When you’re traveling alone, you don’t have the voice of a friend to come between you and the unfamiliar. So those first days on the road, on the other side of the world, can seem almost overwhelming - an assault on the senses - unknown noises, smells and sounds.
As I woke (all too early…jet lag) in Vientiane, I noticed the distinct lack of honking that is so pervasive in other southeast Asian capitals. In fact, all I heard was what sounded like an army of angry squirrels, but turned out to be some sort of small, very noisy bird. As the sun rose over the Mekong River, roosters started crowing…another unfamiliar urban sound and the revving of motorbike engines.
Vientiane is small by comparison to places like Bangkok and Hanoi. It feels sleepier, more like a big small town. This location on the Mekong has been the seat of kingdoms, but it has also been destroyed, over and over and over again, by the Siamese, Chinese, French, and Americans. The city is not old, but throughout there are remanants of its past…a stupa from the Khmer period (once covered in gold, but looted at some point), disintegrating French colonial architecture, Soviet style concrete block buildings, and a few standing temples (wats).
After a short walk through morning traffic (still no honking) I passed through the gates of a small temple complex. As soon as I entered, the street noise faded and the only people I saw were a few young monks in training, studying at a plastic table behind the main hall. Coming from a country where we no longer enter public buildings with out searches, scans and guards, I’m always amazed that these places are so open…that there exists a trust that we will treat these spaces as we should.
After a few more temple visits, I made my way to the central downtown, passing through the “backpacker” district, read cheap guest houses, man buns, batik pants and mostly European languages. I stopped for an iced coffee at what could have passed for a French cafe, eavesdropping and trying to remember my high school French.
I made my way to Vientiane’s oldest religious site, Wat Si Saket, the temple of 2000 Buddhas. Once again I was struck by how quiet it was inside…a couple dressed in traditional Laotian wedding garb for a photo shoot and few older travelers to break the silence. The exterior buildings were filled with bronze, wood, and concrete Buddhas, some damaged, but most staring implacably at the intruder.
I was beginning to wonder just where the noise and commotion of a city of 250,000 was happening, until I got to the market area. The scene was orchestrated chaos - wooden carts, motorcycles, foot traffic, and cars parked on the sidewalk. But unlike other cities, I was never harassed with the infamous “buy something Madam” instead I wandered the stalls, watched an old woman serve lunch from a shopping cart to the vendors and as I left, a few unenthusiastic tuk tuk drivers asked me if a I wanted a ride. They seemed relieved when I said no.
During the hottest part of the day, I wandered the National Museum, in a crumbling French colonial building. It was clear that in a country that has suffered many losses and struggles with wide spread poverty, preserving the national heritage was not high on the priority list (or maybe too much has been lost). Myself and four other visitors wandered room after room of faded photographs and antique weapons laying in the open and held down with wire.
At night, the street vendors came out, Laotian families sat at plastic tables, eating and drinking. The sounds of frying food and beers being opened filled the narrow streets. As I lay in my bed, I finally heard my first car horn. While traveling is so often about seeing things, the sounds we hear or don’t hear often tell us as much about the place we are in.