Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Vientiane By Night

For my last night in Laos, I arrived in Vientiane at around 5.30 in the afternoon. After checking into my hotel and a quick shower (it had been a VERY dusty day in Phonsavan), I rushed to an art gallery I had visited the week before in order to buy a couple of amazing photographs taken by an 8-year old Laotian girl with the most incredible Eye. I was hesitating between two pictures I hadn't been able to get out of my mind; in the end I took both, and a third one as well for 35 dollars each. (Quite a lot of money in Laos, where a large percentage of the population have to get by on a dollar a day, but very cheap for art, and hopefully I contributed a bit towards her chances of getting an education.) More about her in a couple of days.

This art-shopping took a while, and by the time I was finished I had missed the sunset over the Mekong. A pity, since having a beer while watching the sun set over tropical waters is truly one of the great pleasures in life, and the Mekong riverbank is lined with tables and drink and snack vendors for that very purpose.

Oh well, I had watched several glorious sunsets already during the past week.


Now for the weird part:
As I was walking along the riverbank, I came to a large covered concrete platform where a hundred or so Laotian housewives were doing aerobics to the sound of, of all things, "Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep" at full blast. I thought I had seen everything, but apparently not. Stunned, I had to stop and watch for several minutes.

Then around the corner I came across a guy with Down's Syndrome (I think) busking on a khene, a bizarre traditional instrument like a mouth-driven pipe organ with very long droning bamboo pipes. Again I had to stop.

After a much-needed back massage and some food, I found myself in front of the highly dubious-looking Lane Xang Nightclub. A bunch of chubby waitresses were hanging around outside the entrance, but Laos is not Thailand, and there was no way to find out what was actually going on inside unless I ventured in. "How much?" I asked. "Two dollars for a beer". Can't really argue with that, even though it was about twice the riverside price. No additional entrance charge. So in I went, of course. Immediately a mama-san asked me if I wanted a girl to sit with me, but those things can quickly get expensive and I wanted to check out the place first so I said "Later". For better or worse, I wasn't asked again.
Most of the room was full of sofas where small groups of mostly middle-aged Laotian men where sitting with a couple of hostesses, obviously having lots of rather innocent fun. No visible hanky-panky, at least. At one end was a stage where a five-piece combo in white (nylon?) shirts and narrow ties played a succession of Lao country favorites and Thai pop hits (some of which I actually knew, such as "Rorn" for any other China Dolls fans out there), and in front of the stage was a dancefloor where the male customers where taking turns ballroom dancing (!) with the taxi girls. Once in a while the lights would drop and the band play a ballad so that the couples could dance cheek to cheek. All very innocent. Except for the drinks and the smoke, it reminded me of nothing so much as the school dances I went to when I was about ten years old in Sweden. But this was last week. Most of the time, one of the girls, and occasionally one of the customers, would go up on the stage to sing the lead vocals, karaoke-style. One tiny girl in a gold lamé dress even belted out one of the songs featured on Jah Wobble's Molam Dub album, but by then I was already way beyond flabbergasted. But stranger things were to come: during an instrumental number, the guitarist suddenly kicks in the absolutely filthiest fuzz box I've ever heard, bringing whole new dimensions to the word "psychedelic".
All in all, a most entertaining and eye-opening evening. The only sad thing was that I wasn't allowed to take pictures in there.

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