A few weeks ago (actually over a month ago by now), there was a long weekend for international Labor Day, and Alex and I decided to head out of town for the big city–to Bangkok. I’ve been in and out for flights and layovers many times already, but hadn’t really spent much time actually in the city before. In general, the weekend wasn’t so much about what Bangkok is, but more about what Vientiane isn’t, as we tried to indulge in anything we can’t get in Laos. We went to an awesome Mexican restaurant (Charley Brown’s) twice, and to a jazz bar, both of which don’t really exist here. We went to Siam Paragon, the shopping mecca, dazzling with its modern decor, movie theater, phenomenal food court, and stores with real brands and fixed prices. After getting used to shopping at Talat Sao, it felt like being rocketed back to America.
Bangkok’s modernity is striking, even coming from the most cosmopolitan city in Laos. Just a few moments in Siam Square are enough to feel a drastic difference with the countdown traffic lights, fast pink taxis, and concrete overpasses with escalators. There’s even an Apple store! We toasted to the glamour of the big city life on the top of the second tallest building in Bangkok, where the Sirocco sky bar and restaurant provided a panorama of the city at night, complete with classy live music, and shockingly low glass walls, separating us from the city below.
The population of the city is larger than the entire country of Laos, so it makes sense that there’s so much more–restaurants, malls, traffic, in-your-face pop culture. Thai pop culture is exported in mass to Laos, so we’re already rather familiar with it. It seems like almost everyone in Vientiane (and likely in other more educated cities close to the border) can speak, or at least understand, Thai. There’s so much more media in Thai, of a higher quality and bigger variety, that Thai pop culture often seems to dwarf, or at least be inseparable from, pop culture in Laos. And after only a few hours in Bangkok, I too became a hapless victim of Thai pop, becoming mildly obsessed with a very popular Thai tune of the moment: “Too Much, So Much, Very Much,” the title of which largely sums up the Bangkok experience overall.
One of the other highlights of the weekend was visiting the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, a modern art gallery and community center of sorts in the Siam area downtown. Fine arts are something largely lacking in Laos, and something that I’ve really missed. Sure there are plenty of street artists at the markets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and lots of impressive handicrafts, but non-traditional creative arts hardly exist. The music scene in Vientiane seems to be picking up, but lots of good bands still play English and Thai covers, and it’s hard for even well-known and talented stars to actually make a career out of music. There seem to be very little in the way of dramatic arts or visual art that pushes the boundaries of the traditional. There are lots of reasons that could explain this, from politics, to history, to economics, to name a few, but that could be the subject of a whole separate post, and honestly I still don’t know enough to feel as though I can speak about this as anything but a casual observer.
So the visit to the BACC was like a breath of fresh air. Here was modern, interesting, Thai art that made a statement, was confusing, had so many different styles and textures and messages…we easily spent the better part of the afternoon exploring. One of the more interesting temporary exhibits touched on the issues of all of the hydropower dam projects on the Mekong River, which has been major and controversial news here in Laos lately (it even made the New York Times recently, which is unusual). It’s an issue that affects all of the countries in the region and it was interesting to hear so many critical and questioning local voices expressing themselves creatively.
Although I certainly enjoyed the indulgences and sensory overload of a weekend in Bangkok, I didn’t feel any regret getting in the overcrowded bus to cross the Friendship Bridge to return to Laos. Bangkok is fun, but I’d rather be in Vientiane. It may not have a modern art center (yet), or really good fajitas, but there are still exciting things happening everyday. Just last night I went to the finals of the Tiger Beer-sponsored Battle of the Bands, where I watched the kids from one of the my favorite sandwich shops (who serve me chicken sandwiches or noodles for lunch by day) rock out to a cheering crowd who were wearing matching tshirts that said BabyRock. Sure, they sang cover songs, but they put their own twist on them. Vientiane is changing by the day, and it reminded me how lucky I am to be here for another year.