Vientiane, Mekong Capital of Calm
BY JOHN BORTHWICK
One of the great attractions of Vientiane is that there are no great attractions. The Lao capital serenely lacks the “must-see-must-do” icons that cities these days feel increasingly obliged to boast about. To be fair though Vientiane has a large and important Buddhist temple, Pha That Luang — the Great Sacred Stupa — that dates back to 1566. It sprawls rather than soars and it isn’t burdened by being higher, holier or older than the World Heritage wonders found elsewhere in this region.
Years ago, on my first visit to another Vientiane wat, the graceful Ho Phakeo temple, a guide told me that this had been home to Bangkok’s famed Emerald Buddha until a Siamese army carried it off in 1779. "We don't we ask for it back," he explained, "because the Thais have only “the thing”. The real Emerald Buddha is still here,inside us." Touché, Siam.
Vientiane is pronounced “Viang-chan”, not the phonetic Franglaise mangle, “Vee-enty-ahn” and has been the Lao capital for 454 years. Its population is around 750,000 people and almost nothing is mandatory except to hang loose, eat well and wander. Most visitors take a look at, if not climb, the Patouxai Gate, an ornate archway that straddles the central Lane Xian Avenue. One of its two nicknames is the “Asian Arc de Triomphe”.The 160 steps to the top are easy enough but in the humidity, a shirt drencher. The view is worth the sweat. You can scan the city horizon, counting its skyscrapers on one hand. Below is the broad, Paris-inspired Lane Xian boulevard, playing Champs Elysee to Patouxai’s Arc de Triomphe.
Built between 1957 and 1968 (yet never quite completed) the arch is dedicated to the Lao soldiers who died fighting for France in World War II and soon after, against France in their struggle for independence. The local legend is that the cement used in it was intended for the US-funded Vientiane airport. Instead, much was diverted to the Patouxai Gate — and thus, its other nickname, “the vertical runway”.
To get around town I hire a bicycle. Vientiane is compact, its traffic ambles (even the peak hour jams are slo mo) and — the clincher for lazy cyclists like me — there are no hills. Pedaling in the steam-iron humidity, from hotel or café to museum or monument, I often find temptation looming: skip the sights and have another cool drink — you know you want to.
I push on and hit the National Museum where the Lao people get to tell their tale. There are displays of “how-we-kicked-the-French-derriere”. (Laos’s colonisers from 1893 to 1954, the French are depicted as slavers with bullwhips.) The American “imperialists and their puppet soldiers”, too, are shown the door. The propaganda is leavened by giant drums, tribal costumes, ceramics and ancient manuscripts, and lightened by a photo of that obscure 1960s US leader, President John Sen.
Meanwhile, the People’s Army Museum goes one better with the captions on its old photographs spelling out character assessments of various national enemies: the French, predictably, were “colonialists”, the Japanese “fascists” and the Americans “imperialists” but the neighbouring Thais were inventively slagged-off as “extremely rightists”.
I pedal across town to the Mekong shore but its actual flow, at least in dry season, is almost half a kilometre distant across river flats. (Gone are the old makeshift bars, seemingly built from driftwood, that sat right beside the river until the large dams built upstream reduced the flow.) A wide promenade runs along the raised bank and features a thronged night-market that is full of ethnic clobber and same-same souvenir tat.
It’s dinner time so I stroll further along the bank’s Quai Fa Ngoum and settle for the Spirit House restaurant where steamed tilapia fish in chili, garlic and lime sauce, plus salad, a fair cocktail, good service and no plus-plus surcharges all come to less than 400 baht.
Vientiane isn’t an insomniac city with its nightlife on speed-dial. Going out here is more about enjoying food and company. Khop Chai Deu (which is Lao for “thank you”) attracts locals, expats and tourists alike, and is the most popular bar-restaurant-beer garden in town. Located in an old villa on Setthathirath Road near Nam Phou fountain (the unofficial centre of town), Khop Chai Deu is as good for a pit-stop (cold beer and fresh, spicy spring rolls) as for a dress-up, sit-down meal.
Monty Python-style jokes about the colonial French might still get a run in Vientiane, along the lines of “What did the French ever do for us?” The answer includes boulevards, boulangeries, coffee and libraries. They also left a taste for dining well and when the dry-rot decades of Cold War faux socialists were over, the chefs came out to wok again. There are plenty of French restaurants here. If you’re just in the mood to relax, then try bars like the Samlo Pub on Rue Setthathirath or the Billabong on Rue Chao Anou.
The Mekong’s liquid highway separates Vientiane from Thailand, visible on the opposite shore, but there seem to be no river sightseeing trips on offer. It’s that sort of take-it-or-leave-it town, a laid-back enigma, a national capital with all the urgency of a country town. Good reason to hop over soon from Thailand and enjoy it before a bunch of man-bun types “discover” the place, double the prices and announce how hip it all is.
Visa: A 30-day visa on arrival is available at the airport; from US$30 (depending on nationality), paid in US dollars or Thai baht. Bring a passport-size photo. Check first online.