My ticket to Vientiane was still good and I decided to use it. I felt drawn to but distant from the youth all around me, come across the world to laze about happily and chase each other through the warm nights. They talked about their countries with each other, exploring each other’s worlds. They talked about how it would never be the same after this. They fell into brief and passionate spells of love and there was nothing to restrain them. Above all, I could see they felt close to each other. I had my maps and miles ahead and I still felt bound to the road. In the late afternoon, amidst a lazy vegetable market and the three-wheeled tuk-tuks and motorcycle shacks, the bus pulled into Vientiane.
It was a dusty ramshackle place where the buildings were slapped together with wood and concrete, and chickens and dogs ran through the urban yards. I couldn’t believe it was a capital, but it made sense in a country where every Springfield and Fairview was made up of thatched huts.
Vientiane seemed like a city of invasions. Each influx of new ideas or dominating force had taken root, been abandoned and then seeped into the landscape like a petrified forest of foreign artifacts, left behind from aborted physical and ideological conquests of the little country and preserved amidst the city’s quiet markets and streets. The preservation was not deliberate; it was a will neither to preserve nor to destroy. You could see the history of the country just by walking through the streets. I passed crumbling stone stupas that spouted moss and vines and had been turned into traffic islands. The Buddhist wats were enormous and ornate and teemed with saffron robed monks carrying books and rushing around the grounds. Down on the embassy row, I found the wide palm lined boulevards and colonial mansions that the French had built.
The embassies dominated Vientiane. They were sprawling, gated compounds, lined by palms; bigger and more formidable than anything the Lao had built, and military in their architecture when you compared them to the artful temples.