• Thursday, April 12, 2007

    Trip to Laos - Vientiane..

    The capital, Vientiane, is small and quiet and seems to amble along at its own leisurely pace. Asia and Europe mix here. Freshly baked French bread is sold on the streets in the morning beside noodle stalls. Pavements are level and clean and the streets buzz to the sound of the distinctive three wheeled tuk-tuk, that differs from its Thai counterpart in that the driver is perched high on the front end of a motorbike.

    Vientiane is a walkers dream. The climate is perfect for walking and the city picturesque enough to make it interesting, with buildings a mix of temples, old colonial and more recent communist carbuncles. Art galleries, European eateries and coffee shops are plentiful and there's a pleasant absence of western fast food conveniences: the dreaded McClown, Colonel "Kentucky Fried Cruelty" Sanders and Starbucks have yet to pollute the environment with their presence.

    Vientiane’s two centre pieces are That Luang and Patuxai (literally meaning Gate of Triumph). That Luang dates back to the mid 1500s and was built on the site of an existing Khmer temple and is clearly the main tourist attraction in town. Locals believe that the Khmer temple was itself built on the site of an even older temple that dated back to the 3rd century Mauryan Empire(from India) and actually contains relics of the Buddha. That Luang was destroyed by the Thais in the 19th century and then fully restored to its original condition.

    Patuxai was built with money donated by the US for a new airport, which Laos instead used to build this monument to commemorate the struggle and victory for independence from France. And yes, it does resemble the Arc de Triomphe. Given the detestation caused in Laos by US bombing you can't help feeling that there's some justification for them getting one over on Uncle Sam when they got the chance.

    Unlike in Bangkok an evening stroll by the river is a pleasant experience. The evening air is cool and there's a distinct lack of mosquitoes in the air (or at least there was when we were there) which makes dining alfresco an inviting option. And there's no lack of choice of what to eat either, from local cuisine through French, Indian and Italian to Vietnamese.

    We stayed at La Villa Manoly just off Setthatitrat Road. It's in a quiet residential setting, walking distance from a market and the oldest complete Laos temple, Wat Sisaket. This renovated French mansion has a swimming pool set in the gardens and offers tasteful rooms with private bathrooms, balcony, and a fridge for US$25 a night (rates vary depending on the room).

    I've read many times that you should skip Vientiane altogether and head straight for Luang Prabang. Having visited both now I disagree. Sure Luang Prabang is streets ahead of Vientiane in so many ways but I don't think it would be good to dismiss Vientiane altogether. It's a nice city and definitely worth a look.

    What does take some time getting used to is the three currency system that seems evident in Laos. Often your bill for a meal or drink will arrive with the price in Laos kip, US dollars and Thai baht. Even negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers is a multi-currency affair. My advice is to get clued up on the exchange rates and equivalent values in all three currencies and carry plenty of 20 baht notes, deals can be had. One tuk-tuk driver would accept a kip less than 20,000 for a ride but then snapped the wife's hand off when she offered him 40 baht, which is the equivalent to 11,000 kip.

    With only a few days to spare we opted for flight rather than road as a way to Luang Prabang. 30 minute flight as opposed to 12 hours in a bus meant that my green travel ideals had to take a back seat. The flight cost just over US$100 per person with Laos Air on one of their small MA60s. No complaints about Laos Air either, no bad from what I experienced.

    More from Luang Prabang later.

    Trip to Laos - Vientiane..


    Blogger AceOne118 said...

    Thanks for sharing the photos. Vientiane - the place is a very clean indeed. Looking forward to Luang Prabang photos! Haha

    1:46 am  

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