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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Vientiane, Laos

One of many temples near the Golden Stupa
Travel dates 18th-19th and 27th-28th February 2015

I will start with the background and my journey to Laos.

AirAsia made a good profit last year but their long-haul subsidiary AirAsiaX did not. Consequently they cut several of their routes to Australia including the one I had booked months before during a special promotion. The prices were incredibly cheap, so I'm not complaining too much, but it was a darn nuisance. 

I was flying from my local Gold Coast (OOL) Airport to KLIA2 (KUL) Airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is their new hub airport for the region. My flight departing 9 am was changed to one departing 9:45 pm. I was still able to make my early morning connecting flight to Vientiane but I had to cancel my Tune Hotel booking at KLIA2 airport, as the transfer time would now be three hours instead of fifteen overnight. The only real annoyance was a 30MYR ($10) cancellation fee for the hotel. Considering that Air Asia are also involved with Tune Hotels that seemed a bit rough. I will write a separate report on KLIA2 and the Tune hotel for travellers later, as both are quite different to their predecessors at the Kuala Lumpur LCCT.

I left home in northern NSW on the bus at 4pm Wednesday, changed at Tweed heads at 5:20 pm, arrived at the airport at 5:35, ate dinner at a pub near the airport, then had another beer while waiting at the pub for the rain to stop, waited a bit longer in the terminal then finally went through security and immigration to depart on time at 9:45 pm.

I rarely sleep on planes and this was no exception. We arrived at 4am Kuala Lumpur time a little over 8 hours later. I obtained 50 Ringgits (~AU18) from the ATM. That was enough for an excellent bacon and eggs breakfast
with change for later flights; AirAsia flight stewards prefer Malaysian cash for on-board purchases. I departed for Vientiane, Laos at 7:35 am, arriving 2 1/2 hours later at local time of 9 am.

The set fare of US$7 for taxis from the airport to town was inexpensive and the cab was clean and air-conditioned. The driver also knew the way, a trait I later found rare among Lao Tuk Tuk drivers but not among the more expensive cab drivers. A good start.

I reached the Ibis hotel at 10:30 am after visa, customs, getting cash from the ATM (6333 Laotian kip to the Oz dollar) and buying and fitting a local sim card. It was wonderful to get an early check-in at the Ibis, even more wonderful to stand under the shower and feel the lassitude wash off. And to find free wifi.

I had booked the Ibis Nam Phu after research on the web and my experience with the same chain in Morocco. Although Ibis is a mid-range chain in the West it is an excellent choice in Vientiane. The room is small but adequate, there is an elevator to upper floors and everything worked, including wifi, hot water, TV and air-conditioning. That was rarely the case in the places I stayed later on this trip. I found I should have also pre-booked Ibis for my return to Vientiane a week later; sadly the price had doubled by that time from $70 to $140 per night; I ended up at a much lower standard at the SP Vientiane Hotel.

After settling into the hotel and a quick shower I went walking around the district with no particular destination in mind, just getting a feel for the town. 

Very quickly it became obvious that the city of Vientiane and its people are very laid back compared to the more modern and larger SE Asian metropolises of Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Singapore. 

There is a thriving market economy with small traders, restaurants, hotels, electronics outlets, clothing and other stores, many tuk tuks and infrequent cabs. It seemed incongruous to see the hammer and sickle flag of communism given equal prominence wherever the national flag of Laos was displayed.

Some research on the web showed an official change, gradually over the past decade, away from true communism towards a more capitalist society. But my research also showed no change to the one-party totalitarian system of government. The economic system may be changing but those at the top are little different.

Similar to Beijing, the most massive buildings in Vientiane are mainly for government bureaucracies:

 Or the President:

One exception was the Brunei Embassy; an opulent mansion compound.

I saw many similarities to my visit to Myanmar, which is slowly emerging from over fifty years of autocratic rule. While Myanmar remains reasonably unspoiled by tourism, Laos is starting to cater more for the tourist dollar. That became more evident in my following visits to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.

I don’t know whether Buddhism was allowed to flourish during the communist era but it is certainly active now. There were monks occasionally on the streets.

All the major Temples and Stupas are clearly seen as tourism revenue earners, either directly with entrance fees or indirectly as tourism attractions, or both.

Central Vientiane is compact and reasonably easy to wander on foot. I was occasionally invited to ride by tuk tuk, but not aggressively and a shake of the head or a simple ‘no’ was enough to stop the invitations; most unusual in Asia.

After a couple of hours walking I encountered a bar run by a Belgian.

I had no idea of the prices of beer and allowed myself to be talked into a Belgian beer for 50,000 kip – a little over AU$8. It went down well but it was the last foreign beer I had after I discovered Beer Lao went down equally well for about 8,000kip or about one dollar. In the steamy Lao climate I tended to drink beer rather than wine, although the occasional house red wasn’t too bad with dinner.

A little later I lunched on excellent chicken soup and a Beer Lao for a little less than $3 at a restaurant for the locals. 

The lady in charge (it seemed to be a family affair) was surprised to see a Westerner but couldn’t do enough to help. I think she was a bit disappointed at my meagre lunch needs, expecting a big bloke like me to order more food. The soup included the usual noodles; an hour later my meter showed me I should have left them in the bowl. Many times over the next week I followed the meter’s advice and still enjoyed delicious Lao chicken soups and red, green or yellow curry soups for lunch despite leaving the noodles or rice behind.

I happened to arrive at Chinese New Year. The Chinese population of Laos is not large, partly because border relations have not always been cordial, but the few young Chinese males in Vientiane appeared to have all hired trucks for the occasion. I saw and heard several of these trucks wandering the town during my stay. Each truck had twenty to forty young men on the back, all dressed in highly-decorated shiny red outfits with a deafening on-board PA system pumping out highly distorted Chinese music.

There were many street food stalls, always located close to restaurants and sometimes supplying some of their barbecued delicacies to the restaurants. I wasn’t brave enough to try them this time. The standards of hygiene of some were a bit iffy, to say the least, although this one looked OK:

I went to the highly recommended Bor Pen Nyang restaurant for dinner. Fourth floor, sixty steps, no lift. Well, that’s one way to make sure you’re thirsty at the top. The view over the night market to the Mekong and Thailand in the distance was marvellous, but the food and service were less so. I gave them another try the following night, but chose elsewhere when I returned to Vientiane later. My tripadvisor report is here.

The night market had a few stalls for the locals, selling clothing and shoes, but most of the stalls appeared to be for tourists. The following morning I asked at the hotel for the nearest shopping mall and took a tuk tuk to the Talat Sao Mall.

It was an interesting place; not quite a shopping mall in the Australian sense of the words. There are three air-conditioned internal floors of shops, mainly clothing, jewellery, shoes or electronics, with a food court on the third floor. The shops are more like market stalls in their layout than Western shops and prices are often negotiable. Two floors of car park are above the shops, with escalators and lifts (elevators) connecting the floors. I bought a shirt and a few necessities quite cheaply.

An associated building next door has two more floors of smaller shops with cheaper goods and more aggressive sales staff. In that building there is neither air-conditioning nor lifts, but there is a roof and outer walls. Near the back entrance of the mall is an outside area covered by corrugated iron or canvas for artisans repairing or making shoes, jewellery and similar items. 

Next door to the mall building is an external market with a multitude of stalls selling almost anything you can think of. Unlike the night market the goods are mainly intended for the locals.

I ate lunch in the food court. The system was interesting. First I had to decide what I wanted to eat and drink from the various choices at the dozens of central cooking stalls and note the prices. Then I had to purchase tokens – like monopoly money – from a cashier. The tokens were the only means of purchasing the food.

Once again I had chicken soup and a beer. A week later, when I returned to Vientiane, I had half a dozen small spicy pastries filled with spinach-like greens mixed with small amounts of pork. Delicious.

That afternoon I hired a cab to visit the Patuxai Monument, the 'Pha That Luang' Golden Stupa and the National Museum. They are a little far apart for an easy walk and I decided on the comfort of an air-conditioned cab rather than a tuk tuk. I also found communication a little easier with the cab driver. It was surprisingly cheap, with the final fare for a little over two hours being less than AU$20 including a tip.

I can’t improve on the wiki information on Patuxai; Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe. Here are some edited selected sections:

Patuxai, literally meaning Victory Gate or Gate of Triumph…is a war monument…which was built between 1957 and 1968. The Patuxai is dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France…it is typically Laotian in design, decorated with mythological creatures such as the kinnari (half-female, half-bird)...
It was built when Laos was a constitutional monarchy and was originally known simply as the "Anousavali" ("memory"), dedicated memory of the Laotian soldiers who died during World War II and the independence war from France in 1949...
Here is my favourite part:
The monument was built using American funds and cement intended to build a new airport. The Royal Laotian Government instead built the monument, which earned it the nickname of the "vertical runway”
This was a bit sad for the architect:
The monument was designed by Tham Sayasthsena, a Laotian architect. In 1957, his plans were selected out of those submitted by the Public Works Department, the Military Engineering Department, and numerous private architects. Tham received 30,000 kips for his work. The cost of construction was estimated as 63 million kips mmm.
In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao seized power and ended the ancient monarchy. They renamed the monument Patuxai in honor of their own victory.
The Golden Stupa, or Pha That Luang, looks marvellous in the sun from a distance, but the ‘gold’ looks a little shabbier close up. It is claimed to be surfaced with real gold, but I’m a little doubtful. It is considered to be the most important national monument in Laos. It was originally built two millennia ago as a Hindu structure but was remade as a Buddhist Stupa, supposedly with one of Buddha’s breastbones as a relic, several centuries later. It has been damaged or nearly destroyed many times, including as late as WWII. The present version is the reconstruction after that event.

It was interesting to see it but I became more interested in an un-named temple near it. The internal decorations were elaborate; I had to be careful and respectful, leaving sandals outside and keeping quietly unobtrusive as I wandered.

There were also some interesting decorations in the associated gardens; the rooster was real and seemed to be challenging the statue.

The National Museum was a little disappointing. Possibly part of it was unavailable on the day, because all of the rooms I visited were near the front of the building and I saw no open doors to further interior rooms. There were several rooms showing ancient historical artifacts from millennia ago, then some rooms with the history of the past millennia – but most space was given to the history since 1954. There is no doubt that independence from French Colonialism and their effective victory over the US and its allies (including us) in the Vietnam War as it affected Laos is extremely important to modern Laos, but the impression I got was that the museum curators allow that section to overshadow the history pre-1954.

I left for Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng after two nights but returned to Vientiane five nights later. This time I didn’t walk as far, taking it easy. The main site I visited was the Sisaket Temple, which is now a museum. I was a little annoyed when I arrived just after 12 to find the temple was closed from noon until 1pm. But that was a serendipitous delay.

I bought a bottle of water and settled down on a seat in the garden to wait. A small truck with a band on the back, playing as they arrived, appeared at the gates then backed into a spot immediately in front of me. The musicians rearranged their instruments then started playing again. While this was happening several members of a family appeared, obviously well-dressed and waiting for something. Then several elaborately dressed young ladies appeared at the gate. The family fell in behind them. The girls performed a processional march, more like a marching dance, from the gates to the entrance of the temple with the band playing enthusiastically. I'll post a video after I re-learn how to edit it.

I asked a stranger what was happening. It seems I was watching the celebration of the family as their son entered monkhood. The marching girls and the family disappeared into the temple; it was still closed to the rest of us. The ceremony was brief because the girls reappeared within 20 minutes.

It was fascinating to watch; one of those unexpected entertainments I did not plan for but which so often happen by chance. I was then allowed to enter the temple and wander around. Once again, I actually found the gardens and surrounds of the temple more interesting. 

I left the following morning for Colombo, Sri Lanka via AirAsia's KLIA2 hub again.

Cheers. Alan

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