I arrived mid afternoon in Vientiane for my first visit to Laos. The city seemed very small compared to all the other major cities in South East Asia. After checking in to the Vientiane Golden Sun Hotel
I decided to head to the famous
, being that it is one of the major sights of Vientiane.
Interesting architecture on the walk, very communist and interesting to look at, my welcome to one of the worlds few remaining communist states and also South East Asia’s poorest.
The Patuxai Monument is an interesting looking feature, its trasnalation is Victory Gate. It was built in 1968 and is dedicated to those that fought in the struggle for independence from France. Also known as the Arc de Triomphe due to its resemblance to the famous monument of the same name in Paris. It feels less grand but the palms trees surrounding it make it a striking sight in this small city.
When your underneath, be sure to look up the ceiling as it has an especially interesting depiction of the Gods: Vishnu Brahma and Indra. At one of the corner of the posts is a staircase that you can enter and walk upstairs after paying a fee of $1. It is worth doing as it really is the best way to see the city as a whole, plus there are these amazing Buddhist bars on the windows; great for photos.
There are about 4 floors - the first two have central covered buildings (where the staircase continues), here you will find tourist paraphernalia, some quite random articles like flick knives and other weapons, however there are also some interesting antiques as well as some local crafts and nationalistic articles. I found a shop that was especially great for magnet collectors. See my collection here
After I headed straight to the top, where there are some impressive Buddhist metal frames on the window arches.
My next stop on my walking tour (yes the city is that small) was to head over to That Dam
. That Dam is a large stupa which is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics used as a place of meditation, as quoted from Wikipedia. Laotians believe it is inhabited by a seven-headed nāga who tried to protect them from an invasion by the Siamese army in 1827.
Without meaning to offend the Laotians, an abandoned French colonial building faces this temple directing on one side which I found far more interesting to look at. The beautiful looking architecture had a sad atmosphere of neglect. I was quite absorbed by it, as you could feel a haunted atmosphere. I spent about 30 minutes just looking at it and wondering the history it had.
Anyway, I walked up a random street with no plans and had my first negative experience of the Laotian people; a tuk-tuk driver. They have big tuk-tuks in Vientiane, the biggest I've seen in Asia, as they sort of have a bus behind them that could carry up to six people. What they try and do is sell it as a bus, so a small distance of 1-2km, they will quote you $10 USD, more than in New York city. So when you refuse what they do is find someone else to join the ‘tuk-tuk’ and then the fare suddenly becomes $5. I was dropped off with the intention of checking out a market on the otherside of town, sadly it already closed. It so happened that the same tuk-tuk driver was driving back and offered me a ride to the riverside for $5, after driving around in circles looking for more customers he went back to the original parking spot and decided it was now $10 to the riverside. I disputed that and he said "ok you pay me $5". I gave him $2 and ended up walking away after we drove past the riverside and he wouldn’t drop me off. He was just trying to look for other customers, it made no sense and sadly it left a lasting impression that tuk-tuk drivers here have no compassion like you might find in Phnom Penh. I just walked to the Mekong river but unfortunately due to the tuk-tuk mess, I only caught the end of what must have been a beautiful sunset over the river.
The riverside of Vientiane around sunet and after is the cities main hang out, lots of Laos couples walk with their partners along the sidewalk or sit watching the sunset. Everyone is just hanging out there, there is also a market and even two large exercise routines playing some beats type music where the teacher narrates like a drum 'n’ bass MC in time with the beat.
I noticed a lot of people walking down to the banks of Mekong River so I thought do the same. It takes around ten minutes to walk down a steep slope on to a sort of farming land (that I noticed the next day), along a thick sandy pathway until you hit the river where you can see Thailand on the other side.
Quite a romantic, relaxing and chilled out spot, I sat on a rock and watched everyone. Guys playing football, couples walking up to the shore, children with their families looking for that stone/shell. There was even a guy playing guitar with his friends. It had an interesting vibe, like it was a special place - not just the banks of the Mekong River.
By the riverside where the main walkway and road is, a market that runs through a park parallel to the main riverside road. The odd stall had nice crafts and pictures but for the most part it was not a typical tourist market, with most shopping aimed at locals such as toys, clothes and electronics.
There are some nice fruit stalls and places to get that delicious coconut. Overall I found the prices to be not as cheap as expected, it was certainly more expensive for food and drink than Cambodia and even a basic foot massage was more expensive than Thailand.
After a delicious coconut, I decided to walk around the streets and try to find my hotel without having to use a tuk-tuk. I saw some unusual sights for an evening. Whereby most places are closed even in Bangkok following sunset. In Laos it seemed everything opened. For example, two orthodontists were sitting in their window waiting for customers, somewhat appearing like the massage girls you see on Sukhumvit waiting for customers in Bangkok - yet they were Orthodontists?
I saw an old lady, quite old & frail waiting for customers to cut their hair.
Walked past some food stalls before eventually getting on the right path to my hotel. It showed how small the city was as I had practically covered the whole centre in an evening. It also seemed to be the quietist city I've ever walked through.
The next morning there was one more major sight to check out before my afternoon departure – Pha That Luang
, the gold covered Buddhist stupa. While thinking how to get there as it's about 5km and a bit too far to walk, the hotel advise me to hiring a bike for $1. I really wished I'd known this before losing $7 on a pointless tuk-tuk.
This is the real way to see the city, so long you're healthy enough, I'm probably not but at least there were no hills. It is quiet so traffic is not an issue. It's not dangerous to cycle like it is in Bangkok and it's a slow moving town-like environment, so cycling is the best way to see this city.
Upon arrival at Pha That Luang, you enter a Buddhist temple before you see the main Stupa. A very colourful Buddhist display welcomes you to this small area with some market stalls and the odd Buddhist Monk walking about. I found a reclining Buddha down this pathway which was a nice size - not too huge but interesting. The Taiwanese around me took plenty of selfies.
As this point I saw the large Stupa, which I thought would be larger - nonetheless a very impressive sight. En route I came across a lady that put a bad vibe across this nice area, she was persuading me to pay her to release birds. I understand how poor the people are with the need to make money and I almost wanted to hand over some money for the box to be opened to release them but this only encourages more of the same business. I just hope they got released.
I also came across some weird market stalls, selling really odd items, such as below a J/K pop looking doll wallet that I imagined could only really attract the possible Paedo to buy it, as it certainly looked disturbing. This next to a nasty looking hammer/saw combo. Very odd mix of items and disturbing at the same time. From initially thinking I found the most beautiful sight in Vientiane, a short walk thru this market made me think Karma is not really at work here.
However after entering the actual Pha That Luang, I decided it was an impressive structure that did have a positive relaxed atmosphere. I lit a candle and jok stick and did my hands clasp to the Buddha, that I always do to respect the sight. There were 4 corners of these sights, which as grass ardens surrounding the Stupa. You can’t enter it, if it is ever open, but the ground show ruins of Buddhas and the place is very relaxing. It was definitely worth the bicycle ride.
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After leaving I had another hour to kill so I cycled to a Buddhist monastery in the hope I would find a Buddhist monk to do a mediation, it is offered but much later in the day. I was unlucky as the only Buddha I found was not trained enough to do a foreign mediation, however the place had a nice Buddhist tower.
I then cycled on to the riverside to see it during the day, this is where I came across the King Caho Anouvong Statue
. He led a Laos Rebellion in the 18th
century. The area is nice, his statue faces out to the Mekong River and Thailand beyond, there is a nice garden behind the statue that leads to the back of the main palace. As you can see the tuk-tuk driver in this photo seems unimpressed as I sit on my Bicycle and take the photo.
Overall Vientiane was an interesting city, it is small and can be done with a stay of 1-2 nights, depending how you much you need to explore. It’s quiet and the Mekong River was a relaxing spot. Laos seems more dated to the modern world than its neighbours which in a way was nice and authentic to see, the people overall are nice but many don’t speak English. It’s not as cheap as Cambodia but not as expensive as Thailand on some things.
I enjoyed walking about watching the locals and sitting by the Mekong river. I hope to see the rest of the country in the rural parts. For an overnight stop, if you’re not tired you can see a lot very easily. Just hire a bicycle.