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Published: December 8th 2006
It is very like the arc de triumph
I haven't been to many capital cities (London, Madrid, err...the capital of Malta and recently Bangkok) so I don't have much experience to base this judgement on - but Vientiane (pronounced Wein - chen) seems very small. When we arrived we left the bus amid a crowd of tuk tuk drivers calmouring for business, walked a few yards down the road and found a guesthouse with a huge room and a shared balcony with veiws over the city. Then we had a brief explore with what was left of the afternoon. This largely involved wandering down the promenade. Yeah, Vientiane has a promenade - like Blackpool, except there's no sea and Blackpool's probably bigger. The promenade passes along the bank of the Mekong - but when the water's low the river area is so wide the sandy banks look very much like a beach. But alas, there was no brass band playing tiddly-om-pom-pom.
We installed ourselves at an open-air bar on the river bank and watched the sun go down while occasionally having to avoid the gaze of women selling dried out squids, should they think we were interested.
Everything was pretty peaceful and serene until the open-air
View from the top of Patuxay
Over Patuxay park. You might be able to make out a party of Thai's in their yellow shirts at the bottom. It was a national holiday in Thailand for the King's birthday and lots of them seemed to have come to Laos
aerobics kicked in right by us playing strange, speeded-up dance versions of songs by the Cranberries. Seriously. With about 30-40 people in leotards manically waving their arms and legs around on a small carpark-like area of the prom. It's free apparently. Good for them. We retired top bed soon after without taking part.
As I said, Vientiane isn't very big. This was confirmed by our trusty Lonely Planet guide book when we found we could walk around it in a day. SO off we trotted. We started off by the arch of Patuxay, a weird concrete Arc de Triumph type structure in the centre of town. CLearly the locals aren't too impressed with it, given it bears a big descriptive plaque describing it as a 'monster of concrete'. Nice. I've seen worse monsters of concrete and they may be being a bit harsh. Nevermind - from the top you get great views of the whole city.
Next, we wndered around the sprawling city market and visited several temples, including an amazing one called Wat Si Saket filled with literally millions of Buddha images from tiny figures to massive statues rescued from temples destroyed when various
Sign on the side of the Patuxay monument
Im sure we can all think of bigger monsters of concrete....
We had hoped to finish our walking tour completely but got waylaid in another temple. Being a bit heat-fatigued at this point of the afternoon, we found a shaded bench in the ground of a quiet temple and, like an old couple, had a ncie sit down. Unfortunately we hadn't brought a flask of tea. It was then that we started talking to a young Buddhist monk called Kam.
Kam came and sat next to us and asked where we were from. What followed was a 2 and a half hour conversation, sat on the floor inside the temple where Kam tried to soak up as much knowledge as he could about England and the West. It was pretty fascinating. He started off asking us the temperature ranges in England - he even made a note of them. He was shocked it got so cold and asked if that meant we had to put big coats on everytime we went outside in the winter. It sounds a daft question, but if you've lived your whole life in Laos and spend most of it only wearing an orange piece of cloth, I doubt you ever really experience
being really cold.
He also wanted to know all about CHristmas. Wetried to explain about Sant CLaus, but the more we told him, the more ridiculous it sounded to us too. He found it very bizarre and seemingly ethically wrong that parents lie to their children about the existence of a fat man in a big red suit that brings them presents one night a year. He also found it quite funny. He asked if he might get something if he wrote to the North Pole. So Kam, the Buddhist monk from Laos is writing to Santa requesting a motorbike. I hope he gets it. Apprently he keeps getting ripped off by tuk tuk drivers (join the club).
Talking to Kam was fascinating, but we figured we should go when monks began appearing for prayer. He told us to pop by anytime we're next in Vientiane. Maybe he'll pick us up from the bus on his new motorbike.
As I said repeatedly, Vientiane is pretty small and largely walkable - so why so many tuk-tuks? You can't walk 5 yards without a driver popping up in front of you and exclaiming "Where you go?
Tuk-tuk??". Okay, they're not as persistent as those in Bangkok, but it's not like tuk-tuks are hard to recognise so that I'd walk past one when I wanted one without noticing. They're so numerous and eager in Vientiane, I was sure that one night I'd turn on the light in the guesthouse to go to the toilet and find a tuk-tuk parked at the foot of the bed with a grinning driver saying "tuk-tuk, Sir?"
The money situation in Laos is madness. The official currency is the kip, which you cant get outside the country. 1 pound is equivilent to 18,000 kip. Its quite small and you end up with very small amounts of money in huge bundles of notes. So they also use both the Baht and the Dollar. Which all have different exchange rates to the kip. You end up carrying around three sets of notes, paying in one and getting change in another and desperately trying to work out if your change is right or not. You need a degree at least in maths to cope.
There are now ATMs in Vientiane, but THERE ARE NO ATMS OUTSIDE VIENTIANE
. So when you come
in via Luang Prabang and travel through Laos, you cant get money out in kip, baht or dollars. YOu have to have travellers cheques (in dollars) or cash to exchange. We saw lots and lots of people get caught without any cash in Laos. They had to get cash advances on credit cards. I do not want to think how much that costs in the long run. We had read up on the bank situation, and went into Laos armed with cash in dollars and baht qnd a stack of dollar travellers cheques.
You can buy bottles of Lao whisky in Laos (it's a bit like sake) for 3000 kip. That's about 17 pence. Cheaper than a can of Coke. Crazy but true...
After 2 nights in Vientiane it was time to leave Laos. We wanted to get an overnight train back to Bangkok, but none of the booking agents seemed to be able to get us seats, offering us instead the VIP bus down. We had experienced the VIP buses, and 12 hours on one overnight was like some kind of nightmare, so instead we took ourselves over the Thai-Lao Friendship bridge to Nong
Khai in Thailand and booked an overnight train from the ticket office at the station.
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