With our tickets in hand, we board a night train from Bangkok to Nong Khai – the northern Thai city that is a gateway to Laos. We’re tired and ready to snuggle up on the train for a snooze, and quickly make our way to our seats opposite a group of older Lao people who are playing cards. They nod at us as we fold out our beds, and we wonder why they aren’t as eager to get to sleep. As the train lurches forward, we realise why. The old train moans as it makes its way along the tracks, letting its passengers know, through every jarring creak and rattle, just how much effort this journey is for its frail structure.
“Sorry, we locked the keys in the car,” my boyfriend’s flustered uncle explains as he arrives at Nong Khai station in a tuktuk. We are the only people left at the deserted platform and are relieved to see him long after the train had dropped us off.
Having been raised in Australia, Pep, my Lao boyfriend, had always dreamed of visiting the country his parents once called home. This trip to visit extended family had been a long time coming, and we had anticipated a somewhat grander reception at the train station. But when we hear the tale of the missing car keys, we aren’t so surprised. Laos is officially known as Lao PDR – which stands for Lao People’s Democratic Republic – but local wisdom suggests that ‘Lao, Please Don’t Rush’ is a more fitting moniker.
Still standing on Thai soil in Nong Khai, we eagerly pile our bags into the tuktuk and cross the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge into Laos where the family is waiting at the car – from which the keys have been rescued.
Tired and hungry from the train journey, we drive to a small unsigned restaurant and order khao piak sen, a noodle soup with thick, hearty handmade rice noodles. It’s the middle of monsoon season and the air is thick with humidity, so we sit by the fan while slurping up the abundance of freshly made noodles before us.
The meal leaves us energised and perfectly sated, so we make our way home to drop off our belongings. No longer distracted by hunger, I gaze out the window at a busy street where tuktuks and people movers jostle alongside one another. It’s a scene that seems incongruous with the country’s ‘please don’t rush’ tagline. Then we turn onto a narrow dirt road where children play in the street, and Vientiane reveals its softer side to me. As we slowly drive down the street, I notice that many of the houses have little makeshift shops and restaurants tacked on to the front of them. Conveniently, one of the shops is directly across the road from where I am staying, and all I need to do is call out from the front door to have snacks and drinks brought over.
The day we arrive is a public holiday and the heat is building, heightening the anticipation of afternoon rain. We decide to escape the sweltering city and visit family friends at their nearby property, where I am greeted by a group of men gathered around a dam holding Beer Lao in one hand and homemade fishing rods in the other. They pluck fish from the dam and immediately throw them onto a coal grill. I am still full from the noodles, but this is the freshest meal I’ve ever been served and I can’t resist tucking in. Sweet yet smokey from the charcoal, the fish is the perfect accompaniment to the baskets of white sticky rice and large plates of spicy pawpaw salad that fill the table before me.
Midafternoon approaches, and we return home to beat the rain that is threatening to break through the heavy cloak of humidity. As the cascade of thick raindrops descends, local children rush out to the street and splash around – their shrieks filling the neighbourhood with the joy of such a simple pleasure.
By the next morning, the rain has ceased and I wake early, unable to sleep due to the smothering humidity. There’s a platter of fruit on the table and we savour sweet longans before setting off down the street for breakfast at the restaurant I had spied the day before. Pep and I have been assured this is the best restaurant in the neighbourhood, and so we take a seat under the verandah at the front of a woman’s home and wait as she carefully prepares a bowl of noodle soup for us. It’s delicious and I am tempted to nap afterwards, but the family is eager to show off their city to us. We take a drive through Vientiane past the major sites before arriving at Buddha Park, which is located in a meadow alongside the Mekong River. While I am exploring the many Buddhist statues and shrines of the park, a game of soccer amongst local youths catches my eye.
Wherever you go in Vientiane there seems to be someone selling food – from neighbourhood restaurants to street vendors wheeling around carts of chilled green mango – and, conveniently, there’s a restaurant sitting beside the makeshift soccer field. Embracing the spirit of Lao PDR, we abandon our plans, settle in, order some snacks and a round of Beer Lao, and watch the rest of the game unfold.