Capital city time! We’d breezed through Bangkok, but had been pleasantly surprised by the intensity and charm of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Phnom Penh, so the Lao capital Vientiane was an exciting prospect, even if our main reason for going was to buy visas from the Vietnamese embassy.
It’s not the bustling city you might expect, though. It’s quite small, in fact – with little-to-no regular night life. Still, we arrived and were treated that same evening to an apparently famous Thai rock band playing a free gig alongside the Lao National Culture Hall.
We joined some Lao guys who were clearly big fans, and they told us there aren’t any rock groups in Laos. Just folk music and love songs.
Awaiting a Waitrose…
It was our first introduction to the emerging wealthy middle-class in Laos, particularly evident in the capital. These chaps had a few quid, enjoyed music from abroad and were mostly working in tech companies. Dead friendly, the lot of them.
Other nightspots of note included the music stage by Nam Phu (literally, “the fountain”), where acoustic classics are played by musicians with genuine talent, to an audience of al fresco restaurant patrons, with only me and Swarana applauding each tune.
These joints were pricey, certainly too rich for our blood, and the clientele were purely Lao. In one of the poorest countries in the world there are people doing very well, thank you very much.
Once again, it was scorching, but this time with that urban amplifier that makes you sweat within seconds of leaving your air-con hotel. With our umbrella held aloft, we explored the streets, large swathes of which have a distinctly French colonial air.
Restaurants range from cheap roadside stalls, to fancy French bistros, via pizza chains and pho franchises. Our favourite, by a country mile, was Lao Kitchen on Rue Hengboun. Their chicken curry stir-fry is off the hook, as is their coriander dipping sauce. Spicetastic!
But the outdoor noodle joint just up the road is good too, and but half the price.
As for culinary exploits, Swarana’s food odyssey continued with a cooking course at Full Moon Café with Miss Nouk, where she learned to make chicken laap, an aubergine dipping sauce (jeow), fish wrapped in banana leaf (mok pa), a papaya salad (tam mak hoong) and sticky rice. On top of that, Miss Nouk made a mango sticky rice desert, which I am told was, “Hashtag yumbo”.
The course was a short ride out of town to Miss Nouk’s house on the bank of the Mekong, where Swarana and five others sautéed and simmered their lunch under friendly tutelage. A little more expensive than the course we’d had in Phnom Penh, but by all accounts a much more professional affair.
Meanwhile, I went to a bar to do some writing, and sat listening to a fat, crusty American pensioner boast loudly about the women he’d bought in Thailand to a Scot who had heard you can go to jail for sleeping with Lao women. I paid my bill and left, not wanting to listen to more.
Turn for the worse
Unfortunately, Vientiane will stick in my head not for the good food, or the live music, or the river market, as much as for a rather awful turn I experienced. I drank a strong coffee one morning, and the caffeine gave me a flutter in the chest – nothing to worry about, normally. But less fun was the ensuing panic attack I attempted to control as we went for lunch.
For this next bit I will be illustrating the narrative with unrelated pictures of us having a nice time, to both lessen the worry my parents may endure at my momentary mental lapse and to convince the internet that WE ARE HAVING A NICE TIME.
Suffering the same symptoms as I had felt on the buses in Cambodia and on the way to Kong Lor (and many years ago skiing in Tignes), I was frightened more by the shattering of my previous diagnosis: a low blood sugar crash. This was midday, after a good breakfast, sitting in a café, awaiting a bowl of soup.
I’ve never known anything like it. My brain had gone into overdrive, worrying about every tiny signal my body bounced to my brain, from hunger to heat senses. Everything was screaming: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.
Mind over prattle
In my mind, I was battling my subconscious with logic, like an addict arguing with himself over another smoke, or a drink, or a line. The subconscious me was scared, while me me was trying to calm everything down and say, “Just stop it now, you’re fine. Swarana’s here. You’re ok. You’re safe.”
The experience, which reoccurred later that day, left me a little stunned. I felt safe in my hotel room, but I desperately didn’t want to become agoraphobic. Writing this weeks later, I’m fine now and feel like it won’t occur again, but knowing what a panic attack feels like was a real eye-opener.
Panic in perspective
I follow a blogger on WordPress who suffers from panic attacks; she’s made the decision to quit her job and go to Thailand. An agoraphobic who’s not just leaving the house but going to Asia. That’s amazing, and I’m all the more appreciative of that fact, now that I can fathom what she no doubt fears every day.
We spent a little longer in Vientiane than we might have otherwise wanted, due to the embassy being closed over the weekend and our Friday-afternoon arrival, but it was a nice city, all in all.
Next stop was Vang Vieng, where we hoped to avoid the drunken tubing scene and do a little climbing. At the same time, I was hoping some fresh country air would do me some good – which I’m happy to say it did.
To be honest, I’m looking forward to perking this blog up a bit – what with mental disorders, explosive buttocks, transport trauma and being ripped off at the border, Laos had seriously dented the feel-good positivity I usually attempt to convey.
Thankfully, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang were wonderful.
We are having a nice time, by the way.
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