Welcome to the Laos capital, Vientiane: home to feeble infrastructure and mosquito masses. I think my weekend in Laos is best encapsulated by the gecko that ventured into my hotel room air conditioner and subsequently died. I can get into that story later.
First—why are there so many bugs? Is it because of the Mekong River? Obviously I did a Google search posing the question, but results spit out guesthouses in Vientiane that had bed bug incidents. Or medical advice to take before travelling to Laos.
In terms of medical precautions before embarking to Laos, search results showed nothing out of the ordinary. “Beware of mosquitoes carrying malaria… some travelers get malaria vaccination beforehand,” etc, etc. Just like other SE Asian country, really.
But I swear to you, Laos is buggier than the rest of the countries in the region. Out of the ones I have visited, at least: Cambodia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. I would open my hotel room door for a second and several mosquitoes fly into the room. Several Google searches later—“Mekong River bugs Laos”, “Vientiane bugs why” and “Mosquitoes Vientiane”—but still no solid answer, just more health precautions.
Aside from the bugs, how do I begin to describe Vientiane? There is a definite French influence in the architecture as well as all the French bakeries and restaurants. And there are quite a lot of French tourists. But I suppose seeing Laos was colonized by the French, it is not too surprising.
Still, for being the Laos capital, Vientiane is quite underdeveloped compared to other SE Asian capitals I have seen. Nonetheless, I knew to expect this after writing a post on the small, landlocked country. Still, I only saw a handful of stop lights throughout the whole city. There is one main downtown area all the tourists flock to, several blocks in size. So small in fact I ran into an acquaintance from Bangkok at a coffee shop. Also from the US, he taught at a Thai university for a year and is now slowly making his way back to America. Is it a coincidence for both of us to be in Vientiane the same June weekend, not to mention the same exact coffee shop on Saturday morning? Yes. But once you travel around SE Asia, you see that it is very connected. Foreigners will travel to the same places, stay in the same areas, and so on. There is definitely a “backpacking” community. And especially seeing how small Vientiane is (at least the area where tourists congregate), it is no surprise we bumped into one another.
Before I went to Laos, I heard from two different girls around my age how much they enjoyed the country. Another American girl said she loved Laos so much that she thought of moving here. And then one of my Thai coworkers, who came to Vientiane for New Years, raved about the laid-back and relaxed environment. Her father said it was what Thailand was like 20-30 years ago. She even said she felt Laotians were kinder than Thai people. Another pal of mine, not so fond of Laos as the former two, warned that it takes several days to get your bearings. A very experienced traveler from Kuala Lumpur, even he said he felt completely lost when first arriving.
Nevertheless, with those perspectives in mind as well as some personal research, I was not sure what I would make of Laos. But now, having came, saw and conquered, I know.
I did not find Laotian people to be nicer than Thai. In fact, I sort of got a cold shoulder from many Laotians I interacted with. I know that the country’s tourism industry is far behind it’s neighbors, which I think has to do with it. You can really tell that customer service is not on the same level as it is in Thailand or even Vietnam and Cambodia. To illustrate, let’s briefly look at the gecko incident I mentioned earlier.
While staying in Laos I intentionally chose a nicer hotel. In fact, the Ansara Hotel was rated second best in Vientiane on TripAdvisor. In any case, the hotel was what I anticipated. Design and décor were nothing spectacular, but for Laos it was probably cream of the crop. Customer service on the other hand… Let’s just say it was not textbook example, unless the example was what not to do.
So on Saturday evening a gecko appeared on my ceiling, larger and darker than its’ Thai counterpart I am accustomed to. It was also faster—and much more fearful. All I did was stand up and the gecko ran to hide by the ceiling-placed AC. I don’t mind geckos, but I prefer them not to be in my sleeping space. So, in typical fashion, I went to find the gecko and chase it out of my room–like I have done many times in the past. So, I turn off the AC and start looking.
But this gecko was nowhere to be found. It could not have gone far, because my eyes were on the area by the AC this whole time. After ten minutes or so of touching around the AC, hoping it would run out of its’ hiding place, I gave up and called the front desk. I know, they probably hate me. But it is strange that it just vanished.
So two men come into the room and look around just like I had. Still nothing. So they search around the room, and nothing of course. So finally the taller of the two opens the front flap to the AC, but still nothing. They tell me it must have hid inside the AC. And it will die because they can’t get it out unless they detach the whole component. What!?!
Of course this sounds sort of crazy and I do not really believe it. But then we turn back on the AC… and let’s just say, it was not sounding normal. The AC was heaving and cranking. It sounded all wrong. They then left the room and I had the choice of listening to this loud, awful sounding air conditioner or turn it off and exist in the heat. I ended up turning off the AC, but then back on again after hearing scuttling from within.
Safe to say I did not have a good sleep that night. I use this example simply to demonstrate how, at a “top-notch” hotel, they let me stay in a room where there was a dying/dead gecko stuck in the AC. If doesn’t paint a picture of the lack of customer service skills, I am not sure what would.
In any event, if the damming projects in the Mekong River go as planned and money starts to be pumped into the economy—I think that in the next ten to twenty years the tourism industry could really progress. And with that growth, hospitality management practices should improve. Also, important to note that ASEAN integration will most likely help the Laos economy, too.
One observation I do agree with from my coworker is that there is a more “relaxed” vibe in Laos. But I don’t like it. I like fast-paced environments and people with hardworking attitudes. I do not enjoy sitting back, relaxing and waiting for life to happen. I am all about making life happen.
From the moment I stepped off the airplane to checking into my “nice” hotel, I did not like the atmosphere.
Truthfully I am not sure if I would come back to Laos in the near future, unless it was absolutely necessary. However further in the future, after (hopefully) more economic developments, it could be interesting to return and see how much the country has changed.
In the end, Laos (at least Vientiane) is not really my thing. Maybe I did need more time to gather myself. Still, in other places I have visited in the region, I felt a sense of development. I saw buildings being constructed; I met people wanting to practice English; I perceived a desire for modernization. But in Laos, I did not feel that. I felt stasis and no urgency.
Image Credit- personal photo of myself in Vientiane.