The past month in Vientiane has been far from routine. For the past few months, Vientiane has been preparing to be the host of a significant international meeting, ASEM 9 (Asia-Europe Meeting), an event that brings together heads of state to discuss international and regional issues on the two continents. Past host cities include Brussels, Beijing, Helsinki, Hanoi, Copenhagen, Seoul, London, and Bangkok–among which Vientiane seems strikingly out of place. Not surprisingly then, hosting the summit here was a big, big deal for Laos.
In the months leading up to the meeting, the whole city got a facelift, with massive construction projects seemingly popping up overnight, mostly a myriad of hotels and convention centers to accomodate the delegates and other foreign visitors. Sidewalks were painted, and roads were repaved (although only the ones that the VIPs would drive on, the potholes notably growing bigger elsewhere in the city).
The preparations occurred on every level. Last term I taught a class of drivers for the conference under a special grant by the Australian government. The drivers, along with staff in all sorts of departments, were trained in English in preparation for the conference. My class, a group of men mostly in their 40s and 50s, had little to no English as their starting point, and thus made slow progress in our three months together, but they were all good sports and enthusiastic learners. They would have translators during the summit, so they would have to speak little English in reality. But if their confidence was raised just to be able to politely greet a delegate, I consider it a success.
Starting in October a country-wide curfew closed in. Although technically there is always a curfew here, it typically goes without enforcement, with handfuls of late-night entertainment venues and snack stands that stay open after midnight. But as ASEM and the need for a tranquil facade closed in, all shops were mandated to close on time, and the after-hours police presence was significantly ramped up.
Just as the preparations began to reach completion, however, they were interrupted by a call for festivities. The time for the Vientiane boatracing festival, which coincides with ork pansa (the end of Buddhist Lent) fell on Halloween this year, just five days before the meeting was to begin. Boatracing consists of a week-long carnival along the river, culminating in the races themselves, on the last day. It usually coincides with the end of the rainy season in Laos (which was particularly short and dry), and ironically coincided exactly with the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy in the US this year. While rains pummeled the American East Coast, boats raced along a parched river to celebrate changing of seasons.
Perhaps because of the prior month-long curfew, the festivities this year seemed even crazier than usual (you can still read my account of 2010 and 2011 boatracing), as everyone was blowing off steam shopping at the carnival or partying at the riverside Beerlao Music Zone. The nights of the festival turned the downtown area into a gridlock, with pedestrians picking their way around cars and motorbikes, with Totoro-shaped balloons, and the smells of sweetened sticky rice and dried squid mixing with multitudes of other festival perfumes in the air.
But just as the festival seemed even more frenetic in the past, the cleanup also happened significantly faster, and the clean, quiet, policed pre-ASEM life resumed immediately after the last cans of Beerlao were swept up and the dragonboats returned to their villages for another year.
The meeting itself occurred on November 5-6, and not surprisingly anything that might obstruct traffic on the way to the meetings, like schools, was shut down for the week. Thus, I got a bonus week off of work, as the road was closed off for the meeting, and escaped to Luang Prabang for some relaxation, while 51 heads of state descended upon Vientiane.