Vientiane isn’t really what you’d expect from a South-East Asian capital city. There are no swarms of scooters plaguing the roads; no flashing neon signs for ping-pong shows or strip clubs; and no annoying guys trying to sell you a shitty James Bond style suit that will fall apart in 007 days. So basically it’s nothing like it Bangkok or Hanoi.
Much like the rest of Laos, Vientiane is chilled out and the locals are friendly. Having come here straight from the shit stain that is Phuket, that suited us just fine!
Good Night Trains
We took a night train up to Laos from Bangkok and we loved it! It was our first one of the trip and this was when we found out how cool it was to travel in this way. Any hesitations we might have had about taking the night trains disappeared as soon as we stepped on board and saw how quiet and clean everything was.
You have to reserve your ticket in advance which means that everybody gets their own decently comfortable bed, with a curtain for privacy and at 8pm the conductor comes along and actually makes your bed for you – awesome considering the ticket cost less than $20. We basically lay back, drank a beer, relaxed and watched the beautiful Thai countryside go by.
In fact it was all going great until one point in the night, when I went to brush a small spider off my bed and the fucker jumped up into my face. I promptly shat myself and considered burning the entire fucking carriage to the ground rather than share it with jumping spiders… Not cool Thailand. I don’t have to deal with this shit back home!
Roll Up, Roll Up!
The train only takes you as far as the border at Nong Khai, where you have to show your passports and then take a short mini van ride the rest of the way to Vientiane. We stayed at the Dream Home Hostel for $5 each for a dorm, which actually isn’t that cheap in the Asian backpacker world, but the hostel was worth it. The price included a really nice cooked breakfast, the hostel is in a good location and I still remember how incredibly friendly the staff were here. Even more incredible considering I noticed the same staff were working from when I woke up until I went to bed… Never mind being friendly, at that point I’d be as volatile as a Cali girl at her sweet 16.
We must have arrived on a special national holiday or something because just a few blocks from our hostel, the streets were packed with people and lined with stalls of street food, music and strange fairground games.
We wanted to have a bash at one of the games, which all seemed familiar, but had a local twist. So after wandering the stalls and failing to even work out what half the shit actually was, we gave up and settled for enjoying watching other people lose instead.
Hooked at the Night Market
There’s one main night market right by the Mekong river which flows through the city. It’s similar to most other night markets that you’ll come across in Asia, with the usual mix of souvenirs, clothes and food, but with a major difference – it is way more chilled! Usually I can’t stand more than half an hour in these places, because they’re too crowded and you can’t so much as glance at a stall without getting pounced on with shouts of ‘What you looking for?‘ and ‘I give you special price‘ and it pisses me off.
I don’t know why, but things are different here. The market isn’t too busy, the sellers are laid back and you can stroll around the stalls and buy your tat in peace. I like that.
A few more fairground stalls and some actual rides were here on the night we visited, so obviously we had to have a go on the bumper cars just to show that we’re not above teaming up on the local kids.
We sat down for a break by the Mekong river and got to thinking how much we already loved Laos; how relaxed this city was; how nice and genuinely friendly locals were and what a contrast it all was to Phuket.
As if to prove our point, we soon got approached by a smiling, friendly local woman who sat down next to us and started chatting away in broken English. After a few more minutes of half-understood small talk with her however, it turned out that she wanted to suck us both off for cash and she probably wasn’t a woman after all. I guess Bangkok isn’t that far away now is it…
We found out the next morning that there isn’t much sight-seeing to be done in Vientiane and what there is can be done in a day. The handful of temples and monuments that are dotted around the city however, are impressive enough to be worth checking out.
Wat Si Saket
The big draw for this temple is the absolutely ridiculous number of Buddha statues that they have in the walls, on the floor and all throughout the grounds. Most of the statues are simple and not particularly impressive by themselves, but the overall experience is cool and the temple is unique enough to warrant a visit.
Haw Phra Kaew
Right next door to Wat Si Saket, this is a really pretty, old temple, famous for no longer housing the Emerald Buddha. Instead the building now houses a museum to Buddhist art and a small shop. It’s not a big place but it is cute and it’s worth checking out for only a small entrance fee.
Blast from the Past
All that sightseeing is enough to make you hungry and we were in the mood for some good old British stodge. Luckily for us it seems that you can find an Irish pub in every city of the world and Vientiane is no different, so we went and grabbed ourselves some ‘Bangers, Mash n’ Gravy’ and a Beer Lao. It’s hard being cultural 24/7 you know…
While sinking our beers we got chatting to a couple of girls on the table next to us, while bonding over jokes about the other table being full of old western men and young Laotian women. It turned out that the girls were both on exactly the same STA Travel tour that I had done two years earlier! Crazy coincidence and more than enough excuse to make some new friends.
Not wanting to be more of a dickhead than comes naturally, I didn’t mention that I thought the tour was shit. I enjoyed it at the time, but in hindsight it was a rip-off and completely shelters you from the real experience of SE Asia, by putting you up in nice hotels in a small isolated group of tourists.
Instead we drank a beer and shared the gossip from their tour group, later going to look for some more bars. This is where we hit a snag – there is almost no nightlife in Vientiane. Most bars are closed by midnight and those that are open have a seedy ‘not sure if this place is a brothel or not’ kinda feel to them.
This is ultimately the problem for a tourist in Vientiane. Once you have visited the few temples and monuments, walked the night market and sat by the Mekong, there isn’t much else to do. The city has a nice relaxed ‘small town’ feel, but if you want that, then just go to any other town in Laos and you’ll get that times 100. We soon realised that nobody sticks around here longer than a few days and even then, the vast majority of western visitors are just using the city as a convenient stop for a Thailand visa-run.
I’m glad I went, but I’m in no rush to go back.
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