After our thirty minute Lao Airlines flight from Luang Prabang, we touched down at Vientiane‘s airport and were soon in a taxi to our hotel. Not knowing the city, we had chosen a comfortable French colonial style hotel, right in the city centre. We were quickly shown to a large and comfortable room. We were happy that we had chosen well with the hotel.
After unpacking, we started exploring the neighbourhood on foot. We were immediately aware of the intense tropical heat in the late afternoon, completely different to Luang Prabang’s much cooler climate. Having been delighted with Luang Prabang’s high standards, we were quick to notice that the streets in Vientiane were surprisingly dusty and dirty (but not full of garbage, like in the streets of India). The next thing that irritated us was that the vehicles were often parked on the pavement (sidewalk), so we frequently had to take our life in our hands and step into the road ahead of the traffic – and of course, there was a lot of traffic in this busy down-town area. We explored a couple of blocks in each direction from our hotel and booked a table at a highly rated French restaurant for the evening.
We had the fixed menu at the French restaurant and were seriously disappointed with the tasteless food. However, we followed with a nightcap in a popular bar/restaurant – it was a place to which we were to return several times. We realized that it was a popular watering hole for the international community, especially Chinese but also Australians, Brits, German and French. We didn’t hear any Americans but we’ll pick up that thread another day.
Next morning, we woke up refreshed and ready for an early start for our sight-seeing activities. There are probably two main types of tourists in Vientiane. The first group are guided by Lonely Planet and are often backpackers – Lonely Planet recommended exploring Vientiane on hired bikes. The second group travel in air-conditioned coaches or large vans – this was the preferred method for the many Chinese tourists who seem to travel in very large groups and were in town ahead of the Chinese new year. Anyway, we established a third grouping – we went everywhere on foot, until we were exhausted and then took a tuk-tuk back. It is sometimes difficult to make yourself understood to tuk-tuk drivers as their knowledge of English is rather limited or non existent but they will certainly have a go even if it’s gibberish, as they are vying for the business.
Anyway, we had breakfast in the hotel, so we did not stop to sample the many excellent Parisienne style bakeries that are to be found in the center. We headed east along Setthathirath Road (mainstreet). We totally missed the Nam Phu, Vientiane’s famous fountain, and were soon upon the Presidential Palace, an enormous beaux arts style chateau that used to house the French governor. Next we explored Wat Si Saket, which is unique among all of Vientiane’s temples for retaining its original structure and lacking renovation. It has close to a thousand impressive Buddha figures and is recognised as an important place of Lao heritage. We turned into Th Gallieni and past the colonial style French Embassy and the Catholic Church, that is named ‘The Sacre Coeur’, a beautiful white church with a very tall spire.
After about a kilometer, we found ourselves on Th Lan Xang, described as ‘the Champs Elysee of the East’. We spent about an hour exploring the Taat Sao, a massive indoor shopping mall. Next we stopped at the Tourist Information Center, got some maps and information and rested a little courtesy of their aircon. We then went back out into the heat and strong sunlight, heading north along Th Lang Xang in the direction of Patuxai (the Lao Arc de Triomph). Although getting hotter, we continued towards the Patuxi and resolved to climb to the top, some two hundred steps, over seven floors – the three-hundred and sixty degree panorama from the top was spectacular and well worth the hike up.
Afterwards, exhausted we took a tuk-tuk back to our hotel and had a light lunch in one of the bakeries at around 2.00PM and the food was excellent! That evening, we sampled a super and inexpensive Japanese restaurant. For a small city, Vientiane boasts a wide range of cuisine. We rounded off the evening with some fresh ginger tea in our hotel, good for the digestion!