Laos is a small country that sits quietly among its very prominent and loud neighbors like Thailand and Vietnam. Vientiane is its befitting capital! A quiet place where all the buzz and the nightlife in Bangkok is replaced by awesome local food and beautiful temples all around. You can look across the river to see a Thai town known for its flesh trade. In Vientiane, strict communist rules and the fear of brutal action like in 2011-12 keep things very clean.
The Crowne Plaza in Vientiane is an awesome hotel, with a couple of really great restaurants serving some delicious local food – especially the ‘3 Merchants’. The breakfast spread was huge and very nice and so was the room, with a nice view of the Mekong River. The only thing that could have been a little better was the location. This was about a 20-minute walk from the city center and the commercial zone which would mean some dependence on long walks or the Tuk-tuks. I always like to stay in city centers, so this is one thing I missed.
One interesting thing in Vientiane was that street food wasn’t priced very differently from the food in the top hotels and both were quite good. The city seemed full of auto repair shops, a few massage shops, and a lot of very beautiful Buddhist temples. It was hard to walk 15 minutes without running into another beautiful golden and green temple. We did visit quite a few of them as each one looked a little different from the rest and was just too hard to resist. The city wasn’t as green as I has anticipated, but you had to only a little away from the city center to find some amazing flora and fauna.
The first day was spent mostly walking around the hotel area and spending some time by the pool with some drinks. Around dinner time we took a stroll towards the river looking for some good scenery and food. Just at the riverfront, we ended up at this awesome street food market with open-air stall after stall of fresh seafood and sausages that would be grilled on request. All this would be served up with local Saigon beer and some small leaves pretending to be a salad. The sausages tasted very different from what I was used to – I guess these were made more of minced organs and the oomph. It still tasted good! The river itself was seasonally low on water, so there was mostly the food that was attractive on the waterfront, not the view. The road was lined with street food vendors up to the commercial district and made for a good walk.
The next day we looked for a transport option to go around – there are a lot of temples and other Buddhist structures around. The first one we decided to visit was the Buddha Park or Wat Xieng Khuan (the Spirit City). It is a small park with some 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues – some of them quite large and ones you can walk into. The place itself was about 30 minutes away from the city center and had a bit of a tourist attraction feel. But some of the sculptures were quite amazing to see and a large dome you could walk into and then climb up the 3 stories made for some interesting experiences. The Hindu sculptures were quite a surprise but I was kind of excited to be able to recognize so many of those. There was also the small matter of many butterflies, local snacks, and cold coconut water – all making it into a good experience. We had spent a lot more time at the Buddha Park than originally planned and we also wanted to stop at some temples on the way. Our driver, this young man who was still at college, was kind of amused at our love for the temples – for him most of these were just small local temples. However for me, the beautiful facades dominated by green and golden depictions from the life of Buddha and interiors dominated by some awesome paintings, these were amazing photo opportunities. There was also the friendship bridge that you could see during the drive – a very normal bridge that connects Laos to Thailand.
We came back to the hotel for a fabulous lunch of fish and pork, some rest, a good massage across the road from the hotel, and then a stroll to the main commercial district for some random shopping and then dinner. The riverside close to the commercial areas was quite pretty, with a band playing, some beautiful colorful fountains, and a lot of street food shops. This is where I found the floating grasshopper in my soup and was confused if it was part of the meal or a careless mistake. The shops sold local wares, some clothes, etc that were not too exciting. The food, on the other hand, was outstanding.
The next day was going to need some hectic going around to cover all the monuments left, including most of the famous ones. The hotel got us the same driver as the day before and the familiarity helped. He was quite more friendly and made some good suggestions on the places to go and ones to skip. We started the day with Haw Pra Kaew a temple now converted into a museum. The museum part was quite underwhelming but the structure itself is beautiful and the doors and statues of Buddha all around are quite ornate. There is a ticket to enter the monument and I think it’s quite worth it. Right next to it is the local palace which is just a sight to click and across the road is the very famous Wat Si Saket – a temple with thousands of Buddha statues collected from different parts of the country. They come in different sizes and vary from the plain jane to some ornate ones. Some are broken and damaged and that adds a little unique charm to them. There are several chambers and corridors full off the statues, all worth a visit and the ticket price.
We visited a few other temples though there wasn’t much that stood out in either of them except that there were all photogenic and beautiful. But the most stunning of the monuments was still to come – Pha That Luang. This is the all golden Buddhist Stupa which was originally constructed in the 3rd century but the current version is less than 100 years old. Some people believe it was originally built as a Hindu temple in the 1st century which makes SE Asia quite a hub for Hinduism back at the time. The Stupa is quite beautiful to look at and is surrounded by other structures including a Buddhist temple and a statue of sleeping Buddha. It is not as large as I had originally imagined but it was still quite a sight and not crowded at all.
Last but not the least significant monument for the day was the Patuxai – the War memorial build in the 60s to remember those who fought for independence from the French. The structure is quite like the India Gate, for those familiar with Delhi, except that you can climb up to the top for a view of the city.
It was a hot day and I was drained enough to not attempt the climb. There is a beautiful musical fountain just outside it but it is probably turned on just in the evenings, so that didn’t provide much respite from the heat either. So I decided to get a few pics and then go looking for another massage – the luxury of being in SE Asia. The massages were quite reasonable, both in terms of cost and quality. Very similar to the Thai concepts, small places with no frills, shared rooms separated by curtains, and quick efficient service. The evening was spent again in the main commercial city center at a small place run by a European guy who scolded me for trying to order a cocktail based on Ginger Ale as it was very hard to find that mixer in the city anymore. The food was, as usual, very good.
The next day we left for Vang Vieng. It was supposed to be a 3-hour drive which we planned to start post-lunch and then nap through the drive. The hotel recommended a shared minivan, which was quite a steal in terms of price. It turned out to be a bad idea – with the broken roads it turned out to be a 5.5-hour drive with loads of bumps and stops. It took away any plans we would have for the evening, except for dinner. A private car would have been more pricey but far more efficient and comfortable.
Looking back – the food was excellent, the hotel very comfortable, the monuments were numerous, ornate, and colorful (maybe a little underwhelming on size), and the culture – as rich as any other city. I just wish I had waited to click the food before digging in but it was simply irresistible.