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The Transformative Zen of Vientiane, Laos

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

When Rob Jordan, the CT’s Southeast Asian editor, finally returned to his native land last week, CTers noticed a change. It wasn’t in his physical appearance. Basically, looks like the same guy, albeit shaggier and bronzer. It wasn’t in his productivity — the guy still has the remarkable Alice Waters-like ability to whip up a competent bouillabaisse in less than two hours.

No, the difference in Jordan — who was incommunicado for nearly 18 days — was in his nerves. Jordan was uncommonly at ease. His inimitable voice (think a young Carl Kasell) sounded the same, but no longer was it peppered with hesitation — the pregnant pauses, the “uhs.” His nail-biting vice — gone. What’s more, his trademark — a ferocious need to SEEK, to find The Next Great Place, to find a Better Restaurant, to Find a Better Pad Thai, was seemingly gone. For the first time ever, Jordan confessed that he wasn’t really that hungry for the next trip. ‘Eventually, of course. But right now, I’m OK.”

Tres bizarre? When we finally confronted Jordan about this statement — so antithetical to the CT’s “Travel today, because you could be dead tomorrow” ethos — he explained his new found cool. It was not a life-changing conversation with a Buddhist monk or a tryst with a Bangkok dancer or some other Farang Trail epiphany. Apparently, Jordan was just relaxed because of… “The Most Laid Back Capital in the World.”

He spent 10 days in Vientiane, Laos. Doing, he said, “not much. And that’s the point.”

Of Vientiane’s activities, Jordan said, “You can kick back with a beer, watch the sun set over the Mekong, eat pate sandwiches for 50 cents, and sleep in an affordable but non-flea bag hotel. It’s restorative.”

We spent a few minutes last week talking with Rob about his extended stay in the Laotian capital — why he’s so chill now, why we should go, and, if we do, what we should eat there.

1. Vientiane has the prettiest name of any capital in Southeast Asia, no doubt. But why’d you go?

I went there because it’s the capital and was supposed to be vaguely interesting — big stupas (DESCRIBE) mellow city, life of real Laos peeps, riverside beer and bbq, etc.

2. You described Vientiane as “most laid-back” in world? Please explain. In what ways?

Imagine a national capital that feels almost like a suburban town - quiet, clean streets and sleepy people. Colorful Buddhist temples dominate the skyline. No one’s in a rush. No building (except for a hideous government hotel on the edge of the city) is more than seven stories tall

3. I know you spent most of your time chilling by the river, drinking beer, but you were there for 10 day!? What can you do there other than chill?

Not much. That’s the point, I think. See a few temples, check out the (unimpressive) giant, gold Great Stupa, eat at a bunch of places with
cuisines of the world, wander the sparse propaganda-tinged National Museum, check out the dusty not-so-exciting Central Market…

4. Again, we know you spent most of your time chilling — at that explains your self-improvement. But are there any compelling day trips outside of Vientiane?

I have heard good things about trekking up north (Luang Nam Tha area) and far south (Pakse area) for waterfalls, elephants, etc.

5. Some context please. You’re the CT’s veteran SE Asian editor. You’ve scoured Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, now Laos, for us. Do you like Vientiane more than, perhaps, other places???

It’s not so much that I like it more than other places, as I respect it for being unique. It’s rare to find such a relaxing city in Asia. It is, I imagine, the ideal place to end any Asia jourbeeronriver.jpgney. You can kick back with a beer, watch the sun set over the Mekong and sleep in an affordable but non-flea bag hotel. It’s restorative. .

6. While we’re chilling… what’s the cheap food/eat options in Vientiane?

Didn’t explore that too much because I was too busy chilling by the river. But I’d have to say its “pate” sandwiches. They’re sold on the street for about 50 cents, and they’re the way to go for cheap eats. The “Vientiane pate” is simple. It’s a nice big baguette stuffed with a slimy, local pork product they call pate (no resemblance to the pate we know), veggies and chili sauce.

7. Bars? The Times recommends cocktails at a fancy hotel? What’s a cheap option?

You can’t go wrong with a 24-oz beer and a sunset view on the river - $1

8. OK. We must ask. Clearly, Vientiane is about “chilling.” So… are there any “tools” to enhance the laid-back ness?

Dunno, but I’m sure weed is in abundance. Waking up at the butt crack of dawn helps keep things mellow in the heat of the afternoon.

9. The burning CT question. Are they onto it? The Germans, the Dutch, the Lonely Planet-toting kids from Oberlin? The Farang trail heads?

Don’t know of any particular buzz on the Farang trail, but a few travelers told us Luang Prabang was one of the best spots they had visited in SE Asia. (It’s no doubt beautiful, but the charm is under siege. More on that later.)

10. One final question.. the name. Vientiane. That’s what intrigued me? Is it French?

Great question. That’s something that intrigued me, as well, and the name of the city has an interesting history. It’s ultimately derived from Pāli, the literary language of Theravada Buddhism. And its original meaning was “The king’s grove of sandalwood”, this tree being prized for its fragrance in classical India. I have also read that the original name of Vientiane means “City of the Moon” in the native Lao language. The romanized spelling “Vientiane” is, yes, of French origin, It shows how difficult it was for the French to pronounce the hard “ch” syllable of the Lao word.
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