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Beerlao Beyond the Guidebook

A Few Blocks from Touristville: The Real Vientiane

By Dave Fox
Vientiane, Laos

[This story began yesterday, with a quest to visit the Beerlao Brewery. Read part one here.]

Our efforts to tour the Beerlao brewery thwarted, Lisa and I pedal back toward downtown Vientiane. We skirt the town center, riding through a park that flanks the Mekong River. We zoom past the tourist hangouts to a dustier swatch of riverbank with a row of scruffy, local beer shacks.

In Southeast Asia, the concept of “ice cold beer” is taken very seriously.

This is what I live for when I travel. I don’t care if it’s a raucous bar or a serene teahouse; just put me at a neighborhood gathering spot where tourists don’t go. It’s a de-facto anthropological museum. Beer, when available, is a bonus.

At a wobbly plastic table, two big bottles of Beerlao come served with two small glasses and a large bucket of ice. Purists might argue you should never put ice cubes in beer, but those purists haven’t drank in sweltering places with meager refrigeration. Splashing a couple of ice cubes into a glass, and feeling the chilly condensation dribble down your shirt as you slurp, is part of the experience.

If you can’t read the sign, you’re in the right place.

It’s a ramshackle place with an open storefront. The menu is only in Lao. The guys at the table next to us are playing cards. They look like they’ve been there a while. The owner’s young daughters have turned a couple of sticks into a no-contact mock sword-fight. A kite is flapping above the river.

I’ve seen this so many times in my travels, and I wonder now why it takes me so many days to find these spots: Just a few blocks from touristville is the real Vientiane. I should have been hanging out here days ago.

When traveling solo, surrogate friends round out the journey.

Lisa finishes her beer and takes off to meet her boyfriend, who’s flying in from Germany. Alone again, I hop on my bike and ride further along the river. Families are picnicking. Badminton shuttlecocks are popping skyward. Dogs that are not spayed or neutered are falling in love.

When the cycle-friendly part of the path ends, I double back. I stop outside a huge, semi-outdoor restaurant and bar elevated a couple of stories above the road. A couple of guys are on a stage, singing Laotian songs, playing acoustic guitars. There are hundreds of people, but from my vantage point down on the road, I can’t see a single foreigner.

On the banks of the Mekong River, families soak in the sunset.

I want to go eat dinner there but I’m intimidated. Grabbing a table at a small dive bar is one thing. Wading into a massive happy hour, with huge language and cultural barriers, is something I’d like people to think I do boldly all the time, but in reality, my adventurousness has its limits. Besides, I have no lock for my rented bike. Someone might steal it.

So I hop on my seat and sit for a moment, thinking about where I want to go eat. I often savor time by myself, but at this moment, I feel lonely.

I always check out the menu before deciding where to eat.

I don’t really want to eat anywhere. I’ve been traveling on my own for a week now – something I used to do a lot, something I usually love. I’m an outgoing guy. I find people to talk to and hang out with, and when I don’t, I have no problem being by myself. But right now, I don’t feel like being an extrovert, don’t feel like sitting in a crowded restaurant alone. I feel like going back to my hotel balcony and reading or sulking. Sometimes, retreating for a while is the most reviving thing to do.

But in the sprawling nightclub above me, there’s one free picnic table on the outside fringe – a premium spot with a 180-degree view of the Mekong River’s imminent sunset. I’ve probably got about 20 seconds before someone else snags it.

I stash my bike behind some construction debris and climb the stairs.

This could be one of those rare, glimmering travel moments when I smash out of the tourist bubble and meet new local friends, when a smile from a stranger nudges me from my momentary shyness. Maybe the night will turn into one of those raucous parties where too many rounds of Beerlao are served and I wake up in the morning moaning, but savoring the fact that the story will last much longer than the hangover.

None of this happens. I eat by myself. Other than the waiters, I talk to no one. But I have a good night. A cool evening breeze sweeps out the earlier humidity. The music and a plate of ginger pork, a second bottle of Beerlao and the energy of hundreds of festive people around me recharge my spirits. I remember my disappointment a few hours earlier when I arrived at the brewery to discover there were no tours, and I realize if I had toured the brewery, I probably would not have ended up here — in a more authentic place.

This is the real Vientiane. Most tourists don’t come here, but it’s not hard to get to. You just have to put away your guidebook, and wander a few blocks beyond the map.

Published on Friday, June 29, 2012

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