Vientiane - Alex

Trip Start Dec 10, 2009
Trip End Feb 23, 2010

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, December 12, 2009

Status: Nearly killed by massage, still alive

Laos is a pretty nice place - sort of like Cambodia if you took out most of the interesting sights, but made it a lot more pleasant. Most of the people here are really lovely - unlike in the rest of SE Asia, people don't chase tourists much - walking through a market in Vietnam there'd be people jumping out at you from every stall. Here, unless you show a lot of interest in something they'll just leave you alone. It's great - the Lao accent also helps the impression quite a lot - it's sort of high and silky.

Yesterday we flew in, and on the immigration card it said something about the SEA Games. What were the SEA games? Isn't Laos a landlocket country - where's the sea? Turns out its the SE Asian games, and it's a pretty big deal. There are Lao flags everywhere and GO LAOS bumper stickers on every car. It's on TV nearly everywhere we go too - reminds me of the Olympics a bit. There were a bunch of athletes on our plane too - shame I don't know any Malaysian judokas or I'd be totally starstruck.

When we got off the plane and went to one of the better looking places on Wikitravel. Got there and it was twice as expensive as it was reported as - eventually we bought a LonelyPlanet and it turns out it's one of their top picks. D'oh. LonelyPlanet whores without even trying. It's a nice place though - air conditioning, free breakfast, showers, free wireless, satellite. Luxury :).

After we got a hotel we went for a walk and saw some of the temples. Unfortunately all but one of the religious buildings in Ventiane was demolished by the Siamese at the start of the century - only Wat Si Saket remains. It was pretty impressive, particularly the inner Sim with the wall paintings and flowery ceilings - unfortunately we couldn't take any photos.

During our walking around we decided we might as well take a Tuk-tuk for a longer journey and save some time. Asked how much it'd be for a distance that would take 15 minutes walking and thought he said 14,000 - pretty reasonable, so we got in. Turns out he said 40,000. Classic tourist trap :(. Wouldn't even pay that much in Australia - it's like $4.50 :(.

The currency is actually one of the most annoying things about this country - whenever you change money you get 50,000 kip notes and they're quite difficult to break up so you can buy small things like a bottle of water (5,000).

That night we went to the riverside to eat - unfortunately they're doing some kind of development on the foreshore, so the picturesque beerlao while the sun sets that we'd anticipated didn't happen. We did get to eat alongside a bunch of the construction workers, who'd parked all their trucks and tractors alongside the tables - it looked a lot like a background from Street Fighter. One of them even had a home stereo set up in their tractor, and was playing Lao music that moved from traditional to dodgy soundtracks to a sort of Lao hair metal. It was actually really cool - fun meal.

The next day we hired bicycles and rode around. We rode to the Patouxay, which is a sort of Arc de Triomphe imitation that the Lao government built some time ago with an American grant intended for an airport. Much like the French Arc de Triomphe it's in the middle of a scary roundabout, but you can pay 3,000 kip and climb it - the view's pretty cool. For what I thought would be a lame rip-off, it was actually quite impressive.

We continued to go down the road to the Golden Stupa (Laos' national symbol, it's on everything governmental) but there were police everywhere and they were keeping one side of the road (the side we needed to be on) clear. We couldn't figure out what exactly was going on until a policebike came roaring down with a cyclist and car in tow - turns we'd accidentally walked into the SEA Games cycling time trial. It was pretty fun watching the cycles go by as we walked down the road - especially when we reached a corner and a van was coming down the road just as a Lao cyclist was about to go around the corner - the people were screaming at him to get off the road. Most dramatic.

The finish line was at the Stupa itself, so we amused ourselves by riding through it and checked out the Stupa. Even though it was demolished and put back together, it was still a pretty impressive site (look at the pictures).

After the stupa we went on an epic cycling journey to find the COPE centre, which has a museum about the landmines in Laos and was said to be very moving. There was no sign outside, so we ended up riding right past it and spending an hour going up side streets - for some reason we saw the sign saying "Disabled Stadium" and didn't make the obvious connection. It was worth it though - while the whole point of the museum is obviously to guilt you into donating, it's not like it's not a good cause. What really struck me about the place is how it showcases all this brutal history but it's so positive about it - it's not just "this happened" but "this happened, but now we're doing this and doing quite well to boot".

After we found our way back to the hotel, we decided to try a traditional Laos massage. If you've wondered how the Lao people relax, it's by having a 50kg girl practice some kind of brutally effective jiu-jitsu on you for an hour. While I did feel pretty relaxed afterwards, bits of it were incredibly brutal - it's all about stretching your limbs and walking on you and so on. Ouch. This isn't to say you shouldn't do it though, I have an odd craving to do it again. It's an experience.

Tomorrow we're on a bus to Luang Prabang, and we'll see if the pleasantness of Laos is just a result of the SEA Games cleanup or something truly cultural. Until then...
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