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TRAVEL & STUFF

Loud in Laos

By roving hack Ignatius Rake
Vientiane, Laos

Posted December 19, 2013
stupa
Golden missile battery: Pha That Luang's central stupa. © Ignatius Rake

Vientiane's temple fairs and discos bring a whole new meaning to the word loud; ear defenders advised.


Sitting across from Thailand on the eastern banks of the Mekong, Vientiane1, 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-totting 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, it 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 and 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 wat.



night bun
Free-market free-for-all: The bun at night. © Ignatius Rake

YOU WAT?
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 landing2.

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 rootings, 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 spatchcock 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 (Th)3 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, CP, Apple, Hitachi, Dutch Mill, Nokia, Samsung, Nissan and even Playboy (fragrances as opposed to bongo mags, mind), 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 outsider 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 out chant, out pray and downright out shout 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.



lbc beerlao garden
An LBC garden: Great beer, bloody great racket.© Ignatius Rake

THE GARDEN OF NOISY DELIGHTS
After stuffing my gob like Joey 'Jaws' 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 high-energy 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 punk bands, raved in warehouses, fired heavy machines guns and reported from the factory floors of countless industrial plants across the globe, including rolling mills and refineries, 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 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 the city's drinking dens, I found myself outside Full Moon on Th 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 club4 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 that5.

But just how excruciatingly painful on the old lugs 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 eardrums bleed it can really get on your tits.


See also Beerlao by the Mekong, posted 5/12/13.


Ignatius Rake
is a freelance journalist and geographer who has so far visited 70 countries on six continents. A published lyricist, he has fronted punk bands in both the UK and Poland, including the only band to be kicked off BBC Radio Cornwall. He has been known to like a pint.


Footnotes

1) Vientiane is a French latinisation of the local language and should really be pronounced something along the lines of 'Viangchan' or 'Wiangchan'. There is some debate as to whether it means 'city of sandalwood' or 'city of the moon'.

2) Most visitors to Laos will also require a visa, which can usually be obtained on arrival. As a Brit, I had to hand over $35 and a passport photo. When I was there, some other currencies were also accepted in addition to USD, including Thai baht and euro. Have a click of this for starters, although you may have to do a bit more surfing depending on your nationality and whether the applicable Lao Embassy website is up or down. They seem to be a bit temperamental.

3) Thanks to the city's French colonial past, some roads are called 'rue' or 'avenue' but for practical purposes visitors are generally advised to use the Lao word thanon to avoid confusion.

4) The meaning of 'nightclub' varies around the world. The one I went to was a nightclub as in 'disco' not 'brothel'.

5) Hat tip: DJ NRG Raver coined the term 'Lao loud' over tumblers of Green Spot back in Europe. At least, that's what I think he said. I seem to have gone a bit Mutt 'n' Jeff lately.




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