After crossing into Laos from Chang Rai (Thailand) and travelling south, arriving in Vientiane in central Laos feels as if you’ve hit the mid-way point of this gorgeous country – should I stay or should I go now…
Road-wise, the final trip from Vang Vieng to Vientiane is not much better than the past month’s travel from north to south of Laos. Although the last hour or so before reaching Vientiane the road does improve, drivers do not and still as crazy as ever.
Advised by the Inthira Hotel that sold the tickets and we also assumed (big mistake) that paying extra for an “Express VIP ticket” from Vang Vieng, would provide a better and more comfortable trip.
After a month in Laos, I should know better.
The bus isn’t air-conditioned but crammed with 24 other tourists and their large backpacks, not a great trip. Passengers sat on a few broken seats and I had a young Dutch traveller whining in my ear about being ripped-off on this bus trip – no locals on this bus, they are too smart…
Vientiane is pretty laid-back for a city but since I was here last in 1989, it has exploded. With much more accommodation and restaurant choices on offer than ever before, you will be spoilt.
The capital city has a lot to offer in the way of Buddhist temples mixed with colonial architecture, museums, and also the surrounding area of Vientiane.
The Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir (about 90 kilometres north of Vientiane) is worth a visit and although I didn’t visit this time, I did hitch through this area in 1989. A very picturesque and almost forgotten by tourists these days, eager to head to Vang Vieng.
Meandering around Vientiane
This city has exploded since I was here last in 1989; much more cosmopolitan, and offers the tourist many more attractions and food options – although I much prefer the traditional Laos cuisine.
Legacy of the French Colonial Empire in Laos (pre-1953), wander around town and you soon stumble upon gorgeous colonial buildings, including the Presidential Palace, which is definitely worth a visit.
A stroll down to the riverfront for some food, coffee, or a cool Beerlao (local beer), but mainly to relax and watch everyday life in Vientiane, is a must.
You can’t miss this market, which runs along the riverfront and is aimed primarily towards tourists. Starting at sunset, the clean and very orderly stalls sell souvenirs and trinkets; mostly Thai and Chinese junk.
COPE Visitor Centre – National Rehabilitation Centre
Make sure you visit this very inspiring and moving centre. You can easily spend a couple of hours at this centre.
Although it is free entry, leave a small donation, buy a T-Shirt, a homemade ice-cream, or why not all three? It is tastefully set out, for such a confronting exhibition and you can also watch documentaries.
During the Vietnam War (1964 to 1973), the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions.
This was equal to a plane load of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years, which makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
The tragic part is that up to one-third of the bombs dropped, did not explode. This left Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO), which continues to kill and maim today.
Since the bombing ceased and nearly 40 years on, over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO and less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed in Laos.
Contrary to what the guide books state, you can walk to this centre in half an hour or so from the city centre – photos are allowed.
Bayern Guesthouse – just as with other accommodation in Laos, the room price should include breakfast but this one doesn’t. The room and bathroom are spotlessly clean and large. Room is serviced daily, very quiet, bed and pillow are very comfortable, and a small fridge is also included.
As you are in the heart of Chinatown, the location is within walking distance to most restaurants, eateries, markets, bus station, and the COPE Centre. As expected, wi-fi in the room is better as long as not too many people are in their rooms. (A router on each floor helps.)
You can help yourself to free tea/coffee all day. The ladies are friendly but the young night guy hardly says boo when you walk past him to go up the stairs to your room. He is glued to his games on the reception’s PC – mesmorised.
These days, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to food in this city. Apart from local Laos restaurants, Indian, Chinese, Thai, vegetarian, many western menus, and much more are on offer; here are just a few suggestions:
- Cafe Benoni (Setthathirath Road; near the fountain) – Best coffee in Vientiane? Maybe, but as I didn’t try all the coffee shops, then I can’t be 100% sure. The pastries are excellent! The meals are a little expensive but there are some cheaper options offered and the quality is excellent. Atmosphere is good and the service/staff excellent (they even remembered us, but this could be as we had coffee and pastries there 4 days running, and an afternoon meal!)
- Swedish Pizza & Baking House (Ban Naxay) – average coffee but great cake; had a cappuccino here a few times and each time it was average. The Danish pastries and the Budapest cake are both very good (didn’t try anything savoury). The prices are a little expensive. The pizzas are very expensive but the aromas of freshly homemade pizzas waft through this bake house and leave you fanging for a morsel.
- Noodle shops – scattered all over town, you can enjoy a good cheap meal at one of these; just pick one and enjoy!
- Chinese restaurant – sadly, I don’t have the name of this tiny excellent restaurant that makes fresh scrumptious dumplings and Chinese dishes at good prices. Directions: it’s just up from the corner of Chao Anou Road and Setthathirath Road, and on your right.
Tip: As always, whilst travelling in Laos, make sure you try the sticky rice in each region as it is slightly different in each area. I order it with every meal as I’m addicted.
Some six months’ ago now, before leaving Australia, the travel plan was pretty sketchy and decided to make it up whilst travelling, no plans and no schedules really; Laos wasn’t really on the wish list for SE Asia at the time.
Maybe because I spent a couple of weeks here back in 1989, before tourism was even thought of for this country. I am always apprehensive of returning to a country after many years.
I wanted to remember Laos as I had experienced it back then…however, after a month in this stunning country, I just want to explore more. So, a visa run to Thailand provided another thirty days.
Over the years, the Thailand-Laos visa runs have become much easier and faster, especially with the building of five Thai-Laos Friendship Bridges across the Mekong. I believe a sixth bridge is on the way.
Crossing borders at Friendship Bridge No. 5 from Chang Rai to Houay Xay without any dramas, the crossing at Friendship Bridge No. 1 also proved pleasantly hassle-free:
- From the city, catch a Tuk-tuk to the border crossing where you exit Laos.
- At Immigration, take the local bus (4,000K) across Friendship Bridge No.1 to Nong Khai (Thailand) to be stamped into Thailand.
- Walk across the road (signs everywhere) and get back on another Thai local bus (7,000K; about a 2-minute wait) across the bridge again so as to be stamped into Laos. The cost is USD$30 for the 30-day visa.
- At Immigration, pick up the local bus to take you back into Vientiane.
Vientiane to Thakhek
Next stop, Thakhek as apparently this town is closer to Tham Kong Lo, which is the karst limestone cave in the Phu Hin Bun National Park.
Bought the bus ticket (120,000K) from the Chinese Hotel a couple of doors down from the Bayern Guesthouse, which included a hotel pick-up – lush.
All hotels in Vientiane charge a marked-up ticket price for hotel pick-ups but as the bus station is south of the city, the only other way is to catch a Songthaew (around 20,000K per person).