Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
Even with toddler crankiness in full tilt due to a persistent cold, we still wanted to make the most of a 3-day holiday weekend and our rental car. We had the option of visiting a nearby water fall or eating lunch on a boat while floating down a river, but runny stuffed up noses, coughing, and a short attention span is a bad mix for either of those. Staying at home bored was definitely out of the question.
We settled on a drive to the Vientiane Zoo, a slightly misleading name since it is located some 60km outside of Vientiane the city. It is also know as the Ban Keun Zoo, which is more appropriate since it is located in the town (“Ban”) of Keun.
It felt SO NICE to get out of the city and see big canopied trees overhanging the road and passing through sleepy little towns and seeing how people live along the way. Vistas of rice paddies against a hazy backdrop of the mountains made me feel great. I always feel this way when I find myself somewhere remote (or even just remote-ish), places where I had always dreamed of going as a child who grew up on National Geographic and wildlife shows but never imagined that I would. The reality that it is actually happening transports me back to sitting on the carpet in front of our old boxy TV dreaming, and the precise moment when I connect that dream to present reality is pretty awesome.
The kids had two main goals for the trip: 1) to see/ride an elephant (actually, this one was mine), and 2) to see “alligators”. I am not sure where the recent alligator obsession comes from but they both love to chase us around the house pretending to be an alligator, or be carried on our backs in the pool as an alligator.
Unfortunately, the elephant was not possible but 50% percent success is not so bad. The elephant, we learned, is taken into the jungle on Mondays and Tuesdays to “exercise” and “eat grass”. I guess we all miss home, and yes, there is only one elephant in the whole zoo, kind of ironic since Laos is famous for being the “Land of a Million Elephants” (I love how romantic that sounds.). And even though the “alligators” turned out to be referred to in these parts (correctly) as crocodiles, they did not disappoint. Their ready opened mouths for the fish we threw in, combined with their huge jerky bodies thrashing in the water to catch them was an exciting scene (some were more lazy than others and languidly feigned interest with slow tired twists that couldn’t reach their snack, lazybones). When we finished, our son walked away and declared, “That was crazy!”
The zoo environment was pleasant. I liked how shady most sections of the zoo was and thought it brilliant to have a raised boardwalk to view animals that didn’t needed to be caged and could roam freely below – a much more toddler-friendly way to view them. I did not like the lizards that scurried underfoot as we walked along secluded paths that startled me along the way. My squeamishness was already heightened by the huge spiders everywhere – so watch out where you reach your camera out in front of you to take a picture. My husband jumped back from one that was right at eye-level for viewing the animals. I purposely avoided the caged primates, too scared of their depressing condition. We did, however, find a lively white gibbon and a few other monkeys swinging around trees in an open environment surrounded by a moat. The kids were delighted.
Afterwards, we sat down to eat at one of the stalls in front of the zoo’s entrance. I’m always careful to choose places that have more clients than other places, hoping the food would be fresher (and safer to eat). Alas, after we put in our order, the server went down a few stalls where no one was eating to grab a half-cooked chicken to grill for us. At least I tried.
We sat and ate our sticky rice and grilled chicken, which we really only ordered so we could have a place to sit down to drink our own packed snacks and drinks, thinking that all the excitement was over for the day when our son looked up at me and said, “I have to poop.” (This will be TMI for most but will be endearing to our family who read this blog.) Knowing that it will have to be a squat toilet in questionable condition, I still didn’t hesitate or winced at his urgency because we are three-weeks potty trained and I wasn’t about to let my Western sanitary standards prevent me from teaching my child how most of the world poops. Both he and his sister had already peed in a squat toilet for the first time at the zoo not 15 minutes before, so at least my son now had some context for a more intimidating task. So off we went past the piles of fly-ridden dirty dishes behind the restaurant, passed the penned chickens and ducks and to a surprisingly bright unsmelly toilet. At first he thought the rooster crowing on the other side of the wall was inside, but after I reassured him by entering first, he did great, better (read: faster) than on Western toilets. Whew!
I congratulated him by letting him ladle water as many times as he wanted to flush, and I congratulated myself for taking a picture of the occasion (plus the open-ceiling lighting was great!). It was our own personal adventure inside an adventure!
Travel Notes: I couldn’t find ready driving directions to the Vientiane Zoo so hopefully this will help someone out in the future: Take Lan Xang Avenue north and continue on it as it turns into Highway 13. At about 15km you will reach a large round-about, veer left through the circle and onto Highway 10. From here, you will reach a toll bridge (5,000 kip) after 10km. Ban Keun is 35km after the bridge. There is a sign for the zoo to turn right and the zoo will be on your left at 500m. Enjoy!