Wednesday 15 May 2013

Getting lost in time: Vientiane, Laos

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Another long over due travel post here! Over the Chinese New Year holiday (mid-february) we had two glorious weeks of vacation in which we met up with my parents and toured around the charming country of Laos. Our first of three stops was the capital city of Laos.

Marked with a long history of foreign control (the country was ruled, at various times, by the Khmer, Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai, and most recently and notably French), the capital feels more like a large town than a major city centre.  Architecturally it includes a range of classic temples and pagodas next door to colonial style mansions. The hot dusty streets are lined with an equal number of traditional Laos cuisine and french cafes. The French influence is everywhere you look and it creates a charming old time-y feel that transports you to time of slow paces, long drinks and the slow twirl of a ceiling fan.

The tourist area of Vientiane is spread along and around Nam Phu, the Mekong riverside with a few main streets that are lined with hotels, restaurants, and shops.  Everything is within walking distance, though it is also common to rent a bicycle and go from site to site in that fashion. The terrain is relatively well paved and endlessly flat and as long as you time it correctly, you could see almost everything in a day.  

We spread our time over 2 full days and took the city at a leisurely pace, which seemed to fit our surroundings well. We followed a relatively popular walking/cycling route and managed to take in a a good amount of what the city has to offer the average tourist (read: Wats, museums, a lot of food).

Haw Pha Keao

Wood Carvings in the courtyard of Haw Pha Keao

We started at Haw Pha Keao, which was built by King Setthathirat as a royal temple to house the famed Emerald Buddha (which now rests in Thailand).  Today it holds a collection of religious (buddhist) art and sculpture and has one of the finest (if not small) grounds to stroll around.

Across the street from Haw Pha Keao is Wat Si Saket.  Wat Si Saket, with it's relaxing atmosphere, tall trees and welcoming benches, is most notable for it's courtyard that is lined with hundreds, if not thousands of buddha images ranging in material from bronze and silver to wood and stone.  This was truly a site to behold, and  was topped off with an impressive sim, with as many as five roof tiers, and keeping yet more buddha images. A must see.

Next it is up the (quite long) street to Vientiane's very own Arc de Triomphe. Known as the Patuxai the 4-gated monument is impressive from afar, but notably lack lustre up close. Built slightly higher than the Parisian original, and made with US donated cement (originally meant for a new airport, the Patuxai is worth a visit in order to climb to the top. The view of the city is vast, the climb is not horrendously difficult (approximately 7 stories), and the ice-cream at the end is the perfect cold treat.

A View of Patuxai


The remainder of our time was spent in various cafes (enjoying far too much iced coffee and pastries), wandering the waterfront, exploring various shops, and eating in many excellent restaurants. 

My favourite part of the city was the food (of course), and I just loved the mix of french and traditional Lao. A buttery croissant by day and spicy Jaew Mak Khua (eggplant dip) by night is just fine by me!

Places of note:
Hotel: Hotel Khamvongsa - very pleasant, excellent location (close but quiet), clean, traditional furnishing, delicious breakfast

Cafe: Le Banneton - Please don't leave the city until you been here. Great coffee and amazing salads and pastries.  I wouldn't bother with the other food because after having one of their salads you won't want to eat anything else ever again. Seriously. Go there. 

Restaurant: Makphet - related to the Friends restaurant that I mentioned in this post, Makphet is also a charitable restaurant that works to train former street youth in the hospitality industry. Food seemed to be reliably good, and had a good hit of spice.

Shop: T'Shop Lai Gallery - part gallery part shop this store was opened by Les Artisans Lao, a group of local Lao Artists who specialize in the use of renewable materials to make handicrafts, art, and personal care products.  I can't get enough of their extra virgin coconut oil, and their natural insect repellent.  They offer a good variety of lotions and potions and it's impossible to walk out empty handed. Their facebook page offers more information

Please note: these businesses are not sponsoring this post.  Any recommendations made here are based solely on my experience while visiting.  I try to make a note of mentioning establishments that are authentic, have excellent service, and where possible are connected to some greater good. 


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