Every day is a birthday on Laos "cake" street

VIENTIANE (Reuters Life!) - Saylom Road in central Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is birthday-cake heaven.

All along the road, rows of shops display creamy, colorful concoctions that attract dozens of customers daily, evidence of the affluence of a growing middle-class in this Communist country and their desire to celebrate the individual.

“When I was young, no one celebrated my birthday,” said a customer who only gave her name as Thatchany as she picked a cake for her daughter. “Now I want to celebrate for my children.”

Many of the cake shops along the road opened only few years ago to cater to growing demand.

And while the cakes are not cheap -- popular flavors such as yoghurt and milk cost about 80,000 kip ($8.4) in this largely impoverished nation -- Lao parents have been willing to splurge.

“I make my cakes special by adding cartoon characters and making them colorful,” says Youtsothone Vongsumang, who trained as a baker in neighboring Thailand. “When I see the children happy, I’m also happy.”

The cakemakers at Saylom say that parents tend to order bigger birthday cakes for their children every fifth year, as it marks a milestone in the child’s life.

Somchith Southiphonh, a veteran baker who set up on Saylom some 20 years ago, has watched the competition build up along the road over the years.

One of Laos’ best-known bakers who first found fame as an actress, she now caters mainly to corporations and banks, who normally request cakes by the hundreds to give away to clients.

She says her masterpiece so far was a nine-tier cake for former President Khamtai Siphandon’s 80th birthday. “It was 10 years for each tier, and one more for good luck,” she added.

The Lao economy has grown robustly in recent years due to heavy foreign investment in hydropower and mineral exports.

But 71 percent of its people live on less than $2 a day and a recent World Food Programme report said half the young children in rural areas were chronically malnourished.

Laos-based anthropologist Grant Evans says the cakes are just a manifestation of the economic boom.

“It’s to do with consumerism -- people have started to make money and their main interest is in spending it,” he said.

“People are more interested in getting a new watch than an book to read and rather than having a collective birthday at New Year, as it was in the past in China, they now say ‘here is my unique day, I am a unique person’, and celebrate it.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy