For a capital city, Vientiane is rather small and village-y…felt like Taiping to me. Daniel and I were joking that the diplomats who get posted here are either really junior officers or old fogeys who are put to pasture so that they don’t get into any further trouble before they retire!
Hence it was a bit of a surprise that the city seemed to be teeming with tourists the night we arrived from Luang Prabang after an 11-hour bus ride. We could not get a room at any of the hostels or guesthouses in town! Ended up choosing a nicer place (for a nicer price, of course) and got their last available room for the night.
We were rather tired after the long and bumpy journey – our Super-VIP bus was not all that comfortable, but at least neither Fred nor his relatives were in sight. The scenery was of course amazing, with beautiful green hills and valleys, grand limestone outcrops and pretty little villages along the way.
Scenery along the way
We’d decided to spend just one full day in Vientiane, so it was early to rise as we started our sightseeing activities. Turns out we needn’t have been in such a big rush, as there wasn’t all that much to see. We started off wandering around the major wats, trying to identify the architectural characteristics unique to Vientiane (largely to do with having a veranda adorned with wood carvings in front of the wat entrance).
Wats and more wats
Again, the wats seemed rather lifeless to us, with just a few shy young monks reading or chatting under the trees. Many of them seemed to be studying English, judging by the books they held, yet they seemed shy to strike up a conversation, and we weren’t sure if it was appropriate to initiate a chat either.
The one wat that we did enjoy more than the others was Wat Si Saket, the oldest wat in Vientiane. Although it’s badly in need of restoration, the wat has a nice air to it, and is also home to more than 8,000 Buddha statues. The bulk of these are tiny little figurines placed in little niches all along the walls surrounding the wat compound.
Wat Si Saket
A quick visit to the bus station to check on buses into Thailand for the next day led to us walking through Talat Sao, the biggest market in Vientiane. Although we only walked through a tiny bit, it was interesting to see all the colourful clothes and fabrics on display.
Colourful blouses at the market
We ended our sightseeing with a visit to Patuxai, which is said to be the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane. Apparently it was built using cement donated by the US which was meant to be used for building the airport! From a distance it does look rather majestic , but up close, it’s very much a “concrete monstrosity” as the visitor information plaque states.
Patuxai – from a distance (the better view)
It was nice just to sit around the Chinese-donated musical fountain in the park surrounding Patuxai, just watching the locals having an evening out. We also discovered why all the hotels were full – there were tonnes of Thai tourists from across the border.
People around the fountain
We decided to splurge on dinner that night, for a good cause. We had an excellent meal at Makphet, a restaurant run by former street children and their teachers. All the profits from the restaurant go towards outreach projects to help street children in Laos. The restaurant itself was very prettily done up in green (Mama K would approve), and the food, especially the dessert was really yummy too!
Dinner at Makphet
The next morning, we had just a couple of hours to kill before leaving for the Thai border. We decided to visit Pha That Luang, the most important Buddhist monument in Laos. It is also the seat of the Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism (sort of like the Lao Dalai Lama). Considering that we had to take a tuk-tuk about 4km out of town to get there, it wasn’t all that spectacular in comparison to all the others wats we’d seen so far.
Pha That Luang
After lunch it was time to head to the border, which we crossed on the Thai-Lao Friendship Bus. Border crossing into Nong Khai was uneventful, with no visa issues for anybody, thank goodness! There was only a EUR 0.25 fee to pay for crossing the Lao border on a weekend! Fair enough, the immigration guys need their share of BeerLao to make up for missing their Sunday at the local pub.
Crossing the Mekong again