Sunday, 18 November 2012

Administration and Bureaucrats in Vientiane, Laos

After months of not being able to access our blog whilst travelling through China we are many weeks behind in posting.  We have generally kept up with writing though!

This VPN makes adding photos very difficult and I have to take more time to figure out if I can actually format it properly.  Not much time at the moment though so you will just have to deal with the awkward layout. 

Here is another entry written by Julian with my editorial and additions.  
(Dates still to be determined when we have an hour or so to spend online).


Vientiane was a necessary administrative stop as well as a visit to the Laos capital. It was interesting to find out about this mellow city but first of all we had to get our visa applications in for China and visit the Myanmar embassy with questions for our planned visit there. 

We settled upon a bartered rate for a hotel, knowing by now this was going to be an expensive city. Vientiane has big plans for its future and construction is already underway. The first high-rise is complete (a hotel of course) in what will be a modern vibrant 'downtown' area that will irrecoverably change the skyline along the banks of the Mekong, eclipsing the fairground that punctuates the heavily populated Thai border on the opposing bank in a blaze of concrete, steel and glass. How the Laos have found the investment for such an enterprise would no doubt be an interesting sidetrack and I wonder if they might be trying to generate an economy from the seed of the capital and if it will be enough to entice the people (money) to flow in from across the water. 

We made our way to the Chinese embassy to collect visa applications and confirm the information they required. The embassy is only open to the public for 2 hours each weekday morning and we might have saved a day by printing off the internet, but I always find it easier to get answers to my questions in person rather than trawling through web publications that often advise this or include that which you might not need and may have been out of date the day after they went up. 

We carried on around the block to the Myanmar embassy who were more accommodating in hours but less in answers. The Vientiane Myanmar embassy staff may only issue visas valid for 30 days from the time of stamping which is done on the spot. The only way one may enter Myanmar from Laos is to fly to Bangkok then from Bangkok to Yangoon. They were insistent that this is only way we may be permitted to enter Myanmar. The woman we spoke with (who's english was impeccable) also told us that if we applied for our Myanmar visa in China, the only place we might do it would be Peking as there is no embassy in Kunming. Unfortunately this is a little inconvenient for our plan and a contradiction to the advice the government sponsored tour agency sent us back in July. It seems we have to wait a while to find out just how and where we are coming south out of China. Maybe from Kunming the visa will allow us to enter from there but because Laos has no border with Myanmar, the restriction is imposed upon the embassy in Vientiane. 

With the weekend upon us, the paperwork was completed for the Chinese and ready for deposit on Monday morning, collection Thursday, giving us a whole week in Vientiane. 

That afternoon we hunted around the neighbourhood without the cursed luggage in hand and found a cheap, clean hostel named the Youth Inn just a block away from our current digs. We promptly booked a room for the following days; halving our accommodation costs for the next week in the process. Just the one night we had paid up for so would be free of obligation the following day and free to move. 

Vientiane is a city with few historical sites outsideof the inevitable buddhist temples. The 'Victory Arch', a copy of the L'Arc De Triumph in Paris, is an imposing structure at one end of a boulevard that culminates at the Presidential Palace on the Mekong shores. The seven story high arch provides a birds eye view of the low rise city and is worth the climb for that alone, but most of the following days were spent just meandering through the city, exploring and getting a feel for the atmosphere of the place. LP is quite correct in its description of a 'laid back' city. Compared to other capitals Vientiane is almost horizontal in its attitude, feeling more like a busy provincial town than the centre of power and money of a nation, although of course that is a perfect reflection of sleepy Laos as a whole.

 Our second room was located on the third floor of the hotel, away from the street where therewas a communal balcony from which overlooked thneighbourhood for far too many hours, just watching folks go about their daily lives whilst we waited for the bureaucratic wheels to turn. The street was just off the two main thoroughfares that run through the city centre but the three and four story buildings are high enough and the corners sharp enough that very little additional noise filtered in from the rest of the city. It reminded me very much of the NYC neighbourhood of Hells Kitchen as depicted in the Martin Scorcese film where everybody knows each other and lives revolve around two or three streets. The music floating up to me from the store down the road, mingling with children's calls from the school opposite, set in the grounds of the temple we overlooked. Uniquely Asian, the lives of city folk continuing in a similar vein to millions of others across the planet. I find the similarities in humans as interesting as the differences and the more I travel the more I find that from the arctic to the equator, cultural differences aside, people are people wherever you are and there but for the luck of geography and time, go I.

 In the evenings different parts of the city come to life compared to the early mornings. Day and night markets operate in different places and wandering the streets always remains fresh and new as we sought out the soul of the capital and the photos to remind us of our stay. One block from the mighty Mekong and just 50m from one of the main arterial roads we found a fairly well-to-do neighbourhood. The road was dusty and unsurfaced but the houses were large individual properties, often ringed in steel with one or more cars in the driveways. People milled around, chatting to friends, playing badminton or getting the evening meal ready, generally winding down after a day at work. The interest was in the atmosphere here though. The sounds of the city masked and melted away behind rooftops the conversations were held in subdued tones interspaced with laughter and the cries of those playing games or sharing in a story. Here, just 400m from the heart of the Laos capitals centre, the community was so similar to the villages we have frequented over the past weeks it was almost shocking. Even in these unlit, unsurfaced back streets of the inner city, smiles and calls of 'Sabaidee' greeted us as we walked and I found myself with an affection developing for Vientiane and its inhabitants despite not being a fan of cities in general. The Laos have not yet adopted the closed face that most big cities seem to have and a smile might still be shared with a stranger in passing without the suspicion or surprise we see elsewhere, especially in our home countries.

In sharp contrast to the relaxed atmosphere of the nationals however there was a pretty intense impression of being 'watched'. At the same time we were in the city, the Asian / European finance ministers were in for a huge conference. If memory serves I read in a newspaper the Laos government has invested just under half a billion kip in the conference, much of the money coming from loose loans from its neighbours but a significant percentage from the national coffers as well. What I found incredible here was on the facing page of the same newspaper; the costs for a new road connecting an outlying region of Laos to the rest of the country was being built at a cost of two million kip. Of the half-billion the conference was costing, nearly half that amount was for purchasing new Mercedes Benz cars to ferry the delegates from hotels to conference. I am sure the (important) people attending the conference might have forgiven SE Asia's poorest nation for providing them with Toyotas instead and the powers that be could have saved 100,000,000kip or so, but then I'm just a backpacker. What would I know?

On our second day in Vientiane we were sitting in a cafe on 'our' block when I noticed a 4x4 parking across the street. From the rear of the car came a muscular man of military bearing, his driver carrying his small bag and doing all the talking when they approached the hotel desk by our seats to check into the hotel on the floors above. The two of them disappeared upstairs for about 20 minutes, only to reappear, washed and changed and to leave in the car once again. I never saw the batman again, but the following day the other man was joined by two women, one I assumed to be his wife and the other his daughter. The change for us however was the security presence. 24 hours a day there was a car with tinted windows parked at each end of the street, various people doing absolutely nothing for hours on end but watching, in addition to the armed guard posted along with the police at the street corner. I have no idea who the man was, but I guess there were 10 - 15 security personal assigned to him alone. In the streets parallel to ours were the delegates from Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia who in turn had their own security details, but nothing on the scale that I saw in our block. The groups of delegates and their aides could be seen morning and evening wandering the streets and in the cafes surrounding our patch. 

As well as the security services it was eye-opening to witness at the same time, the gangsters operating. We had heard right through our travels about the corruption throughout the peninsula but to watch a pair of brand new, brightly painted pickups cruise slowly through the block, split at a junction then reappear a few minutes later was interesting. To watch the blue one pause at the street corner and exchange a paper bag with a small package by the police post was eye-opening, especially considering it was broad daylight and across the junction was the blacked out Range Rover of the security staff. It made for an interesting soap opera for a few days whilst our visas were processed. 

I think the 'General' left on the Wednesday as there was a lightening I felt in the atmosphere, although nothing I could put my finger on in particular and on Thursday we returned to the Chinese embassy to collect our passports, now duly weighted with an 'L' visa each, granting us entry to the Middle Kingdom for 30 days. A place of romantic ideas for me. The magic and mystery of the orient and a civilization with 3000 years of written history, developed entirely in isolation from the philosophies of the west. Different ideas of etiquette, spirit, religion and health. Ancient architecture and business practices combining western commercialism with eastern depth. A part of the world where gunpowder was discovered long before it was in the west and used for fireworks rather than arms and where subsistence farming is still a reality for many and the fields are full of workers as they have not been for 100 years in my own country. I have long wanted to see China before it becomes truly 'westernized'; to see life as it has been and still remains, almost unchanged in 800 years and to meet some of the 1.3 billion people spread across one of the largest countries in the world. Our entry was going to be through Yunnan Provence, home to 56 minorities and gateway to the Tibetan Plateau (although we would be unlikely to actually cross the border to that fabled region). China: A place that throughout my childhood was effectively closed to me, even if I had had the ability to get there. The films I have watched, the legends I have heard; all came rushing at me in a wave of anticipation and excitement and we began laying plans for the journey north.


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