Laos Life: Under Construction

How can a city be constantly changing and not really changing at all — all at the very same time? We set out with Noe and Riley to answer that very same question, with astonishingly unsurprising results.

7 July 2019

Vientiane is a city in transition. For the past few hundred years, Vientiane has been happily motoring along in the slow lane. Where this city is headed in the next decade, however, is anybody’s guess.

When we first visited in 2012, huge billboard-sized images plastered across high-profile construction sites across town signaled ambitions to transform Southeast Asia’s most laid back and livable capital city into something akin to Singapore.

In hindsight, we seemed to have moved here at the height of the biggest construction frenzy in this country’s history. In September 2016, business seemed to be booming, high-rises were quickly transforming the city’s skyline, and old buildings were being torn down en masse by the day to make way for new construction.

For two years, Vientiane was one big, active construction site, with the dust and noise to go along with it.

During that same time, dozens of hydroelectric dams came online and a number of Chinese companies broke ground on two of the largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects Laos has ever known: The Lao-China high-speed railway project, and the Laos-China expressway project.

Then, about a year ago, the Chinese economy stuttered and foreign investment and interest in Laos seemed to stall. Little to no progress has been made on three of the capital’s largest and most conspicuous construction projects: That Luang SEZ, Latsavong Plaza, and the World Trade Center, among others.

The dozen malls and shopping centers constructed over the last five years remain largely vacant, and the new Lao National Museum has yet to open more than two years after the old museum’s big moving party (itself, an empty shell yet to realize the developer’s vision of a luxury hotel in the heart of the city).

Yet, some projects soldier on and buildings across the city continue to be torn down at a staggering rate with nothing yet to replace them.

Such is Vientiane these days: Equal parts perpetual construction site, ghost town, and swingin’ national capital.

On one of our last Daddy Days of the season, I took Noe on a long bike ride along the Mekong. He loves being by the river, especially whenever there are boats about (which, oddly enough, isn’t often in Vientiane). On this particular day, we got quite lucky, as this unusual riverboat decided to grace Vientiane with its presence. Noe, of course, was beside himself.

Riley’s been having fun at his nursery school learning the old ways.

One of the benefits of all this construction is that there’s almost always a good watering hole near the active sites. Which means Lori and I can grab a drink after work and Noe can watch the men (always men here) hard at work with their heavy machinery. He loves construction sites!

Not so long ago, much of Vientiane resembled this modest alleyway. Now, alleys like these are an endangered species. Coming out of here from one of our favorite local restaurants, we ran into a woman who used to live in this neighborhood. To put it lightly, she was not a fan of what has become of the Vientiane she grew up in.

 

 

 

Got a case of the munchies?

Baby in a basket!

Noe always finds something random to keep himself busy with. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to ride the trike around at our friends’ pool party. The wagon had to come along as well! Thankfully, no one was riding inside…this time.

Two front teeth! And more on the way!

That’s the quasi-complete Laos World Trade Center. They broke ground about a decade ago. Lori and I have vivid memories of walking alongside the construction site in 2012 on our first visit to COPE.

It opened about a year ago with a half dozen shops on the ground floor, right before we headed back to the U.S. for maternity leave.

When we got back in January, every one of those shops had closed. But good news! This mammoth shopping center currently has three functional merchants: Funderland, i-Furniture, and… Take It Easy Cafe — our brunch destination for this fine Sunday morning.

From the parking garage, we follow the red carpet…

Are we going the right way?

It appears so.

We arrive at the elevator and select the 4th Floor. What’s on floors 1-3, you ask? Not a heck of a lot (we checked it out later).

4th Floor brings us to… a ton of furniture. And really nice furniture at that. Stuff you don’t really see in Laos. And not a soul in sight. Not creepy at all.

We get lost for a moment in the forest of Ashley Furniture sectionals and Oxo kitchenware, ending up in a largely finished but eerily vacant part of the building.

 

A short while later, we finally find what we’ve been looking for! And now it’s time to take it easy, so to speak. I’m just hoping we can find our way out.

 

Certainly worth the trip for the waffles alone (nobody does waffles in Vientiane!). But what a long, strange trip it’s been to get here.

After brunch, we head up one floor to check out Funderland! Given the time constraints of the morning, we made it clear to Noe that this was purely a scouting mission. Thankfully, he’s fairly cool when it comes to recon, so long as the rules of engagement are clearly defined beforehand.

 

 

Kids love world trade!

Heading down to the first floor, we pass a whole lot of…um…

…room for expansion!

Outside, we are greeted by the largest inflatable water complex I’ve ever seen. This thing consisted of maybe three or four separate pools covering the length of two football pitches.

Recon, Noe. Recon.

Yet, the weirdest experience of the day was yet to be had!

After running a few errands around town, we decided to head back to our old stomping grounds, Phontan Village.

At the very end of the main drag, Dongpayna Road, is a massive work in progress called the That Luang SEZ. At some point, some Chinese guy with way too much money envisioned a skyscraper city to house 400,000 Chinese people in what was, up until just a few years ago, a massive rice paddy.

In late 2016, signs of slowing were already evident, as construction on the high-rises ground to a sudden halt. But that didn’t stop the powers that be from being creative!

First, they put a giant inflatable rubber ducky in the middle of the lake, just for shits, I guess. Then, they put in a supermarket. But only decided to stock 25% of the supermarket and put lightbulbs in every three sockets (so you could hardly read the product labels).

When that didn’t quite get off the ground (I can’t imagine why), they turned the parking lot into a concert venue, which hosted exactly one event: The Vientiane Christian Music Festival. Being in a predominately Buddhist country, it seemed an odd choice of investment.

And when that didn’t work out, they closed the ornate four-lane avenue (with golden columns) and made it into Eastern Vientiane’s premier Night Market!

Which also fizzled.

In February, I guess they said the to hell with it, brought in a ton of heavy machinery, and proceeded to tear up the entire 1.5 miles of tarmac — including hundreds of recently planted hedges and trees, and a dozen or so life-size concrete elephants — and started from scratch.

A few weeks ago, it reopened to traffic with jarring results.

Circa mid-2018 (note the golden columns):

And…mid-2019:

Pretty stunning, transformation, eh? What previously didn’t amount to much more than a nice jogging path a block away from our old house has been transformed into the widest, fanciest expressway in all of Laos! At least for now.

The detailed (and abundant) traffic signs are absolutely amazing. And the best part? 1 km down the road, this crazy stretch of tarmac unceremoniously dumps you off onto a dirt road next to a cow pasture.

I do have to say though, that I’m impressed with this latest development.

It’ll be interesting to see what it all looks like in a year or so when they inevitably tear it all up and start all over again.

Inflatable waterpark, perhaps?

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Shirley Northcraft
Shirley Northcraft

I am grateful for the peaceful morning strolls I enjoyed along the road before it became a major thoroughfare.