5 Days, 4 Nights
Time passes. I thought it had been a few years since I had been back to Vientiane. In fact it was over five. So it was time. I had to make a visa run anyway and it was nice to escape the red shirt thugs of Bangkok even though going to Laos is definitely not the way to escape the water throwing. Laos New Year begins on the 14th of April and ends on the 16th; the whole thing one day later than in Thailand.
The flying time on THAI was only 55 minutes so I figured why not? I first saw the city over 30 years before and then again over five years before so it was time. Besides, I could get a visa on arrival so I didn't have to go out in the Bangkok heat and the closed Skytrain to go to an embassy. Strange when you think about it: Anyone who fought with the Americans in Laos such as the Hmong get real problems but Americans pay US$35 for a visa on arrival (even less than Canadians) and no problems at all.
The sign at Wattay Airport said "Beer of the Wholehearted People" and to be sure Lao beer is great. I stayed at a small hotel the Beau Rivage Mekong which was a bit far from the town center but the room was excellent especially for about US$36 a night. It was of course the dry season and the river was more sand than water. So if you are looking for a wonderful setting of mountains beside rivers go up to Luang Prabang, there are direct flights from Bangkok. Sitting beside a huge sandbar watching a sun go down isn't quite the same.
The heat was horrible but that is the way April is in Southeast Asia. There is not a lot to see in Vientiane outside of the temples so you can refer to the place as laid-back or boring, take your pick. There is some building going on but after five years I had no trouble recognizing all that had been last time. There is a new shopping mall which makes the crowded, narrow lanes of MBK look spacious and well-designed by comparison.
I am happy to say the used bookstore that existed near Wat Dam is still there and Sam is still running it. That's good because Monument Books doesn't really have that much. As was the case in Luang Prabang books critical of Laos were allowed (at least those in English). The Lao Plaza Hotel and the Setthi Palace are the two major hotels in town with the Setthi Palace being the one with class. Over five years ago, I got into the habit of sitting at the small bar and teaching the barman how to make a black russian. This time there were guys and gals, but I still had to teach the guy how to do it when the girl wasn't there. The old purpose-built London taxi was still out front (see above) and the incredibly noisy birds were still up in the tower next door. The bartendress soon taught me how to say rorn makh in Laotian Hon lai) (very hot) and a few sexier lines as well. Five years ago it was a Singapore general manager, now an Indonesian.
The city's tuk tuks are a kind of combination tuk tuk and small song taew and are not cheap in my opinion. The kip is 8,500 to US$1. So the usual rides are 20,000 kip and riding around for a half hour is 40,000 kip. They claim that is because fuel is so expensive which could be the case as I know it was in Cambodia as well. There are a few places to get out of the heat and into air-conditioning such as the True Coffee and Joma, the cafe with fine food which has a branch in Luang Prabang as well. The nearby namphu (water fountain) is still there with the Scandinavian bakery and not much has changed in the area. A short block in the direction takes you to the river with more restaurants and the Lang Xang Hotel, built in the 60's, looks like it was, but at least still going. I suppose if I had to name a town center, the water fountain would be it and (assuming the heat doesn't get you) it is not more than a few blocks to anywhere you might want to go.
Needless to say, some of the dressed-up girls for the New Year passed by in groups and said "I love you" but due to the obvious lack of passion in their voices and the subsequent giggles I think it was safe to assume they were simply practicing their English. My own observation is that Laotian ladies are very nice but not really as attractive as Thai ladies. I was asked only once (by a tuk tuk driver) if I wanted a woman. In this heat!!? I had been asked twice in Luang Prabang but needless to say sex is not why one would travel to Laos. Besides, as I live in a candy store for men I can go without sex for a few days. No, I mean really.
But if the tuk tuks are not cheap, the e-mail certainly is, at 100 kips per minute, it never cost me more than a few thousand kip. The museum is OK, too much politics and war, but I suspect they simply don't have much. After all, Laos was destroyed again and again by neighbors who they probably destroyed as well, as good neighbors tend to do around the world. And, hey, they do drive on the right, which, after Thailand, is refreshing. The manager of my hotel said he had a lot of experts staying with him and they do not blame Chinese dams for the condition of the river even though it is said to be the worst drought since 1918.
As for food, you can get pretty much what you want from French to "fried crickets with crispy live leaves." And of course during the New Year I got splashed, like it or not. When in Rome... So that is just a quick snapshot of the trip. Laidback, quiet, a bit boring, got reading done, managed not to get a heatstroke. Tried to talk the female bartender to come with me to Bangkok but she may have sensed that after several black russians I get a bit romantic/horny/nutty. Anyway, now the best hotel in Vientiane knows how to make a decent black russian.