Saturday, 6 June 2009

Welcome to the Big City

My first thought on arriving in Vientiane was “Crikey, it is HOT here.” It was sweltering, and this was at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was a dry, hard heat, the kind that hits you when you are making a Sunday roast and you open the oven door. We took our bags down to the first coffee shop / bar that we stumbled on which was a serendipitous find - the Moonlight Café. The Moonlight Café sells Laotian / Western fusion cuisine with friendly staff and funky acid jazz tunes playing in the background. You also can take your iPod in and have new music loaded copied on to it; the music selection is quiet eclectic and has some real gems. For example on their list of recommendations are three albums by Malcolm Middleton, not particularly well known even in the UK. Of course there is a small fee involved and you are effectively buying an illegal download, but at US1.00 per album so be it.

On arrival at the café Nipun drew the short straw and went off to find accommodation whilst I chillaxed with the bags and had a couple of Beer Lao’s, surfing the net on the free wi-fi they provide. Increasingly we are finding that when arriving in a new town the best thing to do is for one of us to sit with the bags whilst the other looks for somewhere to stay. This (a) prevents reduces short tempered arguments caused by the heat and the bad packing hanging off your back and (b) mitigates the inflated prices from the guesthouse receptionists who can see the desperation in your eyes when you have walked across town with all your worldly possessions and a camera bag that weighs half of that again. What became immediately obvious was that Vientiane is an expensive place to stay and that the accommodation within our budget was pretty rubbish.

The city itself is far bigger than any of the other towns that we have visited in Laos. There are several beautiful hotels and guesthouses, but for these you will pay top dollar. This in part influenced our decision to spend relatively little time in Vientiane. As it transpired we stayed in two different guest houses (each at roughly 100 000 kipps which equates to roughly GBP 9.00 per night), the second offering air conditioning which only blew out hot air. I could see the condenser outside and the wall mounted unit in our room looked quite new, but what was happening between the two could be anyone’s guess. As such our room sauna was worse than the first room we had taken as we ended up paying more for accommodation with a fan and shared bathroom. Over the course of the next day I looked at several rooms and the budget accommodation seemed to be typified by manky, dirty rooms that had not seen paint in twenty years.

Vientiane did not feel (for me at least) as grand as Luang Prabang. Whereas Luang Prabang felt compact and enriched by history, Vientiane felt like just another capital city. It sprawls. The pace of life is noticeably faster and things seem more expensive. That is not to say the city was without beauty though, there were tree lined boulevards and the rustic, decaying French buildings set back from the streets that typify so many of the Laotian towns. Temples are dotted around the town and of course there is the Mekong flowing swiftly by without Thailand watching across from the other side. I liked Vientiane and we spent too little time there, but it has to be said that I liked the former capital (Luang Prabang) more.

In total we spent three night in Vientiane, exploring the town and the temples, eating delicious food and visiting the night market where you can buy a skewer of four roasted frogs or fist size snails ready for eating. Alongside the grilled chickens you can find grilled bat and all manner of other local delicacies on offer. My sense of adventure failed me and I headed off to Jaipur for a chicken curry with rotti. There is a huge variety of food available in Vientiane and part of the reason I feel that we spent too little time there is down to the rumblings in my tummy when I think of the restaurants that lined the streets.

The highlights of our time there included our visit to Pha That Luang, four kilometres outside town and cited as the most important monument in Laos. The Wat is a glittering gold, graceful structure that was originally built in the 1500’s but consequently razed by Siamese treasure seekers. The Wat was rebuilt twice by the French during their occupation of Laos and had been beautifully maintained. Just off the main complex are another two Wats that we briefly explored before jumping in our tuk tuk and heading back towards town and stopping at Vientiane’s answer to and copy of the Arc De Triomphe (Patuxai). Patuxai looks like a sore thumb in Vientiane, even from a distance. The monument was built in 1969 to honour the Laotian soldiers who died in the pre-revolutionary wars. Sadly the arches lack the breathtaking grandeur of the French original, and the setting does not gel with the monument. The scale feels wrong and the juxtaposition just looks silly; what’s more this impression is only strengthened as you get closer. As you reach Patuxai it becomes apparent that it has never been finished off. The walls are drab unfinished concrete and inside the archways bored looking, unfriendly vendors sell cold drinks and ice creams. There is no flame to commemorate the Unknown Soldier as with the Parisian original, rather a just a sign that says the monument was never completed as funds ran out halfway through.

After our flying tour of Vientiane we got going again. We were charged double for our bus tickets out of the city and onto Savannakhet (180 000 kipp each as opposed to 95 000) as we foolishly purchased them from our guesthouse instead of going directly to the bus station which was annoying, but live and learn. We suspected that the guest house may be a little more expensive than going direct to the station, but it was lashing down with rain and we got lazy. What we did not expect was the extent of the price hike, but then this is the capital city and capital cities are renowned for being a little over zealous in their charges.

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