It’s rarely just a coconut

by Travel Paulie on February 12, 2010

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Like most capital cities, Vientiane is not representative of how the majority of the population live.

It is a small city with two or three main streets within which you will find most of the things you need.  I did very little in the way of touristy sight-seeing while I was there and opted instead for the easy life of walking the streets, exploring randomly, and playing lots of pool.  The best pool table I found was in the bar ‘Red Mekong’ and was free. =)

When travelling anywhere, I believe you enrich your experience far beyond anything else should you make it your top priority to meet and get to know, if only briefly, some of the locals in the area.  I have managed to do so in Nong Khai and it will probably be the most difficult part of leaving the area – knowing that the likelihood of me returning to this place and seeing my friends again are slim.  But it is better to have experienced these connections, to understand a little bit more clearly the culture and the people, and leave it behind when you leave, than to have never tasted it at all and only skim the surface.

Just a coconut?

On the first day in Vientiane, we stumbled across a food fair and I opted to walk through it and explore.  I had just eaten lunch and had no intention of eating, but that wasn’t the point.  If something catches your eye and you feel you’d like to explore, go for it.  So I did.  There was nothing there of any interest whatsoever until I stumbled across a fruit stand and although I wasn’t hungry, I decided to grab a coconut for no other reason than that they’re delicious!  The girl behind the stall answered my English-Thai fusion (the closest thing I had to Lao) with perfect English which was pleasant.  I then spotted half the reason I came to Asia in the first place – yellow mango.  I swear, I could be persuaded to do most things when offered a yellow mango.  Unfortunately in Nong Khai they have only the hard, sour, green mango, where the only similarity I can see is the shape.  So I made a mental note of the place and that if I found this food fair again I’d pop in and get another shake.

So the next day, after unsuccessfully trying to find our way into a shooting range beside the national stadium, we stumbled across the same food fair and yup, I was all on for the yellow mango goodness.  When we got there it was the same girl and we had a brief conversation about Vientiane and I asked her whether she was from there and what her favourite parts were.  She had lots of ideas and it was nice to hear what was recommended directly from a local.  Since that was the last day of the food market, I asked her where her normal shop was and told her I may pop in tomorrow for another juice and a chat.

And I did.  We arrived at 12:30pm and left at 5:30pm.  Myself and my friend sat there the whole afternoon chatting with her and her work employees, drinking fruit smoothies (more than one with a twist of rum ;)) and red wine.  We then went back to the hotel, powdered our noses and went out again for dinner on the Mekong River and then on to Deja-Vu, a very cool cocktail bar run by a talented Laos barman.

The following day, our friend drove us to the Thai consulate to get our visas and then took us on, what was for me, one of the best afternoons I’ve spent since coming to South-East Asia.  She took us to a place called Tha-Ngon, on the Nam Ngum River, where there was a restaurant floating on the river and the deal was basically: get on one of the moored boats, order your food and drinks, and then once it’s all aboard, your very own skipper will take you upstream. After about 30 minutes he will swing the little boat around and knock the engine off and you’ll float gently back down the river to where you started.  Really, it was a wonderful time spent doing nothing, chatting, and just kicking back.

After this, around 6pm, our friend drove us for an hour through crazy Vientiane traffic all the way to the Friendship Bridge… amazing!  And all this from a coconut bought during a curious wander through a random food market.

The ‘traveller’ versus the ‘backpacker’

I’ve become increasing conscious of the sentiment, said in many different variations but all amounting to the same thing, “There are a lot of foreigners/backpackers there so it’s not very good.”.  It’s veering on traveller snobbery and it’s bull, frankly.  For some reason, many people who are not travelling as transient a journey as the typical backpacker, look down upon those people that come to places like Thailand purely for recreational or tourist purposes.  They seem to believe that staying in one place for an extended period of time lends them some sort of superiority over those that visit a place only briefly.  So what if you’re working in south-east Asia, or volunteering there, the only difference between you and the tourists/backpackers is in your mind and you’re not actually any more incredible – even though you might know a little more of the language/culture than those people you see sunning themselves on the beach.

My point is, the criteria that separates the traveller from the tourist, in my opinion, and it is only my opinion, is the degree if any to which you make efforts to engage and connect with the locals.  Time spent with locals exposes you to their language, their culture, their habits, their cuisine, their life, that you can’t really get anywhere else in the world.  So you have a choice and that is to push yourself out of your comfort zone and see how deep the rabbit hole goes because you never know what will come of a random encounter, or stick with only your own kind.

I’m not saying to not engage your foreign compatriots, quite the contrary in fact.  I’m saying that there is no value in screwing your nose up at those people that look like you just because you feel you’re better than them and/or you’ve decided you’re there only to meet the locals.  As Buddha also discovered, taking the middle way is often best… be open and friendly on the road and try not to judge those you meet based on your first perceptions of them.

Speaking of stories

I was sitting with my visa-run buddy at the Scandinavian Bakery in Vientiane (beside the fountain) having a pre-massage snack on some yummy garlic bread, when an older gentleman sat down at the table beside us.  I didn’t engage him in conversation, rather he did with us.  He was Swiss-German and in Laos for the same reason as me… his English wasn’t great and it took much back and forth, with a dollop of patience on my part, to get communicating properly but we got there and I’m delighted I did.  His wife had passed away some 3 years previously and he had embarked on a new journey in several regards – he started learning English 2 years ago, he was travelling in Thailand for 6 months and learning some Thai, and visiting with his daughter in Brisbane (Australia).  So what, you might think?  So… the impressive thing was that, that day, as he was sitting down next to us having his cappuccino he was celebrating his 82nd birthday!

It was a stark reminder to me to not judge others, to listen to people’s stories and allow them the space to talk and share because you have no way to know what experience they’re having in that moment.  They honour you by sharing, and receiving this is special.  Not all stories are as inspiring as that one was for me, but if you listen to no-one’s stories, you receive nothing and how do you know unless you try?

Everyone has a story, just as you do.  Honour and respect them as you yourself would like to be.

P.S. On my travel map, I’ve put some of the points of interest that I would go back to again if I visit Vientiane.

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