From the moment we arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we felt an immediate sense of relaxation. Sauntering across the hot tarmac to the passport control area we did a quick scramble for the US$35 and two small ID photos required for the visa on arrival purchase. It was our first visit to this small Asian city and our friendly immigration officer taught us ‘Khorp Jai’ is Lao for “thank you”.
Next stop was the ATM and when it spat out one million Lao Kip, the local currency, we instantly felt rich. However, after a quick reality check, this seemingly absurd amount of money translated to about $120US. It is good to be aware that Laos is a communist country and was very heavily bombed by the USA during the Vietnam/American War. It is now an emerging economy which has established itself as a respected member state of the ASEAN community.
A short drive from the airport we arrived at the Ansara Hotel. What a find! Only seven years old, this boutique hotel with a French colonial feel has 27 rooms including four suites. The hotel is a four star standard but we found its central location, service and French restaurant to be easily five star quality. Rooms are very well presented but a little on the small side. The hotel pool is clean, quiet and relaxing and plenty big enough for lap swimming after the morning croissants. The extensive Night Markets which open every night are just down the lane from the hotel and they back onto the Mekong River for that total Asian experience. There is literally row upon row of small stalls with bright lights, smiling vendors and buyers, local and international, searching for a bargain.
There are so many opportunities to eat cheap from local sidewalk stalls. Look for the ones with lots of local customers. The town also has hundreds of excellent Lao restaurants serving traditional soups, sticky rice, spicy chicken and river fish. Due to its historical past there are quite a number of good French restaurants and bakeries serving both traditional French food, sometimes with an Asian twist. We can highly recommend the French cuisine at Ansara Hotel and just a short walk down the road is L’Adresse which is also on the must do list.
Massage places are all over Vientiane but none that we know are exclusively gay. However, we did find Wellness Centre 1 which has all male masseurs and a gay clientele. Open daily from 9:00 to 23:30 (phone: +85621217526) we had foot and full body massages and both were excellent at more than reasonable prices.
CCC Bar is a small local bar which does not scream gay nor are there rainbow flags flying but as one person said, ‘the place has loads of gayness’. DJ and air conditioning inside and high stools and tables street-side, with purple mood lighting lending the place a relaxed, friendly vibe. Most weekends there are shows from local performers and the bar stays open very late.
We discovered that there are only a few essential landmarks and iconic sights really worth seeing in quiet and sleepy Vientiane.
First stop was Wat Sisaket, Vientiane’s oldest serving temple, left intact after the Thai (Siamese) invasion of 1829. A cloister surrounds the Temple and houses over 2000 Buddha images in niches. The temple is relatively small inside and is currently undergoing extensive restoration of the ceilings and walls being carried out by local Lao artisans.
Across the road is Wat Phra Keo set in well kept gardens and extensively restored in 2014. This beautiful building originally housed the famous Emerald Buddha but it is now a religious museum and boasts a collection of Lao and Khmer artefacts.
Driving on we saw neighbourhoods dotted with old crumbling French colonial houses, a legacy of a bygone era which once was more prosperous and influential.
Patuxai victory monument, Laos’s version of the Arc de Triomphe, is a real city landmark and very impressive. Set off by a huge fountain in front and frescoes on the ceiling, Patuxai monument is dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. Across the road is the Prime Minster’s residence and in the surrounding area many of the most important government ministries.
Further on in our tour we saw new residential areas along the Mekong River that are now sites for a number of luxury hotels. Close by is Mekong Riverside Park a place where locals and tourists stroll along the river with views across to Thailand. Beside the park is the Presidential Palace. Yes, communist Laos does have a luxury palace for its president with lots of gold and glitz and immaculate lawns and gardens. The public is not allowed to enter so take a photograph through the gates and move on. Back at the hotel it was time for a swim in the pool and lunch of course.
Next day we were the first visitors to Carol Cassidy, home of Lao Textiles. Carol, an American designer, has established a small silk design and weaving workshop that produces high quality silk fabrics that are simply exquisite. Carol’s pieces are displayed in galleries and museums throughout the Unites States: The Textile Museum in Washington, DC, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. We purchased a beautiful blue silk table runner for our home in Australia that we just could not resist. The colours, designs and skill which combine to create each piece leave you in awe when you visit the weaving showroom. You will be given a short guided tour of the workshop to watch the skilled craftswomen producing some of the most striking fabrics you have ever seen. Don’t miss this amazing place.
Buddha Park, by the Mekong on the outskirts of Vientiane, is not a temple but rather a small park with a collection of over two hundred Buddha and Hindu images. Made of concrete the images appear ancient but in fact the park was built in 1959. The 40 metre reclining Buddha is perhaps the star attraction. This is certainly a unique place and there are some great opportunities for photographs. It is a credit to the creative spirit of the artist responsible (see his revered statue inside the park) but we would not put it high on our ‘must do’ list for the city.
Pha That Luang however is a different story being a very large and revered Buddhist temple, also known as the Great Sacred Stupa which dates back to 1566. This golden spired stupa was constructed in the 16th century to house some of Buddha’s ashes and has since undergone several renovations.
On visiting this grand square stupa most Lao people walk around the perimeter three times to complete their pilgrimage. Surrounding the stupa are a number of beautiful buildings including a meeting hall for monks and several ornate shrines. The importance of this stupa is reflected in the fact it has now replaced the hammer and sickle on the Laos coat of arms.
COPE VISITOR’S CENTRE
As mentioned before Laos was very heavily bombed in the Vietnam War and there are still tens of thousands of unexploded bombs on the ground in northern Laos. The Cope Visitor Centre gave us some understanding of the extent of injuries from people coming in contact with what the locals call ‘bombies’ and the superb work the Centre is doing in providing support in the form of artificial limbs and rehabilitation. This short stop on the itinerary is powerful, certainly informative and the work of the the Centre is uplifting. This is a must.
SUNSET ON THE MEKONG
No visit to Vientiane is complete without a slow stroll along the Mekong for sunset. Make your way to where the Night Market is set up and there are steps at the back. Grab a prime position among the other ‘happy snappy’ tourists and locals and watch the fiery ball dip its rays into the Mekong and sink beneath the river like a giant blazing pearl. You might choose to join the local Zumba group for a 4000 kip charge (about AUD80cents) And when you’re ready, the night markets behind await with hundreds of small stalls, fluorescent lights and bartering bargain hunters.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Travel out of the wet season (December to March)
- We booked our Laos holiday through Get About Asia in Australia
- We stayed at the Ansara Hotel
- Look for other great accommodation deals at Agoda.com
- Have US$35 per person and 2 passport size photos on arrival