Published: November 15th 2012October 31st 2012
A 16 hour overnight train ride and a couple connecting rides carried us out of Bangkok, over the Mekong River and into Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. While most capital cities tend to be overwhelming polluted urban sprawls, word was Vientiane was different, a little more mellow. That isn't the case when you happen to arrive during Boun Awk Phansa, the end of Buddhist Lent. Thousands of people travel to waterfront towns and cities near the end of October to participate in annual festivities. The main road along the Mekong in Vientiane was thickly lined on both sides with booths selling clothing, food, shampoo, balloons, trinkets, everything! Accompanying the noise of the sellers with bullhorns were loudspeakers playing music or just making noise. Also along the river were carnival rides and games, Ferris wheels, darts, stages with traditional and contemporary dancing and music, and longboat racing staging. To be able to explore all of these sights involved slowly maneuvering shoulder to shoulder through the crowd, taking care not to trip or slip on the piles of garbage and plastic bags that accumulate through the day.
Taking a trip down a side street offered the chance to purchase more traditional Laos fair goods, namely food and offerings. Ladies young to old tended grills and skillets, cooking up all manner of meats and veggies. Bamboo tongs held chicken legs, wings, eggs and babies over coals next to any portion of pork you might want, to go along with sticky rice, stew, noodles, fried greens, fresh fruit or fermented seafood, a cacophony of smells sure to entice and enrage your stomach.
Also available were beautiful banana leaf boats, 'heua fai', ornately folded and adorned with flowers, candles and incense. These boats were lit and floated off into the river, homage to the river spirits and dispelling bad luck. Unfortunately, some vendors chose to build their boats-for-sale out of foam and plastic, most likely unaware or maybe uncaring of the consequences of floating plastic down a river. Ultimately, government rains on the party, as the national curfew of 11:30 finds the streets empty of people and full of trash. The reprieve from bumping speakers is welcomed after taking it all in, and necessary to get some rest to do it all again the next day.