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All Smiles in Vientiane

At Wattay International Airport we come face-to-face with a promising vision of happy hour, half a day too soon. On the outstretched banner tall glasses of beer stand in neat formation, each of them furnished with smiley faces drawn flawlessly into the foam. Our eyes follow the bold, curvaceous white lettering splashed across its lower half. “Beerlao,” it proclaims. “Beer of the wholehearted people.”

“Where are you from?” The taxi driver smiles into the rearview mirror, a palpable sense of ease permeating the cool, air-conditioned interior.

“Hong Kong…” I motion over to Bama. “… and Indonesia.”

“How long are you visiting?”

“Oh, six days.”

“All in Vientiane?”

“Nope. Two days here, and then we go to Luang Prabang.”

“Ah,” he declares. “Luang Prabang – very nice!”

Silently we observe the steady stream of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and shiny new minivans humming along in the bright morning sun. Along the streets tangles of telephone cables contrast sharply against the dripping foliage and faded rows of two to three-storey shophouses. Eventually we cruise past a wat, its roof a cascade of red tiles drooping low to the ground.

Encouraged by our driver’s sunny disposition, I decide to quiz him in return.

“So how do you say “hello” in Lao?”

“Sa bai dee.”

“Goodbye?”

“La gawn.”

“How about thank you?”

“Kup jai.”

“And thank you very much?”

“Kup jai lai laai.” He finishes it with a slow, melodious drawl.

“Easy!” The three of us burst into laughter.

When we bid goodbye to our taxi driver and step into the tiled lobby of the hotel, a soft-spoken young lady glides over to the front desk. Clasping her hands together in a traditional nop, she greets us with a sa bai dee and a gracious bow. She could easily have been my age. To my utmost surprise we are offered two champagne glasses filled with orange punch. This is not at all a five-star hotel, but I wonder if it is really one in disguise.

“First time in Vientiane?” The receptionist’s voice breaks gently into my chain of thought. We nod, and after delivering a detailed orientation of the city, she escorts us up the stairs and into our room, where the towels and toiletries are arranged in a beautiful bundle on the bed. By the doorway the key is already plugged into the card reader. “We reserved the room especially for you.” She beams.

I clasp my hands together and practice what the taxi driver had taught us. “Kup jai lai laai.” The lady reciprocates, bowing, and disappears back down the hallway.

Monks at Patuxai (Victory Gate)

Lane Xang Avenue – Vientiane’s Champs-Élysées

Pointing to heaven

Decorative window, Patuxai

A floral offering

After a sleepless night in Kuala Lumpur and a 5:00am breakfast of sweet chilli chicken with rice – which leaves me with a pervasive upset stomach – Vientiane is the unlikely antidote, a sanctuary conducive to a quick and easy recovery.

Even on a Saturday afternoon the streets feel almost devoid of human activity. Tuk-tuk drivers doze and mill about in the shade, the odd saffron-robed monk strolls leisurely down the pavement, while shopkeepers sit languidly on plastic stools, gazing out from among their wares. At night the only sounds that come through our window are chirping crickets and the musical ge-ko of the resident lizards.

This sleepy capital by the Mekong has a raw, gritty charm, tempered by a discernible French influence. Perhaps its most surprising traits are the ubiquitous baguettes and the profusion of Gallic signage. Then there’s Patuxai, the Lao version of the Parisian Arc de Triomphe. Commanding the view down Lane Xang Avenue, this hulking mass was built with cement donated by the American government – a resource that was originally meant for a new airport.

French signage

On Samsenthai Road

Rooftops at Wat Si Saket

The temple courtyard

The main hall – or Sim – of Wat Si Saket

Although it’s entirely possible to visit all of Vientiane’s main sights within the span of a day, Bama and I choose to break up the sightseeing with hours spent lounging in the comfort of our hotel room and a handful of watering holes. After all, conventional wisdom holds that the acronym Lao PDR really stands for Lao, Please Don’t Rush.

We kick back over two of the smoothest mango shakes, blended to absolute perfection at JoMa and the appropriately named “Fruit Heaven”, where I forfeit the promise of a warm baguette for a stack of fresh tropical goodness. In my twenty-odd years I have never tasted such sweet, aromatic mangoes. We have unknowingly timed our visit to the hottest month of the year, but much to our delight, early May also happens to mark the middle of mango season.

Column detail, Haw Phra Kaew

Light and shadow

May flowers

Gilded carvings at Haw Phra Kaew

Patuxai, “the vertical runway”

Through the gateway

Tuk-tuk, en route to Pha That Luang

Fruit shakes aside, I will never forget the way to Pha That Luang, hunched over in the back of a tuk-tuk. We are being piloted by a man who must be in his 60s, dressed in shorts and a cheerful shirt with bands of white and crimson red. He picks us up in front of Patuxai, appearing moments after we begin pondering our next move. This is my first-ever tuk-tuk ride, and like a child on a rollercoaster I jump excitedly aboard, stepping on via a flimsy wooden plank that groans and bends under my weight.

At Pha That Luang the sun seems to be playing hide-and-seek behind the ominous clouds, their darkened undersides threatening to unleash a small but sudden rain shower. We find refuge on a shaded, whitewashed bench in the grassy courtyard, gazing in silence as the afternoon shadows drift lazily across the stupa. Even the man in bronze out front, a certain King Setthathirat, is clearly smiling.

All that glitters…

Pha That Luang

Lotus buds

Inside the courtyard

Smiling King Setthathirat

That night we settle for dinner at Kua Lao Restaurant, not far from the backpacking haven around Nam Phu and Samsenthai Road. It is mostly occupied by rows of long tables, prepared in anticipation of large families and a Mandarin-speaking delegation. In our quiet corner we order beef and duck laap, two sides of steamed rice, and a bowl of chicken or lahm. The or lahm is a genuine surprise – it yields the fresh tang of dill, tender slices of chicken, mixed greens and soft aubergine, slowly stewed to the point of creaminess.

All this, of course, is washed down with two large bottles of Beerlao. It reads 5% a.b.v. on the label but Bama and I are both doubtful. Even on a full stomach we can’t ignore the telltale light-headedness, amplified by the thumping beat of traditional Lao music and the sight of two dancers, swirling rhythmically in robes of gold and sapphire blue.

34 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wonderful account of your trip James! Noting down all the details. Don’t you think king Setthathirat seems a little incongruous atop that golden roof 🙂

    May 17, 2012
    • Thank you, Madhu! I loved every minute in Vientiane – it was just so laidback and the people there were genuinely friendly. King Setthathirat was the one who moved the capital to the city, so that explains the grinning statue in front of the golden stupa!

      May 17, 2012
  2. Wow sounds like a great trip! Did you and Bama meet through blogging? Can’t wait to read more!

    May 17, 2012
    • It was Nicole – we were there only for about a week but it was easily the best trip I’ve had in a long time! Actually, we did meet through blogging. 😀 Bama was in Hong Kong this January so I offered to show him around. Laos was his idea and he asked me if I was interested in tagging along. So I said yes!

      May 17, 2012
  3. What a stunning place!

    May 17, 2012
    • Laos is absolutely gorgeous Debra; I think you would enjoy it!

      May 17, 2012
  4. Sounds and looks beautiful! Laos is a country I have never been to. How long are you staying? And – mango is a favourite with me…

    May 17, 2012
    • We were there for all of 6 days – it was just enough for the places we wanted to see. Laos is very relaxing after the madness of nearby places like Bangkok. I’ve had some mango since returning home but it really can’t compare to the ones in Laos!

      May 17, 2012
  5. The mango shake and chicken or lahm were truly exceptional! I might go back to Vientiane just to have those!

    May 17, 2012
    • Yes they were, Bama! If we had stayed an extra night in Vientiane we would probably have gone back to Kua Lao!

      May 17, 2012
  6. This looks like a beautiful place to visit! I love your writing style! You make me feel like I’m there! 😀

    May 17, 2012
    • Thanks Rachel! 😀 Vientiane is not a well-known destination but that is a big part of its appeal. Laos feels so different from China – everyone there is just so laidback!

      May 17, 2012
  7. Love this post! I’ve just been to Hanoi, Vietnam, and you make me wish I went to Vientiane instead. I’d trade Hanoi’s noise and crowd for your relaxing trip.

    May 22, 2012
    • Save it for the next trip – Laos is fantastic if you want a slow, relaxing holiday!

      May 29, 2012
  8. Such beautiful places and pictures! 🙂

    June 5, 2012
  9. I was in Vientiane just two weeks ago. Beautiful place although I didn’t have time to go to Pha That Luang as I had to catch the bus to Nong Khai. Your pictures are fantastic! Makes me want to go back there real soon.

    June 12, 2012
    • Pha That Luang is gorgeous when the sun comes streaming through the clouds. We were in Vientiane at the beginning of May – this was where I fell completely in love with Laos, and although it was incredibly hot that didn’t stop us from having the best time!

      June 14, 2012
      • It’s a beautiful city! Biking around I think is the best way to see VientianeI can’t wait to go back. Hopefully I’ll get to visit Pha That Luang the second time around.

        June 15, 2012
  10. Stunning photos and a great narrative story, James! I hope by the end of your trip your smile as a big as King Setthathirat 😀

    June 12, 2012
    • Thank you! Laos left me with the biggest smile and the knowledge that I would go back sometime in the near future!

      June 14, 2012
  11. totie #

    Nice reading your blogs James but what interested me more are your entries for Laos. . . been here for 5 months now though still have 1 year and 7 months to complete my volunteering work in Lao Civil Society Organizations. Your blogs about Lao helped me get through with my survival here and knowing the country and even help me to like it more and helped me realize not to regret my decision of choosing this place to do my volunteering work. Your travelogue to other countries encourage me more to pursue my dream of travelling and exploring the world. . . keep on blogging and touching peoples’ lives.

    April 5, 2013
    • Wow Totie, thanks for writing me such thoughtful words. I did wonder how it would be to live in Laos for a period of time – no doubt it would take a lot of adjustment for most of us! I’m honoured that my blog played a small part in helping you make that transition… keep your chin up and never lose sight of the big picture. I’m sure your volunteer work will pay off with time. 🙂

      April 9, 2013
    • Hi totie – I’ve just published five posts on Laos – the most recent 5 posts interspersed with some musings on the nomadic life. Perhaps they too will help you with your timne there and give you a different perspective.
      Huge kudos to you in your volunteer work
      Alison

      May 18, 2013
  12. Oh you do the same as we do – ask the taxi driver how to say please, thank you, hello, goodbye etc in the local language. We do this in every country we go to. We find the most important are hello, thank you and I’m sorry. I did a post about it here:http://alisonanddon.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/the-nomadic-life-what-language-barrier/

    May 18, 2013
    • That’s one of my rules of travelling – it’s incredible how a few simple words can make such a big difference. If you speak enough people mistakenly assume that, by extension, you’re a fairly fluent speaker. That happened once in Germany and Italy!

      May 18, 2013
  13. I’d also like to say that the place to click so I get an email if you reply does not show so I won’t know if you reply or not 😦

    May 18, 2013
    • Thanks for letting me know, Alison. I’ve just restored the little check box. It was disabled quite a few months ago because I realised it was sending multiple emails out to everyone – seems the problem was the default setting that had it ticked automatically.

      May 18, 2013
      • Thank goodness (and my ‘inner secretary’) I remembered that I’d made a whole bunch of comments and couldn’t hit the reply notify button. Then I remembered where they were. So thank you for all your replies.
        Cheers
        Alison

        May 18, 2013
  14. chitchatwithjennee #

    My roots are from Laos. I have never been but was thinking about taking a trip there soon to visit. I want to get to know where I am from. Looking at your pictures and reading about your trip has helped me make up my mind. I cannot wait to visit the homeland. Thanks for sharing!

    March 1, 2015
    • You’re welcome, Jennee. Laos is one of my favourite countries in Asia and I loved spending a week there three years ago – it was the perfect place to get away from the stresses of big city life. I would go back in a heartbeat if I could!

      March 2, 2015
  15. My country! 🙂

    May 19, 2015
    • I hope you’ve had a chance to visit recently… Laos is so wild, beautiful and easygoing. And the food is fantastic!

      May 19, 2015

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