18 November 2008

Travel: Vientiane

My visit to Cambodia spurred my interest in journeying to its neighbor in Indochina, Laos. Sitting north of Cambodia, Laos also shares its border with Thailand, Myanmar, China, and Vietnam. In fact, for much of its history, it has been at odds with one of its more powerful and wealthy neighbors.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos (or, the Lao Democratic People's Republic). It is an old colonial city, and it is probably the sleepiest capital city in the world. I don't recall seeing a building more than five storeys tall. It sits on the Mekong River, with Thailand in view on the river's southern bank. It seemed like a place for a peaceful weekend.

I flew through Bangkok into Wattay Airport in Vientiane. I consider myself a seasoned traveler, but apparently I was rushed preparing for this trip, and I made a couple of potential fatal mistakes (for the trip, that is). I didn't bring enough cash, and I didn't bring a passport photo for my visa (like Cambodia, you must get a visa on arrival, and one requirement is that you provide a picture). I didn't think the lack of cash was a big deal, even if there aren't many ATMs in Laos (I had read this and found it to be true later). I would just get cash during my layover in Bangkok. Except that all the ATMs in the Bangkok airport are outside security. And I couldn't go out and come back in, because I only had one blank page left in my passport, which I would need for the visa that I might not be able to get because I had no picture.

Well, there was only one thing to do - onwards! I arrived into the quiet airport and was able to get the visa without a photo. The cash issue was still to be settled, however. After the $35 (USD) visa fee, I had $27 left. You can use US dollars, Thai baht, or Lao kip in most places. The question was finding an ATM that took my bank card.

I met up with a travel agent friend, which was fun as I was able to spend a night on the town with some locals. And because the ATM she took me to wouldn't take my card, the night was all on them. Not a bad way to start the trip! I would find an ATM the next day that made me liquid again, but I did have a few stressful hours thinking all I was going to do was sit in my hotel and stare at the wall.

I stayed at the Settha Palace hotel, a beautiful throwback to the colonial era (like the rest of Indochina, Laos was a French colony). The high ceilings in the common areas and polished tile floors gave the hotel a regal air. The room was well appointed in a minimalist colonial style, with high ceilings and classic old furniture. The cute little bar off the main lobby was a good place to unwind after a long day or to wait out a sudden cloudburst. And the pool was set amid a tropical garden. All in all, it was a fantastic place.

Saturday was a time for sightseeing, which took about an hour. My friend picked me up in her Toyota Hilux pickup truck. These were all over the place! I have not seen a pickup truck anywhere else in Asia, but they were easily ten percent of the cars on the road, and maybe more. It was nice ride! Combined with that it was left-hand drive and that Lao drivers drive on the right side of the road, I felt like I was in Texas.

Our first stop was Patuxai, Vientiane's version of the Arc de Triomphe. Sitting on an island at the head of the grand Lan Xang Avenue, formed by the confluence of three major avenues coming from the northeast, this tower commemorates the Lao who died in pre-revolutionary wars. Interestingly, it was built in 1969 with cement donated by the US for the construction of an airport, and it is sometimes called the "vertical runway". You can walk up through the inside of the structure through a series of winding stairways, which open to a large interior chamber (well, an entire floor) that is home to all kinds of souvenir vendors. Continuing up to the final spiral staircase takes you to the roof, with great views of the city, surrounding hillsides, river, and neighboring Thailand.

Our next stop was Pha That Luang (pictured at the top of this entry), the golden stupa that is featured on the Lao national seal (but not on the national flag, as is Angkor Wat on the Cambodian flag). This dual symbol of Buddhism and Lao sovereignty is an impressive structure, its stupa rising out of humble surroundings (a wat and a huge parking lot) to a height of 45 metres. It was heavily overcast that day, which kept the temperature manageable and made our visit more pleasant. There weren't many visitors, so we could enjoy it at a leisurely pace. Several interesting statues lined the walkways in the cloister around the stupa, but you couldn't go higher than the first level. It was good to visit, but it wasn't the hands-on experience of a place like Wat Arun in Bangkok.

That was about it for sights. We headed off to a local noodle restaurant, where we had Vietnamese beef noodle soup (long time readers will remember my first experience with pho during my trip to Saigon a year ago August).

I was solo for the rest of the afternoon, so I started at the massive central market. You could buy all kinds of local items and international brands, from produce to souvenirs to appliances and guitars. So much so that I didn't know where to start, so I left without purchasing anything. A tuk-tuk ride cut my traveling time to the river (from ten minutes to three - Vientiane is pretty small!), and I explored the little lanes in the heart of the city. The overcast sky had given way to bright sunshine, and I was glad to find air conditioned cafes, galleries, and bookstores. It was here that I made my purchases, from local arts and crafts to Lao literature. I headed back to the hotel (a ten minute walk, maybe) for a short rest before venturing out for dinner on the river.

It was getting close to sunset, so I grabbed a table at the Khemphone Restaurant, on the banks of the Mekong. The restaurant had a spread of food beside the big deck overlooking the river, and they cooked whatever you picked out. I had a rice ball Lao style and Lao Laap Pork (minced pork with vegetables) with sticky rice. And a very cold Beerlao to wash it down (like so many other countries, the local beer is very good and quite a bit cheaper than imports like Heineken). The meal was delicious! It was a perfect complement with the beautiful sunset over the river.

Several small galleries kept me from a direct walk home (and lightened my billfold). I did stop for a nightcap and saw two of the more interesting things I have seen over here, involving two cats. One I thought was three-legged, without a rear right leg. Every other step it would take, it would sit down. Essentially, it was using its hip as its fourth leg. And it didn't seem to bother it one bit. The other was a feline that was rather aggressively using a parked car's tire as a scratching post. It was going at it with a vengeance, and I was just waiting for a cartoon-like scene to play out with an explosion and a black-faced cat standing slowly falling to the ground, its head surrounded by stars. No such luck.

I had planned to fly out late Sunday night, stay in Bangkok, and get back to Singapore Monday morning. I needed to get back earlier for work, so I changed my flight to the afternoon, which meant only time for one last quick tour. I waited out the cloudburst mentioned above and took in the sights at three wats: That Dam, an overgrown stone structure in the middle of a quiet roundabout a few metres from the US embassy, the royal temple Haw Pha Kaew, originally built to house the Emerald Buddha and today a national museum of religious art, and Wat Si Saket, the only temple to survive the 1828 sacking of Vientiane, when the Siamese army razed the city and carted off most of its population.

One last visit to a gallery and then back to the central market for some local coffee (note to travelers - when you have the choice between Vietnamese coffee and Lao coffee, choose Vietnamese), and I was off. The journey out was a less stressful than the one in, that's for sure.

I spent about 40 hours in Vientiane, but I found it a fantastic place. If you want a relaxed, friendly, high value-to-cost environment that offers some sights, a bit of culture, and good food, I wholeheartedly recommend it. I hope to return.

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