Sunday, February 2, 2014

Vientiane Talad Sao

The Busy Vientiane Morning Market

Two weeks ago, we took a special trip to Vientiane, Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos).  Vientiane is a short 60 miles north of our home in Udonthani.  A forty minute drive transports us from our door step to the Thai border crossing.  After passing through the Thai Border Checkpoint, we take a 15 Baht (0.45 USD) bus drive across the Friendship Bridge to the Lao Border Checkpoint.  Duang has very little to do in crossing into the LPDR.  However, I must fill out an additional form, supply a passport photo, and pay $35 USD to obtain a visa to enter Laos. However once you get off the Thai bus you are approached by men offering to help you in crossing the border and drive you into Vientiane - for a fee.  The fee varies based upon a variety of factors - but is only a little more than the cost of a taxi into town.  The men fill out the forms for you, and shepherd you through the process.  After entering into Laos, they break from you to bring their car to you.  They drive their car up to you and load your luggage as you get into their vehicle.  They then drive the roughly 20 miles into town and deliver you to the door of your destination.

This trip was special in that I was having a reunion with a friend, a direct link from my distant pass, from my home town. We had attended junior high school, today's middle school, back in Connecticut.  We attended high school together and went on to the same university.  We had not seen my friend since 1971 and was excited to catch up life long experiences.  Duang was anxious to meet someone from my long ago past and from my far away boyhood home.

We stayed at a hotel that was a hop, skip, and jump from the current location of the American Embassy (That Dam monument).  The hotel was walking distance from the central city restaurant district, main tourist attractions and entertainment venues. Although not a hop, skip, and jump away from the central markets, the hotel was no more than 4 or 5 blocks form the them.

The reunion was great.  It is always reassuring to learn once again that we are not alone in our accomplishments, disappointments, challenges, and even our failures.  Despite taking very different paths, we share many common experiences and more importantly survived them.  We often feel that we alone and have suffered but if we reach out to others we quickly learn that our experience has not been unique.  Of course to Buddhists the realization and acknowledgement of our sufferings is no surprise.

Our time in Vientiane was limited to two days because Duang had to return to her home village to care for our grandson for the next two days while her mother went on a religious retreat commencing the evening of our second day in Vientiane. Given our limited time day, we spent our morning, the second day, at the morning market, Talad Sao.

We walked the short distance from our hotel to the morning market along deserted streets.  We arrived at the morning market at 7:00 A.M..  Although the area around our hotel was very tranquil, just 4 or 5 blocks away, it was extremely busy, bordering on chaotic.

A Very Small Portion of the Outside Morning Market

I estimate that the Morning Market is about two square blocks in area.  The market is a combination of small shops opening on to a large central open area filled with stalls, booths, and blankets where vendors sell all kinds of  prepared foods, live foods, vegetables, and dry goods.  There is a very large covered structure which was partially walled with a combination of tarps and block.  Adding to the confusion of the market were many passageways and stalls created by attaching tarps and sheets of plastic to anything that would support them.  Where existing structure elements were not available, the vendors had erected wood poles or bamboo to attach the sheets.

Organized Porters Are Used to Transport Goods From Market To Vehicles
To access parking areas for both vehicles and motorbikes, motorbikes, trucks, and cars jockeyed for position with pedestrians along the informal access lanes into the morning market area.  Adding to the confusion were many long two wheeled push carts propelled by organized porters.  Many of the patrons of the morning market are people buying goods for the much smaller markets that they run in their neighborhood or village markets.  I know that porters were organized because just about all of them wore colored vests that had a unique number on the back - just like organized motorbike taxis in Thailand.

Vegetables For Sale In Vientiane

During our foray through the Talad Sao, Duang and I were amazed at the amount and variety of vegetables available for for purchase at the market.  Although we live 60 miles south and and in a larger metropolitan area, our local markets have neither the quantity, variety or quality of vegetables as Vientiane.  During our journey to Luang Prabang Province in December, we saw many vegetables gardens. I have yet to a single large garden here in Isaan.  Many of our vegetables as well as fruits are from China.  I suspect both the closer proximity to China and the flourished commercial ties between Lao and China may also contribute to the quantity and variety in Laos.

Fresh Corn On the Cob
In Isaan, even along country roads, corn for sale has been cooked, typically boiled but sometimes grilled.  However at the morning market in Vientiane, the vendors shucked the corn at the market and sold it by the kilogram.

Egg Vendor
In the large covered structure there were countless vendors selling just about everything including eggs, beef, pork, chicken, canned goods, dry goods, clothing, cloth, toys, household goods along with booths where you could purchase and consume a meal.  It was quite busy and congested.

A Vendor Preparing More Pork To Sell
A Beef and Pork Vendor Tends to Her Stall
Meat vendors were mostly located in the large covered structure.  As is typical in Lao and Isaan the vendors sit upon a raised platform with a small spring scale at their side and behind the cuts that they are offering for sale.  Customers approach the vendor most likely engaging in some small conversation before inspecting the various pieces of meat before selecting their cut and informing the vendor of how much they desired.  Shopping is not an impersonal or quick process.  There is a great deal of interaction between the vendors and their customers.  I suspect that a great part of the effort is to build relationships.  At the market there are always several vendors offering the same goods for the same price.  Quality between the vendors appears to be the same across the market.  Given the lack of distinction between the vendors establishing personal relationships and providing better customer service is paramount for a business's success.  It also makes for a much more pleasurable and rewarding shopping experience for all.

Fish Vendor Along "Fish Alley
In our random wanderings through the inside market place, we eventually found ourselves outside in a very narrow alley that I like to refer to as "Fish Alley". "Fish Alley was set up on the side of the exterior wall of the inside market with tarps covering the overhead of the alley bounded on the other side by more open faced stalls created by poles and tarps.  Fish Alley was lined with vendors selling all kinds of fish.  The ground where it was not covered by pieces of wood, randomly placed concrete pavers or tiles was muddy from the run off of water from the stalls selling fish.  The fish was fresh and there was no odor that one would expect in such a location.

Preparing A Customer's Fish
Duang and I took advantage of the relative quiet and much less confusion of "Fish Alley" to talk to and joke with the various vendors. It was and is always enjoyable to learn about the work and life of the local people.  I also enjoying sharing with them about life in America which they are always very curious and interested in.

A Fish Vendor's Daughter Cooks Breakfast - Fish
As is often the case, the older women asked me about finding a foreign husband.  I am often requested to do so.  I do not know that many single men back in the United States.  I stopped at 98 with the number of requests that I have been given.  I now handle the situation by telling the women how many requests are ahead of them but that I will put them on the list.  I then tell them about some of the expectations the foreign men would have on them.  That always gets them laughing and we are able to move on to other matters.

Fish Still Life or Rather Dead Life

After one and one-half hours at the market, at 08:30, we left the market along with the vast majority of customers. Morning Markets typically become much less crowded by 09:00 or 10:00.  After an intense shopping adventure, the customers and their goods stacked on the two wheeled carts headed to their vehicles or motorbikes for the journey back to their home to complete the rest of the day.

Porter Transporting Goods Out of the Morning Market
Duang and I returned to our hotel carrying a large shopping bag filled with Khong Kao, woven containers to stored cooked sticky rice or to serve the sticky rice.

Additional photos of this visit can be viewed at the following gallery of my photography website:

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