Ben Groundwater offers hints and tips for anyone with time to kill in the sleepy and often overlooked Southeast Asian city of Vientiane.
Don’t listen to the naysayers. There’s a popular school of thought that says Vientiane is not much chop. It’s a stop-off at best, an unfortunate distraction from Laos proper. Hardly worth your time.
But those people are way off. Sure, the Laotian capital doesn’t boast the big-ticket items that you might find in Bangkok, or Siem Reap, or Ho Chi Minh City. But this is a place that offers charms on the smaller scale – an easily navigable city centre, a riverside strip of markets and restaurants, and friendly people inhabiting this sleepy bend in the Mekong.
It’s quiet and often overlooked, but that’s the attraction.
Only got one night to spend? There’s no question as to what you should do. Hugging the city centre, the strip of riverfront overlooking the Mekong becomes a hive of activity as the afternoon wears on. Locals cook fish and traditional foods in makeshift kitchen stalls, while travellers sit out on woven mats and watch the sun set with a few Beerlaos.
There are tourist markets around selling the usual tack, but these are easily avoided – make a beeline for the busiest food stall, and feast on fresh river fish roasted over hot coals.
Once the sun has set, make your way to one of the riverside bars – some of which are comprised of little more than a wooden verandah and a cooler box for the beer – and you can enjoy Vientiane evenings at their best (as long as you’ve got plenty of bug spray).
Those with a little longer to spend in the city can take a more educational approach. The Lao National Museum offers a snapshot of the country’s history, while the COPE Visitor Centre exposes the ongoing issue of unexploded ordnances that were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. It’s heavy stuff, but well worth finding out about.
After that, you need a shot of the bizarre. Grab a tuk-tuk, negotiate your fare, then head out of town to Xieng Khuan – the “Buddha Park”. This clearing plays host to a huge collection of Buddhist and Hindu statues, including a pretty impressive reclining Buddha. The real joy, though, is just being surrounded by so many bizarre creations.
Of course, if you didn’t want to go all the way to the park but still wanted to experience an important Laotian tradition, you could head over for a tour of the Beerlao Brewery. But you might not remember it.
by Ben Groundwater