One of the ever-present and ever-persistent elements of living in Vientiane is the sound of construction. In the past year or so my ears have learned to tune out much of the constant noise caused by hammering, electric saws and drills. I have learned to focus on an outdoor yoga class next to a massive construction site where Sundays don’t mean a day off, and barely noticed the sounds echoing down the hallways when most of our office building was under renovation. While in my heart I wish Laos could retain some of its old charm that comes from traditional buildings and landscapes, I do realize that building is often first and foremost a sign of development.
Distance is most effective in making us more observant of the changes around us. Here are some of my observations from the past weeks and months:
- Upon returning from holidays back home, I was shocked to see my corner shop in ruins and found myself thinking where on earth am I now going to buy my emergency rations of phone credit, toilet paper, sticky rice and similar essential items. Only to find out some weeks later that they were merely upgrading the shop and in the same place is now a much improved new shop. Run by the same family headed by an almost toothless grandma who never seizes to smile and ask me where I’ve been if they haven’t seen me for a while, only now she’s moved from being impressed with my Lao language to correcting it. But the new shop means I no longer need to wash dust off the top of my juice carton before opening it.
- I recently returned from a work trip to Thalat, some 1,5 hours north-east of Vientiane. I stayed at a hotel in Ban Sengsavang with magnificent views over the Nam Ngum reservoir. It’s been some 10 months since my last visit to the place but parts of it were barely recognizable. The hotel now has a swimming pool and they were building new bungalows and various other structures on the grounds (this was the recognizable part). The village right next to the hotel was not. I remember walking down a dusty road lined with small wooden shacks on both sides. This time the left side of the road was bare and there were no signs of buildings of any kind and most of the shacks on the right hand side looked abandoned. I was puzzled – where are all the people? It was almost like walking in a ghost town, only we were led by a small stray dog that assumed the role of a guide dog when we left the hotel. At the end of the street we found closed down restaurants and more empty buildings, but also two brand new ones. Bamboo and light wooden sheets were making way to brick and proper timber – sure signs of development. But I couldn’t help feeling somewhat startled at first.
- In anticipation of the upcoming ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) meeting in November 2012, various parts of Vientiane are undergoing construction. A massive conference center is being built with Chinese support along with a series of high-end villas to house foreign dignitaries and heads of states at the time of the meeting. Much of the river front in the southern end of the city centre is currently blocked off by a long white fence informing of construction activities.
- Last week I noticed that all street food stalls near the vibrant new night market by the river had vanished. I went back night after night in the hope that they were only temporarily gone, but was met with empty stretches of street where only a few weeks ago I was enjoying dinner with my friends on the pavement, sitting on a bamboo mat and a small pillow. Then the other night I noticed what looked like a set of new open-air restaurants on a formerly empty plot of land on one of the side streets leading away from the river. Today, slightly disheartened by the loss of my favorite street food venue, I proposed some friends we could check out this new place on the side street as we were looking for a place to eat in the area. We found out that they were the same people cooking the same delicious food, only now you could eat without the company of constantly passing trucks on the busy road and they now have proper tables and chairs (still plastic but much better for those of us wearing skirts!). Two more signs of development.
Whilst writing this: We’ve had some rain in Laos in the past week and more is forecast for the weekend. Seems it’s again time for the mango rains – this means a new season of mangos, mangosteens, lychees, rambutans and other yummy tropical fruits is just around the corner!
Currently reading: I have made it almost half way through Shantaram, and my first impressions are confirmed – it’s a great book! I’m loving the fact that I have another 500 pages to go.