Vientiane – Discovering Asia’s Paris


Welcome to Vientiane

Laos, a Buddhist nation that has in recent years stepped out from behind the curtain of communism and has begun to embrace a new era is a nation of many superlatives – phenomenal sunsets, mysterious ancient jungles, colossal statues, dusty streets congested with animated traffic, and the Arc des Triomphe. And Vientiane, the nation’s peaceful capital, was home base for a few weeks.

My first impressions of Vientiane came late in the evening as the sun had long since set on the day, and the streets had long since cleared of activity. This was a quiet city, something unfamiliar yet not overwhelming. Perhaps the hustle and bustle of South-East Asia would rear its head the next day, or perhaps Laos bucked the trend of South-East Asian destinations and was a lone wolf – a silent partner?

My first full day in Laos started with adjusting to my bearings. Vientiane is a river city that quietly straddles the Mekong River (the natural border that snakes through the countryside that divides Thailand and Laos).

This was a nation of contrasts between rich and poor, stately government manors and residential tin shacks that dot the edges of the dust-swept roads across the city. A city where the wealthy drove around in over-sized and over-priced American cars while the average citizen rode around on cheap hybrid Chinese scooter/motorcycles. This was a city where there was always tomorrow, but never yesterday.

Vientiane was a city where westerners sipped lattes in brightly decorated Canadian/Australian-style cafes and ordinary Vientiane residents shared beers in wall-less tin shack huts. Where obscure American restaurants sat alongside roadside barbecues. But interestingly the country was yet to succomb to the juggernauts: McDonalds and KFC. (although they were adapt at creating their own version of KFC created using large tin woks, caked in oil and grease and accompanied by delicious homemade fries, and yes it was better than the real thing).

I was not doing this alone. I would be spending the next couple of months living with an old friend from home, a German by the name of Chris. His role as a Personal Trainer had bought him here to work with a healthy selection of clients from NGO’s to teachers, and locals too. Chris had rented a two-story house near to the city’s international school and complete with a backyard would make a nice home for the next few weeks.

Vientiane, home to 250,000 residents, is not your ordinary hustle and bustle. Buddhist culture prevails here with a strong influence over day-to-day life. Showing anger is seen as a bizarre trait in Laos and almost nobody publicly shows it. The impact of Buddhism on this 236,000 km2 nation of 7 million has deep roots in every ounce of society. From the peaceful nature of the people, to the meditative properties of sitting beside the Mekong as a crimson-rose sunset sets beyond the Thai jungle.

Over the course of three months my host, Chris introduced me to some of the highlights of the Laotian culture including: Laotian cuisine (mango salad, sticky rice), Running Coaching (yes, it seems that whatever skill you’ve obtained in your life can be converted into a profitable career here in Laos), and of course an impassioned community of immigrants from across the globe (Germany, Australia, England, Wales, Luxembourg, France, Canada and Iceland).

During a period of 3 months I worked as an English Teacher, a Running Coach, and dabbled in Personal Training. The market is ripe to do anything you want in Laos, you just have to have a wild imagination, and well obviously some experience in your chosen field.

One of the benefits of living in Laos is having nature on your backdoor. 40 minutes in a Tuktuk will get you to the edge of the jungle and from there a quick 30 minute walk down a farm track will welcome you to a rather inviting Eco-Lodge known as Dreamtime.

Experience a Lao Eco-Lodge near Vientiane

Dreamtime was set-up by a Belgian-Australian couple who had been living in Laos for some time and wanted to build something that incorporated the natural beauty of the Laotian Jungle with that of the functionality of eco-tourism.

During our stay, we enjoyed locally sourced western and Laos-style cuisine which was all organic by the way. The highlight of the weekend was the secret waterfall which required a hike down a creek for 20 minutes. It was perfect for a mid-afternoon swim where the waters kept temperate.

In the evening one of the members of our group entertained us along with our Australian host with a Fire-Breathing Demonstration. Under a blanket of darkness coated in an infinite dancing stars, the majestic fire added a sense of mystery to the surrounds.

At the eco-lodge, accommodation came in treehouses located around the property. Uniquely, the huts were independent of each other which gave you total privacy from other guests at the lodge. Toilet and shower facilities were centrally located around the property depending on where you were staying.

At night, it paid to have your own torch as lighting was non-existent and it got quite dark in the jungle.

Dreamtime was approximately 40 km from Vientiane and while I was in Laos I also got the opportunity to visit another lodge run by a Swedish entrepreneur and recent migrant from Thailand. The lodge was over an hour from Vientiane and required a mix of different forms of transport. Going there, we took a local bus and then switched to a river boat 30 minutes from our destination.

On the way back we took a mini-bus along some of the pottiest-of-pot-holed roads I have ever been on. Mountains of dirt mounds licked the roadside as we dodged them along with giant craters. The countryside was dotted with farm huts and criss-crossed with fields. We travelled on this route for around one hour before we got back to semi-civilisation.

Our destination for the weekend, Ban Pako Lodge turned out to be less the adventure that we had at Dreamtime but was still in development and offered us a glimpse of the beauty of the Laotian countryside away from civilisation.

The haunting beauty of the pastel green jungle drew comparisons with the rest of Asia. The mystery of knowing that very few had walked through the dense bush beyond the river really spoke volumes about the landscape. As mystical and ornate as it was to see.

Ban Pako Lodge was better set-up for those visitors who wanted to escape the city environment yet wanted to still maintain a little bit of civilisation. Our accommodation was in small single dwellings that were set up in a camp-like setting with a central common area where guests could enjoy a set menu or a cold drink with views over the river landscape.

Ban Pako lodge had limited activities at the time that we were there but if you were looking to just relax for a weekend and read a good novel beside a lush jungle river or to explore some of the Lao countryside then Ban Pako Lodge may be for you.

Vientiane: The Paris Of Asia

Vientiane holds the title of being the Paris of Asia. Such was the dedication to model their beloved city on their former colonizers that the city decided to create its own Arc De Triomphe and wide boulevard to boot, just like in central Paris.

The similarities however are not widespread throughout the city as NGO’s and cash-cow charities have moved in. And nothing says lavish like the recently relocated US Embassy or the overly ambitious World Vision Headquarters. There was no expense spared in maintaining the presence of large NGO’s, Charities and Embassy’s in Vientiane.  The city is practically crawling with them.

But Laotians don’t seem to mind, as the government manors that scatter the city also emulate the no-expense-spared mentality of the city.

Laos, like its neighbour to the north China has no shortage of ultra modern construction projects that seem to be built within a few weeks. This incessant desire to do things as rapidly and cheaply as possible leads to some interesting sights around the city, like this: a bamboo-made scaffolding plank.

Mountainous projects like a massive shopping and conference centre that was expected to be completed in a couple of months tend to grow up around Vientiane like mushrooms almost periodically overnight.  The construction workers who oversee these ambitious projects work day-and-night to achieve their targets. One day while walking to the bus station I was accosted by a worker to help them out. What may appear random in many parts of the world is considered normal here.

And who could forget Vientiane’s power grid. Yes, this whimsical attraction was a common sight throughout the city, and lead me to wonder how high the IQ of electricians were in this city. How else was it possible to know which line to check whenever there was a powercut? And they were quite regular.

Laotian homes were also an interesting concept when it came to simplicity. Electrical cables sat on the walls with literally nothing sitting inside the walls at all. Plugs were a risky affair and so to were the electrical showers that spun out hot water. Again, they all lead to a spaghetti core of Laotian ingenuity.

My First Traffic Accident

Laotian traffic gets an honorable mention because it was here I had my first traffic accent. There is no street lighting in Vientiane so always be cautious when going anywhere at night.

I was out cycling, planning to cross the street I took a rather quick glimpse of the road behind, no on-coming lights so I must be okay – wrong! The next minute I heard a motorbike clip a bicycle before turning to see it career into me. I went over the bike and landed on the engine. Quickly getting up, I rushed over to the rider and his passenger and prepared to keep them stable until the ambulance arrived.

Not being able to speak the language was a mere inconvenience but it didn’t hamper our communication. The rider was fine of course, as he lay down a friend passed him a cigarette and he was killing his lungs in tobacco before too long. Within awhile a ambulance or van came by, out from the vehicle came half the hospital who quickly took over and I was on my way home with a burn on my leg but perfectly functional. As for the rider, he seemed to be fine.

In Laos there is an unofficial rule of thumb which seems pretty legit (sarcasm assured). The bigger vehicle you are driving, the more likely it is your fault that you caused the accident so even if I had been responsible for the accident (and who’s to say I wasn’t), I would not have been at fault because I was riding a bicycle and the other was on a motorbike. Great! That seems plausible.

Laos authorities generally will not focus their concerns around foreigners either. As long as you respect the local customs and authorities, they will seldom have an issue with your presence.

Giant Spiders and Geckos Galore

Laos has a magnificent range of giant insects – take for example this spider that had passed and was stuck inside our bathroom window with no way of escaping.  Each day, our home would be inundated with a mass of geckos that would sing their choruses every evening at sunset, or the chorus of birds that would echo their love for our fruit trees.

Laos has plenty of wildlife and even in the city you can find plenty of spiders, geckos or other exotic flora.

One of the biggest adjustments to living in Asia is the sheer magnitude of wild dog gangs that call the street their home, and unlike anywhere else I have been – these were savage. In Laos, cycling on the streets can be an ordeal in which you are constantly racing against, or swiftly avoiding these large groups of wild canines.

They were fearless and often merciless, putting their human counterparts in danger. Even though it is not required, it could be recommended that you receive a rabies shot before visiting this country if you plan to stay here long term.

The usual affair of distracting and distancing yourself from these dogs is often met with a lack of concern. The dogs have assimilated with humans and due to a lack of insight or control by locals, have learned to explore a more violent nature towards us. They also regularly scrap with other gangs, so you don’t want to be in the middle of that!

Vientiane is a malaria-free zone but be aware that during the wet season the swamps can be a breeding ground for mosquito’s. You will find that all homes and hotels come with a mosquito net which keeps things comfortable, especially in the hottest months of the year when temperatures can hover around 25 (77) degrees at night. The hot steamy air can be a little discomforting if you are not used to it.

Vientiane Farmer’s Markets Blossom

The city is swarming with incredible farmers markets that house some of the city’s best produce and crafts. The succulent juiciness of a ripe mango or the putrid aroma of Asia’s favorite fruit – Duran, can be bought here. The aisles of produce stalls are swamped every morning with locals buying their fresh produce for the day. Some of the workers travel for hours to sell their products.

The prices are reasonable by Lao standards and with a vast plethora are a reflection of the diversity that exists in this city and beyond.

The concept of American commercialism has been held back by the countries rulers who wish to maintain a peaceful scope of appeal within their borders and among their people. Large US-style shopping malls have until this point being largely ignored by this impoverished South-East Asian nation. However in recent years as the curtain is pulled back on communism, a rise in these retail giants have pried their way into Vientiane and have taken up residence alongside the city’s produce and craft markets.

Farewell Vientiane and Laos

After almost 3 months in Laos, my time was coming to an end. The country, the people, and the lifelong friends I had come to know would always have an impact on me as I began my journey across the world. But Europe was calling me, a chance to experience a new culture and find a solid base to travel from was something I needed to focus on for now.

I would always remember the Friday night banter, the colorful display of kinship and culture from the illustrious festivals that constantly marked my calendar but now it was time to board a train and head south to Bangkok. The urban sprawl of South-East Asia’s megalopolis awaited me.

Vientiane went from being a timeless purveyor of surrealism, to something that symbolized hope in the developing world. A culture that longed to hold onto tradition in an ever-changing world as its youth began to explore the infinite possibilities of the future.

For Laos taught me a lot about myself. It was here that I learned about meditation, yoga, sex therapy, taekwon do, coaching and the mesmerising art of fire breathing. Laos allowed me to experience a certai

n freedom that I had never explored before. There were endless possibilities to grow and expand myself and it made me whole.

So as I watched the sun guide her way around the horizon and whisper to the night as I witnessed my final sunset on the Mekong, I was ready to begin another adventure, and one day I would be ready to return and explore this country deeper.