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My first impression of Vientiane?
Dust. Dirt. Dry. Barren.
Vientiane was warm for winter, with no oasis of lush vegetation to seduce the eyes. I had just spent a horribly restless night on my overnight train , crossing the border from Thailand into Laos. I was wanting to be impressed..
When I arrived at the Laotian capital, I was still waiting. If there’s a visible beauty to the city of Vientiane, it may take time to find. I had 48 hours and I was winging it solo with Vientiane.
Tuk-tuk once… but seldom twice.
While Vientiane wasn’t a tropical Disneyland for my tourist itinerary, there’s still a laid-back and friendly disposition to her which makes her appealing.
“Tuk-tuk?” The cab driver asks, smiling and hanging out beside his three-wheeled ride.
“No.” I say flashing a wink back. And that’s it. The driver nods. Laotian drivers won’t chase you down.
For the frazzled and jaded traveler, defense mechanisms on high and expecting the hard sell of tuk-tuk drivers, Laos presents a leisurely shade of relief.
Vientiane is an easy city to wing it solo.
Initially I didn’t know what to expect of Laos; most budget hotels can’t be book online. However, the backpacker area teems with guesthouses, restaurants and bars, which makes finding a bed easy.
Just fresh from crossing the border on foot and hopping a taxi with two other female travelers, I had to think quickly about where to be dropped. The women were booked at a “hotel”. I didn’t want to have to afford one. So, I whipped open my Lonely Planet, picked a name which sounded nice and showed it to the driver! Mixay Guesthouse (read my reviews of budget stays in Laos) was that name and at 9AM, I was one of the first arrivals to nab one of their last spots!
I got a dorm bed with shared bathroom and I didn’t regret it. The place was perfectly commendable. While the façade didn’t initially, coo to me, the place was vigilantly clean, transportation booking could be done at the front desk and an amazing breakfast was included. Cost? 50,000 kip/night! (approx $6-7 USD). If you don’t mind sharing a room with three other people, the bargain is unbeatable.
What to do and see in Vientiane in 48 hours?
Vientiane is still “country” at heart and there’s not a whole lot of things going on. Subtle cultural quirks may raise an occasional brow, but after two days of exploring the city on foot I found myself wondering what left there was to do and see in Vientiane.
#1. Visit the night bazaar
It’s a small open air market in a parking lot about a block long. Here, you’ll find a lot of Laotian food stalls and locals going down the walk drooling to their favorite flavors. At the very end is a little carnival area of game booths and a ferris wheel. It was this market that I found foreign food a bit of a struggle and I’ll boldly admit that I know absolutely nothing about Laotian food. Here’s some tips about Eating Street food. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
#2. Shop at Lalit Sao market
Lalit Sao market is Vientiane’s shopping mall. I’m not into shopping so I didn’t explore it to the end. It’s got stalls and stalls of shops dealing anything from bags, shoes, clothes, even whiskey with scorpions in them!
#3. Chatting with the monks and observe their daily life.
Visiting wats, it’s hard not to come across monks, who are either residents or visiting. Some want to practice their English as that’s one of the languages the monastery trains them in and I personally, think the training is mostly for survival, if they end up leaving the monastery. Each year the monasteries take in boys from Laotian families, who can’t afford to support another mouth or education. Talking to one monk, school tuition cost around $5/year and his family couldn’t afford that. Many Laotian families don’t carry an income but live off of farming and barter/trade systems, so currency is never involved.
#4. Check out the convenience marts and Laotian products
Shopping is not a favorite past time of mine but I can spend lots of time in a foreign grocery store or mart. I like to see what products occupy local values and the subtle differences in country products. Usually there’s a lot of little clues which let you know what a culture is about.
#5. Visit Vientiane’s Patuxai (aka Arc de Triomphe).
You get there- bam! The Patuxai or Laotian Arc de Triomphe resembles the famous monument in Paris. Ironically, the Laotian version was erected as a memorial to celebrated their independence from France in 1949.
#6. Night walking street & sightseeing Vientiane by night
Seeing Vientiane at night is beautiful. The city is aglow with all sorts of lights.
As the old Southeast Asia adage goes, “Same same, but different“. When it comes to night markets in Southeast Asia, Laos doesn’t feel much different. Just a bit smaller (smaller even compared to Luang Prabang’s). At night, the main road in Vientiane sets up a string of lights, tents pop up, carpet mats get unrolled and the night market begins. From hilltribe crafts to local crafts, there’s many options for travelers to get their souvenirs and enjoy the works of local artisans.
#7. Visit wats and their resident schools
One of my favorite wats was Wat Si Sisket. It reminded me one of the famous wats in Bangkok, whose name is escaping me at the moment. Wats don’t only house lovely gold-leaved buddhas and pagodas but they also occasionally, house elementary schools for the neighborhood children. One of the nearby wats was conducting school when I visited, so I sat in the courtyard and just watched and listened as Laotian teachers conducted their class lessons.
#8. Get a 1 hour foot massage for $5.
What better than getting a foot massage at the end of a long day of sightseeing. Cheap but good massages seem to be a thing not only of Laos, but most of Southeast Asia, so enjoy the offerings.
#9. Take the bus to the Buddha Park (photo essay and directions here)
If from this list of things to do, you can’t find a reason to Vientiane, then this one might be it. The Buddha Park exists about an hour outside of Vientiane by bus and the religious sculptures you’ll find here are a bit freaky, strange and a mixed influence of Buddhism and Hinduism. You can walk inside and up to the top of one sculpture that I like to call the Great Pumpkin as the image resembles that. The park is definitely worth a look.
#10. Watch the sunset off the river.
During sunset, you’ll find locals in the park by the river. Vendors sell snacks or balloons, kids play. The river is a nice place to visit to kick back and dream … or jog, if you have your running shoes.