This afternoon, we’re off to Xieng Khouang by airplane, and so it seems a good time to reflect on our week in Vientiane. In a few years, Vientiane will be celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of its founding—-a landmark that gives one pause, considering that the United States has been in existence for fewer than two hundred years. As great powers like the French, Americans and Russians have come and gone, this small city has sat proudly on the banks of the Mekong, constantly adapting to changes at home and abroad. Next year, Vientiane will be hosting the Southeast Asia Games, a regional sports competition in which Laos has participated for many years but will host for the first time in 2009. The impending arrival of these two events have served as an impetus for some major improvements in the city’s infrastructure, completed with international assistance.
When I lived in Laos, from 1998 to 2000, there were no more than four traffic lights in the entire country—-now, nearly every intersection in the center of Vientiane is marked by a shiny new stop light, crosswalk and, in some cases, even audio aid for the blind. Vientiane residents spent the late nineties shielding themselves from a maelstrom of dust and mud as road construction projects dragged on, seemingly without end. Now, the dust has cleared, and the roads in central Vientiane are smooth and clean. Wide, attractive sidewalks have replaced the narrow paths with gaping holes that I navigated during my time here. I’ve been much more attune to issues of accessibility for people with disabilities given our meetings with groups like COPE and the Lao Disabled People’s Association, and the fact is that much of downtown Vientiane is (at least in theory) navigable by a person in a wheelchair. That’s an extraordinary change for this city.they were eight years ago. One of the first things I did upon our arrival (after visiting my favorite iced coffee shop, tucked away on a side street just of Samsenthai Road) was to rent a motorbike of my own. Driving in Vientiane today is a different experience due to the presence of large vehicles on the road; it’s not a large city, so they make quite an impact. While the traffic has increased, however, Vientiane residents’ relaxed approach to driving has not changed much. There might be straight, bright white lines on the roads, but people don’t really pay attention to them. And, unlike other cities in the region (particularly Hanoi), the horn does not get much use. We’ve been here a week, and I’ve heard one blown three times. That’s one of the many reasons why I love this city.
The motorbike is still the preferred mode of transportation in Vientiane—-bicycles went out of fashion years ago, as the per capita income of the average city resident began to rise, and, with very few exceptions, people here simply do not walk—-but cars and pickup trucks are much more common than
The improvement of the city’s road system has also spurred new construction throughout the central city. As I’ve driven around town, visiting my old haunts, more than once I have arrived at an intersection, stopped, looked to my left and right, and had no idea where I was!
Not only old buildings, but entire neighborhoods have disappeared to make way for large new office buildings, shopping malls, hotels—-even, strangely, a water park complete with American-style coffee shop. Over drinks with a Lao friend at a new, stylish bar on Setthatirath Road the other night, I learned of the planned demolition of yet another crumbling pre-war, colonial-era building—-this time, to make way for a new embassy. When the bar’s owner joined our conversation, he mentioned a new housing complex that is planned for the area around That Luang. The changes in Vientiane are just beginning.
On the surface, then, after eight years of improvement, downtown Vientiane is nearly unrecognizable. But, as we’ve been reminded time and again by our NGO hosts in the capital city, Vientiane is not Laos. As in any country—-especially in the developing world—-the capital receives the lion’s share of the country’s resources. Aside from the national government itself, Vientiane is home to the headquarters of countless NGOs, international organizations, and foreign investors; these groups, and the international staff that come with them, have created a demand for private enterprise, and pressure for infrastructure improvements, in Vientiane that does not exist elsewhere in the country.
In fact, one need only drive a few minutes out of the city center—-past the presidential palace, up Lane Xang Road, around Patuxai, not far past That Luang—-to find dirt roads that are nearly impassable after a heavy rain. Most people in Vientiane live in small, simple homes off narrow, unpaved paths. I took a ride out to the neighborhood where I lived during my first year in Laos, and nothing had changed. Of course, from my perspective, that’s a good thing. At least I could find my way around.