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Vientiane's Artists Are Making Waves


Counter-culture urban artists are bringing the Laos capital the hottest in-thing: freedom of expression. HOLLY ROBERTSON talks to the cool kids in Vientiane to find out how they are flipping the script. Photographed by MICK SHIPPEN.

Published on Aug 2, 2017

 

IT'S 5 P.M. ON A SUNDAY, and Vientiane's languid pace is being broken by a series of flips, jumps and tricks: members of the Lao freerunning club are training along the capital's riverfront. Anouxay Chanthanong, 16, takes the lead, performing a daring leap over the steps to the majestic Chao Anouvong monument, before tumbling artfully to the pavement and rolling to a stand. "I saw some older freerunners and I wanted to do it," he says through a translator, explaining that he now trains up to four hours a day, five days a week, to perfect his moves.

 

Symbolic of the social changes now underway in the capital of this communist state, freerunning—an energetic form of parkour, which emerged in Paris in the late 1980s—is a paragon of self-expression. And while Vientiane may be trailing behind Paris, it is having a moment. New international flights are easing access to the city and major hotel brands are springing up, including a Crowne Plaza and The President by Akaryn. As the capital gains momentum, overseas-educated children of Lao refugees are returning and more travelers are visiting, a combination that has flooded the city with fresh influences. The urge to experiment with different art forms, some of which long-dwindled in popularity in the West, is intoxicating in its newness. Alternative art, cinema and dance scenes are emerging, fueled by impassioned artists who are quickening Vientiane's gait to match the modern stride.

Anouxay Chanthanong
Freerunner Anouxay Chanthanong in motion.

"When you do freerunning you have to be ready. If you're fifty-fifty about what you're going to do, then you will fail," says 22-year-old Dalavong "Pao" Thongmanyla, something of an elder statesman in the group, which was started three years ago after one of its members discovered the sport on YouTube. The video site also exposed Pao to his current obsession: hip-hop. Influenced by the work of Logic, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, Pao and his friend Chankarak "Neung" Xaysongkham started a rap group, churning out music videos with Pao filming and Neung busting flows as his alter-ego Nxist.

It wasn't until the early aughts that the government started relaxing restrictions on contemporary music, and Neung says hip-hop gives him an outlet to tackle social issues. "I want Lao people to know more about music, more about art," he says. "This may be a communist country, but I still want people to think outside the box, because its 2017 already."

 

PHAYVIBOUNE SILIMOUNGKHOUN, known as C-Lil, spins rapidly on his hands, his legs bent at the knees in the air like an inverted insect, with Vientiane's Patuxai Monument providing an ancient backdrop to this modern pursuit. He is warming up before a video shoot later in the day for Sting, an energy drink company that sponsors him in the hopes of reaching his young fans; he has about 22,000 on Facebook. For C-Lil, breakdancing not only provided a path out of poverty, it also introduced him to new ways of looking at the world. "It's a really eyeopening experience being able to witness different cultures," he says.

C-Lil
B-boy C-Lil busts a move in front of Patu Xai.

Breakdancing first started gaining popularity in Laos soon after foreign music began flooding into the country. Today, C-Lil is a fixture on the international b-boying circuit and regularly travels the world to take part in competitions. "In the very beginning, we had a lot of problems with authorities," says Tommy "Tomizuka" Ditthavong, one of Laos's converts to breakdancing. Now, he says, officials at the airport often stop them to chat about upcoming b-boying events. "I think, over the years, they understood that it's just dancing, we're not harming anyone."

Many, although not all, of those involved in Vientiane's budding creative scenes have spent some time abroad. Anysay Keola, who co-founded the Lao New Wave Cinema collective, studied in Thailand and Australia before returning home and challenging censors with his 2011 film At the Horizon, an exploration of Vientiane's increasing wealth gap that pitted a rich hothead against a poor mechanic. Cinema had been tightly controlled since the Pathet Lao took over in 1975, and it took several rounds of negotiations before a less-violent version of the film was released in Laos.

Anysay Keola
Anysay Keola of Lao New Wave Cinema.

Getting the movie out was a major step forward. As the country's first crime thriller, it broke the cycle of propaganda and melodramas that had dominated cinema and allowed other filmmakers to begin testing the boundaries. "There is still a line for us to push, and for them to push back. For now, there's not really a clear guideline or definition of what can and what cannot [appear on screen]," Keola says.

The country's only female film director, Mattie Do, has produced two movies to date, 2012's Chanthaly and Dearest Sister, released in 2016. Do, who was born in Los Angeles to Lao and Vietnamese parents, says she wanted to depict the realities of life in this country and smash objectifying stereotypes about "submissive" Lao women. "I really hate that when people make a film in Laos they want to exoticize our people," she says. "I don't want to do that. I want people to see that the real Laos is so different from that."

Mattie Do
Filmmaker Mattie Do.

By presenting multi-layered female characters she challenges out-dated notions of society. Chanthaly was the country's first women-driven film, and Dearest Sister tells the story of Nok, who has trouble adjusting to life in Vientiane after moving from her small village in southern Laos to care for her wealthy cousin. The parable provides a snapshot of how quickly life is changing in contemporary Vientiane.

That's an evolution glaringly apparent to any returning native daughter or son. "It was a shock coming back," Manoi Ophaso tells me over crispy fried pork belly, pad Thai and red curry at Pintoh, her casual eatery here that serves a blend of Lao and Thai flavors. She spent more than 15 years working as a chef in New York before coming home and opening the restaurant a year ago. "Everything had changed drastically. I thought I wasn't in Laos."

Pintoh
Pad Thai at Pintoh.

 

THOUGH AT TIMES JARRING, this transformation is part and parcel of the city's artistic growth, and many of the new establishments that are cropping up both cater to and promote the creative cliques. Take Baan Tonmali Cake, owned by filmmaker Phanumad Disattha and his wife Kanlayanee, with its delectable sweet creations and movie screenings, and Patisserie Jeremy Herzog, with its local art proudly on show. The mainstream may still be dedicated to traditional expressions of art, but these spots laud the fringe.

Baan Tonmali Cake
A sweet slice of strawberry sponge cake from Baan Tonmali Cake.

Leading the vanguard is Laos-native Ole Viravong Scovill, one of a handful of artists experimenting with form, creating expressive paintings, performance art and installations that typically combine bright colors with darker themes, often in a meditation on women's rights. The female form is central to her works, an at-times controversial move in a country where nudity can't be depicted in public spaces. She is currently working on an installation that will show a pregnant woman surrounded by naked dolls, their heads dipped in paint. She hopes that, in time, the Lao government will ease the rules and that new styles will flourish. "I want to see more new art [by] the Lao people. I know it will take time," she says, adding, "I want to see how the Lao artists are doing ten years from now."

Ole Viravong Scovill
Artist Ole Viravong Scovill shows off her ART UNTIL DEATH tattoo.

Whether it is paint on canvas or rubber on concrete, these movements show a city ready to share its story in new and interesting ways. As the sun dips below the horizon, freerunner Anouxay launches into a vertiginous flip over a railing. It is a risky maneuver, but he doesn't hesitate—he gives it 100 percent and lands deftly on his feet. Fortune favors the bold.

 

   THE DETAILS

 

 

CAFES
Baan Tonmali Cake Delectable cakes from just LAK 15,000 in a hip café catering to Vientiane's cool young set. fb.com/BaantonmaliCake.
The Coffee Bar by Lao Derm
With its black-and-white floors offset by high archways, this sleek venue is the spot for iced drip coffees on muggy days. fb.com/TheCoffeeBar.LaoDerm.
Naked Espresso
The purveyors of the best coffee in a city awash with caf–ěs now have two venues. fb.com/nklaos.

The Coffee Bar by Lao Derm
Cold-brew coffee at The Coffee Bar by Lao Derm.

RESTAURANTS
Coco & Co Vientiane's first vegetarian and vegan European-style restaurant in a charming downtown location. +856 30 962 1704; mains LAK25,000–42,000.
Doi Ka Noi Delightful chef-owner Noi serves up a menu of inspired authentic Lao cuisine that changes daily. fb.com/DoiKaNoi; mains LAK30,000–50,000.
Pintoh With painted enamel platters adorning the walls and dishes served in pintoh, or tiffin boxes, this Lao-Thai fusion joint has a sweet old-school vibe. fb.com/PintohVTE01; mains LAK20,000–30,000.

Coco & Co
Upside-down at the vegan restaurant Coco & Co.

SHOPS + GALLERIES
Birds Follow Spring From carefully crafted reclaimed wood furniture to chic textiles and Lao tea from Kinnari, this concept store has style in spades. fb.com/birdsfollowspring.
I:cat Gallery Opened in 2009 by Australian Catherine O'Brien to showcase expat and local artists, including a recent display from Ole Viravong Scovill. fb.com/icatgallery.
T'Shop lai Gallery An upstairs gallery displays the work of Lao and international artists, while the downstairs shop sells fragrant local soaps and balms, and furniture from salvage- and natural-handicrafts collectives. +856 21 223 178; laococo.com.

Catherine O'Brien
Catherine O'Brien, the curator at I:cat gallery, which displays works by local artists.

HOTELS
Ansara Hotel In a tranquil location down a quiet lane in the historic center of the capital, this sophisticated boutique offers elegance in a relaxed setting. ansarahotel.com; doubles from US$168.
Crowne Plaza
A bright hotel next to Chao Fa Ngum Park, with pastel-toned rooms, a spa and a large infinity pool. ihg.com;doubles from US$113.

Ansara Hotel
Canopy beds lend a tropical ease to the Ansara Hotel suites.

 

 

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Lemongrass stuffed with pork and herbs at Doi Ka Noi restaurant.
  • Freerunners take a break on the steps of Chao Anouvong monument.
  • Paintings of monks by the owner's nephew and enamel trays adorn the walls at Pintoh.
  • A wooden stool from Birds Follow Spring.
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