Friday, 16 December 2016

LAID-BACK LAOS - VIENTIANE

12th Dec 2016


Pha That Luang stupa, Vientiane
It was an uneventful 1hr10min Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Wattay International airport, Vientiane, and a charming uncrowded small airport it is. They have an efficient and rip-off proof system for taxis into the town centre whereby you pay $7 at the desk for a ticket for the 10 minute taxi ride, and no extra costs or arguments.
There are hundreds of guest houses and hotels in the city (it is the capital, so must be called a city I suppose, but in reality feels more like a big town) and I took pot luck with with the Hotel Chanthapanya in the centre. It cost more that I would have normally have paid and I'm sure there are many cheaper and equally satisfactory establishments with plenty of rooms available, but what ho! After a cheap deal in Bangkok I felt I could afford it. It was very comfortable....sadly didn't have a bar, but decent breakfast included. All I really need is a clean room, reasonably comfortable bed (without bugs a Le Aviation in Brussels), a bathroom..,,and air conditioning (it is hot in Vientiane)...and Wifi, but everywhere out here has that. After all, I'm only in it to kip and get washed. Coincidently I heard from my friend in Saigon that just after I left they had lots of rain followed by a vicious cyclone. Most unseasonable. I got my timing right for once.

The currency here is the Kip. At present there are about 10,000 Kip to the £ but this currency is not internationally recognised and they happily accept US$ or Thai Baht in lieu. Even allowing for exchange rate fluctuations things are much cheaper here than most other places I've been to.

The French did not lavish so much money on buildings here during their colonial rule as in Cambodia, and Vietnam, but they put in place a good street grid system which still exists. Boulevards such as this (right), the main Lan Xang, are examples. There are lots of trees bordering most of the streets which give the place a slightly rural feel and there are no overpowering high-rise structures.

There is a totally different atmosphere here compared with Vietnam and Thailand. It is quiet and understated. Lightish traffic, and scooter riders don't constantly toot their horns. The people are cheerful, polite and modestly behaved. In short, as the title above suggests, 'laid back'. There are many decent and very reasonably priced bars and restaurants. On my first walkabout I passed a tennis club with four courts which boasted a smart clubhouse/bar and a couple playing there who, to my inexpert eye, seemed to be of a rather high standard. Well out of my league, but then thats not difficult.

The Lao language is written in the squiggly Thai/Cambodian (ex-Sanscrit) style and as spoken, I am told, is similar to Thai. Thais can normally understand them. Street signs are prominently placed and have their almost unpronouncable names conveniently translated into Roman script as per photo (left). Note they still use the French 'Rue' or 'Boulevard' etc.

The city was actually called, and is still pronounced locally as, 'Viang Chan' which means 'Sandalwood City'. The Frogs called it Vientiane.



Right. At the northern end of Boulevard Lan Xang is the impressive Patuxai Monument. Built in the 1960s it got its inspiration from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, although instead of two archways it has four in a square design. Apparently it was built with US-purchased cement which was supposed to have been used to construct a new airport. Hence it gained the nickname 'the Vertical Runway'.








You can climb up to the top for 3000 Kip (30p) via several shops selling mountains of souvenirs, jewellery and bric-a-brac. The view to the north from here looks over the pleasant gardens and 'musical fountain'. Jolly nice, what?










Right: A view of the intricate design in the roof under the arches.














Government buildings tend to be built in this style (left). There are several similar dotted around the city.













At the southern end of Lan Xang is the Presidential Palace (right). Had to peer around a corrugated iron shed at the entrance to take this photo. Quite a grand building but the effect was somewhat spoilt by neon lit signs around the top of the wings. Enlarge this photo to see them.








Left: Outside the Palace gates is this large portrait of, presumably, the President whose name rather escapes me for the moment.















Of course you cannot escape Christmas anywhere (other that North Korea) and decorated trees were in evidence in most shops and hotels. This one (right) was at the entrance to a pleasant pedestrian circus featuring some decent outdoor eateries. I have seen the dreaded articulated saxophone playing Santas in many Oriental cities, especially Vietnam where even they have become a bit 'passé'. Maybe they get passed on as a job lot from one part of Indo-China to the next on a rotational basis each Christmas. Why always a saxophone? Suggestions welcome.








Left: The restaurant area inside. I must say, everywhere I've been here, so far, the service you get is excellent. The staff are much less robotic and more imaginative than the Vietnamese and, as far as I have experienced, thoroughly polite and charming. Some relatively pleasant and unobtrusive music was being played over the sound system. Laos definitely seems to have a quieter and less brash manner than in other countries around these parts.




Down by the Mekong riverside, a line of Lao flags is interspersed with the old 'hammer and sickle' variety. The 'hammer and sickle' seems to feature widely.













Also (left) this imposing statue of........an old Lao warrior presumably. The name was on it, but in squiggly writing so none the wiser. Looks a bit like Robert Baden-Powell, the author of 'Scouting for Laos'.
















Being a Buddhist country the place is full of 'Wats' and 'Stupas'. Although they don't appear to be  a particularly religious lot, they do have a tradition of monk service for young boys and I saw a few of the saffron-robed variety wandering the streets. This stupa (right) is a bit overgrown and outside a cafĂ© where I was taking some refreshment.





Left: The major national monument in Laos is, apparently, the Pha That Luang stupa, about a mile or so north-east of the centre. It has been knocked down and rebuilt a few times. Unlike the stupas in Burma which are positively dripping with real gold, this one is merely painted gold. There was a lady busy splashing gold paint on it while I was there. Its probably a bit like the Forth Bridge in that by the time they've put on one coat its time to start again. As I approached there was a strange buzzing noise coming from it. Couldn't work it out until I looked up and saw a drone being flown overhead. Possibly checking on the paint job.


Right: A nearby line of 'stupa'd' stalls selling knick-knacks. They were outside the adjacent Wat, or Monastery.













As I was wandering around the Pha That Luang and had found a good spot to take a photo, a group of about a dozen Japs rounded the corner. They then went into that traditional Jap tourist procedure of each one of them taking photos of the others with all their cameras. It takes forever with lots of posing and re-posing. Its worse than a film set. I was getting a bit impatient and quietly wishing that they would 'nip off' sharpish. Amongst them was a couple of pretty girls who, after the final photo had been taken, offered to take my photo.










They were very charming and even spoke a bit of English, so who was I to refuse. 

Actually I discovered (from the girls) that they weren't Japs, they were South Koreans. Interestingly, as I came to discover, Laos is a very popular destination for Koreans for both work and play. I am told that there are even a few 'escaped' North Koreans holed up here. 
That's about all from me from Vientiane. A very pleasant if unexciting place. Off up further north tomorrow and intend to stop off at Vang Vieng on the Nam Son river about half-way up to Luan Prabang. It gets hilly up there.



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