The Laos capital of Vientiane seems to get a pretty bad rap on most of the travel blogs and websites that I’ve read. People say that it’s boring and that there’s nothing to do. Granted, Vientiane is not a place that’s going to set your world on fire but, overall, I think the criticism is a bit harsh. Vientiane is definitely a lot quieter and calmer than other places in South East Asia but, to me, that’s part of its charm. The pace of life bubbles along at roughly the same speed as the Mekong, which skirts along one side of the city. The people here are friendly, but slightly more reserved and, while there are plenty of street vendors and make-shift markets, there is a refreshing lack of hustlers and people wanting to part you from your money. The other big difference we noticed here is that there are comparatively few scooters. There are also traffic lights and other road rules that people actually follow. The whole thing makes for an incredibly relaxed experience.
Our time in Vientiane was structured around trips to the Royal Thai Embassy, where (for a whole lot of boring and infuriating reasons) we had to arrange special tourist visas for our trip to Thailand. Because Vientiane is so close to the border with Thailand it is a favourite spot for people doing a visa run from Thailand – bus loads of people cross the border every day and stay a night or two here while they arrange a new visa to continue their travels in Thailand. A good percentage of the people look like they went to Thailand on holiday a few years ago and never left – there’s a definite twitchy, Trainspotting vibe about them.
We’d been warned that the whole visa process would be a two day debacle (one day to submit, one day to pick up) and that the queues would be horrendous – think NZ Post the week before Christmas. Fortunately, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as we expected. It was definitely up there on the “organised chaos” spectrum, but not the total shit storm we’d geared up for. Having navigated this particular obstacle course several times before, the twitchy Trainspotters had a wealth of information about the process and were more than willing to help us out. We’re now licensed to travel in Thailand for a couple of months, so it was well worth the effort.
When we weren’t sweating it out in the tourist mosh pit at the Embassy, we took a little time to enjoy Vientiane itself. One of the biggest draw cards for Vientiane is its position right on the banks of the Mekong. Every day at about 4 pm the main road along the river is shut to traffic and a huge night market gets set up. The shopping wasn’t really our cup of tea (tacky plastic phone covers, Hello Kitty clothing, and tiny tiny t.shirts), but the atmosphere was great. Locals and tourists all gather on the river promenade and drink Beer Lao, eat BBQ meat and watch the sun go down over the Mekong. For those feeling more active, there are also large public aerobics classes where, for whatever reason, everybody dresses in the same colour and does epic old school aerobics moves like the “lasso” and the “grapevine”.
We also took a trip to the less-visited Ben Anou food market, which is also only open in the evening. Vendors set up their stalls and carts in a street behind the outdoor sports stadium and the locals drive up on their scooters, point out what they like, and it gets packaged up for them to take home. Effectively, it’s one very long drive through. The food is primarily BBQ meat (chicken meat, chicken feet, chicken insides etc), but you can also get pre-prepared curries, desserts, Lao sausages and some other less identifiable dishes. I have it on good authority that the Lao sausages are the business. I have no first-hand knowledge of this because, by the time I asked Campbell if I could have a bite, he was mashing the remains of his into his gob.
We also paid a visit to the COPE Visitor Centre. COPE provides support to UXO (unexploded ordnance and bomb) survivors. Laos was one of the most heavily bombed countries during the Vietnam War – between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos. It was the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for those 9 years. 10 – 30% of those bombs did not explode. They are littered around Laos (particularly in rural areas) and hundreds of local people die every year, or are seriously harmed, when they step on them. Operations to systematically locate and remove UXOs are underway, but there is a long way to go. Organisations like COPE provide prosthetic limbs, physio and rehabilitation and occupational skills to survivors. It’s an amazing operation and a trip to the Visitor Centre was definitely worth the very sweaty walk to get there.
On our last day in Vientiane we hired a scooter from our hotel and made our way out of town to vista the Buddha Park. The Buddha Park is less of a religious site and more of a sculpture exhibition – it includes over 200 sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu inspiration. The sculptures were all created by one man who, reading between the lines, might have been a little bit “different”. The designs fuse Buddhist and Hindu images in a way that is uncommon, and “bizarre” (according to the fact sheets at the Park itself). The place was a little bit eery and reminded me a bit of Carlucci Land in Wellington which, as far as I’m aware, is also the brainchild of a slightly eccentric fellow. I haven’t actually been – that place gives me the willies.
After a quick break for lunch and to get the sweating under control, we ventured back out in the afternoon for a cruise along the Mekong. There was also time for me to get behind the wheel of the scooter and have a bit of a blat. I haven’t ridden a scooter since I was in Thailand with my girlfriend, Heather, almost ten years ago. Back then we didn’t give a shit that we hadn’t ridden bikes before; everyone else was hiring one, so we did too. We were absolute nightmares, almost crashed multiple times, provided endless hours of entertainment for the locals, and were a menace to ourselves and everybody else on the roads. It didn’t matter though – we were bulletproof. Those were also the days when we could get blind drink without a hangover, and eat KFC without getting fat – a lot has changed since then. Still, it didn’t take long to get the hang of it and, after a few laps of Don Chan Palace carpark, I was feeling 24 years old again.
We’ll be spending tonight (our last night in Vientiane) at the Billabong Sports Bar, where we hope to see the ABs crush South Africa. Tomorrow we board our first Laos bus and are headed for Vang Vieng.