Vientiane is absolutely the most boring capital city I’ve ever been to.
On Sunday morning, 1 week after I had left Jakarta, I boarded a flight destined to my 3rd country and 4th city in a week: I was going from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, whose official name is Lao People’s Democratic Republic – I learned that from my brand new VOA.
Before we got to Vientiane, the plane stopped in Pakse, where we got off, applied, paid for and received our visas. Then we got back on the plane and went onward to Vientiane. My hotel had not responded to my emails for an airport pickup, so I caught a cab, checked in, dropped my stuff and headed out. It was only mid-afternoon so I figured I would stroll around a bit and get the lay of the land. This lasted for about 20 minutes before I headed back to the hotel. I felt like it was way too quiet for a woman to be walking around a strange town by herself so I went back to the hotel and relaxed for the rest of the evening, spending some quality time with CNN.
I had designated Monday as my Vientiane walkabout day. My research had told me that walking the town was doable and I had noted the places of interest so I mapped out my route and set off after breakfast.
My first stop was the Lao National Museum. That turned out to be a total waste of time. Worst museum ever. It was even worse than the Cambodian national museum in Phnom Penh. This museum was poorly curated and most signs were not translated into English so I couldn’t get a proper sense of the nation’s history, which was what I had hoped for from this visit. Here’s what I was able to glean: there were some dinosaurs then there were some humans, apparently the first in Australasia, then somehow someone called Fa Ngum became king and called the country Lan Xang, then suddenly the French colonised it, then the Vietnam war with America happened, then the last king abdicated for some reason. I have no details to give you. It took me an hour to stitch just those bare facts together.
After the museum, I continued my wander down the street and decided to detour to Nam Phu water fountain, which I had seen listed as an attraction but which I didn’t really plan to visit. But it was literally just down the block from where I was walking so I thought, why not? I should have kept going. The water wasn’t even on and I couldn’t figure out what the attraction was supposed to be.
As I continued my wandering through the town, I noticed that Vientiane has a lot of coffee shops and travel services. Every other shop was selling lattes and pastries, or bus and plane tickets. I also noticed a lot of signs noting that Laos is the 2016 ASEAN chairman, so this is clearly a big deal.
After a couple more underwhelming stops, I eventually wandered past the Presidential Palace (no entry allowed, just stared from the gate) and made it to Ha Pha Kaeo, a Buddhist temple and museum. There I bought some postcards and took a welcome break from the heat. There wasn’t much to see but it was far better than the national museum had been.
After this, I spent 45 minutes on an unintentional walkabout in the hot sun, because I missed my turn. While I was trying to find my way back to the right street, I noticed a few things. First, it seemed like all the women were wearing the same basic outfit – a silk skirt in the Laos style (embroidery at the hem) with a plain top. I wondered if it was a government uniform then remembered that the girl behind the front desk back at my hotel was wearing the same thing and decided that it was probably what was considered business-wear in Laos. I also noticed that most of the local people were walking under umbrellas. This was unusual to me – I haven’t seen this in Indonesia, where people tend to just layer on more clothes to protect their skin from the sun. I saw lots of Toyota Prados (I haven’t seen that many since I left Jamaica, where they’re numerous), cars parked on almost every sidewalk (much like warung take up every inch of Indonesian sidewalks), and a Mormon dude on a bicycle.
Eventually, I got back on track and found myself at the morning market then the Laotian Arc du Triumph, called Patuxai. Again, both were underwhelming.
My last stop of the day was at the COPE visitor centre, which made my visit to Vientiane totally worth the 2 days I spent there. At COPE, I learned about the effects on Laos of America’s war with Vietnam. During that time, the US dropped millions of bombs on the country, with the intention of cutting off Vietnamese supply routes. Laos is still living with the results of that war today, with millions of undiscovered unexploded ordinances (UXO) dotting the countryside. I watched a video of grieving parents telling the story of their son Hamm, a 6 year old who died when a “bombie” (smaller bombs inside the big bombs) blew up on him because he followed his friends to go find scrap metal. I also watched the story of a man who was building a cooking fire in a spot where he always did, but 1 evening a hidden bombie exploded and blinded him, leaving his young wife to be the sole bread winner for the family, working in a rice field, while he did his best to care for their young children at home.
After an hour and a half at COPE, I started the hot walk back to my hotel. When I got there, I bought a well-deserved Coke and a pad thai from the restaurant next door. After a shower and another underwhelming wander to the nearby night market, I called it a night.
I spent Tuesday morning writing and watching CNN. Then it was time to go, so I bought snacks from a nearby convenience store and another pad thai from the restaurant next door (it was really good) and hoped in my cab to the airport. Vientiane had been boring and seriously underwhelming but at least I could cross it off my list.
My final stop beckoned enticingly to me .