Lost in Laos: Vientiane

Our Laotian adventure began inauspiciously with four weeks of tussles over a flight change. To get through the three months of work between Christmas and now, we had booked our flights to Laos during our first week back at work in January, plumping for Korean Airlines budget company, Jin Air. What can go wrong when you fly with such an internationally well-reputed organisation, other than a brief set-to about nuts? But then, if you choose to fly budget, who expects nuts anyway?

A last minute dash to their HQ and some, “Angry, of Seoul” conversations later, and we had the correct flights in our in-box with a little over 24 hours to go before check-in. We’d also been switched to Thai Airlines A380 with all mod-cons. Fate appeared to have finally started smiling upon us, especially after we lucked-out during our Bangkok transfer with a free Starbucks as their card machine wasn’t working!

The jubilation saw us through a weary day of travel via Hong Kong and Bangkok, to Laos and possibly the easiest airport arrivals process I’ve ever experienced (ten minutes in a queue for a visa on arrival, no sketchy overcharging, relatively friendly visa officials, virtually no immigration or customs queuing at all, and a super simple airport cab to our hostel) and lasted right up until the moment we arrived at our hostel – which had double booked our room. This didn’t turn out to be a huge problem and we were swiftly rehoused in a dorm which we had to ourselves.

Although we were pretty tired, we set out for a quick recce of the local area to get our bearings. It revealed a quiet town with a few noisier hostelly haunts and a large night market along the banks of the Mekong, unfortunately just closing up as we arrived. We settled for a purchase of some bottled water and a delicious Beer Lao and hit the sack, worn out but happy to be here.

The next morning we awoke early, still on Seoul time, rented push bikes from the hostel, and headed out on the trusty Lonely Planet suggested bike tour of the main sights of the city. The city extends over a large area but, as the absence of light had revealed during landing the evening before, there is little in the way of major urban development for a capital city. We’d heard of Vientiane’s reputation for being a capital city with the soul of a small town, and this felt true. The atmosphere is incredibly laid-back, the pace of life is slow and easy, people are friendly and helpful and there’s none of the hustle of the faster-paced, more populous capitals of neighbouring countries.

We pootled around the streets of the capital on our big, comfy cruisers, starting with a stop at one of the numerous, highly recommended bakeries – a legacy of the French. Then we took in a quick tour of the bustling morning market with its stunning array of fresh and unusual fruit and vegetables. Visiting fresh produce markets is now one of my favourite things to do. The variety and quantity on offer differs so greatly from the small greengrocers in Seoul where we survive the winter on cabbage, daikon radish and Asian pears.

Patuxai

Patuxai Victory monument

I spent a good long while at the Patuxai, a memorial monument shaped after the Arc de Triomphe. Inside there are a number of souvenir markets on the different levels, and the top tiers offer great views over Vientiane.

That Dam

That Dam

We had taken advantage of the parking down the road at the main market, but I thought a lap of the Patuxai looked like a whole lot of fun for a bike, so we picked up the bikes, cycled all the way back up the pretty Th Lan Xang and around the monument before heading for the curiously naked That Dam stupa; once covered in gold, now a grand roundabout ornament in a quiet, leafy backstreet.

Time was a-rollin’ on and the next stop was the Lao National Museum. For me, this stop really brought home how different Laos is from other countries I’ve visited and how little money has gone into preservation of culture and heritage. Treasures like the unearthed metal Khamu drums are impressive to see. Engraved with intricate patterns representing different birds and frogs emanating from a radiant sun in the centre, these could be sensational if the time and money were available to restore them fully. The major treasures, a cabinet of buddha figures, was easy to spot, but not easy to see as the whole cabinet was encased in thick metal bars to prevent theft.

An interesting exhibit was the small room which detailed the astonishing number of ethnic groups that make up the tiny population of the country and showing differences in their traditional dress, livelihoods and cultures. This was worthy of a museum in itself – happily a museum I discovered a day later in Luang Prabang.

Wat Si Muang

Wat Si Muang

After the museum, the cunning bakery return coupon beckoned. Promising 50% off their delicious cakes if you returned the same day after 2pm, I was unable to resist. After all, if you can’t spoil yourself to cakes on the first day of your holiday, when can you?

Rolling my stuffed self back into my saddle a half hour later left just enough time to visit the bustling Wat Si Muang to glimpse the Emerald Buddha (now a copy, not the real thing), and the statue of King Sisavang Vong just outside it, before meandering back to the Mekong to enjoy a hazy sunset and go for some tasty Lao food before heading for the next adventure: the super sleeper bus to Luang Prabang.

Offering

Offering

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