Vientiane, Laos

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.

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Luang Prabang had pulled off the peeling-paint look with a character and charm which sadly eluded Vientiane.

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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 French cafés 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.

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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.

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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.

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Either side of the entrance gate, someone at some point had painted these oddly bad al frescos of famous Laotian landmarks – this one featured the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuang province.
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Wooden planks had been lain (left side) for pedestrians to navigate the deep puddle which had collected around the entrance.
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For the last 6 years I’ve been trying and failing to persuade Matt that we should take a ski holiday, his excuse being ‘I have no balance’ – ha, photographic evidence to the contrary!

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.

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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.

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BBQ eggs: Finally, we’ve found a food that even Matt (he who famously ate a desert made from frog fallopian tubes) draws the line at!

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.

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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.

– Emma

 

Day and Night in Luang Prabang, Laos

This is my third and final love letter to Luang Prabang. Located on a tropical peninsula – a long finger of land at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, approximately 1km long by 300m wide – the city was tiny but so so beautiful. I wanted to capture everything and took hundreds of photos; squeezing my favourites into two blogs was impossible!

Luang Prabang Old Town…

Along the centre of the peninsula runs the main street, a spine off which stems quieter streets lined with old colonial houses, interspersed with more traditional Laotian buildings such as the temples and royal buildings. 

Laos only opened it’s doors to tourism in 1989 and – sat in a European-style coffee shop sipping iced lattes from glass jars – we reflected on the journey that Luang Prabang must have taken within our lifetime. I imagine the wary welcome of the first trickle of intrepid travelers in the late 80’s was a world away from the slightly more polished reception that we experienced – the pace of change in the last 30 years must have been quite a challenge.

As the city grows to accommodate the influx of tourists, it expands outwards from the peninsula to the south and east. Previously most of the tourism stemmed from the backpacker trail, but now there are ample guesthouses and hotels ready to satisfy more affluent customers and our hotel manager told us that learning English was the best way to guarantee a good job here.

The charm of Luang Prabang flows from it’s unique architectural, religious and cultural heritage; imagine grand French colonial villas with wooden-shuttered windows and pastel-coloured pebbledash, sitting side-by-side with gleaming gold and burgundy Buddhist temples. The streets are mouthfuls of ‘s’ and ‘p’ – Phou Si, Sisavangyong, Samsenthai, Phamahapasam – and the delicious smell of spicy smoke drifts from charcoal grills at the front of shops and homes. 

Since being awarded UNESCO protected status in 1995 development in the city has been regulated by a strict building code, meaning that the original buildings can be hard to distinguish from the architecturally-sympathetic newcomers; this has helped Luang Prabang to avoid the unfortunate homogenization which developing Asian cities are so susceptible to.

 

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This is the first photo I took in Luang Prabang and it really captures the place for me; a swarm of scooters buzzing down sun-baked roads, through clouds of smoke drifting from roadside grills.

By day…

The streets in town are filled with guest-houses, massage-parlors, restaurants and french-style cafes street. It’s nice to cycle around as the majority of traffic is two-wheeled rather than four, although the bikes we borrowed from our hotel had seen better days and so we did more stopping to drink coffee/beer than we did actual cycling.

Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of Laos and the surrounding region until King Sisavangyong moved the seat to Vientiane in 1545, and some of the grander buildings are an echo of this provenance; however, the city has also seen more than it’s share of turbulence. Towards the end of the 19th Century it was ransacked by successive Burmese invasions, providing a prime opportunity for the French to sweep in and pick up the pieces, supporting renovations and ushering in Luang Prabang’s ‘French period’.

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A rare photo of Matt on a bike!

 

Buddhism is the main religion here and deeply permeates the Laotian culture. Each morning as dawn breaks over the city, a line of locals wait patiently on their knees to offer ‘alms’ – gifts in the form of rice snacks, fresh fruit and traditional sweets – to the 200-or-so Buddhist monks in a traditional ritual which dates back to the 14th Century. The alms giving starts along Sisavangvong road and then radiates out to the adjoining side streets.

This scared and peaceful ceremony is obviously novel to us Westeners and so it’s unsurprising that tourists flock to watch or take part. After discussion we chose not to go (aside from that fact that I’m grumpy if I have to get up too early, we also felt that the ceremony was for the local Buddhist people, rather than for our benefit); however, for around $5 your hotel or a tour operator will help you to participate in a respectful way.

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We saw lots of women and young girls selling bright orange flowers on the streetside. These arrangements are given as offerings at Buddhist shrines.
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Rice patties drying in the sun.
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The orange flower arrangements, studded with smoldering incense sticks, left as an offering at one of the temples.

Wat Xieng Thong

As a Buddhist city in South East Asia, we expected there to be a few temples dotted here and there, although if you’d have asked us how many there were in Luang Prabang I’m certain we would have underestimated. There are 33 Wats (temples) in total, and you hardly walk a few meters without passing one!

16th-century Wat Xieng Thong, off Sisavangvong road towards the far end of the peninsula, is the coronation place of the Lao kings, and also an important gathering place for annual festivities. Truly beautiful, it was described by Auguste Pavie, the first French vice-consul in Luang Prabang, as “famous for its sloping curved roof with three levels overlapping one another, as if it were an immense bird preparing to fly”.

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The back wall of Wat Xieng Thong features a dazzling ‘tree of life’ mosaic.
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No matter how often I see people posing on one leg, I still don’t understand why they do it?! Something tells me that this guy spends a lot of his life crouched down squinting into a camera lens.

Lhai Heua Fa:, Festival of the Boats of Light

Unbeknownst to us when we booked our flights our time in Laos coincided with the build-up to ‘Boun Ork Phansa’, the last day of Buddhist lent which is celebrated by festive celebrations steeped in tradition. During the day donations and offerings are given at the local temples, and in the evening candlelight processions are held. In Luang Prabang the celebration is most spectacular – hundreds of brightly coloured dragon-shaped boats floats decorated with flowers, incense and candles are set adrift down the Mekong river, to pay respect to the Buddha and give thanks to the river spirits. These boats also symbolise the bad luck from the previous year being swept away, allowing the good luck to flow in. In addition to the big dragons, families make their own small boats from banana leaves and say a prayer at the side of the river before lighting the candle and sending the boat on it’s way.

The consequence of us not knowing about this festival beforehand was that we didn’t coincide our stay with it, and left a couple of days before it took place. The boats were already shaping up though!

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This guy was toiling away under the shade of one of the temples we visited.
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These guys have tried to hide their dragon boat behind this tree. It’s not been entirely effective.
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As we left Luang Prabang, just days before the festival, the lovely people at our hotel were making some good progress on their boat.

And by night…

As the sun sets over the city, a transformation takes place on Sisavangvong Road. From the Post Office roundabout to the Royal Palace, the wide street bisects into back-to-back stalls; brightly coloured merchandise stacked and spilling from the plastic sheets spread along the ground (more of these sheets are deftly hung overhead at the first spots of rain, creating a bazaar-type environment).

 

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Market vendors start to lay out their goods as the sun begins to set over the town.
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Many of the stall-keepers were women, often with small children strapped to their backs or playing quietly.
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On this occasion we dashed through the stalls with our bikes before the ‘roof’ of plastic sheets blocked our path.
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The market begins at the roundabout opposite the Post Office, and here you can find lots of food stalls like this one.
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Women carry baskets and buckets of food through the market, selling to other women manning the street stalls.

The market unfurls each night and underneath the tarpaulin sheets a small community comes to life – the vendors huddle together to slurp noodle soup, share snacks, and entertain small children, occasionally unfolding some of the fabrics and typing the price into a small calculator (this is partly to help communicate to foreign tourists, but also because the exchange rate to the Lao Kip can take some getting used to – 1GBP is about 11,000 Kip, 1USD around 9,000).

The market offers a vibrant miscellany of goods, from traditional hand-made crafts (silk scarves, cloth bags, carved wooden bowls and ornaments, embroidered story-books and childrens toys) to mass-produced backpacker essentials (the obligatory BeerLao t-shirts and elephant-print trousers). You can also buy locally-produced teas, coffee, spices and corked bottles of Lao Lao (the Lao whisky I mentioned in my last blog). The stalls are repetitive (not unusual for an Asian market), but this is one of the best ones I’ve come across – not least for the fact that you don’t feel harassed as you walk around; they seem to be happy with window-shopping.

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When the time came for us to leave Luang Prabang I definitely had that pang of “do we have to go?” that accompanies the end of any good holiday, but at the same time we were excited to be moving onto our next destination, having had an encouraging start to the trip.

It didn’t take long for this excitement to be somewhat dampened, when our hotel manager – as he drove us to the airport – inquired as to where we were going next and replied “oh” (in a tone that was somewhere on the spectrum between surprise and disappointment) when we said ‘Vientiane’. He continued: “I studied in Vientiane, but…. I much prefer it here. We have some rooms left if you’d prefer to stay?” We smiled at this, taking it as a polite effort to tempt our continued custom… although in hindsight it was perhaps an option we should have considered more seriously.

If you’re planning to visit Laos, I wholeheartedly recommend that you head to Luang Prabang and spend a good few days soaking it up. It’s the kind of place where you can ‘do all the attractions’ in a short period of time, but there’s such a nice atmosphere in and around and it’s worth staying on a bit longer to make the most of that.

– Emma