A Month in Vientiane, the Little Capital of Laos
Vientiane is unlike any capital city we’ve ever visited. It is very compact and boasts a population of less than a million. It is choc-a-block full of Buddhist temples and has so many new luxury cars on the roads that it is very hard to believe that this is a communist state and one of the poorest countries in the world.
We touched down at sunset and made our way out of the airport. We were ready and waiting for the onslaught of taxi and tuk tuk drivers vying for our business. Nothing happened. Were we in the right place? Yes. Was anyone even waving to us from afar, let alone waving cards and leaflets in our face? No. Odd. We had to go back inside the airport and look around before we found the prepaid stand for transport into town. There it was swiftly (but not cheaply) organised and we were on our way to the city centre in one of the newest, most silent vehicles we’ve been in on our whole trip.
As usual, we had no accommodation booked. Our driver took us to several places within the budget we’d stated but we soon realised that perhaps that budget was too low. The rooms we saw were tiny, old, bare and sometimes grubby. Once we’d made it into what seemed like the city centre proper we decided to abandon the car and just look for ourselves.
We ended up in a hostel which had a few private rooms. It was a nice room but priced way over what we’d been paying for a comparable room in Vietnam. The shower was very poor, little more than a dribble and we resolved to find a better place the following day. Many of the guesthouses, hotels and hostels only have wifi in the lobby. We later got ourselves a Beeline SIM card but still felt we wanted wifi in the room.
After a lot of traipsing up and down the stairs of some rather questionable establishments and looking at more over priced rooms with hardly any furniture we eventually came across the Samsenthai Hotel. It was truly a good find. As well as a spacious room with private bathroom, a four poster bed, 2 desks, a TV, fridge and wifi we also had unlimited free drinking water and a great location very close to the river. The price, although higher than in Vietnam, was only a tiny bit higher than for some of the awful windowless, bathroom-less boxes we had looked at in the city.
Finding ourselves established in a nice room which had WiFi to boot made us feel pretty lucky. We knew what other people were paying and the rooms they were staying in. We settled in and made ourselves at home.
We had a 30 day visa for Laos and in the end we spent the entire time in Vientiane. There are several other ‘hot spots’ on the map that were possibilities for us but we decided to just stay put. There is very little in the way of transport infrastructure in the country and the ancient capital Luang Prabang where we might have ventured was at least an 11 hour bus ride away. (The 11 hours was not taking into account any delays due to mudslides etc caused by the rainy season.) We just didn’t fancy it.
As for what we did in the city, my previous blog post can answer for how we spent a lot of our time: Best Coffee Shops in Vientiane 2013. I worked on revamping this site and Henry worked at his usual online tasks.
Sightseeing in Vientiane
As I mentioned above there are many temples in Vientiane. We had a look around a few together while we were out and about and I also hired a bicycle one day to go and see some of the main tourist attractions. Vientiane is no Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. The ‘tourist attractions’ do not stretch to the dozens and are not spread across a large area. It was no problem to see them all in just one afternoon.
First on the list was the Patuxay Monument (meaning ‘Victory Gate’) also known as the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane. It is basically a Laos version of the Arc de Triomphe. It was built as a monument to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. Why model something from the country you have fought to gain independece from? I don’t quite understand the logic personally. It is impressive from a distance and commands a view down Lang Xang Avenue which has the Presidential Palace at the other end. When you get up close you can see the details in the architecture are influenced by Laos culture and not French.
I parked my bike, paid my 3,000 Kip (25p – one of the few bargains of the month) and climbed the stairs up to the top. After appreciating the coolness inside and wondering at the sheer number of tourist tat gift shops that had managed to cram inside the monument I reached the top and was able to appreciate the view.
Two interesting facts about the monument for you:
- It is described on the official sign as a ‘monster of concrete’
- It was built using 6,000 tonnes of concrete that the Americans had given to Laos to use for a new runway at the airport, giving rise to the nickname “Vertical Runway’.
The symbol of the city (and indeed the country) is Pha That Luang ‘Great Sacred Stupa’. It was pretty much deserted when I arrived so I cycled all around it (it is not very big) and took a few snaps. Unfortunately it was a rather overcast day so I wasn’t able to get a picture postcard blue sky shot.
Next door to Pha That Luang is another Wat that has an impressive reclining Buddha in the garden and a man with a lovely kitten.
Did my explorations end there? No. I also felt I should also see the famous That Dam or ‘Black Stupa’ – my examination of the tourist attractions in the city centre would not be complete without it. The one way system delayed me for a few minutes but I was soon upon it; the most boring tourist attraction I have ever seen. Those of you who have been reading our blog for some time will know that we have seen many wats, and with them many many stupas. This one was just a stupa, on it’s own, and now serving as the centre of a roundabout.
Even the story of the seven headed water serpent (‘naga’) who lives here to protect the city fails to make it exciting and the fact that it was once covered in pure gold before being pillaged by those pesky Siams just makes the scene a little more sad. Currently ranked at #18 out of 28 things to do in Vientiane on Trip Advisor (below a golf club and the shooting range), it gives you an idea about the calibre of attractions in the city.
Coming in at number 19 and on my route (that is, I did not make an effort to go there) was the Presidential Palace. A grand building now used for government functions and completely closed to the public. I took a photo from the road without stopping.
And that marks the end of my adventures of the notable sights in the city.
Shopping in Vientiane
We explored the shopping opportunities in the city and found our cheapest meal of the 30 days in the night market in the northern part of the city. We were the only tourists there and we felt, at last, that we had discovered a place where local people actually might eat. We also visited the Morning Market Mall (built on the site of the old Morning Market) and enjoyed the air-con there.
The main Night Market is one of those markets almost entirely geared towards tourists. Every evening the area around the riverside becomes a hive of activity. The market is just one part of that. There is a long boulevard that stretches for miles and attracts many locals to promenade, cycle, run, roller skate and generally hang around in the cooler evening air. We went there for the sunsets. Parts of the area are dedicated to outdoor aerobics classes:
Other less active folk walked up and down, munched on street food and enjoyed the impressive sunsets.
What else is there to say about this strange little city?
There is an almost inexplicable proliferation of expensive, new and shiny 4×4 cars and pick-up trucks clogging the roads. Apparently, it is not due to some import/export loophole making them cheaper; these cars are MORE expensive here than almost anywhere else. So, why are there so many of them? The answer seems to be corruption and pride. ‘Government officials’ were reported to us to own most of these new status symbols, along with a few lucky ‘buisness men’. Those who have money are absolutely of the mind that they have to display it and thus, the number of these massive vehicles continues to grow. It is very easy to forget that you are in one of the poorest countries in the world when you are waiting for a gap in the traffic between 20 of these cars in a row.
There is quite a variety of food on offer. We enjoyed some good Malaysian and Indian meals (loving the levels of spice and flavour that had been absent from our diets for so long in Vietnam) and also some pretty good european food like chicken steaks and croissants. Like Vietnam, they know how to make an excellent baguette but the prices were FAR higher for bread as for all food. Even when we sought out basic, vegetarian, side of the road fried rice dishes we were still paying at least twice what we would have paid in Vietnam and Cambodia, and surprisingly, more than Malaysia and Thailand too. It turned out to be one of our most expensive months so far in our travels.
The guidebooks describe Vientiane as ‘sleepy’ and often refer to the the alternative interpretation of the acronym LPDR. It actually stands for Laos People’s Democratic Republic but is often quoted to mean Laos – Please Don’t Rush. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t think you can paint a whole population as being lazy and I can only speak of our own experiences. We were not kept waiting after a time had been set for someting like in India and the pavements were not busy enough to get stuck behind slow walkers like in many cities we’ve visited. We did find the shop keepers and market stall holders more relaxed, or perhaps more specifically, less bothered to do business. Similarly the tuk tuk drivers were unlike any we’ve come across before. Mostly, they didn’t even bother asking if we wanted transport! They reposed in their hammocks or on benches, napped, chatted amongst themselves and only occasionally looked up to inquire about some business.
Also, it rained. A lot. Almost everyday.
So, that was our 30 days in Vientiane. Comments and questions are always welcome – is there something about the city that I didn’t cover?
Vientiane, Laos: 20th June – 19h July 2013