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Vientiane’s ‘Hotel California’

Words & Pictures by Duncan Stearn


In 1976 the five-man west coast US band The Eagles had a worldwide smash hit with a song entitled ‘Hotel California’. Perhaps the most famous lines in the song are the last: ‘you can check out any time you like/ but you can never leave’.


I happen to think the Dao Kham Hotel in the Lao capital Vientiane might well lay claim to the title of being that small city’s version of the Hotel California. Located in the Sit-down-and-smoke-a-bong district (well, not quite that name, but not far off), the Dao Kham is about 2.5 kilometres from the city centre. In Vientiane terms, that’s almost out in another country.


I stayed there for just one night as part of the package deal I was on with one of Pattaya’s visa-run companies.


The hotel opened in 2011 and is a modern-looking edifice of just three storeys. It has a car park that could easily double as a bus station, but, as I was to learn to my chagrin later, it filled to bursting point at night.


Our visa-run group arrived at around 9:30am and were treated to a reasonable buffet breakfast. Our rooms looked impressive, at first. A comfortable double bed, air-conditioning, wardrobe, mini-bar, two complimentary bottles of water, and the standard TV with 400 channels, 397 of which you’d never want to see again. The bathroom was a decent size with a good shower.


In most hotels a set of curtains is usually an indication there might be a window through which a semblance of a view can be expected. In my room there were indeed a set of curtains; pulled aside and behind them was a concrete wall. The hotel brochure had suggested, among other things, rooms had ‘access to pleasant view (sic)’. I’m not sure a painted concrete wall constitutes a ‘pleasant view.’


A set of rules and regulations adorned part of the wall near the TV. Among the prohibitions was number 2: ‘Do not wash clothes, cook, smoke on bed and keep quiet.’ It quickly became apparent what I thought was a grammatical error in the admonition ‘do not…keep quiet’ may well have been intentional.


The hotel was seemingly built without thought to the acoustics. If a person passed wind in the rear kitchen it is likely the eruption would be heard on the third floor. Basically, every sound was magnified, from the closing of a door to the TV in another room; the walls and doors were merely there for decoration.


In my experience hotels are generally where a person comes to sleep, but the operators of the Dao Kham appear to think their rooms are merely places someone goes to have a quick shower and watch television while waiting for the downstairs disco and attendant karaoke rooms to kick into life. This it does at around 9:00pm every night and keeps going until around 2:00am. Hence the expansive car park.


The hotel has three vehicular entry points, which you would think augur well for the traveller. Yet, reception did not have a map of the city. Their business card only showed the way to the nearest main road. The map on the hotel brochure was similar, although nearby sights such as the Lao Cotton Factory and Phongsavanh Bank Branch were highlighted. The brochure noted, ‘we also service you by modern vans’. Something to keep in mind I thought if ever I felt like being ‘serviced’.


Basically, if you had never been to Vientiane before or your sense of direction was not up to scratch it would be possible to feel trapped in the confines of the Dao Kham. The three roads leading to the hotel were one degree above plain red dirt. A light wind is enough to raise a dust cloud in summer, while in the rainy season the roads would become mud. The reception at the hotel said apart from not having any proper location maps the nearest public transport could only be had by walking down to the main road. In other words, if you want to leave this place and not spend all your time and money here, it’s no simple task.


Having been to Vientiane a few times I had a pretty good idea of the direction of the city centre so made my escape by traversing one of the dusty side roads. Heading north, after about 40 minutes of walking I was soon in the centre of Vientiane. Free at last.