My first impression of Laos began as a big ole question mark. “My friend is getting married in Laos. We’re both invited.” my husband announced. ‘That’s nice‘ I thought in a panic as I scrambled to place this unknown country somewhere on the map of the world. Where is that? What do I know? I came up empty handed and felt puzzled at how to respond. Not only did I feel naked in knowledge, but a complete stranger, from a country I straight up didn’t know was inviting me to witness one of the most intimate and public celebrations of his life. I was gonna fuck this up big time, I was sure. You know how us loud mouthed Americans are.
During my husband’s time in United States, he became incredibly close with a handful of other Fulbright students like himself. These brilliant minds hailed from Togo, South Africa, Haiti, Chile, Russia among others as well as- you guessed it, Laos. I knew how much this friend had meant to my husband during his time away from home, and the once in a lifetime opportunity we had on our hands. It would be a bit costly for us, but then again what is the point of moving to the other side of the world if you don’t take the chance to explore? Plus the groom was graciously offering to host us which was huge.
We were picked up by the groom himself, Sankerdas or Ker for short, on our arrival. We were immediately driven to a restaurant where I saw the largest pot of broth in my life and ate with relish a delicious bowl of phở. From there the story of our trip was written in the bowls delicious food, capacious history, and generosity of this tiny city. A country that had been dauntlessly ravaged by time, war, and resources offered up its beautiful scars and tenacity every day. Our trip kept us based in Vientiane, I don’t have much when it comes to the country at large. But I would jump on a chance to continue exploring the landlocked country in the future.
Have you ever wished for a 10 a.m. beer? Welcome to Laos, where day drinking is completely acceptable. Encouraged even! I was shocked by the sheer volume of beer I saw consumed. I’m not even talking about the amount we had at the wedding. I’m talking day-to-day basis. The beer of choice is hands down BeerLao, a rice based lager. The drink goes with just about anything and everything we ate during our time there. I’m not sure if this is because of the actual beer itself or because I did end up drinking it at nearly every meal. Never the less, as a non-beer connoisseur I give it a super nice thumbs up. Plus it is priced wonderfully.
The logo is stamped EVERYWHERE. On shirts, cups, umbrellas, posters- I mean everywhere. It functions in a kind of unofficial national mascot if you will. During one of our meanderings we took to a small road side restaurant before noon. We found a man with a tall glass filled to the brim as he watched Kung Fu movies from his propped up smart phone. Rio surprisingly asked me, “Do you want to order a beer?” Out of the mouth of my Muslim husband. When in Rome, right?
Despite all the drinking evenings are relatively subdued and people hold their liquor really well. A typical evening may see a minimum of 4 glasses per person, even on a weeknight. Drinking isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. I was surprised at first, considering Laos is a Buddhist nation and one of the religious precepts is the abstinence of intoxication. Although anyone who has looked closely at any major religion knows there are degrees and flexibility to application of any practice. Some of us eat meat on Fridays, have sex before marriage, don’t wear a hijab, or order a meal from a non-kosher restaurant.
We highly recommend you go to the night market set along the downtown riverside promenade.
As the sun sets on the Mekong river, the red tops of vendor stalls sail upwards to light up the night. Food vendors pop up, and the daily free exercise classes for public take root in the wide open spaces. Below is a short clip of the aerobics class. Communism isn’t so bad!
Here you will find souvenirs, art, clothing, shoes, purses, and all manners of the cheapest priced Chinese manufactured goods you’ve ever laid eyes on. I used to think $5 sunglasses in Chinatown, NY were a steal. Then I moved to Indonesia and laughed. Then I went to Laos and cried. Price is what you’re willing to pay, never what something is actually valued as (e.g. the art world). The prices are SO low, and bargaining which is traditionally a staple across SE Asia isn’t really a thing here. Our attempt to do so at a few stalls were met with quiet disgust or polite rebukes from vendors as they held firm to their prices.
I really enjoy countries with an economy that can support full time artisans who handcraft their goods. I don’t mean that one dude in San Francisco who painstakingly manufactures Chilean bean sea salt chocolate bars you can only buy once a year with a secret password at an underground coffee shop no one has heard of. I mean potters, seamstresses, wood workers, etc. Americans often can’t make a decent wage manufacturing our own goods because our prices are too high.
We bought a beautiful hand sewn tapestry depicting a well known story about the 7 Sisters that Rio was familiar with. There are many variations, although I’m not familiar with the story as a Westerner. The embroidered story is done with a lot of grammatical fumbles in English. Initially I was going to pull out the text and reset it to be grammatically correct since I embroider myself- but something about the awkward text makes it feel like a lopsided teddy bear with one eye missing that we’ve learned to love just the way it is. It’s also an echo of the broken English I often here when people try to speak with me in the streets of Indonesia.
The city doesn’t have a lot of shopping malls, and the one we went to felt under-dressed compared to those in Indonesia. It was however a kick to see Buddhist monks shopping among the throngs of customers and bins full of Converse shoes and jerseys. The sight of monks in their bright orange robes became a frequent sight and became for us, iconic. This fellow American has a slew of pictures of his trip in Laos and every so often the vibrant orange robes make their way into his reel of photos from his trip. Another sight that often caught my eye was the communist flag, an image that as an American, even raised post Cold War, made me stand at attention.
Poking around the streets off of the Chao Anouvong Park where the night market is could fill a few hours. We recommend stopping by Mulberries on Rue Nokeokoummane which is a reference to the types of leaves eaten by silk worms and fuel the Laos silk trade. Their goods are priced higher than most other locations but it’s a wonderful fair trade shop with a rich display of various traditional textile patterns. The riverside is also host to several miles of walkways, bars, open air restaurants, and more.
Downtown is also host to a community of French expats who have made the city their home, as well as their place of business. They own restaurants, operate bakeries, and enjoy the laid back way of life that developing economies offer. We ended up at La Cag du Coq which is French for the kind of fighting cages that contain chickens. These cages also make great lighting decor it seems. Unbelievable food, quirky awesome decor, unpretentious staff, and one of my favorite meals.
Temples, temples EVERYWHERE. You can’t cross a street without tripping over one. They are beautiful, most likely painted in striking yellows, greens, and perhaps a splash of red. Always there is a sheen of gold somewhere or another, most often on the roofs, doorways, and always on the cemetery tombs.
Some of these are maintained as a historical site and open to visitors, but almost all are functioning grounds of worship. I’ve always felt a little odd touring religious houses of worship. It makes me feel insincere. I felt the same way this last summer, stopping inside a church in downtown New York City with friends to tour the grounds. I light a candle or say a prayer for my deceased uncle in some kind of amends for treading on such sacred grounds without true religious integrity.
Where to Go
We’ll be covering a handful of the temples and sites we visited across the city as well. But for a short list of our favorite places we suggest Patuxai (Patuxay) Monument, Wat Si Saket, Pha That Luang, and Laos Textile Museum. All but the last were accessible from downtown via a rental bike shop of which there are dozens. The bike company wanted one of our passports as collateral. We begrudgingly gave up one as it’s a common practice across all the rental vendors. I kept mine on hand and my husband gave his up but it was still a very, very nervous practice for me. Proceed with caution.
This sleepy capital, with almost no traffic to speak of, is so accessible and demure as far as cities go. The hints of tourism and developments don’t stretch far into the city, largely contained to a few streets. The lack of sky scrapers and tourist traps was so enjoyable. I’ve been miserable in Rome, bored in London, and absolutely livid in Jakarta. As pretentious as that sounds it is often because at a certain scale all cities begin to have the same manic energy that I’ve come to loathe. A feeling that Vientiane holds none of. If you’re looking for hustle and bustle, skip this over and head for Kuala Lumpur or Hanoi.
One weird thing we noticed is that Laotians don’t smile, not to strangers. That isn’t to say they aren’t a friendly bunch but the general sight of smiles and warm embraces are reserved for those you actually know. This is in stark contrast to the mannerisms of Indonesians, and most of SE Asia in general so it took us for an initial spin.
Backtracking to the beginning of our trip, at the airport waiting for our flight we bumped into an American who was being deported out of the country. Like my deportation, his circumstances where more wrong time, wrong paperwork- not a hardened criminal by any means. When I told him where me and my husband were headed, he screwed up his face with a mixture of pity and sadness and said, “You chose probably the most boring city in all of SE Asia to go visit.” After our trip I’d strongly disagree.
Perhaps because we were taken under the wing of a huge wedding entourage and other visitors from Indonesia, Thailand, America who traveled and saw the sights with us. We rode bicycles for miles throughout the city beyond the reach of any French restaurant or expat bar. We ate and drank like locals thanks to our residential host. We bought up sticky rice for breakfast and roasted duck by lunch. If you don’t have these pointers or people to help you see what is there- the language barrier and lack of infrastructure could certainly seem limiting. The two of us owe much of our trip’s success to having Ker there to give us the best of his hometown.
We hope this post has given you the power to venture forth and explore! 2-3 days is more than enough to take in the major sites and there are plenty of tourist bus routes or flights that sprawl out across the country. We’re looking forward to sharing more of Laos in the next few posts including a look at all the delicious food, our favorite/worst spots, and shots from the Laos wedding we attended.