The Maison du CafÃ© is one of many anomalous Parisian flourishes that color the sidewalks, streets, and plazas of Vientiane, the steamy capital of Laos: small round tables, a wooden newspaper rack (Bangkok Post and Vientiane Times only), and European tourists and Lao locals smoking cigarettes and reading the long menu of coffee drinks featuring beans from around the world. It is my last day in Laos, so I order a black Phouphieng Arabica from the southern region, â€œbaw sai nam tan,â€ or without the inch of condensed sweetened milk that is usually served with the coffee here.
On the final page of the menu: dessert, as it were. I can order a bus ride to Hanoi, Chiang Mai, or Luang Prabang. Yes, a travel menu! Being the connoisseur that I am, I opt for a train to Bangkok; the air-con car is full, so the owner of Maison de CafÃ©, Somphone, books Tay and me two second-class fan berths.
In Vientiane, everyone is a travel agent. In fact, one can arrange transport at many of the other business on the block which, until two years ago, was a standard residential block, now fully servicing the tourist industry. Next door: the Ty-Na Creperie. Across the street: the Ta Wan Boutique and two actual tourist agencies. Up the block: a pair of mid-range guest houses and massage parlors, then La Cave des Chateaux restaurant, with entrees of up to $14. On the other end of the block, three identical noodle shops, with steaming cauldrons of soup and limp duck bodies hanging over the sidewalk, offering a full dinner for 8,000 kip, or under $1.
Yes, Vientiane! One of the most truly tranquilo capital cities Iâ€™ve ever visited, with its heavy-red-orb sunsets and sweltering sidewalks dotted with man-eating holes of raw sewage; still, there is a mood of industrious construction as the city of 600,000 struggles to keep up with the huge tourist demand that has been placed on it in the last couple of years. But this hammering and sawing is not apparent as we visit centuries-old temples, including the famous That Luang golden spire (supposedly housing a sacred hair of the Buddha).
Today, we traveled to the â€˜burbs, to the Buddhist-Hindu fantasy garden down the Mekong, known as the â€œBuddha Park,â€ where we encountered monks on field trip, and a group of hyperactive Lao children climbing everything in sight, including the 50-meter reclining Buddha.
Returning to the outskirts of town, we visited Wat Sok Pa Luang, which used to be a purely forest monastery, but is now engulfed by expanding neighborhoods. There, I sweated in the herbal sauna, and received an open-air massage while Tay stumbled upon a massive Buddhist funeral ceremony, as she joined hundreds of people who listened to monks chant and bless a decorated body before it was set aflame. I found her afterwards chatting with some French travelers while the fire smoldered nearby; then we all headed to the bote for the watâ€™s weekly meditation session for Westerners.
A full day, indeed. Back to the city center, I find the Maison du CafÃ© to pass some time while Tay browses a few more crafts shops: Buddha statues, Lao silk, ornate antique opium pipes, paper parasols, and tribal quilts. She ends up purchasing a 100-year-old â€œbookâ€ of ancient Pali script engraved onto a stack of bound bamboo “pages.”
After my coffee, we walk to our 55-year-old guesthouse by the river ($10 for air-con, fridge, private bath, and breakfast), and pack our bags for the nightâ€™s travel. We are booked in a second-class bogey to Bangkok, â€œThe Big Mango,â€ where things will be decidedly different for our last couple of days in Southeast Asia.