Laos – Vientiane

DSC_0545 As the capital of Laos, Vientiane is the main gateway for both domestic and international travel.  My impression is that most visitors use it as a stopping off point before exploring or leaving the country.  On a bus, I even overheard one backpacker say “There’s not much to Vientiane – one night maximum.  Just wats.”  She obviously had a different guidebook;  mine declares “at the height of the American influence in the 1960’s, it (Vientiane) was renowned for its opium and sex dens”. Aside from this and its French colonial history, I knew there would be more to Vientiane, so I decided to make a full weekend and explore beyond the wats.

Friday night First stop after arriving was a wander down the Mekong river-front.  It was Friday night so the place was alive.  I heard a female voice counting to loud music, and discovered several mass aerobics sessions were taking place on the promenade.  It was quite a sight – scores of Laotians confidently and seriously doing what can only be described as a combination of Tai Chi, aerobics and gang-man style moves. This was just one of several groups…

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I then followed the bright lights of Vientiane’s famous night market.  The stalls were mainly traditional handicrafts and modern fashions.  The handicrafts were of very high quality and varied in detail and budget.  I fell in love with this gorgeous hippie chic hill tribe bag for 150,000 kip (about £11 or $18)…

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The choice and quality of handicrafts at the night market was excellent and the prices were good too.  I didn’t go too mad though as I had only just begun my tour of Laos! I finished off the evening with pizza at Via Via, a lovely French run pizzeria opposite my hotel. For those wondering why I am eating at French and Italian restaurants in Laos, I live in Thailand and it is something of a huge treat to eat decent European food.

Saturday – shop and run

After breakfast, I headed back out to the Mekong river-front to see it in daylight.  Within minutes, I was stopped by a young woman on a bicycle offering me a manicure.  It was only 8.30 am and I needed one, so we headed to a shady spot and she quietly gave me my holiday nails…

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I then headed towards the Saturday markets.  The taxi driver took me to Talaat Sao.  I thought this would be a proper outdoor market but its a modern mall, yet still interesting – several stores were completely dedicated to Laotian hill-tribe fashions…

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This mall is worth a wander, but I found the handicrafts at the night market better quality and value.  Outside the mall nearby is the central bus station which is surrounded by an outdoor market.  It is easy to see the French legacy in the local diet…

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This market was more in line with what I expected – lots of people, including “pop-up” traders who were simply laying out their goods on the pavement…

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For lunch I ate at Khop Chai Deu – one of the more established and “trendy” cafe’s in the centre of Vientiane close to Nam Phou fountain, the capitals equivalent to Picadilly Circus, or Times Square – in terms of where everyone meets, eats and has fun. No flashing neon lights though – just a fountain and nice restaurants!

I decided to add Laos to my short, but growing list of countries I have run in, so later in the afternoon I retuned to the Nam Phou fountain to register and get transportation to the Vientiane Bush Hash.  I was warmly welcomed treated to an impromptu guided tour of the city as we drove out to the A site, a village on the outskirts of the capital.  This hash chapter was small in comparison to my “mother hash”, Pattaya Jungle Hash (PJH3) – about 15 of us ran a rather dusty trail, on and off track …

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Some of the village girls also joined us too which made a nice change.  The girl in yellow seemed fascinated with me, keeping me company until I returned to the A site.  Maybe she thought I would get lost…

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After a rather fun and intimate circle of about 12, some members left, with the rest joining in with a village “baby naming” party.  As it was pretty dark, I didn’t take any pictures, but I do remember it was a lot of fun and I ended up dancing with the local grandmas.  With Lao dancing, it is all in the hands!

Sunday – wats up

There are some significant wats to visit in Vientiane, despite many being destroyed during the Siamese invasion in 1827.  Tours are available and can be booked at any hotel or travel agent, although I decided to do my own itinerary and hired another tuk tuk for three hours, focusing on four main sites.

That Luang is a huge golden stupa, or Bhuddist shrine, and is the most religious and significant site in Laos. Sadly That Luang suffered extensive war damaged in the 1940’s.  As it is the national landmark and considered the symbol of sovereignty, it was carefully restored and remains a wonderful site to visit…

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Surrounding That Luang are a number of lovely wats and a reclining Buddha.  I didn’t spend a lot of time here, but here is a small selection of what to see immediately around That Luang.

Inside That Luang cloisters…

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Wats and gardens outside …

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Anyone that has visited the Grand Palace in Bangkok will have seen and know about the Emerald Buddha, or Phra Kaeo. This small and very beautiful Buddha has a legendary and somewhat mysterious early history, but it has moved around a bit, including a stay in Vientiane.  According to several historical sources, the Emerald Buddha arrived in Vientiane in 1564 or 1565. King Setthirat brought it there from his Royal residence in Chang Mai.  He built Wat Phra Kaeo to house the Emerald Buddha.

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Much of this wat was destroyed during the Siam invasion in 1779, when the Emerald Buddha was removed and taken to Thailand.  Presumably due to its historical significance, Wat Phra Kaeo was extensively and beautifully restored in the 1940’s, and remains one of the loveliest and most historical locations in Vientiane. For reference, here is a picture of the Emerald Buddha at its current location, WatPhra Kaew, within the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace …

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Conveniently across the road from Wat Phra Kaeo is another significantly important wat in Vientiane – Wat Sisaket.  Inside this wat a gorgeous and very old building Phra Sangka Nagnok.  It comprises a quadrant of cloisters that surrounds Wat Sisaket, housing over 7000 Buddha images…

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You can see that they have started to restore the beautiful paintwork as much of it is fading fast.  As I was walking around the cloisters, I noticed a locked gate.  I took a closer look and discovered this the storeroom for Buddha’s damaged during “the war” …

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This wat was very beautiful and interesting and I discovered it is a popular location for local couples to have their wedding pictures taken.  A bonus picture – the Laotian national dress…

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The good, the bad and the ugly

Following the demise of French colonial rule in 1954 , USA foreign policy supported (guided) the troubled and fledging independent Laos towards positioning itself as a neutral country in the region.  I am not going to write an essay on the history of US foreign policy in Laos, except to say at the time, the good American people donated aid to build Vientiane airport at Wattay.  In real terms, this was concrete.  The bad in Vientiane decided a victory monument to mark the end of French colonial rule was more important, and so diverted much of the concrete to build the Patuxai, or Victory Monument. This is the ugly result – and affectionately known locally as “the vertical runway”…

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Lao National Museum

I finished off my afternoon visiting the Lao National Museum on Samsethai Road – opposite the Cultural Centre Hall. I found this absolutely fascinating – it really was like stepping back thirty years, which I think is when they last updated its contents.  The museum is a beautiful colonial building in a rather sad condition. As I approached, I wasn’t even sure if it was open, but thankfully it was.  There is no photography or bags allowed inside (lockers provided free), nor are there any brochures or public information leaflets.  This was a pity as most of the museum exhibits were only in Lao.

The museum exhibits included pre-historic relics and dinosaur bones, megalithic archaeological remains, clothing and traditional day-to-day hill-tribe displays.  A significant area of the museum covers the modern history of Laos, in particular the demise of French rule and the civil war from 1953 – 1975. There were some captions in English, with the most popular phrase used to describe the “enemy” as “the US imperialists and their puppets”.  

This museum is WELL worth a visit, but be warned, very little of it is air-conditioned.  I also heard the building was sold recently, so try to visit before the museum is perhaps relocated.  It really is a unique place.

Entrance fees to most sites around Vientiane vary between 5000 and 10,000 kip (35 – 70 pence or 70 cents – $1.40!).  After negotiation, the tuk tuk cost 80,000 kip (£6 or $10) for three hours, including waiting.

Getting to Vientiane

By air – Domestic and international; check Vientiane International Airports’ website for most up to date details.

By bus – regional and international bus services also serve Vientiane and there are three bus stations; Northern, Central and Southern.

Tuk tuk’s and minivans also run from friendship bridge at the Nong Khai, Thai border

Where to stay

As a capital, there is no shortage of places to stay.  Choice is contingent on location and budget preferences.  On the recommendation of a hash member, I stayed at the Riverside Hotel in Nokeokouman Road, which was a great location – close to great bars and restaurants, the riverside (obviously!), the night market and a short walk to the rest of the city.  It was a budget tourist hotel however, so not quite to international standards, but it was clean, the room had a fridge and good AC and the staff were friendly. Right next door was the V Hotel, which looked more up to date and much nicer …

For me, Vientiane is well worth a couple of days, if not more.  There is plenty to see,  do and an abundance of nice bars, restaurants and French style cafes.  It is by far the most laid back and relaxing capital I have been to.  Thankfully the opium and sex dens seem to have long gone – and the airport was eventually finished, allowing me to get off the beaten track a bit and to start exploring “up-country”…. more to follow soon!

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