Capital cities, just like back home, always have a hustle and bustle vibe about them. This is the first capital we’ve been to that is directly on a border with another country. The only thing separating Vientiane from Thailand is a boat ride over the Mekong River.
Vientiane seems to be an entry or exit point for a good number of travelers. Many people that make it up to Chiang Rai enter in the north of Laos at Huay Xai. They travel through Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and then Vientiane before exiting at Vientiane and re-entering Thailand. If your travel time is shorter than a month and you’re trying to do more than one country, that appears to be the track you’ll take. Most travelers we’ve talked with seem to spend more time in transit than they do in the cities and villages. It’s just a reminder to us to slow down, and chew your experience before you swallow, when you have the time.
We’ve been abroad about 37 days now and so far have logged 16 cities so far as of Vientiane. In the days we’ve spent abroad that’s an average of just over two days per city we’ve stopped in. While that’s not actually the case in that some cities we spend more days in and some less, that is quite a bit of ground to cover and can sometimes make you feel “rootless” and detached.
Matt and I have different ways of expressing that we are stressed from being on the move and need a break, he is reluctant to admit it and I’m the first one to do so. Our writing, reflection and documentation as well as taking something away from the experiences we have all depends on having some down time once in awhile…even if that means just hanging out on the balcony at our hotel to journal.
Sometimes I feel like I’m forcing it on us but one of us has to take responsibility to make the call when it is needed. I’m getting better at reading it in my own emotional responses. There are times when travel can be uncomfortable but it’s important to have those experiences because not everything in life is sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes you make crappy purchases you regret or choices that teach you a lesson. Whether it be a 12+ hour bus ride on crumbling roads or something of the like, travel can and will be stressful at times. That doesn’t mean there can’t be small perks along the way (real espresso not Nescafé, a sandwich with real cheese not kraft singles, a beautiful scenic swimming hole, etc) Traveling does not require you to be a martyr 100% of the time, only about 65%. These statistics fluctuate day by day, of course.
Vientiane was a good place to catch our breath. Being that it’s the capital, it has many amenities that you won’t see for the hundreds of miles of rural communities around the country. The French occupation here in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s influenced the food in urban areas so you can find fresh baguettes and pâté sandwiches as well as other European imports like wine, cheese, and bon bons (which are not as good as I expected). I remember some passing comment my mom used to make when I was a kid about some abstract person sitting around eating bon bons. I never knew what they were until about a week ago. Horrible little French chocolate candies. It’s like someone ruined truffles by putting some weird, stale spongy wafer inside. I know, the words chocolate and horrible don’t usually go together. Take my word and pass on these, unless you’re at your absolute end of fraying rope-like desperation for chocolate. I’d take a Werther’s Original over these things.
There were a few Indian and Halal restaurants as well, giving us more diverse food options for our budget. Yay falafel! Always nice to have more than two options as noodle soup and fried rice is definitely something you get burned out on after 4 or 5 meals.
We treated ourselves on New Years Eve to a bottle of Polish wine and some Parmesan cheese and almonds. Matt was a little under the weather so we didn’t make it to midnight but Star Wars happened to be on one of the 3 English channels on TV so we took it easy at the hotel and relaxed with a movie night. There was a three day celebration with DJs leading up to New Years that we checked out the first two nights so we figured having a quiet night wasn’t the worst. We must be in our 30’s now.
Our days in Vientiane we’re filled with museum exploration, visits to the markets and the local “mall”. A lot of strolling in general which can be an adventure in itself. There was a nice riverfront night market and we found a good spot overlooking the river and market to have a cold Beer Lao and watch the paragliders fly by the sunset. They also had free group aerobics at sunset led by some lady with a sound system and a microphone jumping on a platform. Part of me wanted to join in, but I felt like I would just be giggling uncontrollably through the whole thing as it was very fast-paced and funny from a viewers perspective.
We also checked out the “Vertical Airstrip”, a structure built in the style of the French Arch De Triumph. The cement used for the structure was originally supposed to be used to built a landing strip for an airport. Now it’s a tower you can visit and get a 360 degree view of the city for 5000 Kip.
There is a local bus in Vientiane, the green bus, that is much cheaper than hiring a tuk tuk to get around if you don’t mind sight seeing the city and aren’t in a hurry to your destination. Most museums close from 12-1 for the lunch hour so it’s important to note that when planning your day.
A good place to get some history at is the visitor center at the COPE Organization. They DO NOT close at noon. It’s donation based to visit and has a lot of information on the technology advances in prosthesis in Laos since the 1960’s when there were over 580,000 bombing missions conducted over Laos PDR during the Vietnam war. That is one bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours per day for 9 years. The bombings occurred as part of the US mission to destroy supply lines to the Ho Chi Minh trail. The statistics are alarming and all of them are things I did not learn in a US classroom despite our country’s responsibility for the bombings. I find it incredibly sad that I had to travel here to learn about it at all.
That being said, it’s not a horrible thing to do a little research and learn more about the history of the Second Indochina War, or as we call it, the Vietnam War. Laos still has casualties from unexploded bombs every year and they will be working a long time to finish the clean up process from a war that didn’t directly involve them. Rural farmers and children have suffered the most casualties as well as ancient historical sights and areas that should have had archaeological investigations by this time. Unfortunately both are things that this country will never have back.
Another case in point when we don’t learn from it, history is doomed to repeat itself. With social media making the world a more connected place we have a rapidly growing consciousness. Even 6 years ago you heard so much less of what was going on around the world than you do now. It can make the weight of the world seem heavy sometimes but I also think it’s made it easier to see the parallels of life around the world. It’s become easier to reach people and have your voice/cause be heard or to rally with the voices that echo your calls.
What better reason to write down or document personal experiences so you can look back on your own reflections through your life. Who knows, some day someone down your family line may find your thoughts and observations useful. You may inspire a complete stranger, or even yourself. It doesn’t really matter, and yet it is also the most important thing at the same time. We all have a tendency to forget things. At least by documenting experiences you are brave enough to be vulnerable and offer your thoughts and experience up for consideration. It’s better than leaving all of it up to some other guy, just because he also owned a pen and held the popular opinion.
Thanks for the experience, Vientiane.
“We’re all just here to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”- Kurt Vonnegut, A Man With No Country.