The slow paced life of Vientiane

114 days travelling and this is probably the quietest capital city we’ve visited.

15th January 2019 (Vientiane, Laos)

Our trip to Laos began with a very early 6am flight out of Kuala Lumpur. Luckily we had made the decision to stay at the airport hotel, so we literally had to roll out of bed bleary eyed and stumble into the terminal a couple of hours before our flight. As Kuala Lumpur is one of the main transport hubs through Asia, we found many of the cafes and restaurants were open – even at 4am. We were able to pick up a quick breakfast before we boarded the plane, where my wife made full use of her newly acquired neck pillow. Much to her annoyance, the loudest man in the world was snoring away next to her for the entire flight (meanwhile I was giggling away to myself in the row in front). We actually saw the same man get refused entry to Laos while we were waiting in the immigration queue, due to not having enough space in his passport for a visa. Pays to always check these things before you travel.

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Once we had cleared immigration (I was chuffed with the full page visa that had been stamped into my passport – priorities), we managed to catch a taxi easily from the airport straight to our guesthouse. We could have saved some money with the shuttle bus, but it was hardly worth it unless you are travelling alone or have individual budgets travelling within a group. Vientiane is the capital of Laos and it’s such a contrast to Kuala Lumpur, where we had just come from. The population is only 750,000 and it feels nothing like a capital city. There’s no towering skyscrapers and the roads are remarkably clear of traffic. The city is also fairly small for a capital, which meant it was very easy to explore on foot without any problems.

Admiring Haw Phra Kaew from the front
Admiring Haw Phra Kaew from the front

We seemed to have positioned ourselves in a prime location for good food. There was a restaurant right next door to our accommodation called Common Grounds where we ended up eating several times, not only due to the convenient location but they also did gluten free wraps and burger buns. We started our first day in Vientiane with breakfast there, yoghurt and granola for my wife and a huge breakfast burrito for me – I was so full I felt I needed to lie down afterwards. We had a couple of hours to spare before we could check into our room, so we decided to set off on foot to visit the COPE visitor centre a couple kilometres away.

Sculpture outside the COPE visitor centre
Sculpture outside the COPE visitor centre

Something we weren’t really aware of before visiting Laos was how heavily they were bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam war. The aim was to destroy routes that the Vietnamese army were using through Laos, even though Laos wasn’t actually part of the war. This was all carried out in secret and resulted in bombs being dropped on Laos every 8 minutes, 24/7 for 9 years straight. Sadly, up to 30% of these cluster bombs (called bombies) failed to detonate and still litter large areas of Laos, where people come across them with devastating consequences.

The COPE centre provides prosthetics and rehabilitation for people affected and is working with other charities and organisations to help clear these bombs from the land. The centre was incredibly moving and informative, with lots of documentaries we could watch as well as information about the work COPE was doing. We spent a couple of hours there, but we could have easily spent longer.

After visiting the centre we walked back to our hotel and went for lunch at Annabelle cafe, a nice French restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. Once we got back to our hotel and checked in, we decided to book onto an electric car tour of the 4 main tourist attractions in Vientiane city centre. The tour was only around £5 each and as we didn’t have much time in Vientiane, this seemed like a good option.

Patuxai - modelled after the Arc du Triumph
Patuxai – modelled after the Arc du Triumph

The car (more an oversized golf buggy) picked us up around 2.30pm and we headed off to our first stop with around 8 other people. The car stopped for 20 minutes in each place, which was just about enough time to have a quick look around each site before heading off to the next place. Our first stop was two of the famous temples, Haw Phra Kaew and Wat Si Saket, which were handily across the road from each other. We spent about 40 minutes exploring both temples and enjoying the quiet surroundings as monks went about their days.

The view from the top of Patuxai
The view from the top of Patuxai

We then went to the Patuxai, which is modelled on the Arc du Triumph in Paris and a gift from the French. The arch was actually intended to be used as an entrance to an airport, but it was placed in the centre of a roundabout instead and has become a popular tourist attraction – sure the French were pleased with that decision. We were able to climb all the way to the top of the monument and saw views across the city. Again, we were struck by the absence of any large buildings on the skyline. It was truly the most peaceful capital we had ever been in.

The incredibly golden Pha That Luang
The incredibly golden Pha That Luang

Our final stop was the Pha That Luang, which is the largest stupa in Vientiane and incredibly grand – completely covered in gold and glimmering in the afternoon sunshine. As we had already paid to enter the previous 3 attractions, we were happy just to sit outside the stupa and take in the views. We were glad we went on the trip as it meant we could see everything we wanted to see in a relatively short space of time. That evening we went back to Common Grounds for burgers (got to make the most of the gluten free options while I can).

16th January 2019 (Vientiane, Laos)

Today we woke up early to venture out to the Buddha Park, also known as Xieng Khuan, which was around 30km out of the centre of the city. We wanted to make sure we got there nice and early to avoid the crowds, as well as the heat of the day. We made the decision to catch a local bus to the park rather than taking a tuk tuk. Private transport in Laos is disproportionately expensive compared to everything else, especially in comparison to countries like Thailand. We had heard that a return trip in a tuk tuk to the park would set us back nearly £25. On the other hand, the local bus would cost us around 70p each, so it was a no brainer.

Catching a local bus to the Buddha Park
Catching a local bus to the Buddha Park

We set off on foot to the local bus station, and after asking a few people and wandering around aimlessly for a few minutes, we managed to locate our bus tucked down a side road. We had heard awful things about the quality of the buses in Laos, but this bus seemed okay – just a bit old. We’d had far worse experiences with local buses in India, with broken glass, peanut shells and mud littering the entire floor. In total the bus ride took us about an hour, and it went via the Thai boarder as Vientiane sits right on the boarder itself. Once we reached the park, we were pleased to see there were only a handful of other tourists who had arrived at the park so far.

Reclining Buddha sculpture in the Buddha Park
Reclining Buddha sculpture in the Buddha Park

The park itself included around 200 Buddha statues, all unique and all congregated in the same place – it was quite bizarre and we had never seen anything like it. At the centre of the park was a giant pumpkin like structure with a gaping mouth which you could climb inside. Once you were inside, you could climb up through various levels depicting the levels of hell and heaven, before you finally popped out at the top of the pumpkin for views over the park. We managed to get around the whole park just as 2 or 3 busloads of tourists arrived and swarmed into the park in one huge group. A common occurrence whilst travelling.

The “pumpkin” at the Buddha Park
The “pumpkin” at the Buddha Park

We then had to catch the bus back into Vientiane, which meant waiting by the side of the road for a bus to turn up and flagging it down. We waited about 20 minutes before one arrived and we got back into town with no issues. It turned out to be quite a long morning, as the bus rides were much longer than expected and we spent a lot of time waiting around at either end for buses to arrive or leave. We also had an impromptu stop at the Thai boarder on the way back for around 20 minutes, adding to our journey time. However, the money we saved compared to taking a tuk tuk was definitely worth it.

Once we were back in Vientiane, we struggled to find somewhere to eat lunch. Two of the places we’d found online ended up not having anything I could eat, or being vastly more expensive than we were willing to pay. In the end, we made our way back to Common Grounds – we knew it was a safe bet after all.

After lunch we spent a couple of hours relaxing back at the hotel, before heading out that evening to watch the sunset over the Mekong river. We also had a chance to wander through the night market which was just a stones throw away from our hotel. There were loads of people out exercising and socialising as the sun went down, as well as a wide range of food stalls set up along the river front. After we had our final meal back at Common Grounds (4 times in 2 days, maybe a new record?) we called it a night, ready for our bus up to Vang Vieng the next day.

One of the many sculptures at the Buddha Park
One of the many sculptures at the Buddha Park

Many people give Vientiane a miss when visiting Laos, usually using it as a brief stopover before heading off into other areas of the country. It has an unfair reputation of being a bit boring, with not a lot to see considering it’s a capital city. While we wouldn’t want to spend a whole week there, we are very glad we decided to spend two days exploring this city. It was a lovely introduction to Laos and we were pleasantly surprised by what we found there.

Until next time.

P.S. Laos feels a lot like Nepal to us, just less busy, and it may end up being one of our favourite countries.

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