Thursday, February 19, 2009

Laos... Reading and Packing Time...


Get around

Getting around Vientiane is generally easy, as the traffic is far less murderous than in larger Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. Street signage is, however, rather lacking though in the center more and more signs are appearing. Where there are signs displaying street names these are bilingual Lao and French. The Lao word "thanon" on these signs is translated by "rue", "avenue" or "boulevard", in many cases without any apparent logic. Therefore the Lao word "thanon" is used throughout this article.

The map on the right, which is fully to scale, covers the center only. Maps covering a larger area are available at bookshops and some mini-marts, but are not as detailed and not always to scale. Many storefronts feature addresses in Roman letters, and these are often the best way to determine the street one is walking. People navigate using landmarks, so name the nearest embassy, hotel or temple to where you want to go.

Since 2006 a major road upgrading project has been going on in the town center and out of it up to way past the airport in the west and the Friendship Bridge in the east. Financed by the Japanese government and planned and overseen by Japanese engineers, the project is nearing completion (November 2007). Gone are the hazards presented by missing drainage gully covers and sidewalks upturned by tree roots. Almost no trees have been cut - amazing! In downtown Vientiane the through roads Thanons Setthathirat and Samsenthai and the side roads connecting them and down to the river now have sealed surfaces and sidewalks, and there is decent street lighting. A one-way traffic regime is in place (but not the police enforcing it), and parking regulations have also been introduced. Of course, it is still anarchy on the roads. Foreigners beware: markings for pedestrian crossings have been painted on the new roads, but the local drivers regard them as decoration. Don't rely on them!

Vientiane's rainwater drainage system, which also takes care of "grey water" from baths, sinks, laundry etc consists of gullies on the roadside, usually covered by concrete slabs. These slabs are sometimes damaged and very precariously balanced, or even missing altogether; people rapidly learn to take care before stepping on anything that looks like a slab! Waste from toilets is or should be collected in septic tanks (at every house), but those gullies can nevertheless smell abominably. In the center things have improved markedly as a result of the road upgrading. The smell from the gullies is now no longer very noticeable.

Note: do not rely on the Google Earth view of Vientiane for locating the sights: many locations put there by well-meaning users (the "Google Earth Community") are clearly in the wrong place, not just a block or so away but some even in a wrong part of the town!

By taxi

Vientiane has a small fleet of genuine taxis retired from Bangkok, usually found lurking at the Friendship Bridge, the airport or in front of large hotels. Fares are set by bargaining, so figure on around US$0.50 per km or US$20-40 to hire one for the day, depending on car type and distance.

By tuk-tuk or jumbo

Tuk-tuks and their bigger cousins jumbos are ubiquitous in Vientiane. To charter a tuk-tuk/jumbo, agree on the fare in advance; short hops within the city shouldn't cost more than 5000 kip, although as a tourist you may have difficulty bargaining to less than US$1 (10000K). All the tuk-tuk drivers carry a fare card for popular destinations but these fares are a bit inflated and a little negotiation is recommended. Share jumbos running on set routes, eg. Th Lan Xang to Pha That Luang, charge a fixed 1000K. Tuk-tuks lined in front the Mekong bank restaurants or other busy areas will try to charge you 30-50K even for short trips. It's not worth trying to bargain as they won't go anywhere with a normal (5-10K) fare. Walk a few blocks and you can cut a deal much closer to the real price.

By bus

Minibuses connect the center to the suburban districts, but are not particularly useful for tourists, with the possible exception of the bus to the Friendship Bridge. The main terminal is on the east side of Talat Sao.

By bike

Bicycles are perhaps the best way to get around the city. Most guest houses and hotels can arrange bike rental for around US$2 per day. Although the city's flat terrain makes for good biking, one-way streets can be difficult to identify.

Despite the poor standard of local driving, cycling is fairly safe in the city because the traffic is quite slow (maybe because of the condition of the roads). But take extra care when the roads are wet, because many are unsurfaced (even in the city center), and they can be muddy and slippery - innocent-looking puddles sometimes conceal deep potholes.

On foot

The city center can be quite comfortably covered on foot, at least in the cool season. Pha That Luang, however, is 4 km away from the center and thus a bit of a hike. Out of the city center there are few footpaths so walking can be uncomfortable.

Temples and Stupas

Some temples (indicated below) charge an entry fee of 2000/5000K for Lao/foreigners and are open 08:00-16:00, with a 12:00-13:00 lunch break. The monks of those that don’t charge a fee will be grateful for a small donation in the box.



Wat Si Saket, the oldest standing temple in Vientiane

  • Wat Si Saket now signposted as Sisaket Museum. Entrance fee. Corner of Thanon Lane Xang and Thanon Setthathirat. Probably the oldest standing temple in Vientiane and among the most atmospheric. Built in 1818 by Chao Anou in the Bangkok style and hence left unsacked when much of Vientiane was razed in a Siamese raid in 1828. Now the oldest still standing temple in Vientiane. Within the cloister walls are hundreds of niches housing Buddha images large and small, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze. In the center of the courtyard is a five-tier-roofed sim (ordination hall) housing yet more Buddha niches and beautiful but fading murals of the Buddha's past lives.
  • Haw Pha Kaew. Entrance fee. Thanon Setthathirat (opposite Wat Si Saket). King Setthathirat's former royal temple, which housed the magical Emerald Buddha (pha kaew) after it was taken from Lanna (Chiang Mai). The Siamese took it back in 1779 - the image is now housed in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew - and came back in 1828 to raze the temple for good measure. The present structure is a 1942 reconstruction of dubious provenance. Today, the temple no longer operates and the interior has been turned into a small jumbled museum housing Buddha images; look out for the beautiful tall, lithe, long-armed Buddha in the hands-down "calling for rain" pose.
  • Black Stupa (That Dam). Thanon Bartholomie (off Thanon Samsenthai near the US embassy). The mythical abode of a seven-headed dragon that protects Vientiane. It was renovated in 1995 but still has an attractive patina of age, and is slowly being overgrown again by vegetation.
  • Pha That Luang. Entrance fee. Thanon That Luang (2 km east from Patuxai). The national symbol and most important religious monument of the country, That Luang is a three-layered gilded stupa. The current version dates from 1566, although it has been ransacked and renovated numerous times since then. Closed Mondays.
    • Vientiane's most important festival, Bun That Luang, is held here in November on the night of the full moon.
    • There are two temples beside That Luang: Wat That Luang Neua to the north and Wat That Luang Tai to the south, both presently being renovated.
  • Wat Si Muang. Between Thanons Setthatirat and Samsenthai, about 1km east of the center. Despite its small size, the temple is very active and houses the city pillar. Followers believe that lifting the small buddha statue 3 times from its cushion means that your prayers or questions will be answered.
  • Wats Onteu, Inpeng, Mixay and Haisok are along Thanon Setthatirat right in the town center, and therefore the most likely temples to be visited by travelers.

There are many more temples all over the town, but it must be said that if you are out to admire temples Luang Prabang is the place to go, not Vientiane.

Other

Patuxai, the Victory Gate

  • Patuxai ("Victory Gate"). A local rendition of Paris' Arc de Triomphe. Besides the elaborate Buddhist embellishment, it differs from the original in having four gates instead of two and being just a bit higher (to spite the French). Reasonably impressive from afar, a surprisingly frank English sign inside the monument labels it a "monster of concrete" when seen up close - and the concrete in question was donated by the US, although it was supposed to go towards a new airport instead. The monument itself aside, the palm tree-lined park around it complete with fountains is quite pleasant though lacking of shade during the day time, and you can climb up to the 7th story (stairs only) for a view of downtown Vientiane.
  • Lao National Museum. Thanon Samsenthai (next to Lao Plaza Hotel). Formerly the Lao Revolutionary Museum by name, the historical exhibits on the first floor are modest though very interesting in depicting some of the early history. They include one of the original Jars from the Plain of Jars and various stone and bronze age implements. There has been some attempt to label in English, though it is sporadic. The second floor provides us with a great insight into the 18th Century Laotian Kingdom and the customs of the day. It would appear that the Loatians didn't treat their guests quite as well in those days, often keeping them from leaving the country for several months. The floor builds up to a fervently revolutionary pitch as it documents the heroic struggle of the Lao against the Siamese, French and American 'imperialists'. Exhibits include items such as socks worn by Politburo members when they escaped from prison and Kaysone Phomvihane's chest expander. The final rooms, on post-revolutionary Laos, are mostly a photo gallery of pressing topics such as the comrades of the 7th Plenary Session of the Laos People's Congress inspecting fertilizer production processes. The final rooms provide an insight into some of the modern advancements, though these are fairly dowdy and uninspiring. Visitors are forced to walk through the shop (items look like they have been on sale since the revolution in 1975). A guestbook regularly features amusing arguments between young western visitors on the subject of communism. Most exhibits patchily labeled in English and/or French. Entry 10,000K, open daily from 08:00 to 16:00. Bags must be checked in at the front desk. No cameras are allowed.

Nearby

Buddha Park

  • Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) is a bizarre outdoor collection of huge concrete sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu deities and real and imaginary beasts. The reclining Buddha is especially impressive. Built in 1958 by mystic Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who left the country after the communist take-over and, in 1978, went on to establish a nearly identical park (Sala Keoku or Sala Kaew Ku) across the river in Nong Khai, Thailand. Located some 24 km from the city, it's about 6 km to the east of the Friendship Bridge - hence it's well worth visiting on the way into or out of Laos if you're crossing the Friendship Bridge, thereby saving you an extra 48 km round trip if you visit from and return to Vientiane. Getting transportation from the Buddha park can be difficult so it is best to hire a tuk-tuk for the entire Vientiane - buddha park - friendship bridge (or vice versa) trip.
  • On the main road (Thanon Thadeua), just before the access road to the Bridge branches off, is the National Ethnic Cultural Park where typical houses of various ethnic groups are on display, though only from the outside unless you happen to meet some kind of custodian who will be eager to unlock some of them and show the inside. There also are some statues of dinosaurs and a rather dismal looking small "zoo". Most times the only activity seems to be the kiosks where they sell soft drinks and chips, but there are said to be occasional cultural shows. Tour operators often take their guests here before or after a visit to the Buddha Park. Well, to have it in their brochures may serve to make those more impressive. It is not a place to go out of your way for, not as long as it is not made more attractive.

Do

Apart from exploring the city itself there are several worthwile trips into the surrounding countryside on offer. Some can be done independently, some are offered by commercial agencies. Within one to two hours from Vientiane you can go kayaking, wild-water rafting, trekking through nature parks, etc.

A reputable agency organising adventure tours and eco-tourism is Green Discovery Laos in Thanon Setthathirat next to Kop Chei Deu.

An agency organising rent car,airplane ticket,tour arrangement is Naga Express Travel Tour operator specialized in Vientiane & Luang Prabang.(Lao.P.D.R).]

The local people love to go picnicking at some of the rivers or on the shores of Nam Ngum Lake, about 90km from Vientiane. There are floating restaurants along the lake shore; their specialty is fish fresh from the lake. Cruises among the lake's islands can be booked here, which makes for a relaxing couple of hours. Just inquire at your guest house/hotel or at any travel agency (where they will then try to sell their tours).

Hurting legs and backs from a day roaming the city? Go for a traditional Lao massage. There are lots of massage places all over the town, from "holes in the wall" to upscale establishments. Prices range from US$3-6/hour, more for the truly luxurious spa-like places where you will really be pampered (for instance Papaya Spa, on a road parallel to the river facing Xieng Veh temple about 2km from the city center). There's also excellent massage and herbal sauna in Wat Sok Pa Luang (30.000kip 1h massage, 10.000kip sauna).

All these establishments are 100% aboveboard and legitimate: this is not Bangkok! Your masseur or masseuse will be grateful for a tip. The staff will be happy if you have the decency to take a shower before you go there. They won't say anything to your face, but smelly foreigners make their job less than pleasant.

Buy

Banks and exchange offices are located throughout the city center. Phongsavanh Bank on Thanon Samsenthai is Vientiane's newest and privately owned bank and operates a currency exchange until about 16:30 on weekdays, and for shorter hours on weekends. They charge a 1% fee. BCEL's main foreign exchange counter is located on the corner of Thanon Fa Ngum (the river promenade) and Thanon Pang Kham, charges no commission, and has longer opening hours than most local banks. Other banks in the city have exchange facilities too, including two or three booths of BCEL within Talat Sao.

ATMs can now be found throughout the city, but sometimes run out of money (their stock of kip gets exhausted in the course of the day). Furthermore, the range of international credit and debit cards accepted depends on the bank operating the ATM. If one does not work for you, try the next one, or come back later. As the maximum amount per withdrawal is about 100 USD the fees charged by the local bank and the one bank home may render cash withdrawal an expensive option. You might be better off with traveller cheques, dollars and Thai baht which are all readily accepted. Most foreigners living in Vientiane withdraw Thai baht from ATMs in Thailand and then exchange baht for kip as needed.

  • BCEL: Withdrawals are limited to 700,000 kip per transaction (a bit more than 70 USD); however, you may make up to ten of these in one day. Mastercard and Maestro are readily accepted; Visa is currently not. BCEL charges a fee of 20,000 kip per transaction.
  • Other local banks: Maximum withdrawal 1,000,000 kip per withdrawal, maximum 3 withdrawals/day.

Normally, no-one will want to withdraw large amounts of kip, because Thai baht and US$ are almost universally accepted at stores and restaurants; some places also accept Euros. In some restaurants the bill will state the amount in kip and US$, baht or Euro or any combination of these. The Government tries to persuade its people to always use only kip, but at the same time its own offices and institutions will gladly accept US$ or even bill their services in US$.

Credit cards are accepted by travel agencies and in better restaurants and shops, but many charge a 3% fee, take it or leave it.

Markets

  • Morning Market (Talat Sao - corner of Thanon Lane Xang and Thanon Khu Vieng) - a large collection of indoor stalls selling, well, pretty much anything. There are two floors: the first floor sells mostly textiles, electronics, and watches; the second floor has clothing, gold, and jewelery. Expect to pay about one third or one quarter of the first price you are offered. Despite the name it is still struggling into operation at 09:00 and remains open until around 16:00.

Handicraft Shops

Above all silk and cotton weavings, are for sale in the Morning Market and in many shops along Thanons Setthathirat and Samsenthai, and in several of their side roads. In the Morning Market you should bargain; in the other shops you may try to get a rebate but don't count on it. Some of the better shops are:

  • Mixay Boutic (yes, that's how they write it) in Thanon Nokeo Kumman (with a branch in Thanon Setthathirat) - they have some women weaving fabrics of the shop's own design on the premises, who you are welcome to watch. Beautiful wall hangings, not the cheapest in town but well worth the price. Also on sale are shirts and skirts, scarves, cushion covers and anything made of textiles.
  • Laha Boutique, Thanon Francois Ngin: naturally dyed textiles (mainly cotton) from the south (Savannakhet).
  • Kanchana: the Beauty of Lao Silk: traditional Lao silk weavings, hand-woven fabrics, textiles and clothing using natural dyes. Just off Thanon Samsenthai on Thanon Chantha Kumman, the road to That Dam.
  • Lao Textiles, Thanon Nokeo Kumman. Founded 1990 by an American woman (Carol Cassidy), who now employs some 40 artisans, this firm offers modern weavings using traditional motifs - some of their work has been exhibited in museums. Prices are accordingly, but if you can afford them you will get something to be proud of. Not the usual backpacker's souvenirs...
  • The Art of Silk, Thanon Manthatulat, run by the Lao Women's Union. Silk and cotton weavings in both traditional and modern designs.
  • Mulberries Lao Sericulture Company, Thanon Nokeo Kumman. The sales outlet of a not-for-profit organisation that operates in about five hundred villages in Northern Laos, seeking to create income generating opportunities. Naturally-dyed, handmade Lao silk products.

Supermarkets and Department Stores

Need a toothbrush or nail clipper? Or just fed up with rice or noodle soup three times a day, and craving for a self-composed picnic? Visit one of the many “minimarts” where you may well find whatever you’re looking for. Some of the best-stocked of these are

  • Phimphone Minimart on Thanon Setthathirat next to JoMa. Opened again after renovations end December 2007, it is no longer merely a "minimart" but almost a full-grown supermarket. This place will surprise you in the amount of western stock it carries, but it isn't cheap, and the owners must make a nice profit on the exchange rate that they apply. Here it pays to pay in kip! A second shop with the same name (the owners are related, the shops are not) is located on Thanon Samsenthai / corner of Thanon Chantha Kumman.
  • V-Shop on Thanon Khun Bulom netween Thanons Setthathirat and Samsenthai. Outside in front is a small express café where they serve some of the best coffee specialties in town (Lao Mountain Coffee), shakes, fuit juices, waffles, donuts – good for people watching on the edge of the chinese quarter.
  • Riverside Minimart on Thanon Fa Ngum, the Mekong promenade.
  • City Minimart on Thanon Samsenthai opposite Wat Si Muang - maybe the shop with the most extensive range of merchandise in the town, and somewhat cheaper than the shops more in the center.
  • Vientiane Department Store was at the center of the Lane Xang side of the Morning Market and is now (end 2007) being torn down to be replaced by a second new building. Many of the shops that were here have been relocated to the Talat Sao Mall. This has 3 floors and is the first public building in Vientiane with an indoor parking. At weekends folks from the countryside come and marvel at the escalators (which, in one local magazine article, were referred to in English as "electricity ladders"), and at the bravery of those who venture onto them. The Mall boasts a few cafés and a thai-style food court.

Books

  • There is a real book store, Monument Books on Thanon Nokeo Kumman next to the Vayakorn Guesthouse. Good selection of english and french language books and magazines.

Bicycle

  • Simple Chinese bicycles and Mountain Bikes can be found in the Morning Market (Talat Sao) and in a few shops in the surrounding streets. Prices for a single gear bike start at about 50$, Mountainbikes at about 80$.
  • Top Cycle Zone, 47 Dong Palan, is the place to go if you want to buy a decent western style bicycle - or spare parts for one. Prices for a Mountain Bike start at about 350$.

Eat

There are many restaurants in Vientiane. They offer a wide selection of cuisines, from Chinese specialities to Tex-Mex. More restaurants are opened all the time, but many are there for just a few months before they go under; a few are successful and stay and may even flourish. It’s a question of offering something special, either in the way of the food served, or the atmosphere, or the friendly and competent service. The following is only a small selection. Note: where prices are given, these may no longer be up-to-date (inflation, exchange rate dollar/kip)

Budget

  • Noodle shops can be found all over the town. They typically serve Vietnamese-type noodle soups (pho), often also fried rice and other rice or noodle-based dishes. Prices are very moderate: around 1 USD for a large bowl or plate. There really is no need to go hungry in this town, but it is advisable to eat in places where there are many customers: there the food is likely to be good and fresh. Avoid empty places where the only guests are the flies buzzing around the food on display.
  • Ban Anou Night Market is only about 1 block long and starts setting up at sundown, but it has some of the best cheap eats in town. There's a wide range of street snacks available, including pho made with handpulled noodles, little lettuce wrapped snacks with peanut filling (miang), all types of grilled skewered meats, grilled sticky rice and more....

A selection of more "sophisticated" eateries follows:

  • Just for Fun, Thanon Pangkham (the road running from the river at BCEL to the Fountain): simpe and comfortable, good Western, Thai and Lao food, also vegetarian dishes.
  • PVO, which used to be at Thanon Samsenthai, has moved to a location on the river road, opposite the BCEL bank. It serves excellent Vietnamese food and the pho isn't bad, but for many the best eats here are the stuffed baguettes (7000/14000K for half/full). English menu, open 08:00-20:00.
  • Along the river: dozens of unpretentious restaurants and beer gardens, from opposite the BCEL bank strung along the Mekong for approximately 2km upriver. All are pleasant places for a beer and a snack or a complete meal while the sun goes down over the river. One of these is one-time famous John's Restaurant, but since the owner married an Australian and left for down under there is nothing to distinguish it from the other places left and right. All serve inexpensive Lao and some Western food. Among the best is the grilled fish, served by many of them. Take care when you're in for boiled eggs: what you get here are incubated duck eggs. When you open them you're in for a surprise (but at least the little bird does not chirp). The Lao love them, they are hugely popular.
  • Mekong Deck: a new place on the river, near PVO. This one stands out from the competition upriver because of the way it’s laid out; it is a very nice place to nurse a beer and enjoy the company of friends.
  • Sunset Bar (Sala Sunset) at the very western end of the Mekong river road. Popular with expats and tourists. The main things to recommend it are the sunsets (and those are not of their doing) and the rickety construction of wood apparently salvaged from demolished buildings. When the river is really high parts of the terrace sometimes wash away. Truly romantic! The beer is cold and whiling away an hour or so under the tree canopy with a bottle or two and some snacks can be very relaxing indeed.

Mid-range

  • Café des Arts in Thanon Hengboun, near the Cultural Hall. Excellent home made pasta (try the noodles al pesto!) and pizzas (around $6 - $7), as well as a good selection of wines, also by the glass.
  • Up 2 U just off of Thanon Lane Xang. Call Nok for English reservations/directions on (+856)206711784 11AM-11PM . 5 mins walk from the Morning Market this restuarant offers a good selection of Lao 'BBQ' dishes and soups as well as the usual rice dishes. The restuarant is situated just off the main road next to a large fishing pond surrounded by colonial houses - a welcome change from the busy riverfront. Good selection of beers & beverages also avaliable. Approx $5 -$8 per person. Popular with locals - Highly recommended.
  • Café Indochine, Thanon Setthathirat. Authentic Vietnamese food - particularly recommended: the set meals at about 4 to 5 USD. When there are more than just a few guests the kitchen crew may loose sight of their priorities.
  • Le Provençal at Nam Phu (the Fountain) - French fare, excellent pizzas but the steaks sometimes leave much to the imagination. Main courses from about 4 to 10 USD.
  • Lotus Restaurant, next to Cultural Hall. Serves traditional Lao and Western food, 08:30 am - 11:30 pm. Price range: 2-4 USD.
  • Khop Chai Deu, near the fountain. Inside (2 floors) and outside seating. Very good Lao, Thai, Indian and Western food. Competent and friendly service. Open until late evening. Price range: 1-4 USD. Try the “Lao Discovery” menu at 6.5 USD (but check with the waiter how spicy it all is…). Noisy low-quality bands play Western popular music some evenings. Also a bar (see below). Buffet at lunchtime.
  • Hong Kong Restaurant, opposite Lao Plaza Hotel. Excellent Cantonese dishes (2 USD - approx. 9 USD) and a small selection of dim sum (1 USD per plate). There have been reports of them padding the bill. Check the bill carefully before paying! (That, by the way, is something you should do everywhere: in a country where they use a calculator to subtract 7 from 10 it comes as no surprise that their counting of beers consumed is not always accurate. To be fair, the mistakes are not always to the disadvantage of the customer.)
  • Inter Hotel Restaurant - Quai Fa Ngum, riverside, well prepared Szechuan food, about 3 USD/dish. The hotel also runs the Inter Stone House in the same building round the corner; about the same or a slightly higher price range. Western and Thai/Lao food; their specialty is the sizzling steak on a stone platter, which however is not recommended (rather leathery meat with maltreated french fries and tasteless vegs).
  • JoMa, Thanon Setthathirat, and Scandinavian Bakery in the fountain square, extremely popular air-conditioned cafés and bakeries with simple lunches and excellent cakes and coffee. Wifi internet at JoMa for a modest fee. TV showing CNN upstairs at the Scandinavian.
  • Le Croissant d'Or and Banneton Café, almost next to each other in Thanon Nokeo Kumman (running from the river to Thanon Setthathirat) have croissants and pastries and serve simple lunches. Banneton sells the best baguettes in town - tasty, not just something to chew. Their coffee is among the best in Vientiane, on a par with that at JoMa. The owners of Le Croissant d'Or also run the Vista café in Thanon François Ngin (free wifi internet when you spend 15,000 kip on food and drink).
  • Sticky Fingers - Thanon François Ngin opposite the Tai Pan Hotel. Quality western style food at reasonable prices. There's happy hour on Wednesday and Friday nights, including half price cocktails.
  • Full Moon Café, almost next to Sticky Fingers, nice interior with comfortable seating arrangements. Serves what they call fusion fare. Reasonable prices. As in some other Vientiane restaurants, the kitchen crew may loose track of their priorities when more than just a few guests have placed orders.
  • La Terrasse, Thanon Nokeo Kumman, is popular with expats and tourists alike. It is one of the best French restaurants in Vientiane (very good pizzas, and excellent tender steaks at about 5 US$). Set three-course lunch is 5.50 USD, main dishes up to 10 USD.
  • Nazim Indian Restaurant on the Mekong river road: decent Indian food. Their washroom is not the cleanest in the country, perhaps because the patrons of some of the eateries on the river bank are directed here for certain needs (when they are not simply sent down to the reeds at the water's edge). Nazim has opened a branch in Thanon Pang Kham, opposite the offices of Lao Airlines. (No reports on their washroom yet).
  • Khao Nieow in Thanon Nokeo Kumman, almost next to La Terrasse. Set three-course meals at 4.50 USD. Steaks in two qualities: Lao beef at around 4 or 5 USD; New Zealand lamb and beef at about 8 USD and above. To be tried on a cool evening: the fondue bourguignonne at 26 USD for two and, a surprise in a place whose name means "Sticky Rice", excellent cheese fondue at 28 USD for two - not something for the hottest months of the year, but nice around the year's end when temperatures drop.
  • The restaurant in the Lane Xang Hotel on Thanon Fa Ngum has traditional Lao music and dance performances every evening from about 7pm, which you watch while eating your dinner of (recommended) Lao food. Get there early to secure a table with a good view of the stage. A meal for four, consisting of 5 or 6 dishes including drinks, will come at about 30 USD.
  • Kua Lao at Thanon Samsenthai. Authentic Lao food with a good selection of vegetarian dishes; traditional Lao music and dance performances in the evening. Main dishes from 6 to about 12 USD; set meals (recommended!) at 15 USD. Expensive for Lao food.
  • Le Côte d’Azur on Thanon Fa Ngum: a favourite of the expat community, serving generous helpings of mainly French food.
  • The Spirit House on that tree-shaded part of the river promenade that has not yet been "upgraded" to Lao-style sterile banality like the stretch downriver (there are plans for it, but fortunately the money seems to have run out). It is about 0.3km upstream from the end of the paved portion of the road. An excellent cocktail bar, it also offers a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu with competent and friendly service. Every evening there is 25% off all cocktails and a view of the sun setting on the mekong. Watch the waiters jump the puddles in the rainy season when you've chosen to sit outside on the terrace across the potholed road.
  • Moon the Night Restaurant. Another 0.5km farther upstream from the Spirit House and somewhat difficult to find: the river promenade ends a few hundred meters before – best to take a tuk-tuk. (Directions: from the Novotel 0.5km west, direction airport, past the FORD showroom, then turn into a soi on the left which after 200 meters takes you to the river. There ask around). A very pleasant spot to eat excellent Lao food. A large place, an extensive menu, competent and friendly service. Background music not too loud. Highly recommended. A meal of 6 to 8 dishes for 4 people comes at 15 to 20 US$ including drinks.
  • Phonethip Coca Suki Restaurant, Thanon Sailom opposite the Lao Telecom Service Center. Part of a chain that also has restaurants in Thailand and Indonesia. Good Lao, Thai, Chinese and Western food. Reasonable prices and good, attentive service. Very popular at lunch time with office workers and students.
  • Kop Kap, across from Tat Luang Temple. A favorite among ex-pats living nearby, if you crave Thai food. Packed during lunch time, the restaurant is known for its excellent Penang curry. Closed Sundays.
  • Evening Dinner Cruises on the river – two different companies, on boat moored opposite Wat Chan and one 300 metres upriver. Not very impressive, neither the boat trip (1 hour, departure around 7pm: 1 km upstream then 2 downstream and back - only when the water level is high enough) nor the food. But very relaxing. This Lao maritime experience will cost you only slightly more than the same meal in one of the beer gardens on the river bank.

Drink

Vientiane has a few bars/clubs, but there's no shortage of places for a quiet Beerlao. In particular, the Mekong shoreline is packed with near-identical but pleasant bamboo-and-thatch beer gardens offering cold beer and spicy snacks.

  • Bor Pen Nyang, Thanon Fa Ngum (the river promenade), tel. +856-20-7873965. Breezy fourth-floor (no elevator) bar/restaurant which overlooks the Mekong. Live bands every night. Travellers, locals and ex-pats in seeming harmony. Claims the most extensive Fine Whisky Range in Laos and stocks a wide range of liquors, including absinthe on Thursdays for $2/shot. Pool & Snooker Tables on the 2nd Floor.
  • Martini Lounge, Thanon Nokeo Kummane, just a block from the Mekong and next door to Croissant d'Or Bakery. Opens at 6:00 pm and closes well past the normal 11:30 curfew. Movies shown Monday-Wednesday 8:00pm. Thursdays are Salsa nights and most Fridays a DJ is spinning. Don't forget to checkout the chill'n second floor AND the Mango Martini. The place in Vientiane to find the most eclectic music mix.
  • Jazzy-Brick, Thanon Setthathirat nearly opposite Kop Chai Deu. The classiest and most expensive bar in town. The sign out front states "no shorts, no flip-flops allowed".
  • Samlor Pub, Thanon Setthathirat opposite Wat Onteu. It has long been one of only a few bars in town, and was packed every evening. A lot quieter now that there is more competition. Has pool table and shows sports, but the "background" music often drowns the TV commentary. Tends to stay open later than other bars listed here.
  • Khop Chai Deu,Thanon Setthathirat next to the fountain square. The name means "thank you very much", and despite the prices, this is usually the most active place in this part of town until action moves on to one of the discos.
  • Deja Vu, next to L'Opera Restaurant on Nam Phu Square (Fountain), a very classy and cozy bar, owned and run by Japanese-speaking Lao owner. Closed Sundays.

Note that everything is supposed to close down before midnight before the start of the unofficial curfew, although clubs generally stay open until 1-1.30am. The most notable exception is the extremely popular Don Chan Palace Hotel Nightclub which is open until 4am on the weekend.

Now that the closing time is more strictly enforced (December 2006), the popularity of the bowling alley has increased again, as it is open and serving customers for 24 hours a day.

Sleep

There are numerous places to stay in Vientiane, from very basic guest houses with dormitory-type rooms to comfortable upscale boutique hotels, with prices from very moderate to mid-range and higher. In recent years many new establishments have opened, but mid-2007 the Government announced plans to restrict the number of new permits: they wish to concentrate on quality rather than quantity. The days that anyone could convert their home to a guest house and partake of the boom seem to be over.

Normally, just get into the town center (for instance the Nam Phu square) and start looking around along Thanon Setthathirat and its side streets. You’ll find something within minutes except it's "high season" (January) where it will be really difficult to find room: book in advance!

Room rates may vary depending on the season: high season is something like October through April or May; low season June through September.

Some places insist on an early nightly curfew and lock the front door without giving you a key. If you wish to enjoy the nightlife (what there is of it), make sure that you will be able to stay out and, more importantly, get in again.

The Lao Hotel and Restaurant Association has an extensive list of hotels in Vientiane. The following is just a small selection.

Respect

Long trousers and sleeves are recommended.

Contact

Post and Telephone: see the section on "Contact" in the article about Laos

Internet cafes are ubiquitous in Vientiane, particularly along Thanon Samsenthai and the east end of Thanon Setthathirat. The going rate as of September 2007 is 100K/minute, usually charged in 10 minute increments.

  • FastestNet. Thanon Samsenthai (between Lao Plaza and Asian Pavilion). Lives up to its name fairly well and charges the standard 100K/min. No firewalls or program install restrictions.

Stay healthy

Water

The city's waterworks are called Nam PaPaa, which means "water without fishes". Yes, the fishes have been removed but not everything else. Don't drink the tap water - stick to the bottled water available everywhere.

Mosquito-borne diseases

Vientiane is free from malaria, but dengue is a real threat, especially during the rainy season. Take the necessary precautions against mosquito bites by wearing DEET repellent - available to purchase at any minimart.

Stray dogs

Some of them can be vicious. If you're bitten see a doctor. Even if you've had a rabies vaccination before your trip: you will still need a booster jab.

Swimming

Don't follow the example of the locals who will bathe in anything that looks like water. There is a real risk of picking up parasites! Swimming in public pools is okay. There is one in a kind of garden setting on Thanon Sok Paluang, and another, not in such a nice setting, on the road by the Stadium.

Hotel pools are also safe. Some hotels with pools that you can use for a fee if you're not staying there: Novotel, Lao Plaza, Don Chan Palace, Settha Palace - and there are more. Recommended: the Sunday brunch at the Novotel at c. US$ 10 including use of the pool.

Hospitals

In Vientiane

Vientiane's hospitals are a far cry from those in the West or even in Thailand. Mahosot and Setthathirat Hospitals can treat common conditions but for anything more serious you're better off heading to Thailand (see below) where there are good private hospitals with USA or Europe trained doctors.

For emergency dental treatment it's also best to go to Thailand; in Vientiane's dental clinics they seem to resort to tooth extractions a bit too easily.

Mahosot Hospital is on the river (go to their "International Clinic" where you pay more and get more personal service, but from the same doctors that work in the hospital itself); Setthathirat Hospital is away from downtown on the T4 Road.

Medical Center : Centre Médical de l’Ambassade de France Medical. With the support of the French Embassy in Vientiane, the “Centre Medical de l’Ambassade de France” opened its doors to the foreign community in Laos in April 2007. The medical centre provides primary health care, 24 hours a day 7 days a week, along with paramedical services, including dental care, physiotherapy, speech therapy and psychotherapy, to all the expatriates and tourists in Vientiane. Practice Dr. Jean Marie HOSPIED; Bvd Kouvieng . Simuang BP 7168.Vientiane. Laos Tel / Fax: 856 21 214150 cmaflao@gmail.com

Australian Embassy Clinic. The Australian Embassy Clinic provides limited general practice services with a small pharmacy and pathology department. Although the clinic is primarily for diplomatic staff and their families, Australian citizens may access its services on a fee for service basis. Reciprocal arrangements with other embassies means that citizens from certain other countries may also access the service. The clinic is located at the Australian Embassy at Km4 on Thadeua Road. Phone number: +856 [0] 21353840. Clinic Hours: 8.30-12.30 and 13.30-17.00 Monday to Friday. There is no after hours service.

Stay safe

Vientiane is a fairly safe city in terms of crime. However, bag snatching from guests sitting in front of cafes is becoming more common. Bags in the baskets of (rented) bicycles or mopeds, even when moving along, are also far from safe. Do not leave a bag in an accessible position. If your bag is snatched, immediately start shouting: the perpetrators rely on tourists reacting by silently trying to chase them without alerting the numerous police boxes. The thieves are often drug addicts.

Probably a bigger hazard than crime is the missing sewer covers on sidewalks. Additionally, there are many loose flagstones that will tip if stepped on. Tread carefully and exercise extreme caution at night.

A "secret" Lao law says that foreigners cannot have sexual relations with Lao women other than their spouses. The penalty, if caught, is US$500 for first time, though as the text of the law is not available, may be much more (the US embassy says $5000); the foreigner may be jailed or deported and the Lao woman may find herself in jail - and that is really the last place anyone would want to be here. If you take a girl to your room and she robs you this law makes it almost impossible to obtain assistance from the police. Bar tenders are happy to provide stories of angry tourists confronting girls in the same bars they picked them up the night before! Anyway, many hotels do not allow foreigners to take girls to their rooms, as it is officially prohibited. Those that do allow it must have some financial arrangement with the local police - this is Laos where the only thing more powerful than the Law is money.

Vang Vieng (also Vang Viang) is a tiny riverside town in Laos.

Introducing Vang Vieng

Nestled beside the Nam Song (Song River) amid stunningly beautiful limestone karst terrain, Vang Vieng provokes a mix of responses. In the last edition we wrote that people either love or hate it, but that was probably a little unfair. It’s more of a love and hate relationship – which parts you love depend on who you are.

The area’s main attraction has always been the dramatic landscape surrounding Vang Vieng. Honeycombed with unexplored tunnels and caverns, the limestone cliffs are a spelunker’s heaven. Several caves are named and play minor roles in local mythology – all are said to be inhabited by spirits. These caves and cliffs have also earned a reputation for some of the best rock-climbing in the region.

The Nam Song, meanwhile, plays host to kayakers and travellers floating along on tractor inner tubes – a pastime so thoroughly enjoyable and popular that it has become one of the rites of passage of the Indochina backpacking circuit. Other activities include rafting, trekking and bicycle and motorbike trips. Or you could just find a riverside seat for one of the regular postcard sunsets when, if you’re lucky, you might see thousands of bats pouring forth from the karst like an oil slick flooding the skyline.

So what’s to dislike, you might ask. The most common complaint is that in earning its stripes as a fully paid-up member of backpacker world, Vang Vieng has lost its soul. It’s probably not as bad as that, but the growth of Vang Vieng has taken its toll. Inevitably, the profile of the town has changed and the reason travellers first came here – to experience small-town Laos in a stunning setting – has been replaced by multistorey guesthouses. Even the local market has moved to a big, soulless slab of concrete north of town.

But if we accept that most visitors are going to enjoy the scenery and at least some of the activities, if not the misfit Greco-Laotian architecture of the guesthouses, then it’s the ‘TV bars’ and their ‘happy’ menus that provoke the real love and hate. For some travellers, sitting on an axe pillow, sucking down a shake laced with marijuana/mushrooms/opium/yaba (methamphetamine) and tripping through endless reruns of Friends is heaven on earth. For others, it’s a ­nightmare.

If you’re in the latter camp then take heart because it’s easy enough to escape this scene by staying a bit away from the centre. It’s also reassuring that the locals seem to have accepted this influx of falang without losing their sense of humour. And as Vang Vieng continues to evolve, its accommodation options have too. There are still plenty of cheap guesthouses where you can sleep off a hang­over between long nights in the island bars, but there are now also more luxurious offerings.

No matter what you think of the Khao San Rd side of Vang Vieng’s personality, you can’t deny that this is a beautiful part of the world. So even if you’re not a fan of Friends, it’s worth stopping for at least a day or two.

Understand

Once no more than a bus changing station on the long haul between Vientiane at the Thai border and the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, it has managed to become a destination in its own right. Still not much more than three streets and a bus station, the main attractions are the river, laid back countryside and cave-filled rock formations. Originally opened up by hedonistic backpackers, it is now host to numerous internal tourists and more sedate foreign sightseers.

Get in

Vang Vieng is between Vientiane and Luang Prabang - by bus (road and bus conditions permitting) about 6-8 hours from Luang Prabang, around 3-4 hours from Vientiane. Buses to Vientiane leave bright and early between 05:00 and 07:00 and cost a fixed 25,000 kip; you can also try to share a tuk-tuk for slightly more. Less crowded and more humanely timed tourist buses leave at 10:00 and 13:30 (in theory - they tend to wait until full before departing) and cost US$4. A minibus leaves at 09:00 and costs US$5. Tickets can be bought in almost every guesthouse (for a US$1 commission).

Get around

Touts offer cyclo or taxi rides from the bus station into town, but it's only a 5-10 minute walk to the center, and about a 2 minute walk out the other side.

One would be remiss to visit Vang Vieng and not venture outside of the central area of town. A number of transportation options are available. Tuk Tuks are easy to find for quick and convenient transportation.

Bike rentals are widely available and can be rented from hotels or local businesses. You should not have to pay over 10,000 kip for a day's rental.

For the more adventurous, motorcycle rentals are also widely available. As with bicycles these can be rented from hotels or businesses. Bear in mind, however, that your hotel is likely to add 10,000 kip to the price of the rental. It's quite easy to rent a motorcycle from a local business for only 30,000 kip for the entire day. Hotels will tend to charge 40,000.

Tours of the surrounding area are also easily arranged. The tours will take you to all of the major sights. You might swim in the local caves, then drift downriver on an inner tube, and see the local landscape. Tours should cost around 80,000 kip or less.

Do

  • Blue Lagoon: An 8 km trip ferry away from town that brings you to a spring fed lagoon at the bottom of "Golden Cave". Nice place to relax, swim and play on the rope swing. The waters are inhabitated with a few hundred carp fish that will eat locally sold fish food right out of your hand. The cave above requires a modest hike up a make shift bamboo ladder. Once inside, there is a short walk to the Sleeping Golden Buhdda. Entry fees are about: 10,000kip per/person.
  • Lao-style steam sauna
  • Movies shown at a few restaurants
  • Tubing down the river and have a look at the magnificent view of the mountains rising directly beside the river. 55.000(+60k kip deposit) includes ride to start point. Dry bag US$1. Some dry bags may not be of the best quality, often digital cameras get ruined by faulty dry bags rented to tourists, so beware and if in doubt, don't bring your camera. Many beer and other pitstops along the way. Also, try the diving stop and the swing. Tubes have to be back by six pm to get the deposit back, and in winter it gets a bit cold from 4pm, so start early to make the most of drinking your way down the river.
  • Kayaking the river. this covers the same part of the river as tubing (as well as further upriver) so it can be a quicker way of travelling to the bars if you wish.
  • Playing on the swing over the river. Please be careful - perforated eardrums and permanent hearing damage are common injuries resulting from falling the wrong way. The local hospital is not equipped to diagnose or treat this injury - Vientiane has the closest (if spartan) ENT facility but no English speaking specialists, so you may have to head all the way to Bangkok for treatment.
  • 3km north of Vang Vieng, where the main tubing run commences, there's an organic farm. Here you can escape the town's dirge, teach village kids, build adobe buildings, learn/teach farming, eat some good quality food and stay a night, a week, or a year.
  • Internet. The local internet cartel charges $US2 an hour for internet, however, the bandwidth is very good for Laos and they encourage customers to use it! (meaning downloading mp3's and the such).
  • Rock climbing. There are excellent walls to everyone from first timers to pros. The day trips (includes guide, all gear, lunch, transport etc.) starts from 20USD. Contact Adam (tel : 856 205010832 email : stclimber@yahoo.com) or visit by the shop at the northern end of the main street.

Buy

Locals accept Thai baht and US dollars, as well as Laos kip.

There is one government office that changes traveller's checks.

There are two ATM's that now take all major credit cards but is known for running out of cash.

If these cases or with cards that are not accepted you can take money out at one of the bank, make sure you have your passport ready and if it's not a recognized institution they won't let you take money out.

The Lao Development Bank changes money at good rates and processes cash advances.

Eat

All your basic backpacker fare and a few local dishes. See the Laos article for more about local food. There are numerous places specialising in pizza, which is fresh but often of indifferent quality.

Many will frown this type of activity, but many restaurants along the main road also offer "special" shakes and pizzas of various sorts, just be careful!

  • Organic Farm Cafe - original and interesting menu with excellent surprises like deep-fried mulberry leaves in honey (15 000 kip)
  • DK3 - Milan Pizza - woodfired pizza
  • Enjoy Restaurant - good pizza

Drink

  • On the riverside, Jaidee's Bar offers a chilled out atmosphere for those looking to escape the loud music and rowdy club atmosphere of the island bars. Has great prices during Happy Hour (6-10) including whisky buckets for 10,000k.
  • The newly instituted projector large screen PS2 Pro Evo competitions on the main street are a good distraction on a rainy evening.
  • Many all bars screen movies during the evening (mostly episodes of Friends but some show the Simpsons/Family Guy as well). Buy dinner, stay for the movie and order a milkshake & some food.
  • Be prepared to listen to a lot of Bob Marley (it's as if someone bought the complete Friends box set and Bob Marley Legend and burnt copies of them for the entire town)! If you get sick of it there is a "Jack Johnson" bar which plays something else.
  • Lie on plastic mats by the river and drink Beer Lao. Some places will build small bonfires.
  • Some bars near the river have DJs or at least loud music and an outdoor dance floor. This is the scene for people looking for a more raucous time.
  • Please be aware of the "special" shakes which can contain Ganja or Magic Mushrooms. They are not a good idea while tubing...
  • Although marijuana and various other drugs are freely available and advertised in Vang Vieng (all are illegal), there is also a large police presence. Plain clothed policemen frequently take unsuspecting tourists to the local police station for smoking a joint. The usual outcome of this involves having your passport seized until you cough up a hefty "fine", typically betweek 3-5 million Kip. Once the fine is paid however the matter is generally taken no further and the passport returned; however, the punishment will depend on the officer you are dealing with.

Sleep

There are now a couple of halfway-decent midrange "hotels" and attempts at boutique style residences.

Generally though, double rooms go for US$1-5, make sure you see the room (and bathroom!) before paying. More local, low-key (which is pretty low-key in Vang Viang to start with) places are by the market and more shiny set ups are on the main road. The party crowd tend to advocate choosing a bungalow on the island, but expect it to be quite noisy if you want to sleep during the night.

Most guesthouses have large TV-viewing areas, practically coated in the Southeast Asia signature triangular cushions, where they serve food. But be forewarned - you'll be hard pressed to find a place screening something other than "Friends".

  • Babylon Guest House - in the centre of town at the start of the main bar street. Clean and comfortable with hot showers at a good pressure, views from every room, Wi-Fi and English speaking staff.
  • Champa Lao - best view of mountains, great massage, affordable tasty food.
  • Phoudingdeang Organic farm (3km north of Vang Vieng) - peaceful & serene, an employer of orphans, mountain views. Simple short term rooms, long term residences in adobe houses.
  • Greenview Bungalows and Restaurant (Mobile: 8560202128086, 5011679) Just across the road from the Phoudindeng Organic farm. Khamsone and his wife Sone offer comfortable clean bungalows with hot showers, great Lao food, and occasional campfires and singalongs. A great place to escape the noise of downtown. Bicycle and Motorbike rentals are also offered. Bungalows with double beds 70 000 Kip, other double rooms for 40 000 Kip

Get out

Buses leave from the station in the morning and afternoon. VIP tourist buses are easily booked from your hotel.

Another transportation option is on one of the day trips to Vientiane down the river by kayak. The trip should leave in the early morning, placing you in the capital by 6pm. For your belongings, dry bags are available or you can opt to place them in the accompanying van which will take them along. Expect to pay 170,000 - 220,000 kip but you may be able to find it for a cheaper price.

http://blacksnail.wordpress.com/2008/10/28/laos-trip-vientiane-vang-vieng/

http://marcusandkevsworldtour.blogspot.com/2007/03/vang-vieng-and-vientiane.html

http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2008/08/easy-ride-from-vang-vieng-to-vientiane.html

http://ricefarmtour2008.blogspot.com/2008/04/chapter-31-sabai-sabai-vientiane.html

http://ricefarmtour2008.blogspot.com/2008_04_01_archive.html

http://www.travelpost.com/AS/Laos/Other/Vang_Vieng/entry/238082

http://www.maxpower.ca/category/travel-2/countries/laos/

http://adventurevacationtrip.com/northern-laos-loop-10-journey-day-6-phonsavan-to-vang-vieng

http://adventurevacationtrip.com/

http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/02/vientiane-first-impressions/

http://journals.worldnomads.com/lissaur/post/4881.aspx

http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/category/southeast-asia/laos/

http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/01/lao-food-lowdown/

http://quakingblog.wordpress.com/


10 comments:

cc said...

when are you going?

k u k u j i o a m a n said...

3 march till 7 march....

eye in the sky said...

am sure you had a blast. your site has a very extensive info on laos. great one.

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