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Vientiane: The City of Sandalwood
Special Name of Vientiane
Sandalwood. Wiang-jun. This special name of Vientiane, Laos' capital city comes from Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism and truly means sandalwood, a flower from India treasured for its fragrance.
What a wonderful, hopeful name for a city. What a vision it calls up of a lost history or misplaced hopes, of languid gardens and southern birds. As the French had difficulty pronouncing the hard "j" in Wiang-jun, they just called the place Vientiane. Well, at least they didn't call it Lyon or Nouveau Marseille.
Vientiane: Laos' Capital City
It is believed that Vientiane was a Khmer (remember Cambodia?) settlement, scattered around a Hindu temple. But around the 11th and 12th centuries, the Lao and Thai came from Southern China and overtook the area in one of the endless tumblings of history that mark this much fought over land.
Records show that by 1354, the kingdom of Lan Xang was founded with Vientiane as its administrative city. The sandalwood image began to fade and when the French took over the area in 1893, Vientiane was in ruins, looted and almost empty, but nicely situated. So with the Mekong on their front door step as a highway to Vietnam and Cambodia they rebuilt old sandalwood to its next iteration and made it the capital of the protectorate, of French Indo-China.
Then came the Japanese in WWII in the 1940s, followed by the French exit from Indochina after Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and then a civil war ending with the Pathet Lao in power. Remember the Ho Chi Minh Trail? Lao may be the most bombed country in the world, but not Vientiane thank goodness. What a mess. At least sandalwood came back in the ruins to cover some of the evils of the times.
Attractions in Vientiane
1. Visit the Temples in Vientiane
There are a few sites to occupy tourists in Vientiane. It is a small city and pretty laid back still. This is so much a part of its charm. This is why tourists like to visit, to experience the rural atmosphere of a capital city.
Its most famous monument is the Buddhist Stupa, Pha That Luang. Originally built in 1566 by King Setthathirath, this golden stupa is believed to contain a relic of the Lord Buddha. Mind you, if all the bits and pieces scattered over Asia that are attributed to Buddha really were part of him, he must have been hydra headed and eight armed!
Built on the ruins of the ancient Khmer Hindu shrine, Wat Si Muang is a temple to see. In front of the temple is the statue of King Sisavang Vong. Behind the ordination hall which was built in 1563, the remains of the Khmer temple can still be seen. Legend has it that this temple is guarded by Si, the spirit of a local woman Nang Si who, as a sacrifice, leapt to her death as the pillar was lowered in the hole. Who knows? A quick tour of Italian cathedrals will offer up stranger tales than this!
Visit Wat Si Muang, an Old Temple
Laos Still A Laidback Destination
Laos is still a very laid back destination. But this is exactly what gives it its attraction. People come to experience the way people lived in the past, the simplicity of life that we long ago lost in many of our cities. It is the image of simplicity.
First, explore the capital city and then, get your guide book and reach out to the other places in Laos. You will not regret it. You can easily rent a car or take the bus. Before you go and plan your itinerary and information you need if you're travelling by bus. Not all places have frequent transport. Get suggestions on where to stay in the places you'll visit. Start your adventure.
2. See Patuxai
Completed in 1968 to celebrate Laos independence, Patuxai is the most prominent landmark in the city. It looks like the arc de Triomphe in Paris except for some Lao symbols such as the kinnari, a mythical bird woman.
Given that the French sort of snuck away without much noise, the Patuxai is sort of laid back too.
3. Go to the Buddha Park
There is the Buddha Park built in 1958 along the edge of the Mekong River set around gardens and trees. It has a collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures and as a record of the ebb and flow of these two religions throughout Southeast Asia, it is quite a site.
Visit the Market
4. Shop in Talat Sao- Morning Market
For those of you who are aggressive souvenir hunters, go to Talat Sao - Morning Market. You will find real authentic local crafts and remember there are some unusual weaves and straws done by the indigenous folks such as the Hmong. Visit some of the stores in the main streets run by NGOs. Hand woven silk and other items are good buys here. But best of all, it will put you close to a brace of wonderful French-tradition restaurants that really are worthwhile.
In the evening, you can wander along the Mekong. It's a good walk and the expected stalls are best to try out your bargaining skills. Have fun but don't take the fun out of the Laotians trying to earn a few dollars from you. Beer Lao is praised by many as the best beer in the world. If only for that, Vientiane is worth a dekko.
Have you visited Vientiane?
5. Cross the First Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge
Go across to Thailand
Built in the 1990s, it connects Vientiane to Nong Khai, a Thai city. About 18 kms long, this is a major through way between Laos and Thailand. If you are into bridges and causeways, this is a winner.
Sample Exotic Lao Food
6. Try Laap in Vientiane
The French certainly left some of their culinary skills especially in their baguettes. There are a few restaurants still run by French expats. Typical Lao dishes are similar to its neighbours, the Thais, the Cambodians and Vietnamese. It is a rice based cuisine and uses fish sauce.
Try Laap, a dish of minced fish or meat with vegetables tossed with lime juice, garlic, pounded rice, green onions, mint leaves and lots of chillies. Most restaurants serve this dish. If you have tried Som Tam in Thailand, the Laos call it Tum Som, green papaya salad, a refreshing accompaniment to the other dishes especially fish and rice. The street food is fantastic. Two of us once ate to excess for less than a Euro.
Watch Lao cooking videos - Very interesting
7. Peek at the Laos Stock Exchange
A Step towards Capitalism?
The recently opened stock market in Laos has certainly highlighted the potential of its economy and has propelled state owned enterprises to go public. It has engaged the locals with grandfathers lining up on opening day to buy stocks as souvenirs for their grandchildren.
So far, two state run firms have been listed: Electricite du Laos Generation Company and the Banque Pour Le Commerce Exterieur Lao. Thai companies are seeking to enlist in the exchange and Cambodian companies are watching on the sidelines so they, too, can take the necessary moves.
Airport Pick Up of Settah Palace
Where to Stay in Vientiane
There are good choices of places to stay in Vientiane, but my favourite is the Settah Palace. Built in 1932, the same family still owns it and with the recent retro refurbishment, you sit at the bar waiting for Humphrey and Lauren or Sidney Greenstreet or maybe Catherine Deneuve to swing past the door. It has the whiff of intrigue and even some working fans to summon up the past. It is small enough that I am not underwhelmed by dozens of cookie cutter rooms.
Airport pick-up is in an old London cab, so you start ramping down to history from the get-go. And then the wonderful, colonial hotel (with all modern amenities). The place is an elegant symbol of the 30s. Yes, there is even some sandalwood and the gardens alone are worth the stay.
Settah Palace is right in the city center so it's an easy walk to most places. And when you get tired walking the dusty roads of Vientiane, you can come home to your hotel and chill in the garden. This typical Asian home garden with its trees and flowers in bloom is a relaxing place to hang out, meet your colleagues or business partners or relax there yourself and write your travel journal especially in the middle of the day when the sun just makes walking a test to one's comfort.
You still can walk the streets of Laos without seeing the stores you often see in most cities you visit. The other "Brands" will all get there soon, but for now, this is sleepy hollow without a burger or burrito in sight. This is different, rural and laid back.
There are, of course other options for those who do not prefer this kind of a hotel. The links below will lead you to many alternatives, all appealing in different ways. The small guest houses close to the Mekong would be great places to stay as well and are usually a bargain.
Go to Luang Prabang from Vientianne
Don't just stay in Vientiane when visiting Laos. Go to Luang Prabang. Some of the most colourful pictures I have of Laos was of the night market in Luang Prabang with the Hmong minorities. The Hmong helped many Americans during the war in Vietnam.
How to get to Vientiane
Visas Available Upon Arrival
Bus services are available daily to Vientiane from Nong Khai, Udon Thani and Khon Kaen in Thailand.
There are direct flights from other Asian cities like Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Hanoi and it's easy to plan a circle route covering Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia.
© 2010 Mary Norton