Vientiane, Laos - A Sleepy Capital City

Trip Start Aug 09, 2009
Trip End Aug 11, 2009

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, August 9, 2009

We knew Vientiane was going to be a lot quieter than Bangkok, the currency was called the Kip for a start, but the first real indication of how different things were was on approach to the airport. The night landing showed only a smattering of lights. It was as if we were over a village. We landed and taxied to the terminal, wondering what Laos would be like.

The People's Democratic Republic of Laos liked its red tape. The airport was full of it. Line up here for visa application form; line up there for visa acceptance form (and to pay the fee), then join that queue to get the passports stamped. People everywhere were joining queue after queue, wondering if they’d ever be allowed entry into the country, and at the front of every line sat sombre-looking officials in green uniforms with epaulets full of gold stars, a curt reminder that Laos was one of only five remaining communist nations. It was exactly the sort of uniform I'd choose for my underlings if I were in charge.

Heading by taxi to our hotel, the streets of Vientiane were quiet with only a handful of vehicles about. A few neon lights suggested that the odd bar might be open, but it was undoubtedly a world away from the sixties when the Americans established Vientiane as an opium den and sex parlour. After checking in, Angela and I decided to go for a little wander about town. It was dark but we didn't care. Along one unlit street we could hear the unmistakable sound of the tropics: frogs and chirping insects, and then another sound broke through, growling and yelping. Across the road, lit from a nearby bar, two stray dogs were fighting to the death. Two men from the bar stood up to see what was causing the commotion then promptly sat back down. The dogs were really laying into one another, twisting and grunting in their exertions. Then suddenly one broke free, running off into the shadows. The frogs and insects resumed their nighttime soundtrack.

I spied a tiny store selling beer. Inside, four people were sitting at a table eating a meal. They looked to be a family. I went to the fridge and removed two bottles of Beer Lao. The most elderly member of the family came over and nodded at my choice. “How much?” I inquired. The reply I got was in Laotian. I shrugged, looking towards Angela. The man spoke again, this time with added hand gestures. He seemed to be saying that we couldn't take the bottles away.

“Maybe we have to drink them in here?” I said to Angela. The man nodded and babbled away some more. Angela had a quick look around and I could tell she didn't want to stay. I couldn’t blame her; it was little more than a shack. I addressed the man speaking as slowly as I could. “Look, we want to take them to our hotel. It's over there. Can we take the bottles away please?” The man swiveled his head to where I was pointing and then seemed really confused. As his family watched with interest, the man spoke again, causing the whole lot of them to burst out laughing. Even Angela joined in. I looked at her in desperation. What the hell is going on? The stalemate was broken with the arrival of a younger man, his son we presumed. After conferring a moment, the newcomer addressed us in broken English. “...You bring bottle here...after finish...”

Ah! It made sense now. The old man wanted the empty bottles. I nodded like a prize galoot, which made everyone laugh even harder. We paid for the bottles and headed to our hotel. Our first real interaction with the locals of Vientiane had gone remarkably well.

The next morning was hot and humid, typical weather for August in South East Asia. Angela and I headed outside to see two of the major sights the city had to offer: Patuxai, otherwise known as the Victory Monument, and That Luang, a famous Buddhist monument. Both were conveniently located along the same stretch of road.

The streets, although quiet, were not as laid back as I'd expected. Sure, this was no thronging metropolis but there were still plenty of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and cars about. Toyota's seemed the vehicle of choice for the upwardly mobile of Vientiane. Modern 4x4s were quite common and we were not surprised to see a Toyota dealership further long the road. “They should learn how to park them,” I suggested as we negotiated our way around another parked Toyota, this one blocking not just the pavement but a section of road. And it wasn't the only one. “In a few years this place will be gridlocked.”

Patuxai was easy to spot, lying at the end of a wide French-built boulevard. Numerous Laotian flags marked its entrance. “It's like the Arc De Triomphe,” I said as we neared Vientiane's best known landmark. Built in 1969, it was commissioned as a memorial to those who'd died in battles prior to the Communist take over. During construction they ran out of concrete. “I know,” said one ingenious man. “Why don't we use the concrete the Americans gave us for a new runway? They won't mind.”

Angela and I were delighted to find we could climb the Patuxai monument for a mere three thousand Kip (15p). The ascent was relatively easy since on each level stalls had been set up selling all sorts of touristy knicknacks. Old banknotes, flags and Beer Laos T-shirts were what caught my eye but Angela had found something else. It was a silk stall. “1.50 for all this!” she beamed, showing me some scarves she'd bought.

That Luang was a fair walk from Patuxia. The heat was hellish and I was sweating like a sweaty thing. Droplets of salty moisture ran down my forehead into my eyes. The bottle of water we bought was drunk in seconds. The temperatures were relentless.

As we approached the golden spire of the Buddhist monument, something caught Angela's eye. It was beyond a wall to our left and appeared to be some sort of abandoned fairground. Almost covered up by the overgrowth was a rickety old Ferris wheel. Next to it was a podium with rusted bumper cars littering one edge. Further in stood a skeletal merry-go-round. “This is creepy,” said Angela. “Let's go.”

That Luang looked quite magnificent, even from a distance. The golden Stupa we were approaching was the holiest of all the Buddhist sites in Laos. Just inside the entrance to the complex we were accosted by a woman holding two small wooden cages. Inside each cage was a pair of tiny birds. It was obvious what she wanted: money for allowing us to release them. “This is so cruel,” whispered Angela in my direction. “And I know we shouldn't but I want to let these two go.”

We paid the woman 17,000 Kip (just over a pound) and were handed one cage. Inside, the birds chirped happily to themselves, unaware of what was happening. Angela didn't look remotely happy though. We knew that by giving money to the woman we were perpetuating the cruelty to these small creatures. Angela lifted a small wooden latch and the birds flew away.

We had That Luang to ourselves. The crowds that should have been present at such a major monument were simply not there. For a good while we wandered the temple unhindered by anyone. Up close it looked like it needed a lick of golden paint but we still couldn't help but be impressed by the sheer beauty of the structure. We walked all four corners of the Stupa before finding ourselves back at the entrance.

A few minutes later the hordes appeared. They arrived in two huge air-conditioned coaches. A phalanx of them marched into the Stupa behind their guides. I turned to Angela. “So that's the sights of Vientiane done then. And it only took us an hour and a half. We might as well to go back to the hotel for a swim.”

That afternoon we wandered towards the Mekong. Small bars and local eateries were set up on wooden scaffolds at the edge of the river. We entered one, making a perilous journey across a rickety wooden plank that shook as we stepped along it.

Enjoying a Beer Lao with a vista spanning the Mekong was a good way to spend a short while. Among some nearby rushes, Angela spotted a small boat. The vessel emerged containing three fishermen. As we watched, they cast their small nets into the murky waters and then began waiting patiently. Apparently the fish were not forthcoming though because after only a few minutes the men moved on, passing where we were sat. I nodded knowingly as the canoe-like boat slid past. The man in the back caught this gesture and nodded back solemnly. Fish not biting today the nod said. Silent communication between fishermen always bypasses international language. Except, of course, I'd never caught a fish in my life.

That evening I returned the empty bottles from the store across the road. It was a young girl who accepted them. I didn't recognize her from the previous night, and in turn, she looked a little confused when I handed them over. I put them on a nearby table and left, faintly embarrassed.

For our final day in Laos, we headed to a market full of clothes and, oddly enough, electric guitars. Like every other market in South-East Asia, it was packed full of locals snapping up bargains. We wandered up and down its stalls before heading back to the hotel. It was time to catch a ride back to the airport.

“I hope you have enjoyed your stay in my country,” said the jovial man, the same individual who'd brought us into the city. We told him we had. Angela then asked him about the abandoned fairground we'd seen the previous day.

“Ah, the fairground! It is owned by the government. It used to be very popular place for people five years ago. But now it no good.” The man looked pensive for a moment and then spoke again. “My government very good at building new projects but not so good at maintenance. People stop going to fairground and it quickly fall apart. The government will get rid of it soon and will use land for something else. But we will not know until it is finished. They not tell us. That is the way of communist.” The man paused. “But at least they get some things right. There is no war. I born in 1966 and remember things during war. Not good.”

We reached the airport and said goodbye. It was time to leave Laos and head on to Vietnam.

-Small compact city
-Quiet and relaxing
-Friendly locals
-Beer Laos!

-Not an awful lot to see
-Gaping potholes in many pavements
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