“It Doesn’t Matter” Is a Way of Life
The pace at which Vientiane has developed over the past 50 years comes sharply into focus when comparing photos from then and now. However, in juxtaposition to the physical changes the city is undergoing, the ebullient and peaceful mentality of the Lao people has changed little.
Stanley Karnow described Laos and Lao people in Life Magazine in 1959. “They have never fussed much with telephones or modern sanitation or bathtubs. Their best hotel, greatly named the Settha Palace, is a dilapidated bungalow where guests are jarred at dawn by geese honking under their windows.”
While Settha Palace is still one of the best properties in Vientiane, capricious geese no longer wake guests who now stay in total comfort.
Encapsulated in the image below is Thalat Sao, the morning market. In the old pictures, the setting where people haggled over very cheap items, is a stark contrast to the parking lot filled with USD 25,000 cars it is today.
In 1991, Khouvieng Road (one of the main streets in Vientiane), used to be a dirt road lined with beautiful trees, bordered by marshland where locals would source much of their diet. It’s now lined with shops, and there are very few of the old trees still landing.
In 1959, Laos attempted to make a population census. The result at the time was that there were roughly two million people in the entire country – give or take 500,000. Vientiane alone now has a population of 800,000, and is growing rapidly.
While the physical changes in the city are clearly visible, the mentality hasn’t changed much. To quote Karnow again: “Foreigners in Laos may be exasperated by the primitive inefficiency and shattering inertia, but as Crown Prince Savang Vathana once told an American reporter, ‘No Laotian ever suffered a nervous breakdown.’ Language is a key to behavior. The most common phrase in the local idiom, delivered with a nod of the head is Bo pen nyan. It means anything from It doesn’t matter, to Who cares? In Laos it is downright bad taste to work more than absolutely necessary.”
Overhearing expatriate conversations in restaurants, one could think that this hasn’t changed much. It is extremely difficult to get anything bureaucratic accomplished. Bo pen nyan is still one of the most uttered phrases in a country where ‘sitting’ is considered something of an adventurous activity.
On the flipside, as a traveller visiting Laos, it is one of the most peaceful destinations one could possibly imagine. In comparison to small cities in Europe, to call Vientiane full of ‘hustle and bustle’ would be a stretch.
With a charming night market, the Mekong River gently meandering next to the city, and a myriad of cute French restaurants, this is definitely one of the most calming capital cities in the world.
For more information on trips to see Vientiane’s past and present, please contact [email protected].