My Paradise: Vientiane: Jewel of The Orient

My Paradise: Vientiane: Jewel of The Orient

by Ron Roman
Stripes Japan

Ready for a great spot to kick-back year-round, a place you can pretty much digest in about a week?  Then head over to Vientiane, population 750,000 and capital of Laos, erstwhile colony of France, at least till 1949.  (You can still sense a hint of prior French occupation in the architectural styles aligning the spacious downtown boulevards.)
In mid-December (not the monsoon season and one of the better times to visit) my Better Half and I took off from Korea’s Incheon International Airport on a group package tour.  (Package tours are almost always most convenient, yet Vientiane is doable if you care to backpack or otherwise go solo.)  Upon arriving at our hotel well past midnight, as is my silly habit, I caught myself stupidly uttering “An-nay-ha-say-o!” (“How are you!” in Korean) upon initially meeting the first hotel Asian staff worker.  Reversal of the Oriental “All-white-people look alike” Syndrome?  Doubt I’ll ever shake the habit.  Too ingrained.  Beating myself up too much?  Just chock it up to lack of sleep?  Did you just say you’ve done this, too?  
We headed out at 9 am sharp in our tour van and glided along the picturesque streets of central Vientiane.  I had read about two years ago that Laos shared the dubious distinction with North Korea of being the poorest country In the Far East (though the North Korean economy has picked up considerably since).  You’d never guess as such strolling central Vientiane.  Streets are clean, bustling with traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, the locals looking decently dressed and, well, plain normal.  First stop: ancient Sisaket Temple and Museum in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
Walk under the main archway.  Outdoors to your right there’s a gorgeous, large sitting (lotus-style like usual) gold-laden Buddha.  Check it out.  The temple itself was built on orders of Anous, last king of Vientiane, from 1819-1824.  With camera slung around my neck and upon entering and eyeing the gold-glittering statuary, a hawk-eyed guard spied me and gestured—warned, actually—not to take any photos whatsoever!  (As if that were necessary; there were multiple warning signs everywhere.)  Try as I did, I couldn’t “sneak a shot”; hawk was tailgating my every move.  The elaborate indoor-seated Buddha, replete with attendant statuary on both sides, was a magnificent sight.  Sorry, readers.  Tried my best for you.
Located catty-cornered across the street from the temple is the eye-catching, colorful Lao government foreign guesthouse.  A must-see—from a distance.  It remains blocked and locked, unless you’re invited.
Unlike many other capitals of Pacific Rim countries, central Vientiane streets are clean; traffic flows orderly.  Motorbikes, cyclists, autos, buses, tricycles, trucks, Philippine-style jitneys all race one another yet pretty much observe traffic rules compared to the streets of Korea where I currently live.  According to our tour guide, violent crime isn’t common, petty thievery is.  Keep an eye on your personal effects and you should be good to go.  Virtually anywhere.  He says crime is mostly committed by Vietnamese; Laotians don’t like fighting.  Again, his opinion, not mine.   
If, in fact, you do venture outside Vientiane, you’ll find Laos is still very much a poor, undeveloped country.  If you prefer modern-day amenities, stay in the capital city.  More than enough to see and do for at least a week.  Early winter and spring (after/before the monsoon season) is a great time to visit.  Skies are usually clear and azure all day.  Even around the solstice, mid-afternoon temps may easily reach 30 degrees C. (roughly 85 degrees F.).  I was told it’d be dry heat.  Didn’t feel like it.  Vientiane was Hot.  Hot.  Hot….  Hot meals and cold drinks are inexpensive; Pepsi appears to have a near-monopoly over Coke.  Meal/drink preparation is generally sanitary.  Chopsticks aren’t as common as elsewhere in the Orient.  And you’ll pay with paper currency only.  Coins haven’t been used in years.  (As of December 2015 one US dollar equaled about 8,200 kip, the Laotian monetary unit.)  Now a word about toilets: As was common in other now economically advanced Asian countries, you’ll find signs telling you not to put tissue in toilets.  In fact, many toilets aren’t supplied with any.  Suggestion: Carry your own.  Other than that, your stay should be convenient.
More tourists from Korea than from any other Asian country.  Quite a few Korean restaurants to cater to them.  We dined at several; one featured a local side dish unique in all Korean cuisine: papaya vinegar salad.  (Yummy.)  Standard hanshik (Korean meals) can be had at a good price.  I’ve lived in Korea a considerable time.  I’d say Vientiane hanshik is decently authentic.  Thirsty?  Beat the heat with an icy Beerlao lager while you’re at it, famous even outside Laos.  As indicated, the price is nice.
All right, so you want to sample the local food instead?  Take in a riverboat luncheon on the city outskirts.  Chow down on traditional Lao food afloat a riverboat while listening to traditional folk melodies piped in from boat speakers.  A most memorable meal….  After you finish, there’re always lesser-known/frequented attractions to take in as well.  We stopped at a nearby salt-making facility built atop the grounds of ancient existing deposits.  Not quite anything to ultimately write home to mama about, yet interesting nevertheless.  For something more impressive, let’s go over to mammoth Independence Hall at the end of Lane Xang Avenue.
It was structured after Paris’ Arch de Triumph.  Judge for yourself by the photo.  Constructed in 1962, but never quite finished, it’s described in English on the entrance plaque as “a monster of concrete.”  The “monster” is seven stories high.  Climb to the top (sorry, no elevator) for a panoramic view of central Vientiane.  Overstocked souvenir shops beckon you to buy their goodies as you ascend each floor.  You can even purchase a huge now-all-but-obsolete red/gold hammer-and-sickle Communist flag, relic of the Cold War, to impress any ultra-liberal Democratic friends back home--just don’t tell any conservative Republican buddies.  (Just kidding.)  
Getting dark?  Amble over to the sprawling Mekong (River) Night Market, perhaps the biggest of its kind in this part of the world.  On any given night, weather cooperating, mingle among thousands of eager shoppers of souvenirs, beauty products, clothes, works of art, cell phone accessories, toys, footwear, hats, jewelry, watches, sunglasses, perfumery, clothing accessories, bags, trinkets—you name it.  Never seen anything like it.  Don’t forget to bargain.  I knocked off 10,000 kip from an 80,000-kip shirt.  Your name’s not Bill Gates, either, is it?  Rich or not, watch your wallet.  Fertile grounds for pick-pockets.
Bushed?  How about a full-body massage?  Head over to any of the innumerable massage parlors populating the city.  Nice thing about poor, Third World countries is that basic service amenities like massages are a great buy, very inexpensive.  Be sure to point to the description, photo, and price on outside signboards to show the attendant exactly what you want to obviate any misunderstanding.  In Vientiane most service-industry attendants understand some English.  Not all.  A full one-hour rubdown will put you back anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 kip, the latter not even $10 US!  For a $10 massage, a $1 tip is plenty.  Not obligatory, however.  But no Cheap Charlie you, eh?   
That’s a wrap.  And remember: Anybody in Vientiane asks you what you’re doing there, just tell them, “Ron sent me!”

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: I flew in from Korea.  (Koreans and some other Asian countries are visa-free.)  For Americans, bring one passport photo and fork over $35 (US) at the airport for a 30-day visa.  It’s well worth it.         

Weasel Dung

In the mood for a unique experience? Try the Weasel Coffee Store. Ever drink coffee made from animal dung? In this case, weasel dung? Kid you not. Interesting taste: strong texture, but a bit too bitter. For me at least. Watch a promo- video featuring a weasel eating coffee beans. Sample first before buying. Coffee’s on the pricey side: about $40 (US)/medium-sized bag. Place is hard to find. Address: Ban Saphathong Neua Meuang Sisaltanark. Call first: 02-9600-4162. May or may not be “your cup of coffee.” At least you can crow about the unique blend to your coffee klatch back home.

Ron Roman has taught English for the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) since 1996. He has also acted in numerous movies, TV dramas, videos, commercials and can soon be seen as Admiral Forrest Sherman in the Korean war movie “Operation Chromite”, starring Liam Neeson. Hobbies include hiking, camping, weightlifting, wild roller-coasters-and his 1968 AMC Rambler American auto.

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