Saturday, August 18, 2012

Vientiane, the Berkeley of SE Asia

Vientiane completely turned my expectations upside down. What a surprise Vientiane a good way. When we arrived at the small airport I was shocked to see that they actually had jetways. I was expecting a small airport in which we deplaned by stairs.

Arriving in the immigration hall and visa on arrival queue, it seemed to be very much a communist operation with stark barebones rooms and baggage claim area. I had the Ansara hotel meet us at the airport and provide transportation for us. I always do this when I am unsure of the taxi and transportation situation in a new city. Our driver was there and he escorted us to the curb where he left us to get the minivan that would take us to the hotel. As we were driving into town, I was pleasantly surprised to see such nice cafes and restaurants along the road. They even looked upscale from French to Japanese and every other cuisine. There wasn't much traffic and certainly not a lot of motorbikes like in Cambodia and Vietnam. The streets were very clean and orderly completely opposite from their Indochinese neighbors. Why is Laos so different from Cambodia and Vietnam, at least appearance-wise? The Ansara hotel is right in the thick of the city and down a small side street. It is a small boutique hotel with only about 15 rooms. It is expensive by local standards, but still quite affordable at only $125/night including minibar, breakfast, and internet. There was even a laptop computer in the room. To me the Lao people are probably the most quiet and/or subdued of all the countries I have visited.
The first day we arrived around 8:00pm so we decided to have dinner somewhere in town. We walked around the corner to a local place called Sticky Fingers Cafe and Bar which had an eclectic group of people there. I would never have known we were in Laos because the place had an earthy crunchy feel to it like we were in Berkeley or Portland. It was crazy. They also brought out glasses of drinking water. Apparently most places have a water cooler of drinking water and you don't have to buy bottles of water. It's actually much more environmental that way. After the meal it was back to the hotel. The weather in Vientiane was a little more humid than Cambodia, but Phnom Penh was unusually mild. 

In the morning we headed to the main building where the restaurant was for breakfast. The property surrounds a garden and most of the rooms are in a building in the back of the property. There weren't very many people in the restaurant and they had pastries and fruit spread out on a buffet, but we could order eggs and meat. The service was very slow especially with the coffee which they didn't like to refill. The coffee was so good (very French) and very strong. The Lao people are so laid back compared to everywhere else in Asia, it feels like everyone is on island time. 

After we filled our stomach's we set out to see the town. We walked along the major street from the hotel and were shocked to see that the city was very clean and relatively modern. The one thing lacking though was Western chains for anything from food to hotels. All hotels are little boutique places or guesthouses which adds to the charm of Vientiane. We walked down by the president's palace and Si Sasket Temple. 

After that we walked further into the city and found some open air markets. I think one of them was called the morning market. It was very odd to be in a local market and not have people harassing you to buy their junk. And actually the deeper into the market we went, the more authentic the goods were. They had some really lovely textiles of local designs that would make excellent ladies clothes, window dressings, or bed covers. The patterns were incredible and had a local/ethnic flavor to them. From there we walked around more of the town and saw many French influenced buildings.We called it the Champs Elysee of Laos because in the middle of the street near the city center is their Arc de Triomphe called Patuxay Monument. We went up inside and there is actually a market where they sell souvenirs on one of the inside levels of it. The views from up there were really cool. 

After walking back to the hotel to get out of the heat and cool down, we had worked up an appetite and had a snack at a little cafe around the corner from the hotel. With all the little cafes, the narrow streets, bookstores, and shops, it feels just like France. After the snack we walked back to the hotel and took a nap to get out of the humidity. The weather really zaps your energy. For dinner later that night we found a restaurant called Makphet, which is run by Friends International. It is one of the "eat with a purpose" places that helps train homeless youth to have productive jobs. They have restaurants in Laos and Cambodia. Check out their website. They also run shops/boutiques with local crafts. I had Lao spicy pork sausage which was amazing. The restaurant was al fresco dining right on the a little side street and it was right around the corner from the hotel. After dinner we changed into shorts so we could walk around the night market which is right along the river. There were a lot of vendors but it wasn't a huge market, not like the kind in other countries where every single booth is selling the same exact crap. At most they had 2 booths that were selling similar things. We bought a bunch of souvenirs and some gifts. I think I bought two t-shirts for $6 USD. It was awesome. I didn't even try to barter with prices like that. After all that shopping it was time to go to bed. Our flight the next day was leaving in the early afternoon so we needed to pack that night too. 

The next day was the same breakfast but the weather was rainy. At some points it rained really hard. We decided to take a tuk tuk to one of the most important temples in Vientiane called the Golden Temple or That Luang. The tuk tuks in Vientiane were a little different than those in Cambodia--instead of facing forward like in a rickshaw, the seats face each other but are sideways. So you can easily just roll right out the back where you enter. Regardless, all tuk tuks are death traps no matter what country you are in, but the Lao are the most tame. It was still rainy when we were at the Golden Temple and we walked around and it actually felt quite nice. It was humid but not terribly hot. We had the tuk tuk driver wait for us and he drove us back to the hotel. I love that about the tuk tuk drivers. Once we got back to the hotel we packed up, checked out, and went to the airport by the same hotel van that picked us up. We were very early for our flight and the Vientiane airport was dead. Vientiane is such a charming little city that has a laid back atmosphere, great food, and very nice but quiet people. No one ever seems to be out to get you or take advantage of you which is a departure from places like Thailand. I would go back to Laos in a heartbeat.    

No comments:

Post a Comment