Chances are your journey to Vientiane will not be direct and arriving from Hanoi, Phnom Penh, or Bangkok, you will be struck by the immaculate streets of Laos’ capital city. Vientiane may just be the cleanest city in all of Southeast Asia. With meticulously angled shrubbery and manicured roadside gardens, you’d hardly believe you were in one of the poorest countries in the world. Hosting the Southeast Asian Games in 2009 (for the first time in the games 50 year history) Vientiane is opening its doors to the world – a small city with big dreams. Imbuing a pride often found in capitals, the residents of Vientiane work hard at the upkeep to make their city the shining example of a prosperous future.
Aided by a change in migration in post-tsunami Thailand, the past few years saw an unprecedented boom in tourism for Laos. In search of the laidback, “authentic Asia” that many feel is lost elsewhere, tourism numbers rose from 14,000 in 1990 to over 1 million in 2005. As a result, Vientiane’s old flophouses received an overdue make-over and accommodation took a notable swing for the up-market – although prices remain fair. Expect to pay between $8.00 and $30.00 USD for a room with a balcony in the old quarter.
Dirt Cheap French Food
Waking up to the wafting scent of freshly baked baguettes and crispy croissants, you might just forget where you are. In fact, to find bread in such quantities is a rarity in Asia. Yet, in Vientiane, the lingering refinements of French Indochina rule the city’s culinary scene. Vientiane is, perhaps, the cheapest place in the world to indulge in wood-fire steaks, soufflés, pates, and a cold glass of Sancerre. Most restaurants line the crisscrossing rues of Vientiane Central or you can combine dinner and a movie at Centre Culturel et de Cooperation Linguistique.
Founded in 1973, Lao Brewery Co Ltd was a joint venture between foreign investors and Lao businessmen. After National Liberation in 1975, the communist government took over. But, in 2005, the government went in a joint partnership with Carlsberg Brewers bringing the beer’s production levels to an all-time high. From the government to the hands of the people, Beer Lao is the national beer. Its lager, light, and dark varieties blow Thailand’s Chang Beer back across the Mekong. Produced in Vientiane, Beer Lao is one of the nation’s largest companies, sponsoring sport events and beauty pageants as well as splashing its marketing across the country. A cold Beer Lao at sunset on the Mekong is a Vientiane must.
The Riverside Night Market
The mighty Mekong River stretches from Nepal to southern Vietnam and as it meanders through Laos, it acts as the border with Thailand. Along its banks, Vientiane’s night market comes to life. On a long stretch of the recently revitalized riverfront, plastic chairs are artfully arranged as hawkers present the day’s catch for your approval. The fresh and unbelievably cheap fish is then cooked to your liking and served (face and all) on a bed of rice and greens. After dinner stroll down the river to check out local craftsmen or head back to town for some Tiramisu.
When the sun sets over the Mekong and the merchants pack up and away, Laos’ night workers take to the streets. Revving engines, hiked up skirts, and splashes of red are instant indicators that these are not the conservative, demure girls of the daylight. With the dramatic game of cat and mouse below, you may just kick back on the balcony with a Beer Lao and watch the show. But, if you’re prepared for a night out, this small capital city has a surprising number of bars and clubs.
Temples, Temples, Temples
While not as omnipresent as temple-heavy Luang Prabong, Vientiane boasts some bold national treasures. The blaring, golden Pha That Luang (Laos’ most important national monument) is cornered by four temples – two of which remain erect. Wat Si Salet is the oldest temple in Vientiane with an audacious 2,000 silver Buddha images and 300 seated and standing Buddhas in wood, stone, and bronze. Craving more statues? Head to Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), one yogi-priest-shaman’s bizarre testament to a merged Hindu/Buddhist mythology.
Learn this word: “Sabaidii,” (sa bye dee – hello, welcome) and you’ve unlocked the door to the land of 1,000 smiles. The warm, welcoming faces of the Lao people are so infectious, you will find yourself singing “Khawp jai lai lai,” (kop chai lye lye – thank you very much) not only because you like the sound, but because of their bewildering radiance. The Lao citizens don’t have much to be happy about. The French, Brittish, Chinese, Japanese, and Siamese have all drawn lines around this land and after years of strict socialism, the country remains in the World’s Least Developed category. Yet, the Lao people refuse to let hard times get them down.
Crumbling French-Colonial Architecture
While the French-Colonial government did not have the budget for the grand constructions in Hanoi or Saigon, these nevertheless impressive villas are perhaps more visible in tiny Vientiane. Now home to museums and embassies, these crumbling, porch-encased mansions tower above the city’s modest dwellings. Previously reluctant to promote colonial architecture as an asset for tourism, new generations of local authorities have come to embrace it as an intrinsic link to their recent history.
Nothing moves very fast in Laos. For some, this can be a test in patience, but the reward is an oasis from the bustle of modern, motorbike-crazy Southeast Asia. Because any journey onto the patchy roads outside of Vientiane will inevitably take four times as long as the kilometers may have you estimating, an open, flexible attitude will bring nothing but smiles and good times with the carefree locals. The lesson in this? Stay put in Vientiane for a while. It is not a doing city – it’s a do nothing city. After a few days, the city oozes into your head, grabs you by the heart, and sets you free with a Zen-like zeal.