Sitting across from Thailand on the eastern banks of the Mekong, Vientiane, the capital of Laos, or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) to give this communist country it’s correct name, is an incredibly relaxed place; its built form a mixture of serene Buddhist wats, fading French colonial grandeur and the boxiness and boulevards of Soviet socialist realism. Home to a population of around 770,000, it is certainly not one of Asia’s more populous cities and as such it is free of the sort of traffic that grinds Jakarta to a near perpetual halt; the endless hassles and dangers that abound in gun-toting Manila; and the general clamour and chaos of Mumbai.
A sleepy backwater apparently untouched by the ravages of the outside world save for the general advancements in moped technology, the Wi-Fi signs nailed to trees and the ubiquitous Beeline mobile phone ads, Vientiane feels a million miles from the tourist gaze of Bangkok or the high-tech strivings of Kuala Lumpur. Dogs doze on the potholed pavements as battered yet colourful tuk-tuks half-heartedly tout for trade while hammer-and-sickle flags flutter lazily by the river. No one rushes and no one pays you much heed as the locals go about their daily business amid the tropical heat.
London, New York or Tokyo this is not; the Bajans of Barbados seemingly stressheads by comparison. Indeed, the only place I have been more laidback than Laos was Tonga, where even the imminent threat of a hurricane was something that could be worried about later. But just because the tempo is larghissimo, it doesn’t mean the Lao like to do things quietly, as I learnt only too well when a tuk-tuk delivered me to the annual temple fair, or bun, at Pha That Luang, the country’s most venerated wat1 (pictured top).
Likened by some to a golden missile battery, the temple complex’s central stupa, the most iconic symbol of Lao nationhood, appears on pretty much everything from bank notes to the immigration form you have to fill in on landing. Reputedly tracing its heritage back to the third century AD (although this may well be apocryphal), Pha That Luang was seriously kicked about by a succession of invading Burmese and Siamese armies before the French incorrectly ‘restored’ it in 1900 prior to righting most of their wrongs in the 1930s.
Today, while less impressive than back in its 17th century heyday, Pha That Luang encompasses a site of several hectares three klicks northwest of the city centre. Moreover, for one week each November it plays host to the largest bun in the country. Despite their religious roots, though, the celebrations owe less to a South Devon church fête than they do the screeching arrival of a very noisy carnival.
Aromatic food stalls selling spatchcocked chickens, steamed buns and omelettes drizzled in condensed milk rub shoulders with kickboxing rings, BB shooting galleries and a hundred and one places to throw a dart at a balloon should you not be tempted by the tented warren of stalls knocking out shoes and shirts of dubious origin near the main entrance on Thanon Singha 23.
Flying in the face of the state’s Marxist dogma, slick stands and stages branded with a multitude of multinational logos, such as Pepsi, Apple, Hitachi and even Playboy, belt out a different Lao, Thai or western pop song 300 decibels louder than the one to its right. At the same time, armies of amped-up barkers blast out an endless prattle of sales vomit, giving the festival, itself sponsored by the Lao Brewery Company (LBC), not only a very secular feel, but a very free-market capitalist one at that. Indeed, were it not for all the soldiers milling about with Kalashnikovs across their chests, a disorientated foreigner might be forgiven for mistaking the festival for an orgy of consumerism in Korea, Hong Kong or Taiwan.
Not that the monks, in their bright orange and saffron robes, make much of an effort to go unnoticed, with an entire battalion of the blessed doing their darnedest to outchant, outpray and downright outshout each other through a phalanx of PAs along the stupa’s northern flank. Then the sun goes down, the strobe lights flash on and the white noise gets whapped to the max. There are no amps that go up to 11 in Vientiane.
They all start at 12.
Vientiane’s Garden of Noisy Delights
After stuffing my gob like Joey Chestnut on Lord knows what, I turned my back on the imported Tiger taps and sought solace in some local Beerlaos in one of several LBC gardens, a decision that ultimately led me to the very heart of the beast, a beating, pumping heart presided over by hi-NRG DJs and some of the cheesiest live rock bands ever to strap on a strat in anger.
Not that it wasn’t fun.
It was. It was just so unrelentingly loud.
Trust me, I don’t speak these words lightly. In my time, I have fronted bands, raved in warehouses, fired heavy machines guns and reported from the factory floors of industrial plants across the globe, but nothing, and I mean nothing, ever came close to the ear-splitting roar that thundered like Thor across that sacred sanctuary of peace and reflection.
With no respite to be found at the bottom of a can or glass no matter how many I searched, I eventually capitulated to the sonic weapons aimed at me from all directions and clambered aboard a tuk-tuk, its wasp-in-a-tin-can engine utterly drowned out by the deafening din of the bun. Yet even back in the city centre, I could still hear the barkers and beats as though they were coming from a disco next door. But was it all just in my head? Had the tropical heat turned me into some lily-livered lightweight with hypersensitive hearing? The answer, it transpired, was a resounding no.
Deafened on the Dance Floor
Two days later, while conducting a rigorous transect of Vientiane’s drinking dens, I found myself outside Full Moon on Thanon François Ngin, sitting beside a British woman over from Thailand on a visa run with her husband. “Have you been to the bun yet?” she asked. “We were there yesterday but we couldn’t believe the noise! We had to leave after 20 minutes.”
While I could fully empathise with her, I still can’t help wondering how long she’d have lasted at the heaving night club I stumbled into a few hours later. Due to the bar snacks I’d eaten, I can’t recall the club’s name nor its precise location. However, what I do remember all too clearly was the wall of western chart pop pap that aurally assaulted me the moment I crossed the threshold.
I don’t profess to be an expert on the minutiae of UK health and safety legislation but had that been a workplace in Blighty, I swear the management would have been obliged to issue ear defenders. It wasn’t loud, very loud nor even mental loud. Oh no, it was 10 steps beyond. It was Lao loud and bloody Lao loud at that.
But just how excruciatingly painful on the old lugholes is that? Well, if you can imagine a squadron of Harrier Jump Jets taking off in the middle of a Ray Keith set while a brass band plays Slaidburn in your ear, you’re nearly halfway there. Seriously, Gangnam Style is bad enough when it’s almost inaudible but when it makes your ears bleed it can really get on your tits. Sexy lady.
Notes and Credits
This article was written in December 2013 and recounts a visit made the previous month. Words and pictures © Ignatius Rake.
1) This three-day bun in Vientiane takes place during the full moon of the 12th lunar month, which equates to November in conventional Western thinking. This fact may also explain why things were so loud. After all, while some might scoff, there has long been an association with full moons and madness, or lunacy, itself a word derived from the Latin for moon, viz luna.
Indeed, it is due to this very notion of moon-induced madness that Buddhists, such as the Lao, hold full moon periods (generally deemed as spanning three days in esoteric circles) in special regard. The thinking being that they mark a time when people should focus on spiritual practices and matters rather than mundane (viz wordly) matters to avoid turning into lunatics.
The thing is, while the bun clearly has a spiritual founding, the nightlife I experienced there in Vientiane was a lot more secular and beery, which might explain why it was all a bit bonkers volume-wise. Who knows? Either way, you can read more about Buddhism and the full moon here if you wish.