This journal is from my first ever visit to Vientiane in Laos when I arrived as a solo traveller on a visa run from Thailand. At the time, I kind of fell in love with the capital city of Laos. Since then I have been back a number of times, travelling to Vientiane with my wife Fanfan with a focus on being lazy and just eating around. But here I will keep to the original text/story/images showing my Introduction to Vientiane and Laos, greeting the city with fresh eyes, and sharing my feelings and thoughts as a first-time traveller in Laos. I also find that little has changed since this first time in the city, in both the laid-back life of locals, and the usual tourist attractions in Vientiane and around.
Arriving at the hotel I was quick out to explore the Vientiane city centre with a scribbled, self-mapped city tour ready to follow. Starting at my hotel near Patuxay Monuments and working down towards the banks of the Mekong River and the Vientiane city centre tourist area.
Meeting the busy Avenue Lane Xang I turn left towards the Patuxay Monument, a towering Arch de Triumph with obvious influences from colonial French. But, in contrast, the arch is topped with magnificent Lao and mythical Buddhist design, and unlike the Fiats, Citroens and Peugeots of Paris, the monument was circled by motorbikes, tuk-tuks, trucks and street carts.
After a quick walk through surrounding gardens, fountains and the nearby Wat That Foon I turn back onto Lane Xang and venture towards the Vientiane city centre.
That Dam (The Black Stupa)
Following Lane Xang, I cut into a pedestrian alleyway, the Frenchly named Rue Bartholonie, where I find myself face on with ‘That Dam’, a large stupa squashed secretly into a small circle of road. The stupa is surrounded by quiet cafes and sits peacefully at the time only to be interrupted by the occasional passing car as a shortcut to the main road. The Black Stupa is lit up in the evenings, and is less black than it is green at the time, with moss and crawlers climbing to its peak.
Making my way down Lane Xang Avenue towards the Vientiane Riverside I begin at the Presidential Palace – a handy marker for the start of the riverside stretch. I follow a lightly lit side street to find busy riverside parks and a long stretching promenade. I start at the presiding Chao Anouvong Statue which towers over the banks of the Mekhong River. The Vientiane Riverside already bustling with youth and excitement.
Mekong Riverside Promenade
Following the edge of the Mekhong Riverside, the promenade area looks to be central to local youth’s entertainment and recreation. It reminds me of coastal paths back home (UK) minus the boozing and hooliganism. Joggers, walkers, cyclists, musicians, skaters. This is what public parks should be used for.
Vientiane Riverside Night Market
Running parallel to the riverside promenade are lines of red pavilions which host Vientiane Riverside night markets. Locals pick snacks at food stalls and feed at seated eating areas. The young and trendy pass between clothes stalls and the odd tourist haggles prices for scorpion/snake whiskey and the usual tourist tack.
Again this area is very popular with locals and isn’t tourist-focused (as I had expected). It brings something for everyone, at least it’s family-focused with younger kids playing with arts and crafts, and painting cute, anime model sculptures.
Eating Local in Vientiane
In the Vientiane city centre, I find the tourist area, leave the tourist area, find the hi-so area, leave the hi-so area, take a quick walk through Riverside markets then make my way back to the busy streets in search of food.
I had two recommendations from TripAdvisor which both proved to be duds. The first was packed with travellers and sounds of Hotel California and the second was a pricey French restaurant beside the Nam Phou fountain in the hi-so area.
Instead, I opted for a place I had passed on the way with more locals than tourists which is always recommended. The restaurant is named ‘Three Sisters’ and is far from tourist orientated and doesn’t front a sign in English (good luck in finding it). I sat creepily overlooking the chefs at work and ordered Lao Noodle Soup, Beer Lao, Lemon (Lime) Juice, and the fried meatballs which proved popular with local patrons.
Getting Lost in Vientiane
I spend the remainder of the evening getting lost in Vientiane city centre streets, and my aimless walking prompts ladyboy motorbikers to offer me unmentionable things for free. I decline and hurry on.
Heavy rains hit and so I seek refuge in a massage shop. ‘Lao massage’ is not so different to ‘Thai massage’ (bar the name) and I opt for the oil massage anyway. Which may have been the wrong option as I am forced to wear embarrassingly small and thin underwear.
After the massage, I climb back into my drenched clothes and step out onto the empty streets of Vientiane city centre. With the roads empty, the rich are out to play. I pass a Bentley or two and a black Ferrari speeds through the Vientiane City Centre. The social gap between rich and poor is obvious in Vientiane.
On the streets, I otherwise meet more humble folk burning Joss Paper (fake money) to ensure their deceased ancestors are well taken care of in the afterlife. I then return for the night to my hotel.
Day Tours in Vientiane
There were only three realistic options for a Vientiane City tour as an independent traveller. Quickly learn public transport, Pay for a private driver or Join a tour group. With limited time, budget and of course off-centre locations I was forced to my least favourite option… the tour group booked through my hotel ($20). Fortunately it did turn out well. One of the perks of staying in hotels is you rarely get bunched in with backpackers so today’s tour was instead with two sweet old Malaysian ladies…. who love food. I couldn’t have picked better. One retired, one semi-retired, both from an area of my interest in East Malaysia, both of Chinese descent, the younger a food fiend and the older sporting a broken arm. We bussed off to be tourists for the day.
Ho Phra Kaeo Temple and Sisaket Temple
The first stop on the Vientiane City Tour isn’t far from where we start. We park on the street opposite the President Palace at the Avenue Lane Xang intersection. On one side sits Ho Phra Kaew Temple and directly opposite Wat Sisaket Temple. I poke around both temples reading signs and snapping pictures of Buddhist shrines and statues. Ho Phra Kaew turns out to be a former home to the famous Emerald Buddha which now resides in Bangkok’s Grand Palace (Wat Phra Kaew).
Buddhist Celebrations at Wat Si Saket
At Sisaket Temple I find many Buddha statues spoilt with treats, many holding balls of sticky rice, apples, leaf-wrapped rice buns, chocolate bars, Kinder Buenos… Even the statues with amputated arms balance treats on feet or stumps. Trees and stones at this temple were even being fed. Obviously something was going on so knowing this I follow the local monks to find local celebrations in the surrounding buildings.
New Moon Celebrations
While exploring nearby buildings I stumble onto a ‘New Moon’ feast and am happily welcomed to join and eat with locals. Knees crossed I share soups, noodles and fiery dips with happy Lao folk. I felt at home. Worrying I would hold back the tour group I sneak out and bring them to join us. When we leave the locals pack together a small feast for our city tour – a plantain banana, 2 apples, sticky rice wrapped in a pandan leaf and 2 Lactasoy soy milk drinks, chocolate flavoured and classic original. During the morning hours temple monks had circled the local area for Bintabat collection accepting offerings in their alms bowls. The offerings are then shared with the local community and in this case visitors. If monks did not share with outside the temple you would find a whole lot of podgy monks.
Wat Si Muang
Next on the Vientiane is Wat Si Muang a more lively and bustling temple compared to the previous. Almost a market atmosphere – hawkers ply their trade on temple grounds and streams of locals push between sacred Buddhas and the surrounding houses. Many are blessed by monks and I watch as a girl receives a Sai Sin bracelet (sacred thread) and blessing in a ceremony for good luck and fortune.
From the creative mind of Thai sculpture artist Bunleua Sulilat – Buddha Park seems less of a religious shrine than a bizarre Narnian fantasy. A multi-faced Buddha octopus, a man pulls legs from giant grasshoppers, a pigman riding the back of a human, Phra Rahou eating the moon. For the best views of the park enter the mouth and climb three stories of the giant pumpkin. The park is found on the banks of the Mekhong River 20km from the Vientiane City centre. It is the only attraction we visit outside of the Vientiane city tour and was the main reason for me joining the tour. It was well worth it.
Something I forced from my thoughts until now. On the scenic drive back to Vientiane from Buddha Park we pass what looked to have been a deadly motorbike crash alongside the Mekong River. It looked like two young teens. No movement and noone yet at the scene. Definitely blood. We passed fast so I couldn’t see if one or two bikes were involved and think the one bike may have broken in two? It definitely involved a roadside pillar which sat central to the devastation. Not a peep from the driver or the two Malaysian ladies who I don’t think even noticed and I wasn’t ready to tap a shoulder and ask “did you see that?” Maybe they chose to ignore it and it was now left to haunt me.
Morning Market and Patuxay Park
Back in the city centre, the next attractions are all found on the Avenue Lane Xang. Having been to Patuxay on day one and having zero interest in shopping I opted out. With luck the Malaysian ladies had visited the morning market previously and we could pass by. I did take a quick walk again at Patuxay Monument where I find a new area called Patuxay Park with a vibrant local scene, outside seating, cheap eats and traditional Lao music blaring from park speakers.
That Luang (Great Stupa)
Having skipped past the market we arrive just after noon to Pha That Luang to find the staff at the Stupa having nipped off for lunch. The iconic Gold Stupa of Wat Luang would be closed until 12.30. Not a big problem. Living in Southeast Asia I see temples every day and not being Buddhist means coming face on with another Wat, shrine or stupa isn’t a big deal to me. My interest is more in local life surrounding temples so I go explore. After a snack of chicken and sticky rice from the area’s street food and losing a game of ‘Saw Bana’ with a bunch of local kids the temple opens and I do a quick round of the perimeter.
Wads of 500s are anchored by slices of apple that kids had pilfered from the feet of the surrounding Buddha statues. The kids step back then launch their shoes across the gravel. The closest shoe to the pile of money wins. A simple game with similarities to the French Petanque. Asking the kids tell teach me the game they called something like “Saw Bana”. No idea really. They invite me to play which I reluctantly do after finding my buy-in was a lot more than the rest (still tiny money). I also find my chunky size 9 Adidas are harder to guide than the precision of the kid’s flip-flops. I walked away with lighter pockets, a scuffed shoe and slight humiliation. When I leave the kids place back the apple slices and offer the money to temple alms bowls (minus my chunk).
Thong Khan Kham Market
This was the last stop of the Vientiane City tour. It wasn’t on the itinerary but being reluctant on an early return to the hotel I join the Malaysian ladies to be dropped off at Thong Khan Kham wet market. The ladies were looking for avocados…. weird? They also ask me along to eat Chinese Hot Pot with them but I had my own plans of drinking Lao-Lao that evening. I poke around the market, navigate surrounding streets, get lost and tuk-tuk back to the hotel. As far as tours go Vientiane City tour was one of the better I’ve come across.
Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan
While scouting for food in backstreets, not far from the Vientiane Riverside, I am drawn by the boom of a nearby drum. The drum continues and repeats seconds apart. Following the call I stumble onto the courtyard of Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan temple where smartly dressed locals bearing candles and gifts follow a procession of saffron-robed monks. I recognise the procedure of circumambulation, the parade would follow a circle of the temple three times clockwise. Knowing this I hide beneath the drum tower (Hor Kong) and wait for the procession to pass capturing a few (blurred) snaps with my camera. I snigger as bewildered travellers join the back of the procession many failing to see the monks lead at the front. As the procession returns to the central temple I join a loner monk sitting on the boundaries, we sit listening to the Sanskrit chants and I avoid the temptation to question his exclusion. The circumambulation and prayers were to mark the “New Moon” as I had learnt of during celebrations earlier on my Vientiane City Tour.
Pha Khao Restaurant
In a quiet side street near Vientiane Riverside and Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan, I find a great family-run restaurant. I sit out front with locals avoiding the back area which is unnecessarily dressed up for the backpacker crowd (hippy lanterns etc). I choose my seat precisely (strangely) and face open doors looking onto a quiet side street. It felt a bit like eating in someone’s garage.
I nibble while watching local life pass by as occasional motorbikes or groups of kids scamper towards the Vientiane Riverside and Night Markets. On my right shoulder is a family portrait and homely nick-nacks. The menu is a mix of Vietnamese and Thai cuisine (as is Lao food). I start with a large carafe of red wine – cheap in Laos compared to Thailand. Appetizers of fresh spring rolls (summer rolls) and deep-fried laab wontons. For main the recommended fried beef with herbs (Pa Kao Lao) with sticky rice.
One for the road I order the infamous and scarily potent Lao-Lao rice whiskey. A hefty serving in a Champa Blended Whiskey glass (my bravado scoring it for free). Knocking it back I stumble out back towards the Vientiane Riverside.
Vientiane Night Life
Being Saturday night, I bypass the tourist and backpacker hangouts, to go check out the party scene for locals in Vientiane. One of the better areas on passing was the Nam Phou Fountain, the Hi-So (high society) area of Vientiane; interesting but for a well-heeled crowd.
Back towards the Vientiane Riverside and night market I find a nightclub lined by scooters, a grungy youth crowd, a Chivas sign and some random lad frying squid on a barbecue made out of a barrel. Perfect. Inside every table is topped with Whiskey bottles and mixers, everyone is drinking, yet I fail to find a bar. I try to summon a waitress with no luck. There priority is to the tables and I fail to even score a beer. After 15-minutes of Lao/Thai pop-rock I call it a night and stagger back to my hotel via That Dam Stupa.