Most of Asia’s capital cities are multilayered megaopolises that are outrageously overcrowded, clogged with traffic, veiled with pollution and contain an enigmatic mixture of old and new. Shopping malls tower over traditional street markets, brand new SUVs share roads with shabby tuk tuks and everywhere is absolute chaos.
Vientiane is different – things are much simpler here. I mean, it’s not so surprising considering Laos is a very poor country with a small population. Travellers we’d met throughout our trip had said they’d not even bothered going cus they’d heard it was “shit”, which personally I find a unsatisfactory way to describe a capital city where 250,000 people call home, even if it does have bland architecture, few attractions and immemorable environments. Jake and I headed here because it was on the way south, but also because I was curious to see the place. I don’t know about you but the name, Vientiane, held some allure to me. To me it sounded mysterious and refined, even if everything I had heard or read indicated the opposite. We checked into our hotel and went out to explore.
Well kinda. What I haven’t really mentioned much is that right now, in SE Asia, it’s disgustingly hot. Like, over 35°C and with what sometimes feels like 3000% humidity. You can’t go for a walk for half an hour without sweating titties and desperately needing a shower for the 4th time that day. The heat is freaking intense so there is little to no pleasure to be had from walking around aimlessly, the thing I normally do whilst travelling. So we explored Vientiane a little bit. As I said there isn’t much to see, and we only stayed for 2 nights. So unfortunately I don’t have much to write about this time. Don’t be too disappointed.
So little Laos is surprisingly (to me) a communist country. You’ll spot the hammer and sickle flags around and they’re especially common in the capital. Walking around, you’ll see the usual hallmarks of any communist capital. There is a sweeping and supposedly grandiose boulevard that is unfortunately lined with delapidated commercial buildings and blocks of shoddy flats. At one end, there lies the absurdly extravagant presidential palace, and at the other, a monstrous landmark that shows the country’s wealth and greatness. Bleak, barren parks and pothole strewn roads make up the rest. However there are some beautiful things to find. A few gold covered temples stand resplendent amidst the concrete. Regrettably, by the time we’d arrived in Vientiane, we were over temples in a big way, and kind of actively avoided looking at them. Terrible I know.
The Mekong River flows by the city and also marks the border with Thailand. I was expecting some kind of glamorous riverside promenade overlooking the other country but I was disappointed. A bleak no man’s land existed between the last road and the water, with tangled weeds running riot. On the bright side it looked much better at night, when you couldn’t see much of it all. Near this pseudo-riverfront there was a large market each night, and although bustling with locals, Jake quite rightly observed that people were moving without fervour or urgency. We’d never been through an asian market with so little soul. The kebabs were good though!
We had good intentions to visit the Lao National Museum, which would have taught us a little bit about the Laotian Civil War that ocurred in the 20th Century. However it was going to close half an hour after we arrived (and we arrived at 11:30) so we skipped it. We also thought about going to the COPE Visitor Centre where we could have learnt about the country’s Secret War and absolute annihilation by American bombardment… but we didn’t. It was too hot to walk that far across town. I did however read some Wikipedia articles about it whilst in our air conditioned hotel, which is basically the same thing.
The only other thing we achieved whilst here was eating some pretty nice food. We had some great french pastries from Le Banneton, some great Laotian food from a traditional restaurant opposite our hotel. We even found a mini street market hidden in an alley where we were the only tourists, and ate a pretty decent meal for 5000K (45p) – an impecunious traveller win.
And that pretty much sums up our stay in Vientiane. By this point, Jake had pretty adamantly decided he wasn’t a fan of Laos, although he admitted he found Vientiane rather charming, especially when compared with other SE Asian capitals. I agreed but was less willing to condemn Laos just yet. It’s a complicated country at odds with itself. With a corrupt and sinister one party system in place, the people of the country are much more cheerful and genuine than you’d expect. We did seem to get taken advantage of by tuk tuk drivers wherever we went… but being screwed out of a few bucks isn’t the end of the world for us really. The people here are very poor and are just trying to make ends meet I guess.
But anyway! I don’t mean to sound so conclusive. We actually have one more destination in Laos – the 4000 Islands in the south of the country. It’s up next.
Have to admit we have always enjoyed Vientiane, as you rightly say, a very charming place and nicely compact for a capital, especially an Asian one !!
Do you intend to visit all the islands?