Monday, June 19, 2017

A Capital Time in Vientiane

June 19, 2017
Vientiane, Laos

One of the lovely sunsets on the Mekong, just across the river from Thailand
With only 760,000 people, the capital of Laos is hardly a Bangkok or Yangon, and has a small town feel for being the biggest city in the country. Besides being the biggest, the selection of Vientiane is less obvious of a tourist destination than anywhere else we have visited thus far. Not renowned for its sights or architecture, nor famous for its cuisine, we didn’t arrive with a laundry list of must-sees & -dos.

Step one was to find a hotel. If you’re not in a hostel, they’re (relatively) expensive here! I chalk that up to it being more of a business/diplomatic destination than a mere tourist town. After debating between ourselves for some time, we decided on the stately looking and well-placed Ansara Hotel, although the most expensive in the city. After our short hop of a flight from Luang Prabang, we settled into the hotel after dark. In person, it was a pretty plain seeming, standard western-style hotel room. The pool area and breakfast were definitely the highlights (along with a healthy-looking poolside cat) – but we’d recommend staying a little further off of the river at Settha Palace if you’re planning on dropping a dime.

Can't complain: the pool area at Vientiane's Ansara Hotel
I believe he's inviting us to the pool area, but he only spoke Lao, so we'll never know
I went out to explore while Caroline stayed in our room, resting and attempting to cool down – it’s at least as hot and steamy here as anywhere else we’ve been in Asia to date. I took a quick walk through the large Mekong-side market, selling mostly western-style clothes to locals. Surprisingly, and unfortunately, there was hardly any food at the market, with the exception of a couple of permanent kiosks selling terrible looking versions of pizza and french fries. There are hundreds of covered stands with people selling their wares, and all of them are hauled out (by motorcycles), assembled, broken down, and put away into a nearby hidden parking lot each and every day. Keeps people busy. On the way back to the room, I found the best banana fruit shakes (pronounced “flute sakes”) I’ve had yet, and brought one back for Caroline, who happily concurred. They have the best banana shake, but as we discovered a couple of days later, the very worst papaya salad. Everybody’s a specialist here in SEA.
Great banana shakes, not so great papaya salads
We decided initially to book four nights in Vientiane. While sitting around back in Thailand, sketching out possible itineraries for the coming months, we thought Vientiane might be somewhere we’d end up staying for a week or two, or perhaps longer. Lonely Planet’s description made it seem like a less touristy version of Luang Prabang. We ended up staying longer in LP than we sketched out, and after our first day in Vientiane, decided four nights was probably plenty.

We spent day one walking, and walking…and walking in the heat. Once again we had managed to (unintentionally) arrive in yet another destination at the hottest point of the year. We saw or walked by the requisite sights – Pha That Luang temple, which is pictured on all Lao kip bank notes (they don’t show on the notes that it’s surrounded by ugly parking lot on all sides), and Patuxai, the Arc de Triomphe of Laos. We started at Patuxai. Nicknamed “The Vertical Runway,” since it was built with cement donated by the U.S. for the purpose of building a new airport, it is something that looks vaguely impressive from afar. Once up close, it’s clear that it’s a cheaply made, poorly maintained, giant block of cement. We walked up the stairs to the top, where on each floor along the way up there is a market that feels half cheesy souvenir shop, and half thrift shop. We bought the same thing we buy in all other souvenir markets – nothing.

Patuxai - impressive from across the traffic circle. And look! A traffic signal for pedestrians! Nobody knows what to do with those - but it's Laos, so not much traffic anyway
Inside Patuxai
A long hot walk to look at what I could have seen in my wallet
At the souvenir stands outside of Pha That Luang. Remember how cool the "Texas 5 Man" seemed? Me neither.
Over our remaining days, we did plenty more walking, and decided there are three highights: the museum at the COPE rehab and prosthetic center for UXO survivors, dinner at Doi Ka Noi Restaurant, and taking in the post-sunset scene on the Mekong.

COPE was our second UXO stop, after first learning about the 2 million tons of ordnance the U.S. dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War at the UXO visitor center in Luang Prabang. The COPE campus is actually a working medical and rehabilitation center, with patients on site. The museum here is much more focused on the people injured or killed by unexploded ordnance, and the help that COPE provides by offering free prosthetics and rehabilitation to survivors. Another well done and sobering exhibit, reminding us of the continued damage caused by the Vietnam War.

Sign outside COPE museum - the theme continues inside
Display of "bombies", 30% of which didn't explode on impact, and still wreak havoc in SE Asia today
More displays at COPE
 On our recent Lao Airline flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, I had read an article in the in-flight magazine about things to do in Vientiane. One section featured a local Vientiane chef, Noi, who recently became the only Lao member of the Slow Food organization. The food was really good; I only wish I could remember what it was called. Of course we have photos of the food and the receipt, but it’s all in Lao, so we’ll have to find a translator if we want to figure out what any of it is called. The staff was amazingly friendly and helpful, even though their English was extremely limited. Noi was quite busy preparing for the next day’s brunch, but her husband Mick came by to talk with us for some time after we finished eating. He’s a professional photographer, who lived and worked in Chiang Mai for many years before moving to Vientiane. His large format photographs on the walls make for some amazing decor.  I think there was only one other table of diners when we got there, and we spent much of our meal as the only patrons, so I hope she manages to stay in business!

Doesn't look exciting, but wrap up this pile of rice, shallot, peanut, etc into the greens, and prepare to be blown away
Beef(?) on the left, delicious-ness on the right
You can have a lot of variety depending on how you accessorize your fish wrap
If you can read Lao, let me know what we ate!
After wandering aimlessly for days, we finally really felt like we were feeling the local vibe on our last evening, when we walked down to the banks of the Mekong to take in the scene. It seems that much of the city descends on the riverfront at sunset, either shopping at the market, taking part in one of the outdoor public aerobics sessions, or just strolling down the river with their family or sweetheart. The people seemed happy, the sunset was beautiful, and we started feeling good about Vientiane after a slow start. After spending some time trying to catch a communist flag themed motorized paraglider on video, we walked north up the river by the many barbeque & beer pop-ups that line the river. Our food was not so exciting, but we were glad to end our Vientiane experience on an otherwise high note.

One of the two large groups partaking in riverside aerobics after sunset (still pretty damn hot!). This would be team purple. Interestingly, many of the instructors are male.

Next up, heading to southern Laos to the town of Pakse!

More Photos:
Caroline was very respectful to the locals
Enjoying an afternoon pastis - quite refreshing in the Vientiane heat, and practically free
Another (very common) way to keep from sweating too much during peak heat

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