Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Visiting the Forgotten Capital of Asia: Vientiane, Laos

                                                                                                                                                      Vientiane, a metropolis peeking out from the forest

             An aerial view of Vientiane will show that it is more forest than city. Coddled by the Mekong and nestled in the jungle, Laos’s capital has little of the bustle of South-East Asia’s other metropolises. Its small size, its relative paucity of historical buildings and the lack of well-advertised attractions encourage many travelers to skip over the capital or give it a cursory tour in favour of the UNESCO emblazoned Luang Prabang, or the party hotspot Vang Vieng. Yet the modest Vientiane has its own charms and is worth making time for. We got the first inkling that Vientiane was special at Patuxay Gate (go up for 3000 Kip), Vientiane’s sarcastic answer to the Arc de Triomphe. This huge monument to Laos’s glory has a peculiar inscription. It’s as though the city had puffed up its chest, only to do a chicken dance. 

            The highlight of our time there was our trip to the Phau Khou Khouay National Park (free, scooter 70000 Kip, waterfall parking 5000 Kip). With its red dirt road, verdant rice fields and distant blue hills, Phau Khou Khouay offers stricking landscapes. There was a waterfall about a kilometer in from our entry point. Nothing special, but it was full of locals. The younger ones were playing or lounging in the water, while their elders drank and sang karaoke.

              When their karaoke machine broke, they brought out a guitar. Listening to them play and sing, we were thankful to be out of Cambodia. After zoning out in the water for a while, we got back on our way. We crossed many wooden plank bridges, each more rickety than the last one. If you drive through after school, you’ll see children playing in various waterholes, farmers herding their oxen and local tourists enjoying a ride. I wish we’d given ourselves more days to explore the park as there are many entrance points. Each one likely has its own secrets. Phau Khou Khouay is only about an hour’s drive from the city. 

            In town, we enjoyed hanging out at our hostel, the Backpacker Garden Hostel (97000 Kip, AC, shared bath.). Since Vientiane is ignored by most tourists, the ones that were there were mostly long term travelers with great attitudes and stories. The hostel’s many comfortable public spaces and free breakfast made it ideal to sit back and have a chat. When we ventured out, it could be to watch the sun set over the Mekong,
Workout along the river
or browse the stalls of the night market. I wouldn’t quite call it a shopper’s paradise, but the night market had a large inventory of beautiful clothes at cheap prices. Vientiane also has a small but nice collection of temples and monuments to visit during the day, and its streets make for a pleasant bikeride (10000 Kip per bike).

When you travel on a budget, getting delicious food for cheap can be enough to make your day. Luckily for us, Vientiane offers a variety of local dishes at reasonable prices (12k - 20k Kip). It’s not as cheap as Thailand, but it’s close. Beer won’t set you back much either. We were sad that the cooking classes here were comparitively exorbitant, because there were a few dishes we would have liked to get to know better.
The city’s tranquility mirrors its people’s peaceful manners. There was nothing jarring in Laos for us. People even went out of their way to help us. On the way to Phau Khou Khouay, we stopped at a gas station to make sure of our direction. A customer gave us instructions that differed from what we knew. Taking his advice, we took a new road. Minutes later, when he realized our original road would still have taken us to the national park, he tracked us down, stopped his SUV and flagged us down to make sure we would be satisfied with our new trip. He literally went out of his way. Cars stop to let you cross the road here, as opposed to Vietnam where crossing the road is an extreme sport. Construction workers greeted us on a few occasions, and answering back was enough to ellicit broad smiles. No need to worry about feeling like a walking wallet here. No one needs anything from you except a smile.
So happy and at ease, we were free to explore Vientiane at our leisure. Never did we regret skipping Luang Prabang to spend more time in Vientiane (and less time on a bus). Whenever we return, we’ll still have many more things to explore, such as a ride on the Mekong, kayaking from Vang Vieng, or maybe we’ll be lucky enough to catch the rocket festival. We still have much to explore in Phau Khou Khouay, and there’s even a second national park nearby. Vientiane is more than worthy of a few days! 
Vientiane night market

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