Chilling Out in Laos
Vientiane would have to be the most relaxed capital city in the world! A Laos vacation is sure to appeal to many because of its relaxed atmosphere and although this article is about Vientiane, the general information I share here is valid for the rest of this special country.
The people in Laos are so friendly and the greeting of “saiiba di” (hello) is cheerful and welcoming. It’s clean, the food is excellent food and so too is the beer and coffee. What’s more, it’s a cheap and easy place for tourists to stop awhile.
The Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand loop is a popular loop with tourists young and old. Some, like me start in Thailand, traveling north; others begin in Vietnam and travel in an anti clockwise direction. The culture, people, landscape and food in each of these countries is unique.
My trip began in Thailand, and initially, I had not planned to include a Laos vacation. En route, after hearing so many positive comments, I decided to add it onto my itinerary. It was an excellent decision and I recommend Laos as a destination to anyone visiting this region. As a standalone destination it has plenty to recommend it too.
Even going through the usual entry requirements which are usually a pain for travelers was relaxed. On a New Zealand passport you can obtain a visa on arrival. That was easy and quick.
Even the tuk tuk drivers are relaxed here. One driver politely calls out to ask if I want a ride, and when I say “no thanks” I get the feeling they’re relieved because it saves them the effort of rousing themselves from their stupor. They can then go back and snooze (some even have hammocks strung up in the back) or carry on chatting to their mates. I like that when I say “no” to one driver, you can be sure when his colleague next door hears my reply he’s not going to bother asking. It’s very refreshing.
Currently approximately one million visitors per annum choose to a Laos vacation or to visit so it retains an authentic atmosphere, untarnished by the big yellow M’s of McDonalds or Starbucks.
The official currency of Laos is the kip and this is most frequently quoted. However prices could also quoted be in US dollars or Baht so travelers need to be alert to pricing. However, in all my dealings with the lovely people of Laos, I found them to be scrupulously honest.
It was a weird thing entering a withdrawal at the ATM for 700,000 kip (the maximum you are able to withdraw from the ATM machine at one time). The 700,000 kip converted to just under USD100 so even though staying in Laos is incredibly cheap, this money doesn’t last longer than a few days, especially considering the great shopping opportunities.
How cheap is a Laos vacation for the visitor?
My hotel was USD20 per night for a lovely big air conditioned room, with a nice bathroom. The price for this centrally located hotel included breakfast and after staying five nights the price dropped to USD18 per night. There was no lift at the Lao-Paris Hotel but walking up the grand wide curved staircase reminded one of an earlier time when the French settled here.
It’s worth asking to see several rooms before choosing one.
Good buys here are clothes – tailor made or off the shelf, jade, silver and jewelry, some of which is interesting and superb. Silk here is beautiful and plentiful although it appears more expensive than Cambodia.
When I was in Laos I took the opportunity to do a course in silk weaving which was excellent. See my hub article http://hubpages.com/hub/Weaving-Learning-to-Weave-in-Laos.
Much of the food is cheap too. My morning’s breakfast was typically under $3. For that I had an excellent cappuccino served in a mug, a warmed croissant and a fresh fruit salad.
The French influence is strong here and very noticeable in the food. Pastries are plentiful and divine. Not for the hips though!
One night I indulged in Lamb Shanks in an orange flavored sauce accompanied by tasty vegetables and that was very pricey. However, I would expect to pay more for western food and sometimes I simply could not resist it, especially this time as they were NZ Lamb Shanks? For my food and two very nice glasses of Italian red wine the bill was $19. That’s the most I paid for a meal this trip and it was worth every cent (not that they have coins here!) Typically dinner is just US3 or US4 but it’s possible to eat even more cheaply.
Locally grown coffee is plentiful too and very cheap. All the coffee I tasted in Vientiane was organic, fair trade and very very tasty.
I bought some things at the fantastic under cover market and after receiving my cash, the proprietor tapped the kip around several piles of goods she had for sale. She said that my sale was the first of the day and her actions would bring her good luck for the day. These same actions were repeated with my second and third transactions.
Bargaining in Laos is quick, friendly and a satisfactory price reached very quickly and amicably. It’s a very nice feeling. Of course, I feel mean bargaining but it is expected and I am told one is respected more for bargaining.
One of the excellent things to do in Vientiane is to sit beside the MekongRiver with a cool BeerLao. Many stalls are set up each evening on the bank of the Mekong. It feels quite surreal sitting there supping a BeerLao looking across at Thailand watching the dipping sun turn a glorious red.
Actually, sitting on the bank isn't quite what I thought it would be as there had been little rain prior to my visit which was a real worry to the locals. As a consequence, a huge mud flat and the water can be seen in the distance. I guess once the monsoon season comes it will be more spectacular from this side. My guide book says at one part, in southern Laos, the river is around 14kms wide in the wet season! Now to see that would be amazing.
Beerlao is extremely tasty and is cheap at about $1 or sometimes less. Dohn121 has written an excellent article on Beerlao. Check it out on http://hubpages.com/hub/Beer-Lao.
One day I heard that the temperature reached 41 degrees and most days it was hot but it felt a little cooler than Cambodia. One night there was a massive storm with shafts of lightning streaking across and brightening the dark night sky. The rain pounded the roof tops but even that didn’t cool the temperatures.
My hotel was very central and it was an easy walk to the river, nearby markets (which are excellent), cafes shops and several attractions. It felt very safe for a single woman traveler and this central area is well lit at night.
At times, the police presence was very noticeable. During the last few days of March there was a meeting of the heads of the Mekong Nations and so flash cars raced around the streets lead and tailed by legions of police.
A nice walk will take you to the Patuxai monument where you can climb to the top. It’s said to resemble the Arc de Triomphe. I can just see this, the most prominent monument in the city, from my hotel window. It has four archways rather than the two of its Paris namesake and saying it resembles the Parisian landmark is a bit of a stretch.
A lot of NGO’s are based in Vientiane and are noticeable in the city as they meet to discuss business over coffee.
Internet access is relatively cheap and readily available in the many internet cafes that have been established to cater to locals and tourists. The connection, when I was there in 2008 was often slow though so patience is a requirement!
Conservative dressing is the norm in this city and for women that means no short skirts, no revealing clothing and the upper arms covered. That said, these small adjustments are worth it so that offence is not given to these gentle lovely people. I planned to stay for 5 nights but I enjoyed my time there so much I extended it to 14 nights. It was hard to move on but there was more of the country to see.
My time in Vientiane remains very warmly in my memory banks. For several weeks after leaving I missed the cheery greeting “sabai-dii”. If you are thinking about taking a Laos vacation, do it now before its character changes too much.
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