After Cambodia, we headed to its northern neighbor Laos. We debated going overland through the southern part of the country, but after doing some research we decided that our top highlights were all in the northern part. The most convenient place to start our journey through the country was therefore its capital, Vientiane.
Getting from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Vientiane was not as easy as we had hoped. We could have done a bus, but it would have been a 28-hour journey which we were not inclined to do. The fastest and most convenient option seemed to be to fly. Unfortunately, flights out of Siem Reap were pretty expensive. From Phnom Penh, it was cheaper, so we took a bus from Siem Reap back to Phnom Penh and spent one night back at Envoy Hostel.
The flight from Phnom Penh wasn’t as cheap as we hoped – the cheapest we could find was $175, and we couldn’t figure out how to do it on miles. But, it was direct so it would save us a lot of time. We flew on Vietnam Airlines, which turned out to be quite nice, not a low-cost carrier like the other flights we have done so far in Asia. We even got a small meal during the 1.5 hour flight!
Where We Stayed
Through Agoda we found the Nanynu Mini Hotel. As the name implies, it was a hotel, not a guesthouse, so there wasn’t really a common area to meet fellow travelers. On the other hand, our small room was comfortable and nicely furnished. The location was just a few minutes walk from the main street with restaurants. The staff didn’t speak a lot of English but were very friendly.
What We Did
Vientiane has a reputation of being a “sleepy” city with not much to do. It is definitely smaller than the capitals of its neighbors, and the roads are much less crowded. There aren’t many attractions, but they are pretty easy to get to by bicycle or on foot.
One day we rented bicycles from a hostel in town to tour around the city. This was actually a little tough because they wanted our passports as a deposit, but we had left them back in our room. They then wanted $50 instead, but we only had $30 on us and finally convinced them that the bikes were probably not worth more than that.
We followed a route suggested by the Lonely Planet guide, which took us past such sights as the old Presidential Palace (used by the French colonial governor when Laos was a French colony), the French embassy and US embassies, an old uncovered stupa and numerous small wats (temples).
We got off the bikes at Patuxai, which is Vientiane’s version of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. We paid a small fee and climbed inside for nice views of the area. Strangely, you have to pass through a bunch of gift shops as you ascent upwards. There is also a slightly hidden interior staircase in the giftshop at the main level that allows you to go all the way to the top.
We deviated from the recommended path a little bit and rode out to Pha That Luang, a temple and monastery complex that is very treasured by the Lao people as a symbol of independence. The main attraction is the large golden stupa.
On our second day we walked to visit the COPE Visitor Center. COPE is an organization that helps provide prosthetic limbs to those who can’t afford them all across the country. The visitor center describes their work in making the prosthetics, but also talks in detail about one of the main reasons so many are needed: the problem of the tons of unexploded ordinance (UXO) that remains in the country as a result of the many bombs the US dropped on the country during the “secret war” as part of the Vietnam war. We also watched a couple of short documentaries about the efforts to go in the countryside and defuse the found items before someone is hurt by them. The problem is especially tough because scrap metal can bring in a significant amount of money, so people will risk harm and handle items that they shouldn’t.
We also visited the National Museum, which we had read was a little underwhelming. It did turn out to be pretty small – we only spent an hour which is quite a feat for us. The exhibits were pretty well signed through the prehistoric and ancient history sections, but once it got to the Lao kingdoms in the 15th century it started to be harder to figure out what was going on. Then, in the section on the colonial period and the rise of the Pathet Lao (communist revolution), the signs were minimal and definitely felt a bit one-sided.
We heard that, like Phnom Penh, there were aerobics classes in the evening, this time in a large park down by the Mekong River. Unfortunately, when we tried to go the first time it started to rain and the class seemed to be cancelled. The second night it was also cancelled, this time because an afternoon storm had knocked out power and they couldn’t run their speakers. We did still enjoy seeing the other evening activities in the area though, with many people exercising and a large night market.
One upside of the aerobics being cancelled was that it gave us time to do something we had been putting off: getting Eric’s hair cut! There was a salon next door to the hotel which had an English sign, so we figured it would be ok. We pointed at a picture of the most basic cut on the wall and they said they could do it. First they gave him a shampoo – not usually something he has done so it was fun. The cut was about the same as at home, except they didn’t use the standard guards on the clippers; instead, the stylist just used a comb to control the length of the cut. The total cost was 50,000 kip – about $6.
Where We Ate
Since this was our first stop in Laos, we were excited to try the Lao cuisine. The food at Lao Kitchen was an excellent introduction. We especially enjoyed the laab, which is minced meat mixed with fresh herbs such as cilantro and mint, usually with sticky rice on the side. Khop Chai Deu also had a good laab, and a grilled chicken with nice flavors.
The part of Vientiane that we were in is very tourist-oriented, so it wasn’t hard to find other types of food as well. For example, one dinner we just ate Indian food. Also, the French influence is still quite strong, and you see cafes and bakeries all over. For breakfast every morning we would get different types of pastries from the Parisien Bakery, and after our bike ride we got some homemade ice cream from Le Banneton.
Compared to Phnom Penh, Vientiane was a lot quieter and more laid back. We actually enjoyed this, because it meant that we could ease into understanding the Lao culture and history, and also that it was easy for us to get around between the various sights. The amount of time we allocated to see the city was just about right: there were nice things to see, but we certainly didn’t feel like we missed out on anything big.