After leaving my country, I accumulated roughly two years in Southeast Asia with long breaks between the visits. There were good reasons for the visits; the many IgoUgo journals they generated are a good testimony of that. Of the forty countries and special areas I have visited, Southeast Asia was by far the friendliest and one of the most beautiful, both in culture and nature. While there, I traveled a lot – especially in Thailand, but also developed a taste for long stays at several cities and towns. One of them was Vientiane; it was love from the first sip of local coffee.
I cannot accurately describe the joy of seeing this gem for the first time. It obviously wasn’t a place to settle down, but it clearly was a perfect stopover during long trips in relatively uncomfortable areas. Despite being little more than a sleepy, colonial, fishing town along an important – but slow flowing – river, Vientiane displays an awesome variety of first rate attractions. Thai and Lao histories are tightly linked to such an extent that modern Bangkok and the dynasty ruling Thailand from there cannot be understood without knowing at least some of the history of the Lao Kingdom of Vientiane. The French colonizers added their plural – an "s" – to the name of the country they created by unifying the three Laotian kingdoms, but their influence reaches far beyond that single letter. Then, there is the Vietnam War; Laos became then the worst bombed country per capita in written history in what is also known as the "Secret War." Later on, Laos became a Communist country, and as of now it is one of the few such societies still surviving. Despite that, it is still a very Buddhist country – at least at its center and south – practicing as Thailand a variant of the Theravada School. Ensuring a pleasant time while seeing all this eclectic mix is the awesome fusion between French and Lao cuisines; French baguettes filled up with local delicacies and one of the best coffees on the planet ensure perfect mornings for the whole stay.
First time visitors may doubt the strength of the Thai and Lao links. The food is different, the language and alphabet are different. Yet, take out the French influence and you get Isaan food. Modern Thai comprises four dialects; the one of Chiang Mai has its own alphabet (now rarely used). The dialect spoken in Isaan is identical to Lao, despite each being written with a different script (Thai and Lao respectively). The difficulties most westerners face finding the similarities beteen the two cultures are the result of their tendency to analyze history in terms of the European-styled countries that appeared since 1648. Under such constrains, the Thai-Lao history looks confusing. However, look at it from the perspective of ethnic-city-states and suddenly everything is clear, though the amount of details needed to comprehend the actual situation is immense.
While reading or listening to denizens’ descriptions of the area, one hears all the time about drought and unfertile ground, as it happens also with the adjacent Isaan, the vast northeaster lobe in Thailand’s map. The claim is true if compared to the incredible fertile Thai central valleys and the southern Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam. Yet, both Isaan and Vientiane are very green. For someone who grew up in a semi-desert like me, this is still very fertile, wet and rainy part of the planet. Thais and Lao call arid an area capable of producing rice! Troubles in heaven…
There is another surprising – and related to the last point - aspect to Laos. The oldest human settlements in Southeast Asia were found in the Plain of Jars, near Phonsavan. At first, this seems odd. Why would the first settlers prefer a mountainous and rather hard to access region over the near fertile valleys? This is an awkward reminder of Southeast Asia prodigious fertility. Everything on the low plains is eventually swallowed by the vegetation.
Finally is the Mekong. Since earliest times rivers have been a favorite destination for travelers; partly because they are moving, flowing destinations with quietly implied adventures. Many travelers choose to travel along the longest river, the widest, the highest or the lowest, or maybe even along the wettest one. In the past, I made a different choice: the Mekong. Not because it is the best in a given category, but because it is a human river. The Mekong resists being qualified in banal ways; it has other properties to be proud of. More than anything else, the Mekong is a human river; countless cultures and civilizations were born, grew up and gave way to others on its shores.
Settlements dating back to 2100BC have been found around the river, with Ban Chiang being the oldest one. The Funan civilization (a kind of Indianised-Khmer culture) dates back to the first century and was the first organized society found along the Mekong. It was succeeded during the fifth century by the Chenla people, which was another Khmer state, and then by the mighty Khmer empire of Angkor. Following the fall of the Khmer empire, the Mekong was the frontier between states of Siam and Tonkin (Northern Vietnam). The French captured Saigon in the mid-19th century, established a protectorate over Cambodia in 1863 and then took the three Laotian principalities from the Siamese in the late nineteen century. They added a distinctive colonial touch to these cultures; the colonial reality lasted until the First and Second Indochina Wars ended French and American involvement in the region.
Traveling along this river is best accomplished by combining boats and cars, I have described several of these. However, resting along its riverside is probably best accomplished at the largest and cutest town along its shores: Vientiane.