Laos is a big country with a small capital of Vientiane. You can quickly feel a different pace of life if you’re travelling from Bangkok: no metro, no skytrain, no tourist-friendly shopping malls or huge western stores. Even though it is a quiet city, it has lots of green spaces, and that is why I liked it so much.
There is also another reason why I may have felt such affection for it. I came to Laos with a sole purpose of extending my Thai visa. Basically I had an expectation of wandering around my hotel for 24 hours until I collect my passport, and I ended up having an amazing time. In those 24 hours I explored nearly the whole city, which oddly left me with a sense of achievement!
Since I came to Laos in a van full of ‘long-term tourists’, we had to cross the Thai border on foot, and wait for a bus to take us across the bridge to the Laotian border. I never thought I’d say this, but sitting on a bus full of immigrants and looking at the sunrise over the Friendship Bridge connecting Thailand and Laos feels somewhat spectacular.
My first impression of Laos wasn’t the greatest as we drove past lonely gas stations and village-like shrubby landscapes that reminded me of Cambodia – almost a sister country with a relatively sad history. I knew that Laos was under a French rule at some point in history, but there weren’t many things French, as I imagined. I did see, however, a few nice-looking baguette vendors and wine shops. Most of the vendors and shops display prices in kip and Thai baht, and you can pay using either currency. Do note, however, that the vendors may quote you a higher price if you use a foreign currency.
A tuktuk into town should cost about a 100 baht for 2 people. The driving style was even worse than in Thailand, and it seemed as if the drivers didn’t really grasp the concept of a two-way street. I walked my way around town during daytime though, and without breaking much sweat!
So I arrived at my hotel at around noon and had about 24 hours to spend…
12.00 – I went to the dentist! I just found one while wandering the streets. It cost me 40 baht (an equivalent of a cost of half a packet of crisps in the UK) for a check-up, removal of stiches, and a salt-water mouthwash. Just so you know, I had some teeth problems at the time, as I wouldn’t normally seek a dental adventure in a foreign country.
13.15 – I walked to town, and noticed that there weren’t many convenience stores, or chocolate to be more precise, like there is in Thailand. In half an hour I was already exploring the temples. Pretty hot walk that was though. Most travellers take tuktuks, but in Vientiane they rip you off like there’s no tomorrow!
14.00 – Sisaket museum – entry 5,000 kip (20 baht). Definitely worth it, especially for a variety of beautiful Buddha sculptures, and the main temple, where you cannot take any photos, but it’s very pretty inside. You can also give a donation and light a candle in front of the Buddha sculpture, perhaps say a prayer or two.
14.30 – I went to the city centre, just taking everything in: the pretty architecture, the colourful temples, the greetings from locals, also overhearing the word ‘farang’ here and there – the language sounded similar to Thai. I walked to the Chao Anouvong statue, situated in the park by the river. The park was pretty, clean, and had lots of exercise equipment scattered around. Then I walked west-wards to the hotel and restaurant area – it had lots of construction going on, no street vendors, and not many tourists – it looked like whenever one place shuts down, a new one is built rather than re-established. Also if you walk to the park, you reach the main road, and you can see there’s nothing beyond it…
15.20 – I felt like a right retard when I wanted to exchange money: as the cashier was counting thousands of dollars, I approached the exchange booth with my important query of exchanging 100 baht (2 GBP) for the day. Then I randomly met a fun Dutch guy at a bar and we talked about our travels. We had some right cheap Namkong beers for 5,000 kip (20 baht) and that was a fancy bar – how is that price even possible? I’ve heard many people say if you want to feel like a millionaire, come to Laos. But you’d have to spend at least a few days to spend 80 quid (120 USD) here, unless you go to the French shops!
16.30 – I went to explore the Talat Sao mall but it was closed at around 5 PM, the market next to it was also closing, so I headed back to the hotel. I had some food, chatted to the guys I met on the bus and we decided to go to the night market.
19.30 – A few groups of us went to the night market to check the overpriced goods. Yep, that’s right – most of the stuff for sale was the typical stuff you see everywhere – scarves, belts, perfume, t-shirts – all with ‘special’ prices for tourists. But only you are the lucky one, because they ‘give you best price’! To be fair, there were some original items we regretted we hadn’t bought, such as very pretty and original paintings of monks or elephants, which I haven’t seen in Thailand. I suppose you could find something similar at the Chiang Mai Sunday Walking Street. The market was BIG. It took us two hours to surf through the tents lined by the river, we didn’t stop for a meal or anything!
22.00 – We all got back to the hotel and paid the insistent driver for the ever-increasing travel cost. Basically during the day we offered the hotel staff to pay 20 baht each for a return journey, which only takes 20 minutes on foot – 10 people equals 200 baht. Before we left the price magically doubled. And when we actually got into the van, the driver managed to “bargain up” to 50 baht per person, so the journey totals to 500 baht. OK. Guess what? We get picked up, transferred back to the hotel just to pay 60 baht each. I am not sure if it’s a Laotian thing, or just an individual, but that’s something to bear in mind.
23.00 bed time. I wish I had remembered to visit the sculpture park and the rooftop bar, as both of these should not be missed. I could have easily visited the park in the morning, but I just love to sleep. So hopefully next time! The city had a tranquil ambience and the people were welcoming, there wasn’t much traffic, and everything was cheap. If you like all these things, I recommend you pay a visit to Vientiane.
I have to say, if it wasn’t for the super basic map that Auste printed for herself when she went to Laos, I would have probably wasted the beautiful day at the hotel. Thank you!
P.S. more photos on our Flickr page here.