Vientiane receives mixed reviews from those who travel there. Many people love the French influenced town, while others feel that it is just a stepping stone on their way to the less spoiled areas of Laos. Vientiane didn’t have the temples of Siem Reap nor the excitement of Bangkok to hold our interest, and I found that two nights was ample time to explore the city, experience a taste of Laos, and see the few landmarks in town. However, Vientiane has a few charms if you slow down to appreciate the Mekong river, sunset, and French inspired Laos cafes.
DAY 1 – Monday, January 19, 2015
We traveled to Laos on the night train from Bangkok, which took about 12 hours and was at times a very bumpy ride. The train beds were surprising okay though. Being exhausted from the night before, the ride passed very quickly. In the morning we woke up to a view of hazy fields in rural Thailand. (For more details about the train, see Travel By Train below).
DAY 2 – Tuesday, January 20, 2015
When we reached the Nong Khai station near the Thailand border, we disembarked from the night train. Tuk tuk drivers were at the tracks offering to take people to the Laos boarder, but we decided to try the new express train to Thanaleng, Laos. The express train ticket included a minivan ride from Thanaleng to Vientiane, our destination. The express train was quick, however Thanaleng only had one immigration agent so obtaining visas into Laos took a while. Once in Vientiane, we found our hotel and then had a little time to kill before check in. Leaving our bags behind, we went out for lunch.
I didn’t know what to expect of Vientiane. I thought it might be similar to Siem Reap although I’d heard that due to French occupation, the town had french architecture and more cafes and bakeries than anywhere else in the region. For me, the city of Vientiane was a bit like Siem Reap but without some of the charm (although maybe by that time we’d seen enough of the region that some of the original charm had left my impressions). The town was dusty with a lot of traffic kicking up dirt and exhaust. The hotels and hostels seemed run down, although the variety of restaurants spanned the full range from road side cart to French bistros to American delis.
We tried to follow the Lonely Planet guidebook recommendations about what to eat and where. However as this trip progresses we have been less and less happy with their recommendations. We finally decided on Khop Chai Deu. Khop Chai Deu seemed very modern and advertised burgers as well as traditional Laos cuisine. The burgers looked great, but we wanted to try Lao cuisine and ordered the traditional dish of Laap, sour pork, and a whole steamed fish. Jon enjoyed the meal, however, throughout our stay, I found myself not to be a fan of Lao food.
Our hotel was unimpressive to say the least. We walked up flights of stairs with our bags to a simple room where we promptly killed a half dozen mosquitoes and then covered ourselves in bug spray. Although, to be fair, I didn’t see anymore mosquitoes in our room over the next few days. For me the shower was the worst part of the room. It was a hose that ran through an shoebox sized electronic water heater and to a handle you had to hold while showering. Most showers in Laos sprayed directly into the bathroom as there is no separate tub or stall.
In the evening we went to watch sunset over the Mekong river. On the way there we walked past Wat Si Saket, Vientiane’s oldest temple. Unfortunately Wat Si Saket was closed for the evening so we walked around the outside, snapped a few pictures, and continued towards the Mekong River.
Along the Mekong River was a sidewalk with lots of people sitting and watching the sun go down. To the other side of the sidewalk was an evening market. We watched the sun set against an orange sky and there was a reflection off the water which was lined with grasses. This was probably my favorite time in Vientiane. The air was cool and people were outside enjoying themselves. After the sun set we strolled through the market although some venders were already closing up. The food specialty here seemed to be grilled cuttlefish (we skipped that).
We eventually ended up at I-beam (a lonely planet recommendation). I-beam was a very cute little tapas restaurant which we enjoyed although it wasn’t as authentic as we normally would try to eat while traveling. It was happy hour and we got few of the cheap Beer Lao beers which came with free hor d’oeuvres of spreads on baguette slices. We also got an appetizer. We had I-beam to ourselves except for a few older white men who would drift in and out of the bar and seemed to know each other.
For dinner we went to Xang Khoo. Xang Khoo was located close to our hotel and advertised themselves as French and Lao. We had more laap and a savory crepe with fish. I enjoyed this Lao food the most of our stay in Vientiane. The laap suited my palette more (I think it had less herbs in it) and the crepe was very good. Finally we went back to our hotel and called it a night.
DAY 3 – Wednesday, January 21, 2015
We left our hotel late the next morning in search of breakfast. Vientiane is known for their french bakeries, so we had to start at Le Banneton for croissants, which are said to sell out. Even through it was mid-morning, we found them to have plenty of croissants remaining. The regular croissant was alright, but we really enjoyed an almond croissant with a light icing on it. It was already starting to get hot when we left and started to walk around town. Quickly we realized we needed to sit down and get some more breakfast (at least Alexis was feeling a bit sick, possibly from the malaria pills we were taking) . We went to JoMa Bakery. JoMa was recommended in Lonely Planet, but we had passed by it the night before and felt it was too American for what we want when traveling. This time we stopped in and had a fruit shake and some mango french toast which was actually very good.
Not sure what to do with the day, and a bit tired of visiting city temples, we decided to try to visit Buddha Park. Buddha Park is about 20 minutes outside of Vientiane towards the Thailand border near Friendship Bridge. We weren’t sure what to expect at Buddha Park, but we had seen intriguing pictures. From what I can tell, Buddha Park is an art installation with recreations of interesting Buddha statues. We did a little negotiating and finally agreed on a price with a tuk tuk driver to take us to the park and back. After two blocks in the motorbike tuk tuk, our driver had us switch to a pickup truck type of tuk tuk for the remainder of the drive.
Buddha Park was 5000k ($0.65) to enter and another 1000K to take photographs. The park was a bit smaller than I expected. I had pictured the statues being spread out over a green park, however the statues were actually closely gathered in the space given. The first piece that really catches everyone’s eye as they enter the park is ‘the pumpkin’. The pumpkin is a building sized orb with a huge ceramic tree on top of it. You can enter the pumpkin though a Buddha’s open mouth. Inside are three cryptic levels representing Hell, Earth, and Heaven. After weaving through the pumpkin and up narrow stairs through holes in the floor, you can come out and walk on top if. From the top of the pumpkin you can see the entire park.
Along one side of Buddha Park is a large reclining Buddha. Other notable statues include the Frog eating the Dark Moon, and lots of Buddha’s formed out of serpents. The park’s collection is definitely focused on the creepy and offputting Buddhas and not on the open smiling ones we have mostly seen on our travels.
Back in town we took a break to cool down at the hotel. When the sun started to drop and the day cooled off, we started our walk to Patuxai. Patuxai, the victory arch, is another example of the French influence on Vientiane and is often called a replicate of the Arc de Trimphe. On the way to Patuxai we also passed another site, That Dam.
From Putuxai we continued our walk until we got to Pha That Luang. Once again, we arrived as it was closing for the day, so we could just see the famous gold gleaming roof over the property fence.
By now, I was starting to sour on Laos food and was looking for something more familiar for dinner. However, we couldn’t bring ourselves to go to an American or Italian restaurant and we ended up at Lao Kitchen where we had stir fired vegetables and a very Laotian beef stew (Luang Prabng style) with buffalo skin and pepper wood in it. The stew was good, although the vegetables as a comfort food helped settle the meal.
We walked the streets after dinner enjoying the crisp air and eventually made our way to the center city fountain. Several restaurants; one Japanese, one Vietnamese, one bar, and some others circle the fountain and are all part of Mix. I’m not sure what was there first, the fountain or the restaurant Mix. A band sitting in front the fountain was playing live music and we were seated at a table and given a menu to each of the kitchens in Mix. We enjoyed a drink while listening to some music before turning into bed for the night.
DAY 4 – Thursday, January 22, 2015
This was our last morning in Vientiane. For breakfast we set out in search of the traditional breakfast dish of fer, a soup. We couldn’t find the restaurant Lonely Planet recommended, so instead we ended up eating at a small place serving wonton soup, but which had a crowd of locals. The soup was good, but not out of this world. As we headed back to our hotel to wait for our bus to Vang Vieng, we stopped at the Scandinavian Bakery where we split an onion pie (like quiche) and a donut. I felt a bit let down by the Scandinavian Bakery which came highly reviewed. After eating we checked out of our hotel and waited to be picked up by our bus north.
Travel by Train to Vientiane from Bangkok: The night train departs from the Hua Lamphong Train Terminal in Bangkok at 8pm and travels to Nong Khai. The train has two classes; 1st class sleeper and 2nd class sleeper. From what I can tell, the major difference between the two classes is that first class compartments are private for every 2 or 4 people. We were greeted on the train by a waiter from the restaurant car asking for dinner and breakfast orders. We ordered breakfast, but probably would have been happier with snacks from our own supply. Shortly after departing the station an attendant came around and transferred every two seats into a bed and folded down an upper bunk from the ceiling. I found the beds to be surprising roomy, and I could lay flat in one (I’m 5′ 7”). Sleeping was a bit rough with a lot of train noise which wasn’t helped by the fact that we were near to the door. Also in the upper bunk the curtains failed to block the florescence ceiling light. A good resource for train information is www.seat61.com.
From the Nong Khai Train Station a commuter type train is available for 300B to take you across the border to Thanaleng where you pass through customs and then take a minivan into downtown Vientiane. The visa counter was very slow moving, as was the wait for the minivan. Optionally, you could hire a tuk tuk at the Nong Khai Train Station to take you to the Laos border.
Money: The Laos currency is the Kip which has an exchange ratio of $1= 8,025K (as of January 2015). We found that most establishments will except Kip, US dollars, and the Thai Baht. More modernized restaurants also accept Mastercard and Visa.
Visa Information: For Americans, most major entry points into Laos will offer a visa on arrival; including airports, train stations, and some land crossings. A visa is good for 30 days and costs 1500B ($45) for Americans. You will need one passport type photograph.
Transportation: Tuk tuks seem to be the best transportation for tourists within Laos cities and they are plentiful. You can usually negotiate a lower price than they will offer, so don’t be scared to try. If you are going to or from a large tourist attraction, finding other tourists to share a tuk tuk with will also reduce the cost.
If you are traveling between cities in Laos most transportation is by bus or van. Scheduled VIP buses, mini-buses, and vans can be booked through most hotels, hostels, and travel agents. (Travel agents and tour companies seem to make up a large percentage of the businesses in the larger Laos cities).
Water: Don’t drink it. Bottled water is widely available and most of our hotel rooms included either a water cooler in the lobby or two bottles in the room daily.
Malaria: Malaria exists in Laos, although if you are in cities, the risk is low. We took malaria pills (Doxycycline), which we purchased cheaply from a pharmacy in Thailand. MAKE SURE YOU TALK TO A DOCTOR BEFORE DOING THIS as there are a number of possible side effects and the pills must be continued for 30 days after leaving an at risk area.