Du pain et du vin à Vientiane

Vientiane's answer to the Arc du Triomphe (it's taller)

Vientiane’s answer to the Arc du Triomphe (it’s taller)

It seemed all SE Asia was gearing up for Chinese New Year

It seemed all SE Asia was gearing up for Chinese New Year

We had a week in Kuala Lumpur (in Hotel Sentral for the third time) and, as usual, had a significant to-do list of cleaning, mending and replacing our belongings, including finding a replacement clip buckle for my rucksack.  We eventually unearthed one in the superb Ace hardware store in Midvalley Megamall, a place that has all kinds of things you never knew you needed – Mr Vagabond bought a 4-in-1 miniature screwdriver which he hoped would replace the rather heavy set that we got in Hua Hin for dismantling laptops etc.  I got my first proper haircut since leaving home.  Mr V had trimmed my fringe several times, but my just below chin length bob had grown halfway down my back and although I mostly wore it clipped up, it was a pain to wash, so I found an English speaking stylist at a salon in Nu Sentral mall and came away with a short, layered bob – my shortest hair since I was in primary school.  Unfortunately my hair seems to have developed waves since I was a child, so it now tends to stick out in odd places.  But it’s cooler and dries quickly.

Making wax flower temple offerings in Vientiane
We also needed to finalise our travel arrangements for Japan and spent a whole day mapping out and costing possible routes and date combinations.  I had made some provisional hotel bookings covering different dates back in November, which was just as well because all the decent cheaper places were now full – the rooms I cancelled were snapped up within 48 hours.  We had thought we might go to China after Japan, but it would have involved sacrificing another passport page to a visa and the flights worked out to be quite expensive on the dates we needed, so we booked a route via Taiwan direct from Osaka, eliminating the need to return to Tokyo.  Tapei hotels are not cheap but it’s better than Hong Kong, where 99% of places under £60 per night seem to be in “mansions” or “walled cities” that look like fire death traps.  As our flight to Vientiane left very early in the morning we transferred to the Tune hotel at the airport for our last night in KL.


Inside a wat in Vientiane – rubbing the centre of
the gong eventually makes it resonate
Even though the flight was only 2.5 hours, Wattay International Airport in Vientiane seemed a world away from KLIA2.  A single handicraft stall, a couple of cafés, a currency exchange and a cashpoint machine was all the Arrivals (and Departures!) hall had to offer.  A ginger kitten rubbed around our legs as we waited by the taxi desk, and a dog snoozed just outside the exit.  I’ve seen more hustle and bustle at Pangbourne railway station on a Sunday morning.  I liked Laos immediately.
The journey to out hotel took all of 10 minutes – it may be the capital city, but Vientiane is smaller than Reading with considerably less traffic.  The French influence was quickly apparent, the Sinnakhone hotel being on Rue François Ngin, almost opposite a café called Le Croissant d’Or – this looked very promising!  Maybe there’d even be real cheese…


In Rue François Ngin
Rue Francois Ngin is one of three or four streets that lead down to the bank of the Mekong, where most of Vientiane’s budget accommodation and tourist restaurants are located.  From there we could walk to almost anyway in Vientiane that we were likely to want to go.  Really there are no great ‘sights’ there and most tourists barely give it a day, but it was a nice place to wander – to various wats (temples), along the riverbank past the beer gardens (although the Mekong was so low it was barely visible – paddling to Thailand looked a distinct possibility), and to the city centre that seemed to consist of one small department store and a pharmacy.  For serious shopping Laotians and expats head over to Thailand,  and most manufactured goods on sale in Laos come from Thailand or Vietnam (so are relatively expensive – Thai mosquito repellant that costs £1 in Bangkok is 1.70 in Vientiane and £2.50 by the time it gets to Luang Prabang).  A night market is held every day from 4pm along the riverbank, selling mainly clothes, shoes, sunglasses, handbags and mobile phone cases, along with some handicrafts – I suspect even the handicrafts come from Thailand, mostly.  There is no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no KFC – I’m not sure if multinationals are banned or if they simply don’t think there’s a market there (actually there is a KFC but it stands for Khouvieng Fried Chicken!).
The night market by the Mekong
We did find French cheese – not cheap, but affordable as a treat, along with wine.  Unfortunately most of the bottles under £10 were French and had inconvenient corks, but we did find some Argentinian for just over a fiver.  Bread, of course, was very good – our simple hotel breakfast of eggs was elevated by warm baguettes with crisp, eggshell thin crusts and feather soft middles.  Other French fare was way out of our league – fois gras at over £100, a tiny tin of caviar for £50.  We did breakfast out one morning at the Croissant d’Or where we had a crisp, flaky, buttery croissant that would pass muster in Paris and a sample of Lao style coffee – incredibly strong and made with a little condensed milk, the sweetness of the milk necessary to temper the bitterness of the coffee that would otherwise be overpowering.  Interesting – but I’ll stick to cappuccino.  The best Laotian food we had was at Makphet, a “fine dining” restaurant run by a charity that trains marginalised or at-risk young people, including former street children, to work as waiters or cooks.  The food was superb, and the staff so sweet and eager that any blips in service caused by language difficulties barely registered.  We were only in Vientiane for 5 days but ate there twice, the second time with Linda, a Scottish woman from our hotel who we kept bumping into.
The Buddha Park
Our one excursion from Vientiane was to the Buddha Park, about 25km outside the city.  Tuk-tuks were quoting 250,000 kip (£21) as the ‘official’ fare – even if we’d bargained it down by 50% it was ridiculous.  Instead we headed for the bus station just by Vientiane’s new and only shopping mall (really just a multi-story handicrafts market and food court in one busy building and several floors of gold jewellery merchants in an adjacent empty one – but having a shopping mall is a point of pride for Laotians.).  We knew we needed a number 14, and it was easy enough to find – everybody assumed that we were headed for the Buddha Park and pointed us in the right direction.  As is usual in Asia, the bus left not when a timetable said so, but when it was full – the conductress hwd to squeeze her way along the aisle to collect our 50p fares.  The first 20 minutes or so of our journey was through suburban Vientiane, parallel to the river.  By the time we reached the countryside the bus was half empty, and we whizzed by the enormous Beerlao brewery (one of only two that supply the whole country, and Laotians drink Beerlao like it’s going out of fashion) and through villages with hardly a stop, until we suddenly veered inland and pulled up outside a large duty free shop where most of the remaining passengers disembarked.  This, we realised, must be the customs and immigration area for people crossing the Friendship Bridge, the first bridge to be built across the Mekong from Thailand to Laos (there are now 3 others).  Our fellow passengers would be transferring to another bus to take them to stock up in the land of plenty – probably carrying shopping lists from family and neighbours.
The river is there somewhere…
We returned to the highway to pass under the bridge approach road and through more villages, at one point right along the riverbank where there actually was water.  The Buddha Park was pretty much in the middle of nowhere – built in 1958 by a spiritual leader/lunatic (depending on your point of view), its statues of Buddhist and Hindu figures look older than they really are, the reinforced concrete well weathered.  There’s also a giant hollow pumpkin containing depictions of heaven, earth and hell which you can climb up inside via steep and rail-less steps, and even out onto the steeply sloping top (also rail-less!) if you dare (I didn’t,  Mr V did).   It’s all a little bizarre but the park is pleasant enough, and we wandered a little way down towards the river (which it this point hugs the opposite bank) where locals were taking advantage of the temporary extra land to grow vegetables – but we were done inside an hour, and returned to the main road to flag down a bus.  Our return journey took longer than an hour as the driver pulled up by the food stalls at the bridge terminal and disappeared for 20 minutes, presumably to have his lunch.  Only a couple of passengers boarded – it was was too early for the return of the day trippers.


I felt better once I was on board
We had hoped to be able to travel to Luang Prabang by road, stopping at Vang Vieng en route.  But estimates for the minibus journey for the Vang Vieng sector ranged from 5 to 9 hours, on windy, mountainous roads – too long for comfort.  We considered a private taxi, which would have cost at least £250, but flights were almost £100 each online – but when we enquired about flights at a travel agents they were only £60 each, so we opted to fly.  I was a bit apprehensive – Lao Airlines used to have a pretty poor safety record, although it’s always been safer than the roads (which have had bandit problems in the past, as well as treacherous bends).  I wasn’t very reassured when I first saw the plane, a twin prop 72-seater, but actually it was very new.  The now redundant light-up No Smoking indicator had been replaced with a light-up Turn Your Phone and Computer Off Now sign, something I’ve long thought planes should have but have never seen before.  Not that it made much difference to the Chinese passengers who were still tapping at their smartphones as we sped down the runway!


We didn’t opt for the first item.  And no, it’s not a mistranslation.

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