Arriving in Vientiane, I get my first experience of Laos’ quirky transport system.
You’d expect the capital city of any country to have a railway station but, in Vientiane, it’s in a tiny village called Thanaleng, miles from nowhere. The only reason I can think of is that it provides a livelihood to the tuk-tuk guys who’re the only means of getting into town. It’s a pattern that repeats itself all over Laos – nowhere does one find point-to-point transportation. I’m pretty sure even Laos Airlines does the same. A tuk-tuk drops you to a bus/boat, which stops miles short of your destination. You then hop on to another tuk-tuk (or two) for the final leg. Maybe, it’s the local version of communism – everybody gets a share of the pie.
Though I usually take their opinions with a large pinch of salt, the guidebooks were right about Vientiane – it’s a city where no one stays long, a nice enough place, clean and safe, but somehow lacking atmosphere. The Funky Monkey Hostel, where I’m shacked up, doesn’t have the usual backpacker vibe; no one’s staying long enough to make friends. The streets are…well…bland – banks, embassies, UN, NGO and government offices abound.
So, in the hot afternoon sun, I take solace in the company of an old friend. Beerlao is, in my opinion, the best beer in Southeast Asia. From my balcony seat at Bor Pen Nyang (literally ‘No Worries’ in Lao) restaurant, the Mekong is a muddy stream, across which is Thailand. Cold beer sunk, spicy Lao sausage consumed, I’m off to grab a much-needed siesta.
“…from a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.” Words you wouldn’t expect on signs at a national monument. But, the Patuxai is, if not impressive, at least pretty imposing. Built to commemorate Laos’ independence from France, it’s ironically modeled on that most French of gateways – the Arc de Triomphe. In the cool of the evening, I’m only interrupted in my quest for more photographs by a sobering thought – Laos nightlife ends early.
I shouldn’t have worried – Samlo Bar stays open till 2 am, and the interesting crowd only shows up after 11. My first brush with lao-lao, the local moonshine, is therefore a memorable one. Smashed silly would be an apt description. Which, of course, explains why I surface only at 11 the next morning.
My second day in Vientiane is slightly more interesting. It’s an easy walk to a more authentic Lao monument – the That Luang, or Great Stupa. Gilded spires surround a stupa which, it’s claimed, holds part of the Buddha’s breastbone. I make merit the local (or, is it the touristy?) way – buying a couple of caged sparrows from a vendor and setting them free. There’s also Wat Ho Prakeo, the erstwhile home of the Emerald Buddha, now enshrined in Bangkok’s Grand Palace as Thailand’s national treasure. When it comes to Buddhas, though, neigbouring Wat Si Saket bags bragging rights – anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 Buddhas, depending on who you ask, line its walls.
But, if you have to see one place in Vientiane, visit the COPE Centre for a glimpse of Laos’ biggest modern problem – unexploded ordnance. Between 1964 to 1973, in what’s described as the most ferocious bombing campaign in history, the US dropped more bombs over Laos than what was collectively dropped in World War II. Its tragic result – a country with little safe land for agriculture, and an appallingly high rate of amputees. The COPE Centre opened my eyes to the fact that much of the so-called Third World’s problems are a result of First World greed.
Trudging done, it’s back to the Funky Monkey. And time to pack my bags for the next leg of the trip – Luang Prabang.