By Joshua H. Liberatore
Vientiane
Laos
Photo gallery
The emerging economies of Southeast Asia have been booming for a few decades running. Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia present stunning examples of that growth, both positive and negative, with ostentatious displays of wealth coexisting alongside still rampant poverty in both urban areas and rural backwaters. A visit to Laos, just to the north of Thailand, offers a rare glimpse of what the region looked like before this rapid development, indeed, what it looked like right on the cusp of modernization and economic integration with the outside world after a generation's worth of conflict, foreign intervention, and colonial retreat. According to EscapeWizard.com, no city captures that transition unfolding better than the dusty capital, Vientiane.

Vientiane boasts a population of nearly three-quarters of a million (about the size of Portland, Oregon), but once you wander past the main streets in the city center, where foreign embassies, larger hotels (www.escapewizard.com/hotels.php?flag=htl), and government buildings are located, dirt roads and sleepy residential alleyways dominate the landscape. Market life is the main attraction, and EscapeWizard.com suggests wandering through the rows of packed produce stalls just to gain a flavor of Laotian culture and commerce. If you've been to Thailand, especially smaller towns in the north, you will see some familiar sights: mounds and mounds of various banana species; soup stalls selling fragrant noodle soup in a mild broth served with fresh greens, bean sprouts, and lime wedges; an array of luscious tropical fruits and vegetables; and of course, heaps of dried and fresh chili peppers. The mood here is laid back to an extreme, however, as Lao culture is even slower paced than that of its more prosperous and sprightly larger neighbor to the south.

Bicycle taxis and rudimentary pedicabs similar to Thailand's tuk-tuk line the corridors adjacent to the main market district, but very little business hustle is on view. It's as if the city just operates in a partial daze, midday public naps being an acceptable practice as a brief respite from the heat. One striking sight is the abundance of fresh baguette for sale. Years of French colonial presence left its trace not only on the architecture and the local penchant for boules; Lao people have embraced the baguette with a fervor that rivals anything you'd find in Paris or Lyon. EscapeWizard.com notes that Lao-style sandwiches are an obligatory treat for first-time visitors. Similar to Vietnamese sandwiches, if not a bit simpler, these light submarines feature shaved cured meats and generous helpings of fresh vegetables (usually cucumbers, cilantro, tomatoes, and onion), properly spiced to taste, and are neatly wrapped in paper for takeaway consumption. Grab one or two for an improvised picnic in a nearby park.

The Lao language is very similar to Thai, so if you've picked up some basic niceties in Bangkok or Ko Samui, do try them out in Vientiane. You will receive warm, tolerant smiles in return. Thailand is the pop cultural force in Lao, with music, movies, and newscasts all coming across the Mekong without much market adaptation, and consequently, many Laotians speak and understand Thai. Northern Thailand is full of dialects and provincial demographics so closely related to Lao analogues that the transition from Nong Kai to Vientiane is nearly seamless. You can even change your Thai baht at the border. In fact, EscapeWizard.com can recommend an overland night train from Bangkok as a great way to get to Vientiane. The border crossing involves a short bus ride across the Friendship Bridge and connection by tuk-tuk or pickup taxi and hardly any customs hassle to speak of. Visas can be arranged beforehand, but may also be purchased at the border.

As far as main attractions in Vientiane go, EscapeWizard.com encourages you to spend a day wandering the city for outlying temples and bizarre socialist monuments. People-watching and general atmospherics are the main draw, however. A great way to explore the city is by rented bicycle. Unlike in Bangkok, traffic in Vientiane presents no hazard, and the streets are quite navigable with a basic map and open eyes. Vientiane has a decent infrastructure of independent guesthouses and some larger hotels. From Vientiane, you can proceed north to other destinations, namely the spectacular ancient city of Luang Prabang. If travelling there by bus, break up your trip by spending an evening in Vang Vieng, a little hippy outpost well suited to Western backpacker tastes. If that doesn't appeal to you, you can book an intercity flight from Wattay International Airport without much difficulty or expense.

As always in the region, the advantage of overland travel, if you can stomach a long, bumpy ride, is the opportunity to admire the interior landscape and pass through small towns you'd never otherwise witness. Laos was heavily bombed in Nixon's escalation of the Vietnam conflict as a way to deter Viet Cong supply lines running through Laos and Cambodia. A still-pockmarked landscape as well as unexploded ordnance spread throughout the country are the unfortunate vestiges of this campaign. Life endures in the Lao hinterland, however, and any glimpse you can muster of these relatively undeveloped and rural communities is well worth your while. Visit EscapeWizard.com (www.escapewizard.com/flight.php) to book your flight to Vientiane, Laos, today.