I’M HAVING BREAKFAST of croissant and coffee at La Benneton, a French bakery near my hostel in central Vientiane. From the bakery’s veranda, the classical music playing in the background and the drone of conversation of French expats at a nearby table make this section of Southeast Asia feel like Western Europe. Lingering elements of French culture are common in Laos – Vientiane features dozens of budget cafes serving European baked goods, and these establishments typify Vientiane’s relaxed pace. Smiles are pasted on the servers’ faces, and their charming disposition only makes you want to linger more and revel in the languidness.
I have arrived in Vientiane 12 hours ago with no other plan than to explore as much as I can before heading to Luang Prabang. I’ve decided to dive in on my own terms and explore the city on foot to minimize insulation from my surroundings and maximize my experiences. With only 48 hours to base myself here, my aim is to dig as deep as my endurance and budget will allow.
After having my fill of the Parisian ambiance of the bakery I set out to explore the city and start at the main highway perpendicular to where my hostel is. The restaurants and banks by the road are reminiscent of those in Manila’s Malate district or Saigon’s Pham Ngu Lao. But the lack of frenetic pace in the streets despite being rush hour strikes me as particularly Lao. Getting around is comfortable, as the traffic is much calmer than most big cities in Southeast Asia.
Since Laos opened to tourism in the 1990s, the influx of travelers from outside its borders has gradually changed the country’s character. The end of the Cold War brought about loosening of economic restrictions and in no time, Western products were embraced by the local population more than the government’s socialist propaganda. Vientiane in particular saw the rise of shopping centers and restaurants, many of which were reincarnations of former establishments that were shut down during the period of socialism. The city made its biggest international splash in 2009, when it hosted the Southeast Asian Games – a biennial event that gathers the region’s best athletes – and signaled a new phase in its rollercoaster history.
Despite these headways, Vientiane still feels more like a large town rather than a capital city, in large part due to its surprisingly relaxing atmosphere, as well as its population of 780,000 keeping the trademark Southeast Asian hospitality intact. Here, it’s less about exploring the sights – most of which are Buddhist temples scattered around the city and would only take at most a day of exploring – than finding a spot by the river and enjoying watching time pass you by.
I START with a couple of temples along Setthathirat Road then end up at the Presidential Palace, an opulent building punctuating Lane Xang Street that was meant to house the royal family. Construction of the building was started in 1973 but was not completed until many years following the takeover of the communist government in 1975.
I turn left towards Lane Xang leading to the Patuxai monument, a local version of Paris’ Arc de Triomph, though the Buddhist designs give it an unmistakable Lao flair. The concrete used to build the structure was donated by the US meant to build a new runway, hence earning the monument the nickname “The Vertical Runway.” The lack of shade in the park around the edifice makes a stroll outside of the early morning and late afternoon hours a masochistic affair. I climb on top of the monument instead where the breeze brings a respite to the humid atmosphere down in the streets. I want to stay a bit longer at the view deck on top, but there are no benches to rest and a throng of Korean tourists are starting to crowd the cramped room. I worry that I might become an inadvertent photo bomber in one of their selfies, so I climb down and instead rest on one of the benches downstairs.
An hour later I find myself inside the Lao National Museum. Located in a worn-out building overlooking the much modern Lao National Cultural Hall, the museum houses comprehensive and interesting, if a bit one-sided, retelling of the country’s history. The first floor displays some items from the country’s prehistory, including a stone jar from the Plain of Jars in northern Laos. Going up to the second floor I am greeted with some insight into the Laotian Kingdom and the various ethnic minorities in the present period. The floor builds a fervent zeal as it goes on to document the nation’s struggle against invading forces, from the Thai conquerors to French and American imperialists.
Far from the fervent pitch of the government, the real Laos I’m discovering, however, is located away from the tourist sites — such as a family-owned restaurant where I duck into for lunch just as a slight drizzle turns into a burst of rain showers. I order Luang Prabang sausage, a local wurst made with coarsely chopped fatty pork seasoned with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, cilantro, chillies, garlic, salt and fish sauce. I pair it with steamed sticky rice, generally considered the essence of Lao cuisine.
But it’s not until I have an early dinner in Lao Kitchen, a hip new restaurant serving traditional dishes since it opened in 2013, that I get a baptism of fire – quite literally – on what it really means to eat Lao. I have fresh spring rolls and green papaya salad; I am asked if I want the salad spicy and I say yes. The spring rolls arrive first – that familiar Vietnamese fare that’s also widely consumed here – a threesome of rice paper filled with rice vermicelli and raw vegetables, with basil, cilantro and mint. They’re a delicious combination of light and filling. The salad, however, packs a wallop and consuming the fiery dish almost becomes an exercise in futility. I end up ordering a scoop of passion fruit sorbet to help neutralize the heat.
FEELING ESTABLISHED NOW in my surroundings, I am ready to launch myself outside the city center. The next morning I start with the Cooperative for Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), a non-profit organization that provides rehabilitation and advocacy services for bombing accident survivors, and its visitor center, home to heartbreaking and enlightening multimedia exhibits. The facility is located just outside the city center. Riding a bike I rented from the hostel, I make my way once again through Setthathirat Road, beneath the leafy trees of the avenue, and past the Presidential Palace, further east to the quiet grounds of COPE, where I learn of Laos’ turbulent recent history.
During the Vietnam War from 1963 to 1972, conflict poured into Laos with a secret war waged by the US to support the Royal Lao Government against the communist Pathet Lao, and at the same time prevent the flow of ammunitions from North Vietnam through the Ho Chi Minh trail. More than two million tons of bombs were dropped into the country through over 500,000 bombing missions – equivalent to a planeload of explosives every eight minutes a day for nine years. Laos thus became the most heavily bombed country per capita in history, and those bombing missions claimed hundreds of thousands of civilians’ lives.
The war has long ended but the scars of the conflict remain – around a third of these bombs failed to explode, leaving Laos with a vast number of unexploded ordnance (UXO), and more than 20,000 people have died or were injured due to them. Each year over 100 new casualties from UXO are reported in Laos, and 40% of the victims are children. Through its visitor center, COPE helps the public understand the issues related to these deadly remnants of the war.
Just before noon I go farther and visit Pha That Luang, what many consider as Laos’ national symbol due to its architecture bearing several allusions to the local culture. The stupa was created in 1566, when the capital was transferred from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, but was plundered repeatedly by Burmese, Thai and Chinese invaders in the following years. At the turn of the 20th century the French first tried to restore the stupa to its original design, though complete reconstruction was finished only after World War II. The place today bears no sign of Pha That Luang’s tumultuous history as an overlay of tranquility permeates the place. Only a handful of us tourists are roaming around, along with some monks who are set to pay their respects.
The slow pace of life in Vientiane eventually has me wanting to stay here. The Lao calm seems to be the perfect fit to my easygoing temperament. The small-town vibe appeals to me and the longer I’m in here, the more I find myself yearning to explore it more, gradually aiming to go farther afield. An hour by bus east of the city is a bizarre Buddhist park similar to the one I went to a couple of days earlier in Nong Khai. Then there’s Vang Vieng three hours north, where partygoing Westerners used to converge before the city transformed itself into an ecotourist spot. But I set these plans aside for a future trip, if ever there is.
BACK AT THE CITY CENTER just as the sun is setting, I explore the narrow alleyways before finding a spot at the riverside to watch a throng of locals and foreigners do aerobics with the burnt peach sky as their backdrop. A few minutes later I enter a foot massage parlor. A young woman greets me and I timidly smile back. The woman considers my response and realizes I’m not from here. Slowly, she guides me to a chair. She proceeds to pour oil on my legs and starts rubbing my foot.
“Do you speak Lao?” she asks me.
“Unfortunately no,” I say.
She nods and talks about a lot of things nonetheless, both at me and her fellow masseurs. Vientiane is replete with charm and it’s evident all across town. Sitting here in this parlor, having a massage, the day slowly replaced by night, I’m realizing that more than seeing the sights, eating Lao dishes, and even talking to locals, the essence of being Lao is this – to be in no hurry to do anything. Like they say, Lao PDR means “Please Don’t Rush” and I’m simply happy to linger.