The City Stress Forgot

Trip Start Jul 01, 2010
Trip End Aug 08, 2011

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Where I stayed
Saysouly Guest House

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, March 28, 2011

After forking out for the visa on arrival, I casually cycle the 20 odd kms from the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Vientiane, capital city of Laos, situated on a bend in the great Mekong river. Heading to the waterfront, I find the tourist office, and am informed that my hotel is just 20m up the road. I check in, unload, and cycle off again in search of Nirvana (a local vegetarian buffet restaurant). Buffet is only lunchtimes, so I dine on a tasty noodle soup with mock duck. I try my first Beerlao, and find it to be pretty good.

The Lao people are known for being super-friendly, and I find this to be true enough, in their quiet and unobtrusive way. Even the tuk-tuk touts leave you in peace the moment you tell them no. The Lao people seem to have taken little umbrage for the repeated invasions, colonisation and massive US bombing campaign during the Vietnam War, where more bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped by all sides in all of World War II. On account of this last insult, Laos unfortunately leads the world in unexploded ordinance - one of the reasons I don't intend to go off piste too much to do free camping.

Over the weekend I see the sights a little, and am stunned by how provincial the city seems, for a national capital. The ambience is relaxed everywhere I go. Traffic sedate and well-behaved. I visit Patuxai (Victory Gate), the Laotian monument to gaining independence from the French, built with US aid money intended for an airport runway. Ironically, perhaps cheekily, modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. I feel some admiration for Laos' apparent disdain for authority.

I continue up a broad avenue to Pha That Luang, a gold-covered stupa which is Laos' holiest site. Even there, where there are most tourists, the tranquility is remarkable, and I am not harassed by touts, although a soldier forbids me from passing by the right hand side of the statue of King Setthanthirat, bizarrely. I opt not to pay the entrance fee and content myself instead with loitering a while in the area, admiring the large temples adjoining.

An enormous Communist flag waves in the breeze defiantly, alongside the national flag, in an enormous parade ground before the modest National Assembly. Opposite there is a military museum and a 'security' museum, which I think deals with the police.

The architectural mix is interesting, with shuttered colonial buildings amongst utilitarian Communist ones, grand governmental buildings in a modernised Lao style, Buddhist temples in the traditional style, shacks and more modern commercial developments. The city was too often sacked to retain anything much older than a few centuries, and this mostly temples. The signs of government buildings are bilingual: Lao and French, yet few people speak French here anymore, beyond academia and (presumably) government. There are few buildings of more than 5 storeys in height.

There are markets too, of course, with the usual displays of colourful fruits, animal bits and the odour of burning oil. I do most of my shopping at a mini-mart, but the markets are the place to get non-processed foods. Surprisingly Laos seems to be more expensive than its neighbours, but is still very affordable. I have the impression there is not a great deal to see and do here; there are many western tourists but most don't stay more than a few days.

I find out too late about the weekly group meditation held each Saturday at Wat Si Saket (Correction: it's actually held at Wat Sok Pa Luang). The usual rambling around, and lunchtime visits to Nirvana sums up the rest of my weekend.

Monday morning I am at the gate of the Chinese consulate. I fill the visa form, leaving blank the contacts and intended residential address in China. The next day I'm riding out of Vientiane in drizzle, a new sticker in my passport and my wallet US$52 lighter.
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