Stranded in Vientiane, Laos!

So we’ve been stranded in Vientiane, Laos, for the last four days waiting to get our visa for Thailand after a slight oversight on our part. Ordinarily we wouldn’t be bothered about having to hang around in a beautiful country for a while, but Vientiane is probably the quietest (and possibly most boring) capital city on the face of the planet so, we’ve struggled for things to do!

We decided to make it our mission to explore the city further and to see if we could come across anything interesting along the way. We debated going bowling on the Saturday, just like the locals do, but instead settled for eating lunch in a place that we had seen many times on local pop music videos – The Pizza Company! This big gleaming restaurant is right opposite the National Museum – we ordered our food which came with the biggest portion of garlic bread I’d ever seen then popped next door to the attached ice-cream parlour and devoured an Oreo Brownie sundae – yum! This may not seem like the most authentic of Lao experiences but in Vientiane, we swear it is!

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We then walked the long way round to the Central bus station to ask about tickets to Vang Vieng – they are 30,000 Kip with the local bus which leaves every hour but would drop us off around 2.5 kms outside of the town centre.  We decided just to get them from our hotel in the end, which is 35,000 but will drop us right in the middle of town (plus has air con!)

Later that day after walking the streets hoping to come across some undiscovered hidden ‘gem’, we gave up and went to an internet café to watch the Apprentice! Now we don’t want Vientiane to sound unappealing because it isn’t. It’s chock full of French inspired cafes, bakeries and restaurants, pretty backstreets and a few beautiful ‘green’ corners to relax in (the Namphu fountain square and Patuxai come to mind). BUT, for backpackers on a budget, most of these places are slightly outside of the usual price range, which somewhat limits the recreational options to cheap beer on street corners or noodle soup.

The next morning we thought that it was about time we experienced the ‘real’ Laos again and get out and about beyond the city. We hired a moto and headed out – first stopping at a few of the Wats and Stupas hidden round town, including That Dam – an eerie looking ancient Stupa reported to have been home to a seven headed dragon once upon a time. It’s nestled within a pretty roundabout in a quiet back street and looks completely at odds with its surroundings but is pretty cool all the same.

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We then had lunch in the grounds of Patuxai, Laos answer to the Arc de Triomphe, also known as Victory Gate. It was built in 1962 but never  completed due to the problems the county faced during the Vietnam War. You can go right up to the top for a great view of the city or just walk around the picturesque grounds which include two fountains and a World Peace Gong.

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Once we were done within the city limits we headed north along Road 13 and just kept driving until our surroundings became more and more sparce. The duel carriageway we were on was riddled with pot holes and completely empty! It was so deserted that I could get off the bike in the middle of the road and take photographs both ways.

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When we had travelled around 16 kms outside of Vientiane we turned off the main road and headed down a dirt track –trying to get lost in the countryside! We passed rice fields and reservoirs where quite a few people were working in the fields and bumped into a really cute trio of little girls riding their bike along a spring.

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Perhaps even cuter was the family of goats we bumped into and their little baby!

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We then decided to turn back and head in the opposite direction and found ourselves another 15kms North West of Vientiane. Again we turned off the main road and drove deep into the middle of nowhere passing villages, pig breeding centres and feed mills. As the sun started to get lower we stopped at a rickety old bar on stilts by the side of the road and ordered a Beer Lao. We were the only customers in there let alone the only Westerners but it had a great atmosphere – the owner’s family were sat around a table in the middle with at least 8 big bottles of beer scattered around them and were singing and clapping along to music videos on the TV. Everyone around here seems to be obsessed with karaoke! We wished we could have stayed longer but were concerned about the fact that the skies were getting darker and we didn’t quite know where we were!

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We raced back along the dusty roads, getting back to the city centre a completely different way to the way we’d come, stopping off for dinner at a street café by the Mekong.

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That evening we were really tired from all of our galivanting but so pleased that we’d gone off the beaten track once again and met some really nice people in the middle of nowhere!

When Monday came, we could finally go down to the Thai embassy to apply for our visas. We got there at around 11 am, fully expecting it to be empty like it was on Friday but were amazed to see that it was packed full of people, all waiting to be seen. We only just found a seat and when we pulled out our ticket from the counter there were still over 100 people in front of us! We hoped that the staff wouldn’t simply close the application window once it got to 12pm and tell us all to come back the next day but luckily they kept on going past 12.30 so that they could get everybody processed.

Pleased with our success we went across the road for lunch before walking back towards the riverfront. Our next stop was the MAG information centre (Mine Advisory Group) situated on a dirt track right at the end of Fa Ngyum Road. MAG exists to rid the people of Laos of the thousands of UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance) that are still scattered across the country after the bombing carried out by the US during the time of the Vietnam War. Laos is the most bombed country in the world and during 1963 and 1975 it had more bombs dropped on it by the Americans than were dropped throughout the entirety of World War 2. The US were seeking to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail as well as destroy communist factions that were hiding within Laos but all they succeeded in doing was leaving the Laos people with a legacy of fear and poverty due to the bombs that didn’t explode.

Inside, the centre was a lot smaller than we had imagined – it consisted of a small square seating area surrounded by graphic boards explaining various things such as the number of bombs dropped, the effect it had and still has on different individuals and the work that the MAG teams are involved in day to day. They also have a range of UXO’s on display with explanations of the damage they are designed to do.

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It was interesting and very sad to think of the ‘catch 22’ situation that UXOs have left the Laos people with – the bombs keep people poor because it is too dangerous to use the land to grow crops or build infrastructure, but this poverty then forces them into the scrap metal business where they search out UXOs to salvage and sell, which more often than not, explode when moved or dismantled, killing or severely disabling them.

We did feel however that the centre could be a bit more informative – we got more out of the UXO section at the National Museum – but it gives a good summary of the current situation.

The next morning it was finally time to collect our visas for Thailand. We hired a couple of bicycles to save us some time and rode up there early in order to get to the front of the queue before the gates opened at 1pm. As expected the queue was HUGE and we waited for over an hour in the baking heat before they would let us all in. Eventually the gates opened and everyone raced to the front of the next queue. Ten minutes later we had our passports, complete with visa and went off to get a celebratory ice cream!

We then took the bicycles on a long ride along the Mekong through tiny villages hidden behind the main roads. Living alongside these quiet dirt tracks seemed like such an idyllic lifestyle – a simple life where children, chickens and dogs can roam the streets in peace, whilst the adults lounge around in the shade listening to music or cooking fish! We also passed a big fish farm as well as several temples where we could hear the monks chanting inside.

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On our way back we stopped at an aptly named bar (Sunset bar) to watch the sunset. It was definitely the best viewpoint so far and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! We watched it go down over nearby Thailand and concluded that Vientiane isn’t such a boring place after all.

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We’ve been here for quite a while now and whilst we have been bored several times, we’ve also been amazed by the city’s understated appeal. Whether walking around the quiet, safe streets, immersing ourselves in local life or watching spectacular sunsets, we’ve managed to get a lot of enjoyment out of what is perhaps the most laid back capital city in all of South East Asia!


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1 Comment

  1. November 03, 08:40 #1 Penny Arbuthnot

    Hi Aisleen

    Fantastic blogs, keep up the wonderful writing

    Tonight’s the Pride Awards so the excitment is building!

    best wishes to you and Richard


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