We only spent a couple days in the capital city of Laos. I had jumped on a super cheap flight deal to get us to our next destination leaving us with only 2 nights here, which actually came down to only one and a half days to explore. With limited time, I think we made the most of every minute. Here’s how it went…
We arrived midday on a minibus from Vang Vieng. We checked in to our hostel and took off to see a couple of the most important sights of the city. At first glance, we noticed was that we were intermixed with many more locals than in the last couple destinations. Aside from the usual tuk-tuk drivers stationed near some of the main intersections and at the tourist sights, the city was more about business, and the economy didn’t seem to be driven by tourism which is refreshing in Southeast Asia. Still though, we were in fact tourists and had our sights to see. So on foot, we made the long walk to Pha That Luang, a huge golden Stupa. We paid the small entrance fee and took the usual clockwise walk around the Stupa trying our best to remember everything we had learned from our amazing guide in Tibet. We explored the small temple nearby then headed back toward town.
Having passed by the Patuxai Monument on our way to That Luang, we knew we wanted to climb to the top on our return. This monument is sort of like Laos’ Arc de Triumph dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. We found the entrance and climbed to the top to take a look. It was certainly worth the small entrance fee. Afterward we strolled through the small markets built inside the monument on each floor. On our way up, Whitney had seen something she liked so we made sure not to miss it on the way down. “Happy Wife Happy Life.”
Leaving there it was a bit past 5pm, so the remaining temples we hoped to see were closed. It turned out to be much further of a walk than we had anticipated so we ended up cutting out a couple other things on our list. Here’s a travel tip: take a Tuk tuk to see both of these monuments to save some time. Oh and lest I forget, if you happen to pass by someone baking what looks like a hashbrown or breaded fish on a stick then you may be in luck. Ask if it is sticky rice, and if so buy it. No idea what it is called, but it is probably one of the best things I have ever eaten. Basically it is a patty made of sticky rice seasoned in some spices and grilled over hot flames. I only found it once on the roadside next to a school while walking down the road in Vientiane.
Moving on, that evening we ventured to a riverside restaurant hoping to see the sunset. We arrived to a cute little place with a gorgeous view over the Mekong River facing into Thailand. Unfortunately the clouds covered the horizon for the most part, but it was still a nice spot for a drink before dinner.
We took a slow walk home that night through the market and then to another restaurant mentioned in Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.” Forgetting the name (maybe on purpose), I’ll say it was a little disappointing for me as the supposedly spicy meal I ordered lacked most of the flavor I have grown to love here in Laos. However, Whitney enjoyed her meal.
Early the next morning we were scheduled for an amazing tour with Tuk-Tuk Safari a very special tour company in Vientiane. This is a husband and wife owned company and the tour we signed up for gave us the opportunity to live like a local for a day. Our guide and owner of the company picked us up at our hostel and then took us around the city in his tuk-tuk. Our first stop was a bamboo and sticky rice making company. Here the family works together to cook one of Laos’ national dishes called “Kaolam” which consists of coconut sticky rice placed in large bamboo pieces over hot flaming coals. The bamboo is then carved down to a very thin layer that easily peels open. It’s sort of like the bamboo becomes a banana peel to the coconut sticky rice. It tasted amazing and is highly recommended.
Next we crossed town to check out a silversmith’s operation. We entered this large store with some incredible pieces of decorated silver and jewelry. Our guide led us through the store and into the workshop at the back. In the workshop about dozen or so 20 something year old gentlemen were meticulously working to design pieces of jewelry. Others were stretching what began as a tiny bar of silver to become many meters of thin silver that was to be woven into various things such as bracelets and necklaces. For no reason at all I had assumed all jewelry was made by machines and people only did a few of the finishing touches, but apparently these guys were hand making each and every item. What Whitney and I found interesting was that this particular shop owner recruits kids from the local community and provides them with an apprenticeship, including free room and board, and allows them to develop their craft and skills while preparing them for full-time employment with the company.
We left the silversmith to check out the local market. We have visited so many markets, but remain surprised at the variety each time we enter one. Our guide pointed out the various items of interest, tried to explain the different types of rice and even crumpled up a number of spices for us to compare the aromas. After purchasing some delicious banana chips we set off for some Laotian coffee at a little café. Coffee in Laos is strong and always comes with some condensed milk to sweeten it, which also tends to make the drink very thick. I enjoyed it, but it’s not for everyone.
We continued on from there to check out the UXO Museum, which is a sad reminder of the devastation caused by war and highlights some remnants that are still affecting people today.
Ok, I have to pause here for a few minutes to share my thoughts on this. I have mentioned in other articles that I never really learned much history regarding this part of the world, but as I travel I have begun to read a lot more. I would like to share some details specific to this museum. During the Vietnam War, a weapon known as cluster bombs were used to destroy supply lines of opposition forces. Cluster bombs are essentially large containers of many smaller softball or baseball sized bombs that when dropped from above, explode in the air releasing the smaller bombs to cover a larger area than a single bomb. These were intended to clear the opposition from the area, but with no ability to direct these bombs, they were spread around enormous areas of Laos’ countryside and even into many villages. What makes it more chilling is the fact that only about 80% detonated at the time they were dropped, meaning that another 20% (or about 80 million!) still remain in the fields and jungles across the region. What makes matters worse is that farmers, children, or anyone for that matter, may come in contact with these and could potentially cause them to explode. It’s frightening to know that a child could come across one of these baseball size bombs, play with it like a ball and inadvertently cause it to blow up. Additionally, this is still happening to this day even as efforts are being made to clear areas of land. I could say so much more, but I’ll stop there with a request that everyone read about these devastating occurrences to understand some of the long term effects of war and even consider donating to support the clean-up activities hosted in these countries affected by the UXOs. (BTW there is a treaty signed by 119 countries agreeing not to use this particular weapon in their arsenal, and USA was not on the list at the time of our visit).
We left the UXO museum a little somber and headed to a small restaurant tucked away in an alley for lunch. We split a couple local dishes as we talked about the world in a bigger picture. It’s difficult to imagine the life the people have in these parts of the world until you are able to see it in person. It’s truly eye opening.
After lunch we had only 2 more stops to make. First, our driver took us to make an offering for the Buddha. We stopped at one of the shops I would have otherwise passed right by never ever entering. We were met by a kind associate that sat us down on a blanket where she taught us to make an offering of yellow lotus flowers and banana leaves. Even after having toured so many temples in a number of countries I never expected to be doing this. After we finished pinning the pieces together our guide walked us across the street to one of the many temples in the area. We followed him into the temple where he showed us exactly how to make the offering as he does on a regular basis. I’ll admit I definitely felt a little out of place there, but it was still a fun and unique experience.
He dropped us off back at our hotel at the end of the day. We took a little time to relax before heading out to stroll through the market one last time. It didn’t take us long to stroll right though the market and out the other side where we happened to end up in a massage parlor. Funny how that happens. One minute you are looking through the market next thing you know you are getting probably the 20th massage of your trip (except this one was a 2-hour massage for $14, a good one). Then a small noodle soup after our massage capped off our time in Vientiane.
In the end it was great to spend a day with our local guide to better understand what it is like for the locals and the challenges they face. It was also enjoyable to be in a city that wasn’t built around tourism. For now, it’s over the border for a quick trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia.