Vientiane

It’s hard to believe Vientiane is a capital city. In fact having been here for a couple of days, I still can’t really believe it… such a laid-back and slow-paced place should be a provincial town, not the administrative centre of an entire nation. But it’s relaxing atmosphere bodes well for the travels to come 🙂

After an excruiciating hour getting through immigration at the airport, the stress evaporated immediately upon leaving the airport. A tip for future travellers to Vientiane by air: get your visa in advance if possible. “Visa on arrival” sounds nice and easy, but when fully half the plane is trying to get one with you it can be quite a wait! Outside it was remarkably cool, perhaps 17 degrees, which none of us expected. Taxis for the short trip to the city are relatively expensive at US$6, but I teamed up with a couple of Norwegian women who were on their way to the bus station so it worked out nice and cheap into town.

Immediate impressions of Vientiane: slow, dusty, lazy, sandy, friendly, peaceful. It’s a very compact town that is completely accessible on foot, though the tuk-tuk drivers will chirp “tuk-tuk! tuk-tuk!” at you whenever you walk by. My hotel room wasn’t ready when I got in, so I wandered the centre of town for a while and ended up having an excellent green chicken curry and of course a beerlao while waiting. After freshening up in the room I wandered some more, but quickly discovered that the best place to hang out is the rooftop terrace bar at Bar Pen Nyang, where under the cover of a high ceiling you get magnificent 180 degree views of the Mekong and the Thai shore to the south.

This is quite a tourist town these days, with countless restaurants, bars and guesthouses catering to the western wanderer. I’ve met several travellers who say it’s very different from just 3-4 years ago, and if you were last here more than a decade ago apparently you won’t recognise the place. Prices have risen considerably: the “current” Lonely Planet guidebook (which everyone is using, including me) is now almost three years old, and many prices, especially accomodation, have doubled in that short time. I also have the brand new “Greater Mekong” LP guide which was released just two months ago and is much more up-to-date, though even that is slightly out of touch with current prices (at least in Vientiane). That said it’s still a wonderfully cheap place to visit: a longneck of beerlao costs between A$1.10 and A$2.00 nearly everywhere (pub or restaurant price; takeaway is even cheaper), and you can get a very decent feed for just A$3-8. For example at Bar Pen Nyang I had a whole river fish, huge and succulent, steamed with lime and chilli and served with rice for just A$4. The most common group of tourists are Europeans, especially Dutch and French, followed by British and Canadians, though I have by now encountered a few Aussies and Kiwis too.

I found it hard to find a cheap place to stay here while researching from Malaysia. Whenever I arrive in a new country by air I like to have at least the first couple of days organised staying somewhere nice – once there I can wander around and find the good but cheap places personally. I lucked out big time with the Inter City Hotel, which is highly recommended if you only want to spend a few days in Vientiane. Decked out with lovely local wooden antiques in the foyer and polished floorboards everywhere, I’ve got a huge room with large modern bathroom, aircon, satellite TV, twin beds (both king singles) for A$38 a night. That’s still pretty pricey in this town but well worth it, as it includes an extensive hot buffet breakfast and is incredibly central to everything. I’ve got a room at the back which is great because you don’t get any noise at night, and though I initially booked for three nights I’ve extended it for my entire stay here because it’s so peaceful.

Some vignettes of my time in Vientiane:

– Visiting Patuxai, the Arc d’Triumph-like structure just north of the city. This attractive edifice looks like it’s been here for ages but in fact it was only built in the 1960s with concrete intended for an airport, hence it is also known as the “vertical runway”.

– Simply wandering the streets. There aren’t many of them in the centre of town, and it’s completely coverable on foot. That is always my preferred way of discovering a city and Vientiane’s streets are a delight to stroll.

– The Thalat Sao markets get the hype, but they’re really just like Paddy’s Market in Chinatown (though you can also buy whitegoods such as air conditioners and washing machines). Much more interesting are the local markets across the road behind the bus station: dirty, dusty alleys where every possible essential good you can imagine is on sale. The food section was particularly interesting, with dozens of women offering fresh food on their blankets, all covered by a cloth ceiling so low that I had to stoop the entire time.

– going to a secondhand bookshop to stock up on reading material for the week ahead, and being able to trade in my (now unnecessary and almost out-of-date) LP guide to Malaysia and Singapore. Net cost for two novels: A$3. I was able to finish one of them in just five hours: Mike Gayle’s Wish You Were Here, a gentle read about three thirty-something British guys suffering various life crises who go on a holiday together to Crete. Featuring drama, booze, a sex-triangle and ultimately redemption through love, it’s a very engaging travel book that suited my mood perfectly.

– The Lao National Museum is a rather rustic affair with some fragments of pre-historic life and an extensive display of the 20th century history of the nation. It’s very patriotic with phrases such as “the American Imperialist and its puppets” used liberally, and many of the weapons employed to free the country from colonial rule are on display.

– Being offered opium by a tuk-tuk driver while walking some of the backstreets north of the city. Drugs are technically illegal here but widely available if you want them. I declined, of course, as I did another tuk-tuk driver who promised me “lots of girls” the night before. Vientiane is a far cry from the city it was in 1975 as described by Paul Theroux in his book The Great Railway Bazaar, where “the brothels are cleaner than hotels… and it’s easier to get opium than a cold beer”, but it still has an “anything goes” vibe that is very enchanting…

– Sitting at the temporary stalls on the bank of the Mekong in the evening, where dozens of vendors set up plastic chairs and tables to capture tourists wanting to view the sun set. It’s nice, but a much better option is crossing the road and going up to the fourth floor terrace of Bar Pen Nyang where prices are about the same but the food is considerably better, as is the atmosphere and the view.

– Getting a traditional Lao massage for A$5-8 an hour. Swedish oil massages are A$10-12. Heaven!

– After several very quiet nights in, I headed to Bar Pen Nyang again last night for dinner and noticed a young woman with her head stuck in the LP Laos guide. I knew her boyfriend was playing pool so this was not a come-on, but I went up to her and started chatting because I was genuinely interested in where they’d been and where they were going. Laura and her man Jan turned out to be a lovely Belgian couple who had recently come down from the north and had some useful advice for my intended travels there. Jan visited Laos four years ago and he said it had changed enormously in that short time: “much more touristy” in his opinion. The roads in the north have been upgraded by the Chinese who want access to resources, which makes travel there much much easier than it used to be. A bit later a friend of theirs, an Australian called Dean, rocked up unannounced because he knew that there’d be someone at Bar Pen Nyang that he knew… he’s a very well-travelled and likeable guy and after a while we all decided to carry on to another bar nearby where live music was playing. That turned out to be a dud (think seedy sex-tourism vibe – yuk), but by this stage we wanted to carry on so we headed by tuk-tuk to the huge Don Chan Palace Hotel in search of a casino (Dean’s call, not mine!). We didn’t find the casino but did discover a nightclub very popular with locals, and ended up drinking, dancing and chatting ’til the wee hours. Top night, but sore head today…

It would be very easy to stay here for a week or two, indulging oneself in Vientiane’s beguiling charms. But the road beckons: tomorrow I’m off to Vang Vieng for a couple of nights, then Luang Prabang, then I venture off the mandatory tourist trail to visit the far northern reaches of Laos where I hope to go trekking near the Chinese border 😀

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