01.01.2012 - 05.01.2012
We arrived into Vientiane (pronounced Ven-chang we have learnt, not Vee-en-tee-en as we originally thought) late after an epic journey down country from Luang Prabang. Tired, we allowed ourselves to be slightly ripped off by a shared pick-up which dumped us off at a central location. We soon found our hotel and were pleased to discover the pleasant boutique bang for our buck. We had managed to secure a modern room in a converted, old, colonial mansion for a little over our usual penny pinching budget. Hungry, we headed out late into the wide boulevards of Vientiane.
At just before midnight, hardly a mouse stirred and we joked that maybe the city had been evacuated. Still, it was good to be walking down the tree lined streets and past colonial era buildings. The French architecture still held a dominant force on the streetscape. We looked at our map again and again and could not believe that we were actually in central Vientiane with hardly any shops or life and we kept reassuring each other that soon we would find somewhere to grab some grub. No other Asian capital city is anywhere near this quiet; usually you can’t turn a single corner without finding someone preparing fresh food.
Walking past a low lamp lit street, which endured for over a kilometre, we saw something that resembled the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and for a second we thought we were on the Champs Elysees. Eventually we passed a 7Eleven store and knew that we had a bag of crisps and some water to fall back on. We carried on a few hundred metres further and discovered the most posh hotel in Laos, which was still serving food. Dishevelled in our bohemian outfits, we sat down in the deserted restaurant which was outfitted in a far more glamorous fashion than us. We shared a petite portion of fried rice at 5 times the street rate (it’s funny that the more expensive something is, the less you get?! Low value, high ‘perceived value’ as Piers would say) and headed back through the serene streets to our hotel.
We spent 4 nights in Vientiane, that’s quite a lot as there isn’t so much to do and it feels like such a quiet city with a European feel, but without the culture. Still, whilst we had a nice hotel room at a cheap price, we decided to stick around and relax anyway. On our second day in the city an email came through from Laura and she asked if we had experienced the ‘crash’ yet? Yes, we replied. After 2 months and 2 weeks, we were already becoming a bit tired of being on the road and sightseeing every day. In fact, on one of the days we were in Vientiane Sophia woke up one morning and decided she would stay in bed all day and not leave the room! Laura had warned this would happen. For the first time in months we had a television and Sophia spent the whole day watching movies on HBO and Sully turned up at the right times with take away meals that were delicious. It was a good rest, perhaps just what we needed!
We did do some exploring whilst in the city of course. As expected, there were a myriad of Buddhist temples and also a Buddhist relics museum so we visited some of those. Despite having seen so many temples, each one is so different and there is always something new to see. We particularly liked the big belly of the laughing Buddha at one of the temples.
We also visited the National Monument which is an arch based on the Arc de Triomphe. It definitely gave the city a European feel although when we got close we were amused to find a plaque declaring the structure a ‘concrete monstrosity’. Perhaps something got lost in translation when the sign was ordered. Or perhaps they are very honest people here.
Whilst out walking, we discovered a small mosque through one of the alleys and met some local Muslims with Lao, Indian and Pakistani heritage. Before we reached the mosque we saw a family rummaging through the rubble of a building site for scrap metal near their bamboo shanti style hut. This moved us and was reflective of the relative poverty of Laos compared to its mighty Thai and Vietnamese neighbours.
For the rest of the time, we explored the city, walking the long streets. We visited a downbeat shopping mall and a large, sprawling indoor market. We walked along the river one evening to see the sunset and saw a crowd of middle aged women working out together to techno music.
We did enjoy our two weeks in Laos and were glad we saw the country, particularly the landscapes, but it wasn’t as amazing as we had been hoping. Perhaps we didn’t get far enough off the beaten track and away from the tourist trail to really get under the skin of the country. Perhaps we were just tired of travelling at that point and didn’t make enough effort. Perhaps we hadn’t met enough local people as we would have liked. Or perhaps it’s just not that great a destination compared to other countries in South East Asia. We never quite concluded on why we didn’t fall in love with the place.
Every day here we were reading and planning for our next stop – Vietnam. We made plans to spend a whole month in Vietnam and travel from North to South and were very excited to see the country. Whilst in Vientiane we obtained our tourist VISAs from the Vietnamese embassy and booked a flight direct to Hanoi. We felt like we were giving our travels a fresh kick-start as our plane took off out of Vientiane airport and we didn’t look back….