After 5 wonderful days in Luang Prabang we were on the move again, flying South to spend a few days in Laos’ capital city: Vientiane.
Our decision to visit Vientiane was largely practical – an opportune pit-stop en route to Phnomn Penh in Cambodia – and I was quite intrigued as to what we would find there having read contrasting reviews online from people who had visited. Some wrote of an idyllic, laid-back city where the aroma of freshly baked baguettes drifted from pavement cafes, while others described a drab, spiritless, hectic place with little to do or see beyond a handful of – albeit beautiful – temples.
So which was it? Idyllic, or drab? Laid-back, or hectic? Or a compound of both, coexisting under the wrapper of ‘Vientiane’?
The more negative reviews weren’t enough to worry us; we had packed a healthy dose of optimism and figured that, if all else failed, we could make our way through the menu in some good local restaurants, get a massage, do laundry and so on. However, over the next few hours my optimism slowly ebbed away. I admit that a sky full of drizzly grey cloud never helps, but crappy weather aside, first impressions weren’t great.
Boat Festival… Vientiane Style
In my previous blog I mentioned that Luang Prabang were gearing up for their annual boat festival, where wooden rafts dressed as fiery dragons are lit with candles and floated down the Mekong, carrying away bad luck from the previous year. Vientiane also had plans to celebrate, although the atmosphere was somewhat different.
In what seemed to be Laos’ rendition of Mardi Gras, thousands of people had flocked to the city and many roads in the centre were blockaded by cranky-looking policemen cradling wooden-handled rifles. Any idyllic tranquility had been chased away by blaring loudspeakers from the sprawling ‘night market’ (more on this later), and ear-piercing whistles blown by aforementioned policemen. When our car finally broke through the traffic and dropped us at our hotel, we dosed up on a little optimism and decided to get some sleep; things would be better in the morning. Unfortunately sleep was easier said than done – our hotel was only 50m from the heart of the market, so we could hear the loudspeakers, music and whistling until around 3am.
The following morning we took a (grumpy) look at our hotel’s ‘What’s on in Vientiane’ notice. Oddly, it didn’t mention the massive festival right on our doorstep, instead listing things like ‘Construction Materials Convention’, and ‘National Bus Logo Drawing Competition’. Not feeling inspired, we decided to walk along to the tourist information centre to get some advice. Ironically, the building intended to help and guide visitors was a bit of a challenge to locate and so we found ourselves wandering up and down streets like the ones below; squashed rows of damp, disintegrating buildings garnished with graffiti and sodden piles of trash.
The Tourist Information turned out to be a hole-in-the-wall in an unremarkable building where we were simply handed another copy of the map which we’d already been given at our hotel, detailing a handful of monuments, temples and the presidential residence. Having seen a number of temples already – and not wanting to ‘temple-out’ before we reached Cambodia – we estimated that there was a day’s worth of activities, max.
Only 11am and already time to engage Plan B: eat some tasty local food and perhaps track down one of those provincial Frenchs for an espresso and side of sugar-glazed goodness. Easy, right? Er…. no. TripAdvisor revealed that the top 10 restaurants were Pizza or Burger joints and so even Plan B started to look unworkable. At this point, I lost my patience with Vientiane.
Plan A & B aborted, we quickly drafted Plan C – to bring forward our trip to Phnom Penh and write off Vientiane as a sunk cost. So ensued a 2 hour escapade to and from Vientiane airport and Vietnam Airline’s HQ (which had been temporarily relocated to a hotel in the centre of town due to the airport renovations), where we eventually managed to book tickets for the following day. With an afternoon and a morning left, we ate a Pizza and set off to see some of the sights, starting with the National Museum.
Despite being full grown adults, I admit that we had a bit of a giggle when we arrived at the museum. The the dilapidated entrance, prehistoric-style paintings and wooden planks crossing a muddy river wasn’t too far off a set from an Indiana Jones movie – it looked so incredibly low budget that it was difficult to take seriously. The large 2-story building may have once been the Pride of Vientiane (maybe in the ’70s?) but had obviously fallen on much harder times. In the small lobby a young girl collected our $1 entrance fee and I paid an additional $1 to take my camera inside.
The first exhibit generated more giggles; a small model of a dinosaur with the sign ‘Dinosaurs have long necks and tails’ – an endearing over-generalisation hopefully aimed at children – a couple of strange dioramas of neolithic people standing around next to papier-mâché trees, and some light-bleached photos of deer. Beyond this though, we found that the museum had some pretty interesting and valuable artifacts and exhibits- important discoveries of well preserved prehistoric man, dinosaurs, ancient iron-works and well preserved pottery.
The museum spanned an immensely ambitious time frame from pre-history (dinosaurs) to modern history (post millennium), though most of the content was dedicated to the conflicts with and invasion by the French (from the late 19th Century) and the astonishingly extensive bombing by the US in the 20th Century. These exhibits belied a deep sense of national pride and gave us a powerful insight into the trauma that Laos had endured at the hands of it’s protectorate, but the museum itself was in serious need of some TLC. The photographs, paintings and weapons were either jumbled in crumbling display cabinets or simply left out in the open, exposed to the ruinous heat and humidity. With such a small stream of visitors paying such a small amount ($1 is a third of the price of an ice cream in the parlour across the street), we wondered how long this place would be able to scrape by. What had started out with giggles ended with a more quiet reflection on the historical significance of the contents of the museum, left to rot and bleach in a crumbing mansion.
On our final night in Vientiane, we adopted the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mentality and joined the thrum of night-market-goers along the riverside. The market had a lot of the tourist-friendly tat that you would expect, but was unmistakably aimed at locals, not tourists. Glaring lights from hundreds of street stalls polluted the night sky, illuminating the mundane necessities of daily life – toilet roll, washing powder nappies and socks. Pretty young girls in too much make-up and outfits that left little to the imagination shouted offers into microphones, their voices compounded by music from loudspeakers and the collective chatter of thousands of people. The intermittent rain had produced pools of muddy water which barefoot young guys swept away from their stalls with pieces of cardboard. Apparently the market sets up each night all year round but during festival time it is larger-than-life, and the crowds suggested it was a highlight in the Vientiane calendar. Half an hour was enough for us though, before we headed back to the hotel for dinner.
The next morning we packed up our things and made our way back to the airport (for the third time in as many days) and reflected on our brief experience of Vientiane while we waited for our flight.
Sleep-deprivation and drizzle undoubtedly coloured our view of the city – maybe if we’d arrived under a clear blue sky a week later then we’d have had felt differently; even so, I think we would have struggled to find the languid, laid-back capital described by those who visited before us. Modernity has infiltrated Vientiane, evidenced in the Dairy Queen chains, garish commercial festival-market and sprawling construction sites (soon-to-be shopping malls), but the ‘development’ didn’t seem to be happening in a particularly harmonious way. We were only there for a short time, but felt it represented a dystopian vision of what might happen to the rest of Laos if this was allowed to spread.
I took a photo (below) which I thought illustrated the problem in Vientiane. It shows the ‘Lao National Cultural Hall’, a modern, grand imposing structure, outside of which sits a large plastic stein, advertising Oktoberfest. The main sponsor is ‘Beer Lao’ (a very tasty Laos Beer, owned by a Laos company) and the event is cosponsored by a bunch of other brands from the Dutch/Danish Carlsberg Heineken Consortium. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of globalism, and why shouldn’t the Laotians enjoy their local beer in the context of a European sponsored German beer festival? Maybe some of that foreign investment will improve the lives of local people?
Maybe, but there’s a sad irony that this National Cultural Hall sits directly opposite the Laos History Museum, with it’s sadly decaying cultural artifacts, poorly protected by a damp, decrepit building; where handfuls of visitors pay a dollar each to trace Lao’s struggles to retain independence from Imperialist influence or control by Americans and Europeans.
We don’t for one second expect a country to stay poor and idyllic just to satisfy tourists’ Instagram feeds – if the local residents want to eat American ice cream, then it’s absolutely their prerogative – but equally, we can’t fairly say that we’d recommend to visit this place.
Next stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia.