Notes from the Field time! And two little twists for you today…One is that we’re getting the guest perspective of a spouse from the British Foreign Office – cheers to our neighbors and allies! The second is that this spouse’s perspective is actually from a gentleman’s point of view. We so often assume that if someone is a spouse in diplomacy, it must be a housewife, no job, and probably wearing a Betty Draper apron. Since I don’t fit that mold much myself , I love finding others who buck the trend too. So with that, please “meet” Denis Lejeune: writer and motorcycle enthusiast with a soft spot for fado.
words to describe your current post:
thing about Vientiane:
opportunities (in Laos itself and region-wide).
you have visitors for the weekend, what would be on the plan?
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.
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).
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.
options are equally numerous. In fact, Vientiane is quite the gourmet city,
with several very good French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese or even Korean
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.
limitations put the emphasis on one’s social life, so I may have arranged some
games at home with Vientiane friends.
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.
Vientiane, you must try:
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.
are your go-to resources for events and other happenings?
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
difficult things about living in Vientiane?
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).
adventure at post:
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?
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.
did you realize you were far from home?
two months, when it occurred to me that I wanted to go to the cinema and go
the most important thing about re-creating your home at post?
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.
things you can’t live without at post:
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).
thing you thought you couldn’t live without but have had to:
the best advice someone ever gave you about the diplomatic life:
are many ways a posting can prove challenging.”
shorts and tee in the winter. Long sleeves and legs when dengue is roaming.
on Saturday night…what’s on the menu?
rolls, larp, and mango sticky rice, all of them pure delights.
would be your dream post and why?
Lisbon for great architecture and history, surfing, proper seasons, harsh
beauty of the language, fado and great roads.
thing I wish I’d been told before arriving:
very little to do…
Any parting words?
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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