Dec 24-29, 2014
Exploring Laos' Capital, Vientiane
Location: Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane being the capital of Laos, Tuyen (my Vietnamese traveling buddy) and I expected to see the big city with all its bells and whistles. We arrived at the South Bus Station which cost Kip 20,000/pax for a tuk-tuk ride to the city center. Playing it safe, we pre-booked at Haysoke Guesthouse from Agoda to ensure we had a hotel upon arrival. The hotel was pretty on the outside, dilapidated on the inside. This seems like a recurring theme in Vientiane.
Exploring the City on Foot and by Bike
Unlike most travelers who avail of tour packages to make the most of their visit, I would while away my time just exploring the streets of the city - from the charming cafes, the street food offerings, the boutique hotels, and public parks, night decket and bric-a-brac stores. I do this on foot and by bicycle. I'm glad Tuyen also subscribes to the way I travel, otherwise, the buddy system simply won't work. Specially in Laos, tours are expensive - even taking only one or two could significantly add up.
Business As Usual
The few Laotians I met gave me a sense they are honest people. The foreign investors though seem to do business there simply to cash-in on tourism by doing cosmetic make-overs to pretty-up the place from the outside but leave the inside crappy and neglected. They seem to care less about the culture and its people than it is to make money at a crass commercial level. They rent out bicycles they don't maintain and get adversarial when you complain about faulty parts - just an example.
Vientiane, for a capital city, is small and has a relaxed pace. Motorists are unrushed and don't blow horns and it's easy to cross the street (try that in Saigon!!!). The city itself is small and quite manageable. The population is scarce. Locals are generally friendly and comply to the non-smoking by-laws (unlike Vietnam!). The streets of Vientiane are safe to walk on even at night.
Vientiane is also the place where I had to exercise restrain. With a dwindling cash flow in an expensive place, I had to hold back. It was a test of resolve not to buy that duck that just came off the roaster. I was salivating like a Pavlovian dog. Even as I write this, I think about that freshly roasted duck I had to turn my back on. One day.....
From the little I have seen in the last 5 days I was here, I am led to conclude that Vientiane has already seen its best days. There is no growth here unlike what I have seen in most capital cities - just old buildings. There is no new infrastructure to keep it with the times, unlike Saigon, Bangkok or Phnom Penh. The only charm I see is from the few boutique cafes lining up the short strip of Rue Setthathilath by Rue Pangkham - they seem to be propping up the city from its lackadaisical slumber. The fact that Vientiane has slow internet and is also more expensive with food, don't help its situation. Except for the pagodas that are practically on every corner, there isn't much to see either - Buddha Park perhaps, but that is not even an archaeological find but a recent 1958 development.
If you are passing through Vientiane to a northern destination like Luang Prabang, then yes, it is worth a stop-over to break a long journey. But I would not suggest it if you have to go out of your way. I would keep coming back to Saigon or Bangkok. But Vientiane? It needs new blood...new energy to snap out of its sleep and give more value for its price - my 2 cents worth.
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Next stop: Do-It-Yourself Tour of Buddha Park
Vientiane City Bus Route Map
Vientiane FYI / Tips
- Vientiane is slightly less expensive than Pakse, but still more expensive than Saigon, Bangkok or Phnom Penh
- the tourist area where most of the hotels, restaurants, ticket offices, tour operators, etc., are located along the river beteen the Khun Bu Lom Road and Rue Chanthakhoumane - if you book a hotel within this area, no need to take a tuk-tuk ride to get to the main drag
- in Vientiane, internet speed is generally slow - some guesthouses only have lobby wifi. It was only very recently that fiber-optic connection has been made available, and at $200/month for the cheapest package, very few business owners are availing of it.
Udon Thani (Thailand) to Vientiane by bus
Take the International Bus at Udon Thani Bus Terminal 1 - no pre-purchase, on sale tickets only for the next departing bus, Baht 80 (Kip 23,500), departing times 8:00, 9:00, 10:30, 11:30, 14:00, 15:00, 16:30, 18:00, no visa-no ticket (except ASEAN), unloading at Khua Din Bus Station, 2hrs 15mins
Pakse to Vientiane by bus
This is an 11 hour bus ride along paved roads. You are advised to take the sleeping bus on the night trip - that way, you sleep while traveling and wake up in Vientiane, effectively saving you an additional day and sparing you the cost of one night's lodging. Bus price ranges from 150-170,000 Kip. Pakse's bus terminal is right in the city so you can just walk it.
Vientiane to Luang Prabang by bus
This trip is a 10 hour bus ride along paved roads. You are advised to take the sleeping bus on the night trip - that way, you sleep while traveling and wake up in Luang Prabang, effectively saving you an additional day and sparing you the cost of one night's lodging. Bus price ranges from 170-190,000 Kip. The bus takes off from the North Terminal. Even though you can get it cheaper to buy the tickets directly there, it would cost you more to ride the tuk-tuk to get there - best to have your hotel arrange the bus booking and you get picked-up right at your hotel.
- Buddha Park - an eclectic collection of concrete sculptures of Buddha and Hindu deities, 25 kms southeast. Package tour - Kip 70,000. You can also do a self-tour
- Pha That Luang - a third-century golden Buddhist stupa right in the heart of the city - biking distance
- Sisaket Temple - a Buddhist temple built between 1819 and 1824. It houses thousands of tiny Buddha images and rows with hundreds of seated Buddhas from its cloistered walls. This could be Vientiane's oldest surviving temple
- Patuxai (Victory Monument) - a war monument built between 1957 and 1968, it is dedicated to those who fought for independence from France
- Wat Si Muang - a Buddhist temple built in 1563, considered to be home of the guardian spirit of Vientiane
- That Dam - a black stupa believed to be inhabited by a 7-headed king cobra who protected the Laotians from an invasion by the Siamese army
- Night Market
- Mekong River Bank
- Ho Phra Keo
Vientiane Cost Index
As a general rule, Laos is a little more expensive than Thailand. What would be sold in Bangkok for Baht 40-50 would sell for Baht 50-60 in Vientiane. Some vendors would accept Thai Baht as payment, and may even exchange Baht for Kip. Vientiane is slightly less expensive than Pakse, but still more expensive than Saigon, Bangkok or Phnom Penh
- Kip 10,000 one big bottle, Beerlao (Kip 12,000 if by the river)
- Kip 5,000 1.5 liter drinking water, sugar cane juice, soy milk
- Kip 50,000 one hour massage
- Kip 20,000/pax tuk-tuk ride from bus terminal to city center
- Kip 12,000 coffee
- Kip 15,000 noodle soup with meat
- Kip 10,000/day bicycle rental
- Kip 10,000/kilo laundry
- Kip 175,000 sleeping bus to Luang Prabang (155,000 if seated bus)
- Kip 40,000 dorm bed incl. breakfast
- Kip 80,000 double bed in a fan room, shared toilet incl. breakfast
Laos Travel Tips
- Laotians hardly speak or understand English
- like Switzerland, Laos is land-locked by its neighbors - Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and China
- Laos is a communist country and has close ties with Vietnam, its communist neighbor. Best not to talk anything negative about the government
- some establishments will accept US$ for big purchases but it's best to exchange your dollars to Kip for the small day-to-day expenses
- Laotians are generally honest people with a calm demeanor, much like Cambodians
- like Cambodia, Laos is steeped in its devotion to Buddha - pagodas abound and monks are an integral part of the landscape
- best place to exchange currencies is at the border. City money exchange centers won't give you the best rates
- best to exchange US dollars to Kip for good rates. If you exchange Vietnamese Dong to Laotian Kip, the rate is horribly low
General Travel Tips
- avoiding scams - as a general rule, I ignore the touts or anyone I don't know who call out to me. The calling comes in many forms - "Hi! Where are you from?", "Excuse me! Excuse me!", "Where are you going?". I don't look them in the eye and I remain non-verbal with them. If you reply to them, you just gave them an 'in' to hound you. In order not to look rude, I smile and wave the 'not interested' hand to them, without looking at them.
- power bank - hand-carry your power bank. Do not check it in. You can be called in when you are already inside the plane to go all the way to the loading dock so you can personally remove the power bank...and chances are, you'll have to surrender it to them. And you might delay the plane departure!
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