Vientiane - Asia's smallest capital city

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January 25th 2017
Published: February 1st 2017
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We decided it was time for a splurge when we reached Vientiane. The Golden Sun Hotelturned out to be exactly what we needed, especially after we changed rooms when the noise from the kitchen was just too much at 6am! Every day we did something touristy in the morning then returned for an afternoon relaxing by the pool. At US$44 a night it was certainly pushing our budget but it was well worth it.

On our first night we walked out to the bank of the Mekong where many Laotians were taking an early evening stroll. The temperature was lovely and we enjoyed stretching our legs around Cho Aravong Park stopping to admire the huge statue which stands as a memorial to the man after whom the park was named. We also passed through some of the night market with its distinct red glow thanks to the hundreds of red tents and awnings which seem to be permanently erected there.

The next day we went in search of the Big C Supermarket which we had read could be found in the Talat Sao "shopping centre". It was actually a ramshackle market with a permanent home with all manner of textiles and clothing on the basement level, mobile phones galore on the ground floor, and gold shops and traders above them. The second floor, with Big C signs pointing up the escalator, was in darkness and we never did establish if the Thai supermarket came and went, or never came at all!

After briefly finding an optician to repair Russ's specs which had mysteriously disintegrated a couple of days earlier, we had a good look around Wat That Phoun where saffron clad monks seemed to be watching over the women preparing their food. They looked rather authoritarian so we didn't get too close! What was particularly interesting was the construction of a new building where we saw the process of making the dragons which adorn many temple entrances. It seems that they are made in two halves from moulds and then joined together. In plain grey they look slightly sinister as they wait to be painted.

From there it was a very short walk to Patuxai Park where a giant concrete monument, similar in some ways to the Arc de Triumphe, stands proud. For a small charge you can climb to the top of this poignant memorial to the Laotians who died in pre-revolutionary wars. Apparently the concrete had been donated by the USA for the construction of a new runway at the airport but it had been used for this instead! The views from the top certainly show you that the city was designed by the French. The layout is very reminiscent of Paris.

We then jumped into a tuk tuk and eventually persuaded the driver to take us to the People's Army Museum. Unfortunately arriving at 1130 coincides with the museum closing for lunch for 2 hours. There's plenty to see in the grounds though with a Lao Mig-21, a Hind Helicopter and an AN-2 to start you off. Tank afficionados are not left wanting either, and there are a few monuments to the people in a very Soviet style too. Around the back is where the carnage of war lies. American wrecks stand as a tribute to the brave Lao soldiers. The jagged edges of the shrapnel and wreckage not being afforded even the slightest sop to visitor safety! Nearby is the People's Security Museum but once again their lunchtime thwarted our efforts. Instead we were left to have a quick look at the eclectic collection of vehicles just inside the grounds.

After a quick lunch in the city centre, we spent an hour or so in the very interesting Lao National Museum. Located in a decrepit French Colonial building, this collection deserves much better than it gets. Leave aside the dreadful prehistoric display which nobody is really interested in, and fast forward through thousands of years of history to the events of the last century. The dozen or so other tourists were as fascinated as we were. The photographic displays are mesmerising. All that was missing was a bit more context.

The next day we had a hard time getting a tuk tuk driver to understand where we were going. An image from Google Maps proved to be our salvation. We bartered him down to half his ridiculous asking price and then set off to see why nobody seemed to be aware of the Kaysone Phomvihane Museum. This man was one of the founding fathers of Communist Lao and was the first chairman of the Laos People's Revolutionary Party. You could say he is to Laos what Uncle Ho was to Vietnam, yet it seems that few foreign visitors go to this museum.

It is housed in the grandest of grand buildings, a temple cum palace. This sits in what was once the American Six Clicks compound as it is 6km from the centre. At the gate a security guard wanted our passports but he was happy with a driving licence. The grandness continues inside. A wide wooden staircase leads you to a statue of the man himself. The design is such that the atrium forms an echo chamber. As you stand before the statue, every sound you make comes back to you a split second later. It was an acoustically weird experience! Photography is not allowed once you get into the exhibit halls, but Russ thought it applied only to the first part as there were no more signs to that effect. A stern word from one of the watchers soon put him right! Again context would have been nice as we were left admiring a wonderful set of historic photographs with little idea of their significance. After posing for photos outside with the enormous golden statue, we walked a kilometre or so further out from the centre to find Rimping supermarket where all things ex-pat are available for a price. There was a great cafe too.

We timed our return to the Army Museum perfectly. It's just a shame that after waiting 20 minutes by the big doors, they remained firmly closed. Several people had walked past us, not saying a word, yet it turned out that the museum was closed for a staff meeting! Luckily the Security Museum was open for business. The serious lady soldier took our money without a glimmer of a smile and turned the lights on for us. It didn't take long for us to make our way around two floors of exhibits: uniforms, guns, pictures of a policeman helping a little old lady across the road. The lights hadn't even be switched on for us on the third floor but it was clear to see through the gloom that there was nothing to detain us. Another grand building with no budget for the content by the looks of things.

We saved arguably the strangest place for our last day. Just along from Talat Sao we caught the local number 14 bus. There were a handful of tourists squashed in with lots of locals. The bus then went out of town, passing the American Embassy and the Beer Lao brewery on the way, and when it stopped at the immigration post for the Laos-Thailand Friendship Bridge, almost everyone got off. Indeed, by the time we got to the Xiengkuane Buddha Park, only tourists remained.

Lao artist Luang Pou Bounleua Soulitat put together a strange collection of concrete statues of Buddhist and political figures. Perhaps that is why he now lives in exile! The huge reclining Buddha is one of the park's star attractions but top of everyone's list is surely the giant pumpkin which, with some effort, you can climb up inside. It's quite a view from the top but you have to be pretty agile to get up there.

That night the food festival was in full swing alongside the Mekong. It was so busy that we decided we would find a restaurant instead. A taste of Vietnam awaited us in Little Hanoi , and we were not disappointed. One other restaurant which we recommend in Vientiane is Eazy Budget where you can get a meal of soup, stir fry and some kind of yoghurt concoction for desert for just £2. Such a bargain that we ate there twice! Lunchtime only though.

The following morning we reluctantly checked out of the hotel. Not fancying an overnight bus journey of anything from 12 to 18 hours to Pakse, we pulled out our flashpacker credit cards and flew instead!

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2nd February 2017

I'll be in Laos for 9 days in April though I don't really know what to do there and what to see. Did you happen to notice if there's plenty of vegetarian food available?
2nd February 2017

Veggie food
No worries for vegetarians in Laos. Loads of options. Curries are similar to Thailand and just as tasty. Enjoy!
4th February 2017

Vientiane was fun
We ate some good food in Vientiane. Pleasand memories. Glad you updated your accommodations. When on a long trip a splurge....makes you feel dreamy. Festivaels can be fun but chaos. Happy travels.

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