By John P. Seely
We cross the Mekong and step back thirty years. The modern two lane highway with giant billboards selling fast food and instant beauty stops at the Thai end of the Friendship bridge to be replaced on the Lao side with a pot-holed, ill-defined, dusty road lined with concrete warehouses and dingy, crowded, wooden markets.
Instead of brand-new pick-ups and SUV’s there are ancient jeeps, belching buses and swarming motorcycles. The girls and women shopping in the markets are wearing blouses and the pa-sin, a traditional long wrap worn like a skirt, rather than jeans and t-shirts. And everything slows down….
Inside the thick-walled compound of Wat Sisaket, two monks sit under the spreading branches of an enormous bodi tree deep in conversation with some travellers. Just a few metres away is the busy morning market, but here it peaceful and quiet.
As you look further into the temple complex more groups of monks can be seen; some reading under the shade of trees, their trunks wrapped in colourful, sacred scarves; others chatting and laughing with visitors or pacing in meditation under the trees. Visitors quietly flit in and out of the sim (ordination hall) which is surrounded by cool, dark cloisters; home to thousands of Buddha images placed in threes in niches in the walls. Others sit in silent contemplation in front of the altar.
Temples are the Heart
The temples are the heart of the city and the best places to meet the people. The monks are always ready to talk and practice their English. You’d be forgiven for thinking “Where do you come from?” is a traditional greeting, visitors hear it so often.
As evening falls, the monks leave the grounds while at an outside classroom alongside a wall a group of young novices sit down for an English lesson with a volunteer teacher. A few minutes later two western girls wander up and cause good-humored consternation among the boys by sitting next to them and sharing their books. Monks, and that includes the youngest novice, are forbidden to touch women, even to the extent of taking something directly from their hands. If they do touch a woman, even just brushing past, they will have to undertake a lengthy ritual purification.
It’s common practice here for boys from poorer backgrounds enter the monkhood as a way of getting an education. One monk said that because his parents were peasants the schooling available to him was very limited. Joining the temple was the only way out.
Once they have completed their studies many monks will leave the temple and return to a secular life. In return for their education the novices do most of the chores, serving the monks until they are 18 or so when they become monks themselves.
The more prominent temples see a constant stream of supplicants paying their respects, making merit, asking for favours and making offerings if their wishes have been granted.
Wat Si Muang contains the city pillar and is very popular with people asking for favours. If their wish is granted they will return with offerings of fruit and flowers. Walk into the dark inner chamber of the sim with the city pillar high on the alter wrapped in scarves and flanked by large Buddha figures and you’ll be struck by the powerful atmosphere.
There is a constant stream of people laying offerings in front of the altar. The monks in the outer chamber, tying sacred white thread around people’s wrists for protection, will tell you about the human sacrifice that is supposed to have taken place when the pillar was first installed.
From a sim next to Pra That Luang, the country’s most important monument, comes the amplified sound of funeral music. At the foot of the sim large awnings are set out with rows of chairs inside. We discover that the funeral is for a very senior monk. His body is in coffin nearby while people come to pay their last respects.
After paying ours we stay for a while and ask about him. The monk presiding speaks no English but another visitor, who claims to be the minister for religious affairs, is happy to translate for us. Unfortunately he is out of name cards! They tell us that the monk who died had been the leader of the Buddhist Association in Laos, an important person. He had died whilst he was meditating, a rare sign of holiness and attainment.
Aside from the temples…
Vientiane lacks much of the charm of Luang Prabang but it is great for a couple of days strolling around; getting a feel for the laid back pace of Laos before hurtling off once more. Traffic is light compared to other SE Asian cities and so bicycling is a good way to get around and the city is easy to learn. It is laid out in a grid along the Mekong, with the historical centre a fairly compact area about a kilometer square in an area known as Chanthaboury District.
There are plenty of pleasant shady tree-lined streets dotted with temples and French colonial buildings interspersed with traditional shop houses and more modern hotels.
Government offices and other official entities are often housed in the colonial buildings, many of which have just been or are in the process of being renovated though they all look deserted. There is no bustle of cars or people in and out so I wonder where the governing and administration is actually done.
There are several examples of more recent socialist style architecture; in particular the fading Lane Xang Hotel, once the pride of Vientiane, its now tatty rooms are popular with travellers these days; and the colossal Soviet Cultural Centre, hard to miss painted in bright yellow and gleaming white, looks as if it has never been used.
Wander the streets around Thanon Setthathirath & Thanon Samsentha. This is the backpacker’s ghetto stuffed with guesthouses and restaurants of all kinds. This is where you will find travel agents and all the other essentials for the traveller.
While away a few hours with a beer in the Nam Phu Fountain Circle and watch the world go by. It’s a peaceful pedestrianised area in a faintly European way. Round the outer edges of the circle are some upscale French and Italian restaurants while the Scandinavian Bakery at the top does a roaring trade in sandwiches and pastries.
For a taste of genuine Lao food try the stalls along Thanon Fa Ngum along the bank of the Mekong. You can get spicy green-papaya salad and barbecued fish or chicken along with sticky rice which is all pretty safe to eat. The side plate of fresh greens though is not safe to eat. All washed down with juice from a freshly opened coconut.
Lao food is eaten with the hands but unlike Indian dining, it is not done to dive in with your whole hand. Instead a ball of rice is taken from the rice basket, with the left hand usually, then smaller bite-sized pieces are taken from that with the other hand, and rolled between the fingers then dipped into the communal dish, placed into one side of the mouth and chewed.
Fish or meat is taken up in the hands and pieces broken off and popped into the mouth. If soup is served then each diner will have his own spoon. Home meals are not usually accompanied with drinks. Once you have eaten your fill, you get up, rinse your hands and then scoop water to drink from a clay pot, but in a restaurant drinks will be served.
These stalls are pleasant places to watch the sun set over the river but if you suspect their hygiene there is a big selection of restaurants selling a variety of international and local foods in more traveller-friendly fashion on the other side of the road. This is definitely the best place to wind up after a hard day’s exploration.
Wat Si Muang at the junctions of Thanon Setthathilat, Thanon Samsenthai & Thanon Tha Deua.
Wat Sisaket at the corner of Thanon Lane Xang & Thanon Setthathilat.
Pha That Luang on Thanon That Luang.
Haw Pha Kaew National Museum on Thanon Setthathilat opposite Wat Sisaket.
Xieng Khuan Park (Buddha Park) 24km south of town off Thanon Tha Deua.
From Bangkok, Thai Airways and Lao Aviation fly regular flights.
From Thailand’s Nong Khai via the Friendship Bridge. Visas usually available at the border.
- By river:
Down the Nam Song by truck inner tube from Viang Vieng- 2 days. Down the Mekong by boat from Luang Prabang- around 5 days
Where to Stay:
Country code for Laos is +856, the area code for Vientiane is (0) 21.
There is a large range of hotels and smaller guesthouses in Vientiane.
Prices are quoted in US$. Hotels (and most other places in Laos) quote in US$ and Thai baht. The Kip is very weak while denominations are low so and even small transactions can involve huge wads of paper. Prices are often lower if you pay in Baht or US$. Many hotels offer free airport transfers. All the hotels below are within 10 minutes walking distance of each other and dozens of smaller guesthouses.
Settha Palace Hotel
The hotel of choice. Delightful restored colonial building beautifully decorated with rosewood floors and furniture. Very friendly and helpful staff. Can be full during the high season (Dec-Mar).
6 Pang Kham Street, P.O. Box 1618, Vientiane
Tel +856-21-217581-2, Fax +856-21-217583, email website, Doubles US$98 all-inclusive with breakfast.
A brand-new, 5 story building with 24 good, clean rooms. A good second choice.
Khounboulom Road, Ban Watchanh, Chanthaboury District, Vientiane
Tel +856-21 241066, Fax +856-21 240916, email email@example.com
Doubles US$21 all inclusive with breakfast.
Lane-Xang Hotel (pronounced lan sang)
On the bank of the Mekong. 103 rooms with peeling wallpaper and scarred furniture. Once the hotel. Full facilities Including swimming pool & tennis & nightclub.
Fangum Road, P.O. Box 280, Vientiane
Tel +856-21-214100-6, Fax +856-21-214108
Doubles US$25 all-inclusive with breakfast.
Lao Plaza Hotel Vientiane
Massive modern hotel complex like hundreds the world over. You won’t know you’re in Laos. Full amenities and snooty staff.
63 Samsenthai Road, P.O. Box 6708, Vientiane
Tel +856-21-218800-1, Fax +856-21-21808-09, email lph@Laoplazahotel.com website
Doubles from US$120 plus taxes, room only
Another brand-new hotel.
2-12 François Nginn Street, Mixay, Chanthabury District, Vientiane
Tel +856-21-216906-9 Fax +856-21-216223 email firstname.lastname@example.org website
Doubles US$64 all-inclusive with breakfast. Day Inn Hotel
059/3 PangKham Rd P.O. Box 4083, Vientiane
Tel +856-21 223847, Fax +856-21 222984, email dayinn@Laotel.com
Doubles $US30 all inclusive with breakfast. Scandinavian Bakery
Very popular with travellers and the local expat community. A variety of sandwiches and pastries. Seating is available next door and outside. Often full. A godsend if you’re desperate for a taste of home.
74/1 Thanon Pangkham Vientiane Tel 215199
Most hotels and guesthouses have bicycles for hire. B&P hotel for example charge 1US$ a day.
John Seely writes from Chang-Rai, Thailand.
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