Interview with a Chilean expat in Vientiane – the Bacan Café

It was on the 18th of September, the day Team VII arrived in Laos, that we ate our first pastries from our (soon-to-be) favorite coffee shop in Laos. After 16 hours of travelling and some hours of making ourselves at home in the “Villa”, we had our first and very lovely acquaintance with one of our tandem-teachers, Mrs Saysamone Singhalat, her sister Noy, and Pol, her brother in- law. After having some “summer rolls” for dinner, we were served the tastiest “filo apples” for dessert. We wanted to know where they got them from, and Pol told us about a new Chilean Café, “Bacán, that had opened on just that day in Vientiane.

Soon after we entered the Café for the first time ourselves and were welcomed by a friendly smiling face. After having carefully studied the menu, our orders were taken by the man with the smiling face. This took longer than expected, as we ended up chatting for a while. He told us about his Chilean background and his Lao wife, who was currently busy in the kitchen. This was to be the first of many ensueing  conversations with him and – later – with his wife.

Still, after many weeks we still did not know each others’ names, but we (Malin and Jasmin) got more and more curious about how a man from Chile ended up in Laos running a Latin American Café. This triggered our idea to do an interview, as we had many other questions. (The English of the interview was edited by us, to make it easier to follow and understand.) We had to start it with the most embarassing questions:

What are your names and how old are you?

Cesar Escarate (grinning):  That is a funny question to start with. Well, my name is Cesar Escarate and I am 39.

Philylack Sackpraseuth: My name is Philaylack Sackpraseuth and I am 31 years old.

How did you two meet and how did you end up here together in Vientiane?

P:  Our paths crossed in Sydney, Australia, in 2010. We both went to university there. I was studying business administration and Cesar was taking up graphic design. We met at an English course and during that year we fell in love. Australia became the first country we got married in. After three years of living there we decided to move to Santiago de Chile – Cesar’s hometown, where we spent another three years and renewed our vows. To be honest, I was not too happy there for multiple reasons. First of all, although we were in the capital, people did not make an effort to speak English with me. That is probably due to the fact that Chile is only surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries, which is why English is not as omnipresent. In addition, Santiago has an enormous population and everybody seems to live quite anonymously. I took Spanish classes for a whole year but still people seemed to find it rather exhausting to communicate with me.

On top of that there were rarely people from Asia and I felt alone with nobody who shared my cultural background. I could not even find a restaurant with authentic Asian food and music in Santiago. This really surprised me, as I had no problems finding those in Germany or Greece, for example.

Which countries did you visit in Europe and when?

P: I only visited two countries, Germany and Greece, in 2008. I was an athlete at that time and went there for competitions.

C: One has to say that she was an Olympic athlete in Greece (2004) and China (2008) and she represented Laos in Germany for another smaller tournament. Sadly she got injured and started to study in Sydney.

P: The lifestyle in Santiago is exactly the same as in Sydney, everything is about money – and expensive. It does not mean I do not like the time there. I can say that Santiago de Chile was better than Sydney, because it was cheaper than Sydney but still there were many things to pay for because it is developed already.1 Everything has to follow a system and we felt like it was too much pressure for us. I figured, why don’t we try in Laos? Go back to the past and see how life is there. Here everything is slower. Life is not such a rush and we won’t have to fight (to make a living). “Let’s try”, I said.

What did you know about Laos before you got here and what surprised you the most?

C: Before I met my wife, I didn’t have an idea about Laos. I knew about Asia but nothing specifically about Laos. I think what surprised me the most was the traffic here. I don’t know how it is in Germany but in Chile or Sydney there are rules that people actually follow. Besides, I love to drive fast which is not possible here, everybody drives so slowly. You have to learn to drive again.

P: I’m really glad that other than this he does not have serious issues with the Lao lifestyle. I know many foreigners that have big problems to cope with Lao food and culture and cannot stay here long-term.

C: What makes it even easier for me is that there are more foreigners in Vientiane than there were in Santiago, and many Western markets where I can find nearly everything to be able to make south American food. This makes me feel a lot closer to my home country.

Has it always been your dream to open a café?

P: No, but it was our dream to build our own business together. Many ideas came up, for example to open a printing shop, as Cesar is a graphic designer. But all the machines would have been too expensive. And then we realized we both love to cook more than to go out for food and both of us have experience in the gastronomy sector. Why not open a café?

How did you find this location and why did you choose it?

C: Actually, we had already decided on another location in a more touristy area, but a big disadvantage was that it did not have a parking lot, which is quite hard to find in Vientiane anyway. Then my wife stumbled upon this one on Facebook.

P: I stopped by it the same day and the Japanese owner was so nice. It has parking, the price is affordable, and it is very central. I personally loved that this location has two floors. I could picture our café straightaway, with the cashier and the cake display downstairs and the chill-out area upstairs. The library that you can find on the first floor was a present from the owner as well. It brings a cozy and relaxing atmosphere to the Café, even though not all costumers can use it, as the books are mostly Japanese.

C: Besides, the owner owns the apartment building behind our shop, which has 24- hour security. This, plus the fact that we have neighbors on the left and right side of the café lowers the danger of burglaries.2

P: The owner also helps us with anything that needs to be fixed, we only must pay for the rent. With all the upsides to this location it did not take very long for us to decide that this is going to be our “Bacán Café”.

What were your difficulties with opening a café in Vientiane?

P: I could not be present all the time when we started to organize our café, so I think the biggest difficulty was for my husband to communicate our ideas and visions on how to furnish the café. But many people gave their best to help us and soon we had arranged ourselves quite well.

C: The next step was to find our suppliers. We wanted to find the best quality and local food and coffee beans. People tend to buy all exotic foods in Thailand, as it is easier, but after having searched for quite some time, I was able to find everything I need somewhere in Laos.2

P: Our coffee beans are all from the Bolaven Plateau in the South of Laos, but it was a long journey to find the right supplier. So, we ran from café to café to order two coffees, one with milk and one without. You can only imagine how fed up we got with coffee, but it was all worth it, I think.

C: The next problem was that we both had no idea how to use a proper Barista machine.  That is why we ended up taking up a Barista course. Last but not least, it was hard to find staff that was able to speak enough English to communicate with me and the customers. Through recommendations from friends we found five amazing Lao employees with basic English knowledge. As we find it important for our staff to be able to chat with customers, two friends of ours started to give them English classes twice a week. They do it for free, they only expect some delicious food in return.

What is special about your Café?

P: Firstly, we serve Chilean food, which is unique in this city. Before opening the Café, we carefully checked the restaurant/café situation in Vientiane for South American food and could only find a few Mexican Restaurants. But as we wanted to present both our different nationalities we decided to add some Asian dishes to the menu. Secondly, our food is simple, made with good, local ingredients to make you feel like your eating at your mom’s. We avoid fancy, non-tasting decorations but make it more appealing by presenting it in direct conversations with our customers.

C: What is special to us, is that our customers are mostly regulars. This, and the close, family-like relationship to our employees makes everyone – including ourselves – feel like home.

What does “Bacán” mean?

C: Bacán is Chilean slang and means something “cool”, we can compare it with the American “cool”. In Chilean this word can be used many times in just one sentence. The name “Bacán” attracts many Spanish-speaking customers from different countries. They are happy to see a Latin guy and enjoy ordering and chatting in Spanish with me.

What are your bestsellers?

P: The most ordered Latin American dishes are definitely the Empanadas and the Tacos. Many people also love what we call the “family- food”, that means Spaghetti Bolognese or Carbonara.

C: In the café section I think it is our Brownies and a classic Americano that are best- sold. There are some police men stopping by and order Iced Americanos almost every day.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

P: Our plan is to stay. We are happy with what we have created here and have good people around us. In Laos it is possible to live a slower and more simple life. Wherever we would move, we would always have to start from zero. Besides, we plan to have a family.

C: But you never know what life brings.

How often can you see your family then?

C: During the last three years here, I have visited my family in Chile once. In the future we would rather like them to visit us in Vientiane. I actually wish my mom to live here and bake the Empanadas together with me.

 

With this question we ended our interview after two hours of interesting talk and laughter. We were already slightly sad, as we knew that this would be the last visit for some of the volunteers, but happy at the same time, because we got to know Cesar and Philaylack better before flying back to Germany.

We all know that the “Bacán Café” will be our first destination whenever we come back to Vientiane!

 

Text by J. Unterweger & M. Frahm, notes by I. Martin

Interviewees: Cesar Escarate & Philaylack Sackpraseuth

Fotos & videos by A. Schuler, J. Unterweger, M. Frahm

 

Editor’s Notes

1 The common usage of the word developed implies that there is a gold-standard for “development” overall, with a desirable (refined, superior) state of development at one end of the scale and an undesirable (“raw”, unrefined, primitive, inferior) one at the other. The binary of “developed countries” and “undeveloped” or “underdeveloped countries” is a value statement rooted in eurocentricism and colonialism; the criteria by which a country is deemed developed are chosen by those who deem themselves to be developed.

2 With consumerism on the rise, the crime rates are augmenting in Laos, too.

 

Websites

Bacán Café” online:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BacanCafeVientiane/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bacancafe/

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