May 10, 2012

Destination: Vientiane, Laos


SITUATED on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, sleepy Vientiane is one of the world’s smallest capital cities. To say Vientiane is relaxed is something of an understatement. This is a city that rises late, sleeps early and is lethargic in between.

 Monks in Vientiane, Laos.

However, this is the charm of the Laos capital. Known for its shady streets and crumbling French architecture, people still cook with charcoal and you’ll rarely see a multi-storey building breaking the horizon.

Vientiane has long been a popular stop-off on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail. It also has its fair share of expats who have succumbed to its charms, as well as many expats from neighboring Thailand who travel there to renew their Thai visas. Another large contingent of westerners you’ll see in Vientiane will be NGO or embassy workers.

A Day in the Life
Morning –Early morning Vientiane is, on the face of it, just what you’d expect – sleepy. It’s a great time to wander the streets before the heat of the day sets in and sit back and enjoy a quiet, relaxing coffee. However, if you want to see the other side of Vientiane in the morning visit one of the large, open air, wet markets in town, which are a hive of activity.

Afternoon – Many of Vientiane’s best sights and attractions are all within walking distance of the tourist quarter. The area is dotted with beautiful temples, while the palace and the national museum are also worth a look.

Evening – Watch the sun go down while sitting on the banks of the Mekong with a bottle of the surprisingly good local brew – Beer Lao. Many lazy hours can be happily whiled away ‘Mekong watching’, but it’s worth making that extra effort to sample some of the many excellent eateries around town.

Best of the Rest
Patuxai, or ‘Victory Gate’, is Vientiane’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe, and the highest point in the city. The monument honors the people who died during the fight for independence from France. Patuxai was built in the ‘60s using funds donated by the US to build an airport. Laos used the cash to build the monument instead.
Arguably the pick of the temples in Vientiane is Tat Luang. This is regarded as the most important temple in the country and is the national symbol of Laos. It’s located about a mile north of the city centre.

Hidden Gem - Take in the beautiful countryside surrounding Vientiane with a trip to Buddha Park. This unique spectacle is full of stone statues and offers some great views across the river of neighboring Thailand.

Accommodation - Rooms for the night can be scarce by the early evening so it’s best to get there early or make a reservation. Prices for budget accommodation, like much of the region, are modest. Fifteen or 20 dollars will get you a passable mid-range room, for 40 can get you something a little more luxurious. Most hotels and guesthouses will accept US dollars and Thai baht, as well as the Laos kip.

Vientiane at Night
Dining - Lao food can be a goal well worth pursuing and not as easily obtained as one might think. The food sold in the English language restaurants is often an imitation, dumbed down for the western pallet even in those restaurants professing to specialize in Lao food. For the real thing, go to street vendors and sawdust-on-the-floor type establishments. It’s much cheaper too. If Western food is more your thing, Vientiane has become much more cosmopolitan in recent years and you will have plenty of international food options.

Nightlife – Vientiane is sleepy by day and sleepy by night. By law most bars shut down very early – 11.30pm. There are places to go out and have a drink, maybe even listen to music, but compared to the likes of Thailand, it’s fairly dead at night.



A young Lao girl takes a ride in a vegetable cart in one of Vientiane's many morning markets

Retail Therapy - The most famous market in Vientiane, Dalat Sao, or Morning Market in English, is slowly succumbing to the wrecking ball and the plate glass, air conditioned shopping mall, so it’s well worth a look before it’s gone. Downstairs are row after row of small shops selling traditional Lao silk weaving and some very good handicrafts. Upstairs are the gold stores and cheap clothing. Morning is a misnomer in this case as the market doesn’t even really open up until after 8am and shuts down at 4pm.

Across the street to the south (next door to the central post office) is the Ethnic Handicrafts Cooperative. Mostly Hmong owned and orientated towards the visiting overseas Hmong, it has the largest selection of hill-tribe handicrafts of all ethnicities for sale in Laos. Don’t expect colorful displays or friendly English speaking sales people. It is not tourist-oriented, but that only adds to the fun.

Transport
Getting there & away – There are regular flights into Vientiane from many of the major cities in the region and the rise of the budget airline has made these a whole lot cheaper. If you are traveling by land, there are regular services to and from cities in China, Vietnam and northern Thailand.

Getting around - To get around most people use tuktuks. They tend to overcharge and bargaining isn’t as important as knowing the going rate in the first. Probably the best option is to rent a motorcycle ,though beware; the rules of the road are not enforced with any real gusto. In truth, the town is so small many people simply walk to wherever they are going.

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