My first stop in Laos was the capital, Vientiane. Swerving the 24+ hour bus journey from Hanoi that I’d heard some ghastly things about, I flew. Typically, as I got in the boarding queue, the sun came out and it was a brilliant blue sky – the first I’d seen for about 3 weeks. Thanks, Vietnam.
The flight was smooth and I touched down, handed over my money and my mugshot, and got another great visa sticker in my passport. My stamp collection in there is starting to look pretty good! I got a taxi to my hostel as I was told there wasn’t a bus – it’s true there isn’t a stop at the airport itself, but I found out afterwards that you can pick up a local bus for 4,000₭ if you walk out of the airport to the main road. Otherwise, the taxis are a set fare of 57,000₭ to the city centre area.
I checked in, and headed to the common areas to talk to some peeps. I got chatting to two Canadian guys and a Brit, and we headed out for some lunch before trying to find a hotel pool to soak up the rest of the afternoon’s sun. Operation Poolside failed, as it was too late in the day for many of them to be in the sun. However, we did find out that if you’re looking for a lounge-in-the-sun day there are a number of hotels in Vientiane that will let non-guests pay to use the facilities (shiny places like Lao Plaza and Rashmi’s Plaza charge up to 100,000₭) or there’s a big public swimming pool that charges 15,000₭. In the meantime, I was just happy to be back in my sunnies!
In the evening, we went to the night market before dinner. It was interesting in that it was the first market I’ve been to where they didn’t hassle you to buy things as you walked past. It was full of locals doing their own shopping, which we weren’t expecting. We then headed to a local eatery recommended by someone we’d met and by Lonely Planet, Lao Kitchen. They have a really extensive local menu at good prices, I’d highly recommend it.
The next morning was slightly cooler and overcast, so I wandered out to explore the sights of the city. I have to say, these were few and far between. For a capital city, Vientiane is very quiet; there seemed to be nothing and no-one there! It was certainly very different to Vietnam on the roads; here, they actually stop at red lights, and I was even stopped for at a zebra crossing. Who’da thunk it?
I headed past the Patuxai, Laos’ answer to the Arc de Triomphe, up to Pha That Luang temple. Supposedly the most important temple monument in the country, it was a little underwhelming. It’s quite commanding in its totally gold appearance, and the elaborate gardens and smaller temples surrounding it, but there was nothing inside and no information for a lowly traveller like myself to try and glean a clue as to what I was looking at. Ah well, at least I tried, and it was only 10,000₭.
I continued on to the COPE Centre, which was a much more interesting visit and I would definitely recommend going. It’s the public-facing element of an organisation set up to deal with the millions of unexplored ordnance (known as ‘bombies’) left in Laos after the Vietnam War. Laos is actually the most bombed country in the world per capita as a result of the American bombing missions to destroy the supply routes of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and the population are still suffering now. Children find and play with them, causing them to explode. Farmers hit them whilst ploughing, and families can cause explosions whilst cooking on the floor as the warmed up ground can detonate the bombies. COPE both runs an operation to clear the hazardous areas, and also provides physical and psychological medical assistance to those affected by the explosions – including creating some impressive prosthetic limbs for amputees. Some of the stats and info I learned about the state of Laos after the war were mind-boggling, and I’m glad I gave the centre a visit. They’re doing some very difficult and inspiring work. It’s free to visit, but be sure to give them a donation to support the programme!
After my fill of sight-seeing and some lunch by the river, I headed back to the hostel and changed, ready to make the most of the sun that had re-emerged. I went to the hotel next door and paid to use their poolside for a few hours, and got chatting a Danish couple who’d just come the opposite way I’m due to go through Laos so had some useful tips for my next few destinations.
When I’d absorbed the last little slice of sun over the pool, I went back to the hostel and I sorted my bag before dinner. I chose another good local place, Coconut Restaurant, where I’d highly recommend treating yourself to dessert and getting the local apple rolls. Nom nom.
So, my first stop in Laos was probably most memorable for some very tasty food, and the first feeling of warmth and sunshine I’d had for a while. Happy bunny. Hoping the sun follows me, next, I’m continuing north for a bit of countryside action.
Until next time,
Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 3, including a local man I asked for directions to the COPE Centre when my phone died. He then pointed in 4 different directions.
Interaction was: not worth the effort taken to try and mime where I wanted to go. Bless him for trying, though.
One Woman and her Backpack x
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