Christmas[time] is a funny time of year here in Vientiane. Irrespective of the fact that only about one percent of people in Laos identify as Christian (two-thirds of Laotians are Buddhist, and the vast majority of the remaining third practice folk/animist religions), Christmas[time] is kind of a big deal — at least here in the capital city of Vientiane.
And I say Christmas[time] because I’d wager that most Laotians putting up Christmas trees and lights in their businesses and blasting American Christmas standards into the street have no clue when the actual Christmas day is. Trees, lights, and the omnipresent saxophone santas go up some time in early December and sort of stay up…until they start getting in the way of Chinese New Year and Valentines decor.
Particularly in recent decades, Christmas in the U.S. seems to have become two separate holidays: the religious one, characterized by Christian imagery and music, and the secular one, dominated by star-topped Christmas trees, santas, and cheesy boyband music — and…shopping.
Yes, shopping. Did I mention shopping? And this is the aspect of Christmas that seems most appealing to the Vientianese — because Vientianese LOVE to shop. After all, Lao PDR is a Communist country. It only makes sense, right? One of the millions of paradoxes of Laos.
So, the Vientianese (and I say Vientianese because, let’s face it, the rural countryside really has little interest in Christmas at all — and who would if you don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus and don’t have money to buy the latest gadgets or easy access to shops that sell the latest gadgets?) have adopted (ugh…hijacked?) Christmas, and in a big way — on top of the thousands of other holidays they celebrate vigorously throughout the year (you might ask when anybody finds any time to get anything done…and that’s a very valid question).
As far as I’m concerned, you can be Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, whatever, and still celebrate the spirit of Christmas — giving of yourself and your time unto others, spending more time with those dearest to you, setting apart time for quiet reflection, etc. In my mind, that wouldn’t be hijacking the holiday at all, but rather embracing it.
So anyway, it’s Christmastime again in Vientiane. Number two for us, and who knows how many more.
What has been particularly enjoyable this year is seeing Christmas through the eyes of an 18-month-old. Noe’s not at the point where he asks for toys, but is old enough to get excited about things — if only that could stay the case for a few more years.
His primary obsession, you ask? The stockings? The toys in the shop windows? The bright red Santa suits? No, no.
Or “arbol” as our bilingual little man calls them. He’ll catch ones on the side of the road barely peaking through a window as we’re passing by in the car and yell, “Aaarbol! Aaarbol!” He’s got quite the eye. His happiest day ever may have been when Lori came home from a cheap Chinese crap shop with our beloved plastic Christmas tree, placing it prominently on top of the air-conditioning unit in the front room. He immediately spotted it, and every day after, would run to the A/C unit, point to it, and yell, “Aaarbol! Aaarbol!”
Something else colored his Christmas experience in a big way as well. Just before Grammy left Laos, there was one thing she had to get…
They sell these little Santa suits all over town, and I always wondered who actually buys/wears them. Now I know.
The truth is, as early as last December, Lori’s been saying she wants to get Noe a Santa suit this Christmas–particularly after last year’s bungling of Lao daycare Christmas party etiquette, in which we arrived to a dance party full of tots decked out in full Santa regalia, with Noe being the glaring exception (which, let’s be honest, wasn’t an uncommon thing, given he was the only non-Asian child at the daycare).
Now, in our defense, our child was only about six months old and barely crawling. It was also pretty obvious he had no clue what was going on — probably a good thing, given that the Christmas-gift-swap/frenzy sort of devolved into a massive melee, where toddlers and preschoolers were ripping open presents from their parents left and right (our present failed to reach Noe, but again…he was barely aware of his own two feet, let alone the flashy toys being ripped open left and right).
This year, of course, was different. Not only was Noe a year older and more cognizant of his surroundings, he’s been attending a completely different daycare — which, to our chagrin, put a slightly smaller emphasis on the donning of roadside Santa attire at their annual Christmas party…
If you missed him, Noe is the blonde-haired kid about the center of the screen.
We’ve been very happy with our switch to the French/Belgian crèche that Noe’s been attending since September. We can tell he loves going there and we love that it seems to fit us (and Noe) a bit better. It’s not at all “hoity toity” like some of the places we checked out, and has a good mix of attendees from a variety of backgrounds. It’s conducted in French and Lao, so yeah, another language to confuse Noe, but he noticeably understands the Lao as well as any of the other kids his age and is coming around to French (which has many similarities to Spanish, which his mama speaks with him 90% of the time).
Today is a special day. The crèche is receiving a very special visitor.
(as he’s called in French)
Noe was beside himself…
He also had the distinction of being the first kid called up to the front to receive a small gift from Papa Noel.
Unlike most of the other kids, he ran his gift straight to mama, then went and sat back down to sit with his balloon.
It wasn’t until much later he finally want to open the gift — a cool little wooden car that changes shape that he’s still playing with weeks later.
Shifting gears, Noe got his second haircut.
Like the first haircut, we’d been debating whether we wanted to let it grow long or cut it. It was getting really shaggy just around the ears, so we opted for a little trim, keeping the top long.
In other news, it seems I won a raffle! Some weeks ago, we attended to a dramatic presentation of one of Sherlock Holmes novels at the Mercure Hotel. Each ticket was entered into a drawing and I won an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner for two at the swanky hotel restaurant. We had to redeem the prize by the end of the year, so we made it a date night the Friday before Christmas.
I passed on the “Assorted Chinese Cold Cut Platter,” but made sure to help myself plenty to the “Assorted Western Cold Cut Platter.” Slightly different…
And plenty of the dessert shelf.
Vientiane’s beloved Namphou fountain recently got a major overhaul, and the difference couldn’t be more stark.
Back in the day, this used to be THE place to gather in Vientiane’s amazing evenings. Then, a few years back, it was sold to a private firm and rebranded as Mix Restaurant. By the time we moved here in late 2016, it was no longer an inviting square at all. For one, it was now a private restaurant (you couldn’t really spend time in and around the fountain without buying something at the semi-swank Thai-style establishment), and it just wasn’t much to look at.
Apparently, residents got so upset that finally enough pressure mounted to force the company to overhaul the facility and cede much of the space back to the public (and other proprietors). The result? A multi-restaurant public space with beer garden, craft beer, live music, food trucks, public restrooms, a variety of rooftop bars, and a Japanese themed restaurant that is very unique to Laos.
By the way, if you’re in the market for a new home in Vientiane, the “Type D” is only 14,250,000 LAK per month (that’s about US$1,700 — they’ll make you pay in cash each month too, I’m sure!)
On Christmas Eve morning, Noe got to chat with none other than Papa Noel for the second time in a week!
(if it wasn’t obvious, Papa Noel, at least this Papa Noel, is Grampy in disguise!)
The following morning (Christmas Day), Noe got to be Papa Noel for Nanny and Poppy.
Back to Christmas Eve…
This year, Lori really, really, really wanted to take Noe around to as many Christmas trees as we could find and get some nice photos of Noe posing in his Santa suit. I managed to talk her down to 2-3 locations. Five minutes into the first and it was obvious how futile this particular activity was with an 18-month-old. Nonetheless, we managed to miraculously get a few good snaps out of it all.
Our two stops were the front of Vientiane Center (mall), and the atrium at Don Chan Palace hotel, where Lori had had a work function a week earlier and wanted to return to.
Nothing like chasing a toddler around a fancy Chinese hotel. To Noe’s credit, he only [almost] knocked over the entire Christmas tree once. Just once.
As we were driving home, Lori looked ahead and saw a row of elephants in her lane on the main drag through town.
Yeah, yeah, we may tell our family we see elephants every day, ride them into town, etc., but the fact of the matter is, in “The Land of a Million Elephants,” we rarely see any.
Could this be the new public transit system we’ve been hearing so much about?
Christmas Eve dinner at the place we went last year: Spirit House. A calm, relaxed evening with loved ones, reflecting on the spirit of the…
Yep, we spent most of dinner taking turns corralling and placating the Mister, who seemed particularly hellbent this evening of evenings on making our lives anything but holy.
At least the weather cooperated — A perfect Mekong sunset!