Friday, July 27, 2012

Summer 2012 - 5th Stop: Vientiane

So, with Savannakhet out of the way, we were finally in Laos proper! We arrived in Vientiane at 5:30am, well rested and raring to go, and as the two Adams hadn't booked any accommodation, they came with us to our hotel, Vayakorn House. Unfortunately, our rooms wouldn't be available til 12 o’clock, so it was off to Joma Bakery for a 6 hour breakfast! (It was delicious though and they had branches in Luang Prabang and Hanoi too!). After 4 hours of stuffing ourselves with hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls, we chanced our arms back at the hotel and luckily the rooms were ready to go early. So, we rested up, showered down and headed out on our first day in Vientiane!

Ok, that sounded like a big build up to something, but we actually didn’t do much at all. It’s a nice enough city, but nothing to get too excited over. We say it time and time again but rarely listen to our own advice – capital cities are usually not that great. On our first day, we just walked around to a few nearby temples – Wat Si Saket, Haw Pha Kaeo and Wat Si Muang – which were all reasonably nice, but nothing we hadn’t seen before, and then went to the COPE visitor centre, which was probably the most interesting thing we did that day (and it was free!).

The centre contains lots of information and videos about the bombing of Laos during the American war in Vietnam. Shockingly, Laos (which was wholly neutral during the war) is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history, with over 580,000 bombing missions conducted over the country. And unfortunately this atrocity can't just be swept into the past, as 30% of the bombs dropped failed to detonate on impact, leaving approximately 80 million pieces of unexploded ordinance (UXO) scattered all over the countryside, making this a very real problem for present-day Laos. Even now, many Laotians are killed every year by UXOs, either by accidentally triggering these bombs, or from trying to collect them for scrap metal.

The COPE centre was very interesting, especially watching the testimonies of families who have lost children to these UXOs. They also do some great work manufacturing prosthetic limbs for some of the victims of these bombs. Certainly a place I'd recommend.

The next day (which was also our two year anniversary, swit swoo!) was a bit more eventful, not a lot more, but a bit. We rented out bikes and spent most of the day cycling around the place. Despite it being a capital city, it’s not very big and traffic is very manageable, so we didn’t have too much hassle getting to see everything we wanted. The main attraction around town is Pha That Luang, which is like the national symbol of Laos, but it really wasn’t that great at all. It was just a poor man’s Shwedagon Pagoda.

And while Shwedagon Pagoda was like a flawless, golden spire, this just seemed shabby and plastic. That was the thing about Vientiane, not only did it have very little that we hadn’t seen before, but we had seen much better versions of all these things elsewhere!

Pha That Luang (Laos)
Shwedagon Pagoda (Myanmar)
Afterwards, we finished off our cycling tour, taking in a few more smaller temples along the way, passed by Patuxay (which was just like a Laotian Arc de Triomphe), and then to treat ourselves, we went off to the jungle for a nice traditional massage in a stilted wooden hut. A far cry from Hoi An, where we got our own personal masseuses sent up to our fancy hotel room!

And that night, for our special anniversary dinner, we celebrated in style with a nice romantic dinner at Pizza Company! I know it sounds quite underwhelming and unspectacular, but we were delighted. It’s our favourite restaurant in South East Asia! We’ve been to a few of them around Thailand and Cambodia, but we didn’t know there was one in Laos until we spotted it randomly during our cycle tour. And it turned out to be just around the corner from us all along! Who knew?!

The next day, and our last in Vientiane, we had planned to have an early start, with the Buddha Park and a nearby waterpark on our agenda for the day. Unfortunately, as we got up, the rain came down, scuppering our plans. The waterpark had to be written off completely, but luckily the rain eased up a bit in the afternoon, giving us a small window to travel out to Vientiane’s Buddha Park.

I know I said that Vientiane had nothing that we hadn’t seen before, but the Buddha Park was the one exception to that rule. It was surprisingly good fun! It’s basically, as the name suggests, a big park filled with Buddha statues – big ones, small ones, sitting, standing, reclining, multiple heads and arms – every type of Buddha you could imagine!

I have no idea what this guy is meant to be...

So, we just chilled out there for an hour or so, taking pics, hanging with the Buddhas, and we made a rather rushed video diary too!

And that was it for Vientiane! We got our fill of Pizza Company once more that afternoon, and that set us up nicely for our classy night bus to Luang Prabang.

And that's where I'll pick things up next time!

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