“Don’t go to Vientiane”, they said; “There’s nothing there”, they said. How wrong they were.
Vientiane seems to be the Laos city that everyone loves to hate, but the open-minded traveller will find that it is a city of great contrast which is a joy to explore…at times…
We arrived in Laos after a rather torturous bus journey from Vang Vieng which involved bendy roads, sheer drops and a coach driver with no sense of danger or want for safety (oh and Louise being rubbed on the back by an old french man as she was being sick in a plastic bag – was it the travel sickness or the aftermath of our drunken night at Aussie Bar?!). But a bus journey in Asia wouldn’t be a bus journey if you didn’t fear for your life at some point. Once we had disembarked we made our way on foot from the bus stop to our hostel. On the walk along the main roads of the city we had an eerie realisation…where was everyone? Had doomsday occurred and wiped out the human race whilst we were making our way through the Laos countryside? It was so strange. There we were in the largest city in Laos, in the middle of the afternoon, walking down the centre of the main road with no cars or people in sight. Hmmm…this is when we began to wonder whether the advice we had received about not coming here was right.
Determined to give Laos the benefit of the doubt we got our bed in our hostel sorted, consulted the Lonely Planet book for best places to go in the evening and set about spending an evening exploring Vientiane.
Thankfully, it seems to be the evening when Vientiane really comes into its own. Expecting the usual tourist market tat, we headed down to the main market near the waterfront and ended up really pleasantly surprised. We found all the people! Hello citizens of Vientiane! This was a proper Laos market for Laotians – clothes, shoes, homewares and food…awesome street food. We had an amazing chicken steak and chips for the equivalent $2.
But that is not all. Next to the market we came across Laotians enjoying the latest tech in social entertainment…popping balloons with darts. They are mad for it. There are about 40 of these balloon popping stalls all offering the plucky darts player the chance to win a soft-drink or a cuddly toy. It’s awesome to walk through and watch the Laotians enjoy this simple form of entertainment – even if all the balloon popping does make it sound like you are constantly being shot at.
But again, that is not all. Once you pass the balloon popping madness you get to the next spectacle. Fitness mad Laotians. Firstly we came across a huge crowd taking part in the nightly aerobic class. This has got to be the largest nightly exercise class in the world. Then, if you make your way along the waterfront promenade you will find the locals running, cycling and strolling hand-in-in along the water enjoying the sunset. What a great way to spend an evening.
The next day we went to see some of the sights of Vientiane. The first notable place we went to visit was The COPE Visitor Centre. A surprising fact from the Vietnam war is that Laos, not Vietnam, became the most heavily bombed country per capita ever. Here are some eye-opening facts on this secret US war in Laos (source):
- Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.
- Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed.
- More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.
- Each year there are now just under 50 new casualties in Laos, down from 310 in 2008. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.
- Between 1993 and 2016, the U.S. contributed on average $4.9M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
- In just ten days of bombing Laos, the U.S. spent $130M (in 2013 dollars), or more than it has spent in clean up over the past 24 years ($118M).
Due to the continued accidents from the unexploded ordnance COPE has made it its mission to support those with mobility related disabilities through providing prosthetic limbs. The small visitor centre at the COPE HQ provides insight into this secret war on Laos and is really an eye-opening experience into the horrors left by the war. It’s definitely worth a visit to support this great cause.
Our next stop was to visit the Patuxai. A huge monument which is also referred to as the “Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane”. It is seems ironic that a design akin the the French monument was actually built to recognise those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. But that is not the only thing that is amusing about this monument. The other brilliant fact is that the funds and cement to built this monument came from the US who thought that they were contributing to the construction of a new airport. This has led the Patuxai to also be nicknamed “the vertical runway”. And this is probably the more accurate nickname as, despite some nice design details, it is basically an ugly lump of concrete. Building work started was undertaken between 1957 and 1968 but is still not completely finished today so remains rough around the edges.
That evening we ventured a smaller food market closer to our hostel. Once again we were very pleasantly surprised. A nice outdoor area with funky street food stalls and bars was bustling with locals being served by smiling Heineken girls. Judging by the number of people wearing lanyards with office passes, this food market was for the young professionals of Vientiane. We ordered some chicken skews and papaya salad from a busy stall. One bite of the papaya salad and we knew this was a place few tourist visit…freaking hell it was spicy. Our mouths were on fire and our eyes were streaming. Only one thing for it – visit the ice cream stall. Delish.
The following day we spent walking around the town visiting shops and temples before spending our last night in Laos watching the sun set over the Mekong river and enjoying a great pizza in one of the many restaurants in the centre.
We really were impressed in Vientiane. Our expectations were low due to pretty much everyone we met telling us that it wasn’t worth visiting (although most of them hadn’t been themselves!) but we are so pleased we spent three days there. What seems like a quiet city with few sights really comes into its own in the evening and shows you a side of Laos life that you won’t see anywhere else. Soak it up and you’ll have a great time.
Stay: We stayed at the Green Box Capsule Hostel. This had boxed beds offering some privacy in hostel style bunks. It was cheap, clean and included breakfast of toast and jams. The team working there were friendly and we could walk to everywhere in the town. Great place.
Do: In the evening it is worth taking in the sites and sounds of the night market and activities near the waterfront. The COPE Visitor Centre is a must visit and, if you are walking, the Patuxai is nearby so it’s worth a stop. There are also big temples and parks out of town but we didn’t make it to these so can’t comment.
Read more of our adventures in Laos here.
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