Sitting on a bed on a rickety night train, I look through the window at the last twilight strip of landscape I can see before night falls. I wonder what to expect from this trip. My editor wants me to write about the capital of Laos, but my travel companions just want to hop on a bus out as soon as possible. It takes some convincing for them to agree to spend the night, and give Vientiane a chance.
The city doesn’t have a great reputation. In any discussion of travelling in Laos, most will advise you to go directly to Luang Prabang for the culture or Vang Vieng for the party — but I am up for the challenge of finding what the city has to offer.
We arrive early the next morning and walk through the streets perpendicular to the Mekong. We feel the charm of the city waking up. After a bit we find a cheap guesthouse and a comfortable restaurant to make plans.
I want to go to the Buddha Park, 25km outside the city. A tuk-tuk is a bit too expensive for just two people, so we rent a motorbike for the afternoon.
The way to the park is almost straight, and quite an adventure once you are out of the city limits. Half the road isn’t paved, but it’s fun to drive on the dirt rocky road. For my bum, however...
The park is an amazing collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. The ornate statues seem to be centuries old, but they were actually built in the late 1950s by Luang Pu (‘Venerable Grandfather’) Bunleua Sulilat, a priest-shaman who integrated Hinduism and Buddhism.
This mix makes for a weird experience. I regret being so clear-minded that day, as the park has an esoteric, dreamlike feel that could benefit from an opener state of mind. There is a giant head-like sculpture right at the entrance — you enter by the mouth and climb for the spectacular view over the park. It represents Hell, Earth and Heaven. Mind your step and your head, because it doesn’t feel like the safest climb. The sculptures are made out of concrete, and with the Laotian weather they have a patina of time. There are monsters, animals, demons, humans and a giant reclining Buddha. I am like a kid, taking photos and jumping from one sculpture to the next.
On the way back I notice how much more courteous driving in Laos is compared to Vietnam. I find myself actually following all the road rules and would not think of taking a one-way street the wrong way. It’s refreshing to see cars and motorbikes stopping and giving way at the intersections.
Back to the City
In the late afternoon there is a great market on the riverside, and I am happy to see it’s not just the same products present in other touristy cities. The sky gets cloudy and the temperature drops a bit, which makes it the perfect weather for a nice evening walk. The river itself is actually accessible, you can see in some places people leaving messages made out of bricks on the banks, the equivalent of carving a tree or putting a love lock on the Pont des Arts in Paris. It puts a smile on my face.
While walking, we encounter an aerobics class on one of the main squares along the river. It’s a large class, with at least three different teachers and around a hundred people doing the same movements. I am starving, and we are about to settle for some cute Laotian restaurant nearby when my friend notices some tacky lights. It’s not a bar or a party as he hoped but a BBQ street, 10 times better in my opinion.
There are maybe around 30 different places to choose from and they all seem to have the same prices. Seafood, skewers of all kinds of meat, mushrooms, vegetables. It’s delicious — and eating great barbecue by the river in the sunset is already worth the stay in Vientiane. Thunder and very heavy rain are the only reasons why we cut our dinner short.
The Morning After
When I get up the sky is clouded, which helps keep the temperature cool but limits me with my Holga camera. I rent a bicycle for 10,000 Kip (around VND25,000). Cycling around is relaxing and easy, nothing is very far and I get a good view of the city.
The guys I am with had just visited Myanmar and were ‘templed out’ — but I am not and am more than happy to visit some beautiful and old temples. There is a strange monument, the Patuxai, a victory gate supposed to be a copy of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. But, with the Laotian touch of mythological statues and decorum, it’s quite different from the French original. Here you can climb up the steps to have a great view over the city.
The next thing on my list is the COPE Centre. COPE is an NGO that helps victims of unexploded ordinances (UXO) by providing care and support, largely by way of orthotic and prosthetic devices. The free exhibition is well presented and informative. I get stuck, easily overwhelmed, looking at the hanging display of prosthetic legs and cluster bombs. I forget to take photos and I linger on. When I finally leave I am greeted with heavy rain.
I meet up with the guys, and we have a coffee with a freshly baked French baguette. As a French myself I will vouch for Vientiane’s bakeries. They are just like home.
I regret having to leave so soon, this city is relaxing and charming — definitively worth at least a few days after the madness of Vang Vieng or the postcard-like Luang Prabang.
If you’re not going to fly — the one-way fare from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City to Vietnam is around US$200 (VND4.2 million) — then try coming from Bangkok by train. It’s easy. The overnight train journey to Nong Khai on the border takes 11 to 12 hours. After going through customs, you catch a minibus to travel the last 13km to Vientiane. The price of the final leg is included in the train ticket.
Alternatively, you can travel via 24-hour bus journey on a sleeper from Hanoi, for about VND550,000. Buses leave nightly at 7pm from the central bus station. There are also daily buses running to Vientiane from Danang, Hue, Ha Tinh and Vinh.
Check seat61.com for train details and trip reports.