Take some buses north to Vientiane Province for a cooking class.
Sour, spicy, bitter, salty flavors fold into each other: unripe papaya into a mortar, pesteled together with dubiously brown padaek, salt, chili, lime, a type of smallish bitter eggplant and barely ripe grape tomatoes. Served with cabbage.
Variations abound; you could seriously spend a whole day watching dtam maak hoong (lit. mash papaya) tutorials — which wouldn’t be a bad way to spend an afternoon in Vientiane. Make no mistake, when you see “papaya salad” on the menu in Laos, they’re not referring to a frickin’ coolada in salad form. It’ll be turn-up spicy, sour, and downright fishy. Customization is always possible, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call dtam maak hoong the national dish of Laos. In Thailand (and especially the northeastern region of Isan), som dtam (sour salad, as it’s called) is also a staple. However, Thai-style often replaces padaek with sugar and fish sauce.
The rice is typically soaked and then steamed in an ingot-shaped bamboo basket [Tiles 1 and 2 below]. In the middle of the steaming process, the mass of rice must be turned over using a kind of flipping technique. After it’s done, it’s kneaded with a wooden paddle [Tile 3] to release excess moisture. This prevents the rice from continuing to cook itself into a single giant sticky lump. It’s then served in a separate bamboo container [Tile 4].
Gaeng na-mai, or bamboo shoot soup, is also a classic. It’s made by boiling bamboo shoot together other ingredients (eg. the soup prepared below also contained pumpkin, squash greens, and pork) in water and the juice from soaked yanang leaves. Sometimes the remaining water used to soak the sticky rice is also used as the base for the broth.
Vientiane is also Laos’ version of booming.
Foreign direct investment (mostly from China, Vietnam, and Thailand) and development funds (Japan, USA, China) are largely funneled through business, NGO, and government headquarters in the capital. National offices of intergovernmental and development orgs like UNDP, FAO, and the Mekong River Commission are based in Vientiane. NGOs generally use the city as their organizational hub with satellite offices in Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, Phongsaly, Xieng Khuang, and Savannakhet, among others.
While doing business in Vientiane isn’t exactly easy (relative to other countries)¹, that status quo could be slowly changing. This year, the World Bank rated Lao PDR 139th of 190 nations in its Doing Business ranking, with improvement in the Starting a Business category. The country’s growing population and 4.9% urbanization rate² are making cities like Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, Savanahkhet, and Pakse increasingly attractive markets.
There is context to all of this. It’s called history. A particular history should be clarified here.
When World War II led to the Japanese takeover and then surrender of French Indochina at the hands of the Allied Nations, the emerging state of Vietnam was throw into flux. Western structures of political control had been subsumed by Imperial Japan during the war, but after their surrender, the crumbling wartime government was made to maintain control in the region until China and Britain could take over rule north and south of the 16th parallel, respectively, as stipulated in the Potsdam Agreement.
In this quasi-vacuum, the Viet Minh national independence coalition, led by Ho Chi Minh, acted quickly. It launched the August Revolution against dying French colonial rule, and, within weeks, declared the country to be independent as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. When Chinese and British forces entered the country later that month, Ho’s newly formed government met mixed support. The Chinese in Tonkin recognized its legitimacy, but the British in Saigon did not. They deferred to French colonial authority and allowed French forces to retake the city in late September.³ Guerilla warfare in opposition broke out nearly immediately, and continued clashes between Vietnamese and French forces — culminating in the Haiphong Incident and Battle of Hanoi — eventually led to the outbreak of the First Indochina War in December 1946.
Warfare between Vietnam and their French colonizers continued for another eight years until the defeat of the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the signing of the Accords at the Geneva Conference in 1954. The agreement split French Indochina into the three countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, which was itself divided at the 17th Parallel, leaving the communist Viet Minh in power in the north and the pseudo-democratic Republic of Vietnam (backed by a Cold War-era USA) in the south until a subsequent general election could unify the country.⁴ That election never occurred.
Instead, tensions flared and fizzled in both parts of Vietnam, with mass migration of anti-communists from north to south.⁵ Guerilla warfare by pro-communist rebels in the south and general unrest followed for the next five years. North Vietnam eventually made a firm commitment to join the communist Viet Cong’s guerilla war in the south (triggering the Second Indochina War). The US greatly escalated its role in the war during the early 1960s,⁵ until the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident fully drew the Americans into the conflict.
Parallel to the nearly 20-year-long Vietnam War was the Laotian Civil War between the communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government. The war functioned simultaneously as a covert theater for the Vietnam War, with North Vietnamese forces invading the then-Kingdom of Laos in 1959 to establish the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to direct efforts with the Pathet Lao against their imperialist enemies. The war morphed into a sort of proxy war, with both North Vietnam and the US denying their involvement, lest they be caught violating Lao’s ostensible neutrality as stipulated by the Geneva Accords.⁶
In 1961, the US escalated its involvement in the conflict.⁶ American forces trained Hmong anti-communist rebels, provided provisions via air-drop, and continued bombing raids. Despite this, the Viet Minh would not draw down their presence in the country and thereby abandon critical supply lines and their Pathet Lao allies. The US would continue its heaviest aerial bombing campaign in history in opposition.
The Laotian Civil War came to a conclusion after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords ended direct US combat and temporarily stopped fighting between North and South Vietnam. The removal of US forces from the region allowed the North Vietnamese to take Saigon and provide enough military strength for the Pathet Lao to take Vientiane, ending both the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War.⁷
Violent, incendiary conflict was the backdrop against which the personal histories of Lao refugees from the war played out. One specific history, recorded in Stateless, tells the story of a spirited young kid at Napho Refugee Camp in Thailand. As American fighter planes dropped hundreds of millions of bombs onto vast areas of Eastern and Southern Laos, the stories of thousands of refugees continued on.
In Stateless, kids grew up waiting in line for food, water, and provisions from the United Nations, attending school, making friends, sleeping in family compounds. They spent their time doing what kids do: sensing and thinking and slowly starting to draw patterns out of their surroundings. They would “sit in the middle of the road talking to one another with [their] eyes gazing into the sky” and “savor the enjoyment of counting stars… without expecting any answers.”
They would listen to stories — the terrifying and inspiring ones, both — woven by others and somehow create their own.
THE HUMANS OF MOUTERN VILLAGE
The cotton cloth of Muang Mai’s atmosphere lies atop green hills in northern Laos. White and gray as a cloud, it hangs on the trees like an Rshi woman’s sewing material draped over needle and spool.
At dawn, when the forest exhales moist tangled silver and the sun draws it out like silk, the humans of the Phialor Cluster in Phongsaly Province wake up in soft light. They don headlamps and prepare a breakfast of rice and seasonal vegetables. Then, depending on the rain, they walk to their upland fields or into the forest. The women often spin thread as they go.
Some Phialor youth attend classes at the local primary school. Language of instruction is Lao. In Phialor, an ethnically Rshi group of villages, this means that kids must first learn Lao in order to succeed in the other subjects. Some families hang up posters of Lao letters or cartoon images with Lao vocabulary in their houses to help the kids learn. However, when harvest and planting seasons come around, many children must skip school to help their families in the field. For families with multiple children, boys’ schooling frequently takes priority over girls’, so many girls in Phialor have no choice but to stop while their brothers continue.
In recent years, Chinese companies have started employing villagers to harvest bamboo shoots and process them in large smoke houses along the road for export to the PRC. This makes up a sizeable portion of villagers’ income and comes at a time when government crackdowns are forcing some locals to transition away from opium poppy cultivation. Previously, Phialor had relied on subsistence agriculture for food and opium for income to buy clothes, cooking oil, gasoline, and other necessities.
Villagers are starting to grow other cash crops like cardamom and coffee. In Phialor, the development org World Renew Laos has supported that transition by providing seeds and shoots as well as training sessions on how to maintain orchards with the new crops.
Of the four villages in the Phialor Cluster, Moutern is located on the south side of a steep hill, accessible mainly via dirt road and motorbike. There’s a communal bath area where villagers wash and gather water at the base of the hill. Chickens and dogs can be seen running around inside the village while pigs are penned in separate areas and/or allowed to forage outside the village during the day.
One main path leads up the hill, branching off every ten-ish meters to wooden houses and small gardens. Morning rain collects into tiny creeks in the dirt paths and drains down the hill to the forest, resulting in uneven and muddy ground. For this reason, finding our way back to the house in the moonlight (the same kind that transforms blackish hues to blue) required a steady sense of balance.
The long beans and gourd-like cucumbers grown in the villagers’ gardens greedily soak up the moisture on those rainy days. The orange trees and the dragonfruit plant with its cactus-like body draped over a bamboo support structure are happier to have some rain and then a couple humid days in between.
We stayed with L. and his family during our time in the village. Theirs was the larger house, partially on stilts, with a large opening in the south-facing wall that functioned as a window for light and a vent for circulating air to the open hearth near the front door.
He was 26 years old, with lightish hair and a long, angular face that resembled his mother’s. Pictures of his wedding displayed him and his wife in ceremonial clothes, both smiling slightly, his hunched stature somewhat open.
L.’s mother, wife, and sisters used stones to prop up their wok above the wood and charcoal burned for cooking. They had a particular way of steaming the rice that cooked it all the way through but resulted in the grains being slightly hard. It was rainy season, and bamboo shoots were a part of every meal.
Over dinner and then breakfast the next day, he poured rice whiskey into plain shot-glasses and offered them to us with a nod and eye contact.
The point is that it’s all distinct. The point is that living to exist in this weird arbitrary world involves just being the way we are, shaped by our circumstances and selves, and doing our thing out in the world, relying on and trusting in our own decisions.
For me, the way in which we couldn’t really speak to each other in Lao or Rshi or English but still communicated was really kind of inspiring. (wish I had asked how to say more in Rshi than “thank you”) When I remembered that a little while ago, I started to write for the humans on Moutern.