Vang Vieng & Vientiane, Laos
It’s strange to go back to a city where you’ve already been. After traveling for almost a year, familiarity is a strange and exhilarating feeling. Being able to walk around town without a map is like being let off the leash. “Where do you want to go for dinner?” engenders no research, no planning. So while leaving Luang Prabang and going back for a few nights in Vang Vieng and Vientiane was nothing new in location. It did provide all new feelings. Unconsciously we started to see things that we never noticed before. When you go out into a new city a try to find things, you are always looking for something and because of that, you never look at anything. For instance, Laos is a very religious country. Buddhism is in everything they do. Because of this, saffron wrapped men are everywhere.
It’s a classic image of Laos. One that draws little reaction from me or Gage. We lived in a monastery, after all. But just walking behind these two kids, knowing where were going, where we had to turn, and therefore strolling the streets like a local, I started to translate this to my Western world. I started to think of the streets of Charlotte filled with regular people and interspersed every 300 feet by black-robed priests who are all boys in their early teens. What would that do to us? What does it do to Laos?
We went to eat at a small restaurant, a food hole as we call it. A great place for cheap food. When we walk in, we look for the menu, we look for a table, we look for our food, then we eat, then we go. Just like looking at a picture, I see the foreground only. Rarely does it register with either of us that we are in someone’s living room. That the back of most of these restaurants has an entertainment center, a bed, tacked up family pictures. The cabinets are not filled with food, but with kids toys, magazines, a jewlery box. Only when I slow down do I think of my living room at home. How I would be if my living room was a public space and the room behind it was a kitchen, and my mom was always cooking for someone else. It’s amazing what you see if you slow down to look.
It’s good to revisit. Just like re-reading a book or re-watching a movie, you notice things you didn’t before, and you can find new things to love and appreciate. Fa Ngum Road where we walked a hundred times, is littered with restaurants. Often expensive and so we ignore them. But we were back in Vietiane and we had already seen all of the sights and there were eight hours left to the day until we could reasonably go to sleep, but nothing much to do, so we read menus on the street. Outside Fathima Indian Restaurant a round, dark Indian man came up to the menu and pointed out his restaurant’s specialty as though pointing out his child in a group photograph. When we went in to eat, he was our doting grandmother, wanting to know what we needed, if we liked it, and accepting our praise with humility and pleasure.
What kind of place is this where our waiter can make us feel like spoiled children? Where else is food delivered to your table like a Christmas present? His name is Muhamed Ali, which he happily says while throwing a jab. When we told him it was our last day in Vientiane, he picked up two Beer Lao glasses. “Beer Lao, good beer,” is all he said as he wrapped them up in newspaper and gave them to us as a gift. And with that gesture, Ali endeared himself to us forever, and shattered our whole concept of customer service.
I’m really going to miss Laos.