Vientiane: Papaya, Pone, and French Colonial Charm
Vientiane and Vicinity: French Colonial Charm
By Terry Braverman
Peering out the taxi window, the Lao capital of Vientiane (pronounced Ween-chan) had the look of a provincial city, far more reserved than head-banging Asian metropolises like Bangkok and Hong Kong.
I checked into the Chleunxay Hotel, which lacked luxurious amenities like 24 hour room service and an elevator. No matter, the staff made amends with their perpetual cheer, and the charm of the bamboo-driven décor made it well worth the stay. <span " French colonial days are still evident in Vientiane — the baguette and other French staples in restaurants and bakeries, the architectural style of buildings with their broad concave balconies, and street signs starting with rue, one of the few French words I recollect from high school.
After check-in, I strolled through a quiet residential area, passing food stalls emitting the aroma of foe (rice noodle soup with vegetables and meat) and kaa-feh (would you believe, coffee?). Clearly not accustomed to a falang (foreigner) roaming their neighborhood, people gazed at me cautiously, yet amiably. I found Lao people to be conservative by nature, but very gentle and scrupulous.
No ATMs to be Found
An ATM card is as useful as a snowplow in Laos . There are no ATMs, and even your credit card will beg for attention. However, there are money exchange offices open seven days a week. At the money exchange I met a fellow Yank who was cavorting with a young Lao lady on her motorbike.
She left briefly to fetch a friend who became my motorbike tour guide. We rode 45 minutes out of the city to a papaya orchard near the Nam Ngum river.
Later, we indulged in an incredible feast on a floating restaurant, highlighted by green papaya salad with squirmy wormy creatures literally jumping off the plate!
I cringed at the sight of everyone consuming this intimidating concoction, but I survived the inaugural fork full. Succulent paa beuk (giant Mekong catfish), ping kai (grilled chicken), and thua nyao (spicy green beans), though inanimate, made the meal complete.
After lunch we drifted down the river on a large bamboo boat. It felt like the industrialized world was light years away, as we melded with the placid water, unspoiled land, and tropical blue sky.
Back to Vientiane
In some ways Vientiane is an un-urban city. Waking up there is baffling because it starts with the sound of roosters crowing, and when you walk down the street you’re bound to see goats or chickens ambling about aimlessly on city streets.
It is wise to watch your step — you can easily disappear beneath those streets due to uncovered manholes.
A real early morning treat is the traditional procession of orange-robed Buddhist monks parading down the streets, bestowing blessings upon the people sitting curbside who reciprocate with a donation of money and/or food.
The city lies by the Mekong River, where several pleasant riverside cafes and bars built of bamboo and thatch are open for business, and patrons linger over Lao beer or kah-feh nyen (iced coffee) and kap kaem (traditional snacks). For landmarks, Pha That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa) is considered Laos ’ most important monument, a symbol of Buddhism and Lao sovereignty. Each level of the monument has different architectural features in which Buddhist principles are encoded.
Serendipity follows me vigilantly in exotic lands, and that night I encountered a lovely Lao lady working for her older sister in a restaurant. We chatted for hours in broken Lao and fractured English, and after “passing through customs” so to speak, with some wily persuasion for the elder sister’s permission, I picked her up the next morning and we went to a beautiful place in the mountains called Vang Vieng for two days of trekking and relaxation.
On the four-hour trip to our destination, the bus broke down (included in the tour package, no doubt). This wasn’t surprising, since the concept of vehicle maintenance hasn’t taken hold yet in Laos . Given some of the moon-like road surfaces, it may not be a bad idea.
The Vieng Savanh guesthouse I settled into was a charmer, with colorfully tiled walkways, stairs and flooring in the room. A large parrot with an impressive vocabulary was there to greet us at the entrance. The room was not large but very comfy, with a balcony that featured dazzling mountain views.
After checking in, we went down to the river and crossed on a swaying bamboo bridge. About halfway across stood a small straw hut occupied by a family, who charged a nominal fee to get to the other side of the river. I was fascinated by this quaint example of enterprise. I wondered if they offered franchises.
The next day we trekked with a private guide and visited a Hmong village. The Hmong tribe originated in southwestern China and moved to the hills of northern Vietnam , Laos , and Thailand , presumably in search of better property values.
Hmongs are known for their weaving skills, and gold and silversmith prowess. It was a privilege to be among the Hmong, a humongus pleasure in fact. When we entered the village, I pulled out a harmonica and played some jazz standards. As if on cue, kids came darting out of their huts to surround me and listen attentively to a sound so foreign to their ears.
From the village, our guide led us to a cave with a huge Buddha statue, and a cave with an elephant’s head, both carved into the cave walls. In another cave we groveled, twisted and squeezed under stalactites, with some wading and swimming through cave pools. I took some mementoes back from the cave—leg and knee abrasions from the rocky terrain of the cave floor.
Flagging down a Sangthaew
I was bushed when we headed back to Vientiane the following day. To exacerbate matters, and maintain consistency of service, the bus broke down again on the way back. These experiences can be frustrating, but if third world inefficiency upgraded to Western style convenience and clockwork perfection, Laos would likely forfeit its charm. The lack of efficiency decelerates life and creates opportunities for other experiences.
We flagged down a sangthaew, which is a colorful, wonky Japanese pick-up truck with a rooftop, parallel benches in the back, and a few wobbly stools to improvise a middle row. The vehicle could belong in a Disney animation, but it did transport eight of us back to Vientiane , just in time to catch a splashy yellow and purple sunset over the Mekong.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: GETTING THERE
Lao Aviation, Thai Airways, China Yunnan Airlines, and Vietnam Airlines offer international flights; Trains go from Thai cities to Nong Khai near Lao border; take taxi from train station to Lao border, then bus or taxi to Vientiane. There are also land crossings with Vietnam , Cambodia , China , and Myanmar .
Visitors are issued 15 day visas at the airport and the Thai/Lao border. It’s imperative you have the visa fee of US$30 cash or Thai baht ahead of time. Best to get visas at Lao consulate or travel agency in Thai city, it’s cheaper too. <span "mso-spacerun: yes;"
Between November and February is the best time to visit (dry and relatively cooler)
Vientiane- Chleunxay Hotel, <st1:address "background-position: left bottom; background-image: url('res://ietag.dll/#34/#1001'); background-repeat: repeat-x;"Khouvieng Road . PH: (856) 021/223-407, 021/222 878; FAX 223-529. Rooms with fan, shower and some with a/c, US$12-14 Vang Vieng- Vieng Savanh Guesthouse, sorry no phone, ask for directions from bus depot. Rooms with fan, shower, some with a/c, US$3-4
For more accommodation options, check out unique Vientiane hotels and interesting tours of Vientiane.
Vientiane- Main bus terminal on Thanon Khu Vieng, next to Talat Sao. Depart daily 7, 10:30 , and 1:30 . US$.75 Vang Vieng- At Malany Guest House, B. Sisavang, PH: 023/511083, 020/5518941, 020/540-5650
Terry Braverman travels internationally as a professional speaker, seminar leader and writer. His primary topic is based on his bestselling book, When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Lighten Up!