- Monday, 7 November 2016

Vientiane, Laos: Sights and Impressions

"Vientiane" by Staffan Scherz is licensed under CC BY 2.0
On my way to Vietnam earlier this year, I made a short 4 day stop in the capital city of Laos, Vientiane. The city, to my surprise, was far more relaxed and easy going when compared with other capital cities in its neighbourhood. There was hardly any problem of traffic, pollution or general chaos. Night times were all the more laid back and quiet.

Inside Pha That Luang

Vientiane is famous for its numerous intricately decorated temples. The two main temples I explored in the town were the central Sisaket Temple and Pha That Luang – both beautiful and welcoming, with many monks around happy to chat with you to practice their English. They also welcome you inside to have a look around at the lovely décor and paintings within.

Another very important facet of Laotian culture is the alms giving ceremony. Every morning, locals gather in temples and streets to provide the monks with their daily meals in their offering bowls. Alms giving ceremony is also a prime tourist attraction in Laos and foreign visitors can often be seen jostling each other to get a perfect shot. It is important to realise that it's a religious ceremony and best seen from a respectful distance. If, like me, you are residing with a local host in a residential area, I highly recommend to avoid bigger temples and observe the ceremony in the streets around your home. 

Inside COPE visitor centre

I also went to the COPE visitor's centre, which is a group dedicated to the creation and distribution of prosthetic limbs for those people who have been affected by unexploded ordinance throughout the country. Unexploded ordinance is a very real issue in Laos, with thousands affected each year, many of them children. These bombs have been left behind since the tumultuous war period of 1960s and early 1970s. Today, many cluster bombs remain in the countryside, and many children play with them without knowing the risks. COPE aims to educate and assist those who fall victim to these bombs. It's a MUST visit.

Lunch at Benoni's Café

On a lighter note, I enjoyed hopping between the city's many cafes, bars and restaurants – all of them serving delicious food in fantastic settings. From local and regional dishes to western fare, everything was on offer. There was only one thing missing: the local energy. Locals were missing from this fast-expanding modern cafe/bar scene of Vientiane. My host told me that locals prefer to dine at home, as most of them simply can't afford to dine at these eateries.

To me, such exceptionally high number of cafes and bars for a small cozy city like Vientiane seems meaningless, if  the local population cannot afford to eat there. 

But all is not lost, the back streets of the city are host to some really interesting and quirky cafes and restaurants – and are more likely to draw a local crowd than those in the centre. Look out for the unassuming family-run Kung’s cafe – my favourite!

"Sunset over Mekong river" by Damien Farrell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the evening it is nice to head down to the Mekong River promenade and have a walk through the night market to check out what the locals are selling. Many fantastic Laotian things can be found here – from coffee to clothes and everything in between. 

You can also head over to the new cement flood defences and have a sit down in the cooler air, people watching. Many come here to jog or walk along the river at night, and it makes a perfect end to a busy day.

Have you been to Vientiane? What was your experience like?

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