Both Adam and I had really low expectations for Vientiane so we only booked two nights in the city. In the end, I would have liked to spend a few more nights there. On the one hand, when compared to Luang Prabang it is not at all a pretty city in terms of its natural geography. On the other hand, the city has a ton of lovely temples, much nicer than those in Luang Prabang, and the restaurant and bar scene is relaxed and fun. Admitedly, the city itself is a bit of a hot mess in a literal sense. The sights are mostly walkable, but in the crazy heat, the walking is not at all enjoyable. And once you get away from the waterfront, which barely has any water but at least has a decent breeze, walking is quite hot and miserable. Notwithstanding the heat, the place has so many interesting sights, mellow cafes and excellent restaurants, that I’d frankly prefer to live in Vientiane than in Luang Prabang.
We arrived fairly late from Vang Vieng, so we rested for a bit and thereafter only really had time to go out for dinner. The place we settled on was a brilliant restaurant by the name of Makphet which is a teaching restaurant for both servers and cooks. But don’t let the training aspect fool you, it was some of the best food I had in the country:
The next day was a busy one for us. I essentially tried to ensure that we saw all the major sights in a 5 hour time-frame, working from a bike tour in Lonely Planet but on foot supplemented by the occassional tuk tuk. However, we started with breakfast at a kick-ass French pastry store nearby. The staff was so laid back at the place that we actually walked out without paying accidentally. It took us a good five minutes to realise that we had not paid, and when we casually strolled back in to pay, they were totally cool with the disappearing act. Yup, people in Lao are that nice:
After breakfast we departed on our walking tour. It was disgustingly hot so the short walk was quite the effort, but worthwhile:
The biggest market in the city, Khua Din Market. I’m just showing a shot of the food section, but they sell everything in this place. Given how huge it was, the entrances were surprisingly difficult to find as they are hidden behind a half-demolished building:
Sarcastically refered to as the Champs Elysees of Lao. However, mocking aside, you still get some decent views of the city from the top of the Patuxay Monument:
On of the surprising things about Vientiane is that it is a total grid city yet still has a bunch of old stupas and temples all over the place that work perfectly in the grid. An example, this old stupa is in the middle of one of the fancier neighbourhoods in town:
I know this sounds bleak, but one of the highlights of my stay was visiting the COPE centre (short for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise). It made me angry as hell when I was educated about cluster bombs, but the centre really is the top sight in the city.
One of the things the centre does is employ amputees in making wheelchairs for other amputees. When you look at the bikes below, surely you are thinkng that they just crude attempts to make a decent wheelchair. However, the chairs are in fact precisely designed for the environment where they will be used. The wheelchairs we normally see will be overwhelmingly used in urban settings with fairly consistent flat pavement. However most of the amputee clients of the centre live in the rural areas where unexploded ordinance is common, as such effective wheelchairs need to have much bigger wheels so that the manouverability of the chair is closer to that of a mountain bike:
For those of you unfamiliar with cluster bombs, in practice they are just as bad as landmines in terms of their indisciminate killing potential, but really worse because they are a lot easier to deploy. Watching a video of one deploy is chilling. A big bomb is dropped containing approximately 680 smaller bombs. When the big bomb reaches a particular altitude, it separates and rockets propel it up a bit again, and also cause it to spin, scaterring the mini-bombs over an area the size of three football fields. In practice, each of the smaller bombs is supposed to detonate when it hits the ground, but in practice 30% of them do not detonate, leaving 200+ bombs with a kill radius of 2 metres each, scattered all over the countryside. Years later, they go off when a person searching for scrap metal happens to find one, or when someone inadvertently builds a fire close to the site where a bomb has been burried through the passage of time. The effects are devastating, adults and children alike are still being killed by cluster bombs from the Vietnam war era. Amazingly, several major countries including the U.S., Russia, Israel and pretty much the entire middle east have refused to sign the treaty which would prohibit their use. Shocking.
An illustration of a cluster-bomb:
Some of the homemade artificial limbs that were made by amputees and their families prior to receiving professionally made limbs:
One of the mini-bombs up close:
Stopping by the gift shop is a must for several reasons. First, the COPE centre does not charge an admission fee so the museum and various programs are run through donations and through the sales in the shop. They sell interesting T-shirts, but also a lot of handmade artisinal goods that are on message, made by rural women in northern Lao. I bought my niece a killer stuffed doll of a child with a prosthetic limb–and it does not look at all depressing.
After visiting the COPE centre, we finished the day off by checking out some of the temples downtown, near the river:
We then walked along the avenue next to the river. They haven’t done the best job using the riverside, but then again in the dry season the riverside isn’t all that picturesque as it dries out quite a bit.
Some buildings by the riverside:
One of the prettier areas by the riverside:
The following morning we had an overnight train booked to take us to Bangkok. As such, we had the morning to explore the most important religious site in Lao, Phat That Luang. It’s only about 15 km outside of the centre of the city, so booking a cab there and back is fairly inexpensive. The golden stupa is important to Buddhism in Lao because it is said to contain a bone from Buddha’s shoulder, buried underneath.
Shots of Phat That Luang:
This little fellow had a bit of a Mexican feel to it:
Lao did not have any railways up until 2009. They now have a single rail line spanning all of 3.5 kilometres which takes you from the suburbs of Vientiane, to the railway at the Thai border. You pretty much have to take a taxi to the station in any event, as it is in the middle of nowhere, so the practical thing would be to just take the taxi all the way to the border. However, our ticket included both segments. And, I like trains.