While this may or may not be the case when it comes to wine, the idea of there being an organic, non transferable identity to place is intriguing, and one which fits Lao People's Democratic Republic. Vientiane has terroir, no doubt about it. In a world of Yellowtail Chardonnay, Laos is a Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc.
Laos (or Lao PDR, either way) is sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, with China to the north and Cambodia to the south. It's got about six million people, which makes it demographically tiny compared to anywhere except Mongolia, really. It is otherwise tremendously diverse, with 35 different ethnicities spread over its jungly mountains. Laos has 300 varieties of rice, more than any other country except China, yet less than four percent of its land is classified as arable. Economically, Laos languishes way behind Vietnam and Thailand, and seems likely to continue to do so.
The capital Vientiane is a dozy place- hot, humid, and just about to nod off. It has anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000 people, of which no more than about 20 percent seem to be awake at any given time. The head-cleaving heat that bakes the surrounding jungle reigns from 0930 to 1600 makes hats absolutely mandatory, and empties the streets for much of the day of all but the most insomniac residents. Laotian lethargy is legendary- one axiom has it that the Thai grow rice, the Cambodians watch rice grow, and Laotians listen to rice grow. While this makes Laos a somewhat frustrating place to work in for the driven professional, it suits the more relaxed visitor just fine. After the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Ulaan Baatar, it's good to unwind in Vientiane.
Once the sun moves nearer to the horizon, Vientiane is a lovely place to amble around. Most buildings are no higher than three stories high, and have verandahs on all floors, to cool off the inside of the house when the heat builds up. Laos has significant hardwoods in its jungles, and houses are built of dark, heavy woods carved with flourishes on the eaves, doorways, and grilles. The roads vary between pockmarked tarmac and packed earth. Like other southeast Asian cities, houses are generally open to the street, and market stalls are set up along the streets, selling fruit and veg, coffee and tasty soups and tilapia for lunch. Tuk tuks and mopeds are the dominant mode of transport, which makes for a rush hour that sounds like a dozen sewing machines. People smile, say hello, and walk along gently.
The remnants of Indochine are still in evidence as well. In between the Buddhist temples and government buildings, there are remarkable number of wine shops, one of which has a carved barrel three metres high and two across built about its shopfront. Bistros and restaurants serving French fare abound. Patisseries that bake excellent brioche, croissant and pain au chocolat are on every block. Locals will recommend some establishments for breakfast, some for midmorning, and some are suitable only for lunch, m'sieu. Cafes serving Laotian coffee are in similar abundance- the coffee is, unsurprisingly, marvelous- traditionally served thick and black with condensed milk stirred through it. Laos also remains determinedly francophone, the last remaining holdout in southeast Asia. Street signs are written in Laotian script and French, and people brighten considerably if you parlez-vous. By ten p.m, the streets are just about empty, as everyone has retired to bed after another exhausting day.
All in all, a charming, gentle anachronism of a land stuck between the thrusting economic powerplayers of south east Asia, and a place more friendly than a roomful of handshakes. In a world where the Starbucks on Khao San Road serves the same thing as the Starbucks in Beijing airport or the one in the Borders in Times Square, Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane's cafes continue to serve their own homegrown. And for that alone, we urge you to set sail for the land of the languid.