Northern Laos, Vientiane


It had been around twenty years since I had ventured into Laos. Road trip season was upon us again and now seemed a good time as any to revisit the country and explore some new spots. Getting there was relatively easy with an early flight from Chumphon to Don Meuang, Bangkok and a midday one on to Vientiane. Fortunately there was a good three hours between the flights which was needed in this airport due to the epic queues for Air Asia check in and immigration, it could have been Shenzhen.

The visa on arrival process was painless, each country is charged a different rate and it appears that UK passport holders top the list at $35 for a month tourist visa in Laos. Wattay International airport is a tiny affair; ours was the only plane there! The initial wall of heat leaving the airport was unexpected, even coming from Thailand, it was hot – 36 degrees plus in downtown Vientiane. The capital city is more like a big town and the pace is a lot slower than Thailand where everyone needs to be at their destination ten minutes before they left.

The Mali Namphou Hotel suited our purposes for a few days in Vientiane; it was centrally located and well-priced, hence popular with travellers of all ages and nationalities. There isn’t really a great deal to do in the city aside from taking in temples and the odd market selling every kind of Buddhist statue, amulet and painting imaginable. We took a walk up to the Patuxay Monument which is that replica Arc de Triomphe I visited 20 years ago. Today it is swarming with Chinese bus tourists following the selfie god with vigor. We went up to the top to get a good view of the city which was still relatively quiet for mid-morning. It is the only capital I have been in where you can walk across six lanes of empty road during rush hour! I compared a photo taken back then with one today – the major difference between now and 1999 is the prevalence of flashy cars that nobody had back then. Affluence has crept in to Southeast Asian cities and it is clearly evident in the new cars everywhere, parked over every square inch of pavement.

View over Vientiane, 1999.

Continuing on before the heat wave descended, we walked another couple of kilometers to Pha That Luang which is a big golden stupa in the center of a temple complex. The car park was big enough to land a plane in and the place was spotless, no trash to be seen anywhere. On the way back we ventured into Vientiane’s only shopping mall which was underwhelming to say the least. Back at the hotel it was time for a ridiculously cheap (10,000 kip or about a dollar) Beer Lao.

Nearly everything I have seen here so far has been a significant amount cheaper than the Thai equivalent. Laos does not seem to have the hang-ups and rafts of ridiculous regulations that have infected Thailand over the past few years. Another side effect of this was evident from chatting to a number of ex-Thailand expats that could no longer live there due to restrictive visa requirements and escalating living costs; many had been forced to leave family and property across the border. I spent the afternoon knocking back a few with a Canadian chap on a visa run from Nong Khai.

Breakfast in Vientiane is a 3,750 kip (14 baht) fresh baguette and some Italian salami. Mornings are nice and cool and a good time to walk around the laid back streets. Evenings are similar so we ventured down to the river front night market where you can buy all manner of clothing for a couple of bucks.

Next: Nam Ngum Lake