onward into laos

Bangkok was fun but hardly relaxing. It’s a shopping and partying destination mostly, and I’d like this trip to be about winding down, not winding up. The next time I visit, I’d like to go with a friend.

If Bangkok is New York City, then Vientiane is Tucson. The capital of Laos, nicknamed the jewel of the Mekong, Vientiane stretches along a lazy bend in the Mekong River, and its small size and slow pace are a welcome relief at the moment.

I only arrived early this morning (it’s just noon now). I booked my first night at the Hotel Day Inn, and I’ve just taken my first stroll around town. I stopped into several other guest houses and hotels to check availability, room features and prices. The Day Inn sits on a quiet side street, a few blocks from the river. At US$25 a night, my corner room is large, sunny and clean, with high ceilings, large windows a nice balcony. The staff is super friendly, and the free breakfast looks like it will be good. A few other places I checked out are cheaper (US$15-20) and/or closer to the river, but I like the vibe of the Day Inn, and I think I’m content to stay there.

The transliteration of the Lao language into western characters was done by the French, and so there’s an extra layer of decoding I need to do as an English speaker if I want to attempt Lao. In French, the letter J and the combination Ch are pronounced very softly (zzh and sh), and there is no equivalent to the English “W” sound, so Vientiane, for example, is actually pronounced “Wien-Chan”.

Proper Lao pronunciation, however, doesn’t seem like something I’ll have to worry about. Eeveryone I’ve run into so far speaks very good English, and there are tourists everywhere, so I’m not anticipating much of a language barrier. The cars here are left-hand drive (like Europe and the US), and the predominant vehicle is the pickup truck, so I’m not anticipating much of a culture shock either.

All in all, Vientiane seems much more familiar – and easier – than Bangkok was, which is surprising, and somewhat bittersweet. The only challenge will be money. The local currency is the kip, but the Thai baht and the US dollar are equally, if not more, popular. When I bought a little laundry detergent in a local shop, the price was marked in kip and I paid in baht – all the while trying to calculate the value in US dollars. Now my brain hurts.