In Laos cities are no cities, rather large villages feeling a bit overwhelmed by their success! This urban peculiarity is even more salient in Vientiane, the capital which was completely wiped out by the Thaïs (then called Siams) in 1827 and has been slowly returning to life since late 19th century.
Wait, is that the capital?
Those of you who traveled in Asia may also get tense when approaching a very big city. We had just gone through Yangon and Bangkok, and I was already dreaming of nature and quietness …
That’s why I was not in the best of moods when we boarded the local bus that would take us from the border post to the Talat Sao bus station in Vientiane. Quoc-Bao knew it all too well and let me isolate myself in gloom, headphones on and eyes fixed on the window.
But as we advanced towards the city, my apprehension turned into perplexity: no suburbs, no traffic, no huge buildings – only this main road lined with houses, shops and small buildings surrounded by green fields.
Finally the bus entered the town itself -and almost immediately we had reached our destination. Talat Sao bus station’s market was very much alive without being overwhelming. Merely two tuk tuk drivers approached us and they did not insist after we declined their proposal.
Walking the 1.5 km separating the bus station and the city center took us between Haw Pha Kheo and Sisaket temples before arriving in front of the presidential palace. The building was all columns and balconies, painted in white and gray with gold enhancements, in the purest neo-classico-coco-colonial style.
We had without doubt reached the Lao capital! Yet the streets seemed totally oversized for the low traffic, and there was still no skyscrapers in sight … Certainly in the hyper-center you may find high buildings, but how to say … the overall impression is the same as you would get in a provincial Vietnamese city.
And there’s a good reason to it: Vientiane is 35 times larger than Paris intramuros but barely harbors 800,000 people. The population density there is 100 times lower than in the French capital. What a relief! I actually enjoyed walking around the town despite the mostly concrete cityscape. There’s an unmatched tranquillity there, which is not so easy to find in a similarly sized capital like Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
SIMilarities -be careful!
As digital nomads, our first reflex getting off the bus was to get a SIM card with 3G. Our research showed that Unitel currently provides the best coverage -indeed we had network all over urban or peri-urban area, with a quite decent speed. The SIM costed 50 000 kips with 5 GB of data included for a month, exactly what we needed … So each of us bought one.
We only discovered our mistake later on, when we tried to make a phone call: we had bought a “Net SIM” which meant no phone number, just internet …
So we had to buy another SIM to get a phone number and be able to make calls -by the way be careful, credits may fly away super fast when calling other local mobiles! So make sure to be specific about what you need before buying a Unitel SIM card …
Vientiane in bulk
We only stayed two days in the capital, just enough to book our bus to our first stop in northern Laos -Luang Prabang, so we did not get an extended experience but here you go:
Staying true to French stereotypes, we stopped at the Banneton for an expensive croissants binge -quite decent taste actually.
In an effort to balance the budget, we returned several times to the bus station where they sell cheap Lao sandwiches -cousin to the Vietnamese bánh mì. Look for the stand run by an old gentleman and his family, with a line of people waiting: the sandwiches here are more generously filled and cost just 5,000 kips forthe medium sized or 10,000 kip for the bigger ones, which were actually hard to finish. Don’t forget to specify that you want it “no spicy”, unless you like it very hot.
We rented a motorcycle to visit the surroundings, and took this opportunity to visit the Houey Hong Center. This facility offers training in traditional textile techniques (weaving, dyeing, sewing …) to women coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Visitors also can attend workshops, in my case an short indigo dyeing course. A nice experience, and a useful way to spend your money :->
Visiting the COPE centre was the highlight of our stay in Vientiane. The exhibition -free and opened for donation- allowed us to discover an aspect of Laos history that we knew nothing about: the “secret war” led by the USA, which made this country the most heavily bombed in History.
The bombing took place from 1964 to 1973, even though Laos was established a neutral territory by an international agreement signed in Geneva in 1962. For this reason, the American operations were carried out without the consent of the Congress – hence its nickname of secret war.
It’s worth noting that this agreement was first violated by the opposing communis Pathet Lao party, -now ruling Laos- when they helped the Viet Cong establish and maintain the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the length of Lao territory. In 1975 saw Saigon falling in southern Viêt Nam, the Khmer Rouge winning the civil war and the proclamation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in Vientiane by the Pathet Lao.
Until 1973 US dropped over 270 millions bomblets over the country, 10-30% of which did not explode and are called UXO (UneXploded Ordnances). To this date the millions undetected UXO are still in the process of being cleared and have caused over 20,000 casualties -dead or wounded- since the end of the war.
The exhibition is well documented (objects, videos, data, testimonies, photos…) and there is also a lot to learn about prosthetic and many other topics. In short we strongly recommend that you visit the COPE centre to see more by yourselves: it really is a must if you’re travelling to Vientiane.