He chronicles more of his adventures at LAO Confidential (how great is that name?), and his books (in English and French) can be found on Amazon.
Status: Trailing husband
Post: Vientiane (Laos)
Three words to describe your current post:Hot... Limited... Zen.
Best thing about Vientiane:Travel opportunities (in Laos itself and region-wide).
If you have visitors for the weekend, what would be on the plan?Say my visitors arrive in the late Friday afternoon, I take them on a walk along the Mekong at sundown, looking across to Thailand. I would take them to a cool cinema afterwards... but there’s no cinema in the whole of Laos. Saturday morning starts with breakfast at Café Vanille, a French bakery that does very good galettes (savoury crêpes) and decent croissants. Then one or two temples in town, complete with robed monks and novices.
Lunch would depend on my visitors, but probably Lao Kitchen, the best Lao-cuisine-for-foreigners in the world. What this means is very fine and tasteful Lao food (no ‘phadek’ for instance, a homemade fermented fish sauce that makes Vietnamese ‘nuoc mam’ taste like a heavenly sirup).
In the afternoon? Well... Not a lot. Thing is, there’s not an awful lot to see or do in and directly around Vientiane, apart from the centre of town and its crumbling colonial and Asian art deco houses (lovely). The one thing visitors all have to see though is the Cope centre, an NGO helping victims of UXO deal with their handicap (via prosthetics, re-training and so on). Cope’s museum holds a permanent exhibition telling the state of affairs as regards UXO. Laos, I’ll have you know, is per capita the most heavily bombed country in the world. As a result, mine-clearing NGOs are aplenty in Laos. To round things off for this first day, a compulsory massage in one of our favourite parlours. An hour’s foot massage costs about 5 dollars and is amazing.
Dinner options are equally numerous. In fact, Vientiane is quite the gourmet city, with several very good French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese or even Korean restaurants.
Outings after that are more problematic. There’s a number of ‘Asian’ nightclubs, i-e run-of-the-mill RnB and no dancefloor (but high tables all over). As I said, no cinema, and cultural events can be counted on the fingers of one hand each year. So... not much on the town really.
These limitations put the emphasis on one’s social life, so I may have arranged some games at home with Vientiane friends.
The Sunday is a lazy day spent at Ban Thana, a private house with a beautiful garden and pool just outside of town where a lovely lunch can be booked in advance. You arrive in the late morning, swim, eat, swim, play pétanque and games and swim some more.
In Vientiane, you must try:Coconut juice bought on the street; larp (dubbed ‘Lao salad’, a wonderful mix of herbs and meat or fish or tofu - raw or cooked - served with sticky rice); Lao massage (hard and stretchy); Rue de la Mission (the French embassy area, full of great colonial architecture); a ristretto at Naked Espresso, an Italian-level coffee-making café.
What are your go-to resources for events and other happenings?Facebook pages (‘Vientiane Social’ and ‘Paisai’ especially); local knowledge (friends and colleagues); word of mouth. Re. culture: some long-time expats have written books about Laos and Lao culture. Robert Cooper is one. If you want to get deeper into the way Laos works and (partly) thinks, look no further than the ‘Doctor Siri’ series, detective stories centered about the good doctor set in the 70s-80s and written by Colin Cotterill .
Most difficult things about living in Vientiane?The heat; the mozzies (I caught dengue last summer); the cultural desert (even if some embassies do try to organise events); the lack of interests within a two-hour drive radius; absence of a shopping mall (for a big air-conditioned space where you can walk and chill).
Biggest adventure at post:Dengue fever, no doubt. We realised the paucity of Lao healthcare just by stepping (or crawling, for me) into the main hospital of the country. Dengue had already been diagnosed, but they treated me for a lack of fluorine... The hospital couldn’t even arrange an ambulance to a Thai hospital, so we had to call a colleague of my wife’s to drive us to the border bridge some 20k away, where a Thai ambulance was waiting to take me to a proper medical facility. How's that’s for a bad adventure?
But there are good adventures too... a motorbike ride up to Luang Prabang (north of the country) on the nearly finished new road - the scenery, alternating between sugar loaf peaks, Scottish-like plateaus, wooden villages, some traditional garment and pristine vegetation, is incredibly gorgeous. Discovering Champassak (tremendously charming town forgotten by time and so zen even monks can’t believe it) and Wat Phou (the biggest Kmer temple complex outside of Cambodia) in the south of the country.
When did you realize you were far from home?After two months, when it occurred to me that I wanted to go to the cinema and go shopping.
What’s the most important thing about re-creating your home at post?I’m a motorbike addict, and if you gave me good clean roads and dealerships, it could paper over lots of the cracks. Apart from that, books, our kitchen table and a few posters.
Three things you can’t live without at post:Air-con in the lounge. Air-con in the bedroom. Air-con in the kitchen. If those count as one, Air-con, iPad to buy books easily and mineral water (water fountain water here is devoid of all minerals known to man).
One thing you thought you couldn’t live without but have had to:Motorbike dealerships.
What’s the best advice someone ever gave you about the diplomatic life:
"There are many ways a posting can prove challenging."
Crocs, shorts and tee in the winter. Long sleeves and legs when dengue is roaming.
Guests on Saturday night...what’s on the menu?
Spring rolls, larp, and mango sticky rice, all of them pure delights.
What would be your dream post and why?
Probably Lisbon for great architecture and history, surfing, proper seasons, harsh beauty of the language, fado and great roads.
One thing I wish I’d been told before arriving:There’s very little to do...
Any parting words?
Laos is a very, very beautiful country. Sadly Vientiane is right in the middle of the least attractive (well, downright featureless) part of it - a big big plain with nothing to give a third dimension to the town. Gorgeous Vang Vieng is the closest beauty spot and a 2.30 hours’ drive away. Beautiful country, but limiting in various ways, and it all depends on how you can cope.
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