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The Rise of Vientiene

Vientiene signWe found ourselves in the familiar situation of all the taxi drivers insisting on hugely inflated prices for doing the trip from the border to Vientiene, and, banding together, they refused to drop their prices. Eventually, we were lucky enough to find a one-eyed tuk-tuk driver who, strangely enough, was much cheaper, and we jumped in the back as he squinted out through the dusty window with his good eye, and drove hesitantly out onto the road.

As we meander the twenty kilometres or so to the city I'm shocked to discover just how much more developed the country is since my last trip here in 2003. The main road is now surfaced, rather than the dirt road it was last time, and as we pass two suicidal surveyors working in the middle of oncoming traffic with trucks roaring down on them, swerving away at the last second, it's obvious that progress is continuing non-stop.

Arriving in Vientiene I'm astonished to find that what used to be a backwater town of muddy roads is now a fast-developing city with air-conditioned, glass-fronted boutiques and trendy cafes. On my last trip it was so rare to see other Westerners that you would say hello to each other - now it appears to be firmly on the Lonely Planet Indochina backpacking circuit with American teenagers hanging around the convenience stores and hostels on every corner.

Our half-blind tuk-tuk driver, whom we now suspect is also deaf, is unable to find the hotel I stayed at last time, so we walk down a few streets with our bags and soon stumble upon a lovely new hotel with rooms full of creature comforts for $20. We're both exhausted, I still feel awful, and so we crash out in the cool, air-conditioned room for a few hours, waken up feeling much better, and head out for that all in one travel meal of lunch/brunch/dinner.

As well as being full of backpackers, the city seems to have Landcruisers on every corner. Long the preferred vehicle of NGOs and foreign corporations, it's hard to say whether they're used here to provide aid or lay claim to the country's valuable resources as it opens up for business. The new cafes and boutiques are full of well-paid westerners throwing their salaries around, while locals sit begging outside in squalor, the stark contrast making it seem like the colonial times have returned to Laos.

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