I had no expectations of Vientiane. Most visitors to Laos head straight for the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang skipping the country’s capital. But my day tour of Vientiane was one of the unexpected highlights of my two week journey through Laos. For while Luang Prabang is simply unique and a world-class cultural gem, to me Vientiane represents real, authentic Laos and it’s here that I really began to understand what everyday life is like for the Lao people.
Vientiane is the biggest city in Laos with a population of around 754,000, making it roughly the same size as Leeds. The city unfolds along one bank of the Mekong; over on the other side, just a hundred metres or so away, is Thailand. The riverside location gives the city a lovely focus as many bars and hotels face the river. It’s a great place for an evening walk, catching the breeze from the Mekong and watching the locals exercising in the parks.
Religion is hugely important in Lao culture. For a Lao man to get married, he has to have spent time as a monk. Some men will be a monk for just six months or so, but most spend many years as a monk; it’s useful for poor families to send their sons to the local monastery where they will be fed and receive an education. At the little-known temple, Wat Sok Pa Luang, we had the opportunity to meet two young monks who chatted to us in English about life at the monastery.
There are many beautiful temples in Vientiane including Wat Sisaket, the oldest remaining temple in the city. Wat Sisaket includes cloisters where more then 1,000 Buddha statues are displayed.
Vientiane has a very cosmopolitan cafe and restaurant scene. Many a happy afternoon can be spent hopping between coffee houses, enjoying excellent French pastries.
My favourite meal was at Makphet. All the staff are disadvantaged young Lao people who have been given the opportunity to learn hospitality and catering skills. The menu is fantastic; classic Lao dishes with inventive contemporary twists. I could have eaten here every day for a week without getting bored…
On such an enjoyable journey through Laos it was sometimes easy to forget the country’s recent, dark country. Laos is the world’s most bombed country. Part of the Ho Chi Minh trail passed through Laos making it a chief target for bombers during the US-Vietnam War. In many cases if US planes couldn’t find their Vietnam target due to bad weather they’d double back towards Laos releasing the bombs over the jungle to make it safe for the planes to land. Today UXO (unexploded ordnance) is still a huge problem in rural Laos as I learnt at a moving visit to the COPE centre (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise). This charity does amazing work to support UXO victims and to educate visitors of the ongoing problems. Don’t go without tissues!
A happier visit was to atmospheric Wat Ho Phra Keo which means “altar of the emerald Buddha”.
Later I also went to see the golden bling of Wat That Luang which is on the Lao national flag. Next door is a huge reclining Buddha statue built just a few years ago.
Finally it’s well worth a visit to the Patuxay monument, built by the French between 1957 and 1968 and modelled, of course, on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Great views of the city from the top.
And that’s lovely Vientiane! A great place for a two night stop; easy-going sightseeing, cafe hopping and the chance to learn about Buddhism, landmines and everyday Lao life.