Everyone we talked to about traveling in Laos glossed over Vientiane, as if it were just a transit stop along the way. We beg to differ. We loved so much about Laos’ capital city during our four-day stay there — seven things in particular.
1. The pace. Everyone calls Vientiane the world’s most chilled-out capital, so I said, I’ll be the judge of that. I’ve changed a lot and get really overwhelmed and uncomfortable in big cities — my NYC days are definitely behind me — so if I think it’s chilled-out, then it really is. And as it turns out, this is the most quiet, laid-back, lazy capital in the world. There were times I felt like I had to whisper, times I wondered where everyone had gone and times when I took a three-hour mid-day nap and missed out on nothing. If I had to pick an Asian city to live in as an expat, it wouldn’t be the ever-popular Chiang Mai, Thailand; it would Vientiane. (By the way, the expats in Vientiane are refreshingly not-annoying. They speak Lao pretty well, mingle with locals and don’t eat just cheeseburgers.)
Wandering through wats.
Sleepy riverside. OK, this segment of the Mekong isn’t picture-perfect, but I liked these two men lazing by the water.
2. The food. Having come from a strict rice-lettuce-egg regimen in Ban Kong Lo, we were ready to eat, and Vientiane did not disappoint. There are plenty of cusines to choose from but some of our favorites were Turkish food at Istanbul, Vietnamese pho at a nameless restaurant, sweet street-stand parathas, fruit shakes at PVO, and Jamil and Zahid, a divey Indian restaurant so good we went back twice. And it was the only place where the return trip was just as tasty as the first visit. We had chicken curries, chana masala, samosa, outrageously good pakora, pineapple shakes and garlic naan made from Zahid’s own tandoor. The semi-outdoor restaurant sits at the front of Zahid’s house, so don’t be surprised to see his young son, Jamil, cycling around the restaurant — or walking around naked before his bath. And don’t be surprised if the owner starts videotaping you either. He films everyone who eats at his restaurant and puts them on his YouTube channel. My favorite part was when he said to me, “You look like me. Where you from?”
Riverside street by night.
Street parathas (Indian-style bread), pan-fried, filled with chocolate and drizzled with condensed milk. Holy moly.
Jamil and Zahid.
Fruit shakes at PVO, a Vietnamese restaurant in the lovely suburb of
Talat Sao outside the city center.
3. COPE Visitors Centre. Did you know Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world? Did you know cluster bombs dropped during the Vietnam War are still littered throughout the country, inflicting serious damage to people who weren’t even alive during the war? If not, you should consider making a trip to the COPE Visitors Centre. COPE has helped rehabilitate victims of cluster bombs and other post-war-related afflictions through emotional support and professional prosthetics. On display are exhibits and mini-films as well as longer documentaries you can watch in an air-conditioned “cave,” meant to replicate the caves that Laotians had to hide in during the war. I’m not one for museums, but this place is so engaging and powerful. During our visit, we also met Peter, a 20-year-old Lao boy, whose hands were amputated after he came into contact with a cluster bomb. Having learned English on his own — and quite well, I might add — he talked to us at length, but not once about his injury. Instead, he hit on me, asked me to hook him up with one of my many cousins and told us about his favorite soccer teams. What an inspiration.
Prosthetic legs (left) and cluster bombs (right).
A child’s drawing with a translation of the caption.
4. Lao massages. These aren’t found only in Vientiane, but we did have our first Lao massage in the capital city. (We had less skillful massages in Luang Prabang.) For $5, we had our bodies stretched, pulled and cracked for one hour. Torture for some; bliss for me. I think soft Swedish massages are pointless; when I get a massage, I want to feel it. And in a Lao massage, similar to a Thai massage, muscles aren’t so much rubbed as they are pressed, and it was just what we needed after walking around the city and sitting in meditation for an hour the previous day. See below.
5. Free meditation. Every Saturday from 4-5:30 pm, Wat Sok Pa Luang — a peaceful temple hidden in a forest with one of the most beautiful settings for a wat I’ve ever seen — offers free Vipassana meditation sessions. One monk leads the meditation with English explanation and time for Q&A. This was a good primer for a 10-day Vipassana meditation we’ll be doing in India…in that it revealed how painfully hard those 10 days will be. Ouch.
6. The night market. Luang Prabang’s night market can claim the best products, but Vientiane’s claims local cred. Of course, you’ll see tourists, but you’ll see more locals — families, couples, teenagers splayed out on the lawn. I haven’t been too impressed by the souvenir shopping in other countries, but Laos sucked my wallet dry, and at this market, we picked up quite a few goodies.
7. Alms-giving. Every morning at dawn, saffron robed monks walk barefoot through the streets to collect food donations.This will be the only food they eat that day. It’s a sacred experience and happens all over Laos, but in Luang Prabang it’s now a flashy tourist activity. (Travelers in our LP hotel told us about tourists chasing after monks to get their pictures and getting up in their faces. Totally disgusting.) We were staunchly against doing it there, and I was even more adamant about not taking photos. Instead, we woke up at 5:30am one morning in Vientiane, hopped our hotel fence (which was padlocked) and headed out with a bag of lychee. We settled onto the sidewalk of a quiet street with just one old lady. She let me kneel on her mat — I didn’t know to bring one — and lent me a cup of water, which is poured onto the ground after the food collections have been made and while the monks chant a prayer. It felt real and special. I have no pictures to show of it and, in my opinion, that’s the way it’s meant to be.