Laos – A Gentle Initiation To the Land Of A Million Elephants

I knew better than to expect a concrete jungle and traffic choked streets typical of most Asian metropolises. And yet, I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent of time warp in this capital city by the Mekong.

The sixties style airport, the crumbling French architecture, the sputtering Tuk Tuks, the languid pace of life itself! That we arrived on a Sunday, which also happened to be the Lao National Day, heightened that impression considerably.

One could be forgiven for thinking this tranquil land and its smiling, imperturbable people have never been touched by strife. But this is the capital of a country wracked by civil war in the not too distant past, carpet bombed during the Vietnam war by US forces and crushed by three decades of Communist rule.

It is this political legacy ironically, that has preserved the essence of the unique Lao heritage. I can’t help wondering how much the locals appreciate this status quo however, while we gush over the city’s provincial charm. Progress or preservation? Tough question that, and one I have pondered many times while celebrating a shiny new landmark back home.

Wat Ong Teu, opposite our hotel
Wat Ong Teu, opposite our hotel
That Dam (Black Stupa), Vientiane
That Dam (Black Stupa), Vientiane

The view from our fifth floor window was strangely familiar. Knock off those Buddhist accouterments, and I could have been gazing at the terracotta tiled roofscape of my hometown! Complete with coconut palms, and that constant in my nostalgic daydreams, a gently flowing river in the horizon!

We could easily have stayed a few more days. In the event, I ran downstairs and got the receptionist to move our morning flight to Luang Prabang to the last of the following day.

There isn’t a lot to do in Vientiane, whose name is derived from the ancient Pali for ‘City of the Moon’. No overwhelming architecture or archaeological sights to explore. Most landmarks – the Wat Sisaket and the Wat Ho Phra Kaew, the National Museum and a cluster of smaller temples and markets – are all within walking distance of each other and can be fitted into an easy day’s itinerary.

Pha That Luang, Vientiane
Pha That Luang, built by King Setthathirat in 1566 on the site of a 13th century Khmer ruin. His likeness graces the front of the temple.
Pha That Luang, Vientiane
Pha That Luang, Vientiane
DSC_0068 copy
Details of Wat That Luang Neua as seen from the grounds of Pha That Luang
Patuxai - Vientiane
The Arc du Triomphe inspired victory monument, Patuxai on Lane Xang Avenue
Evening light at Patuxai - Laos
Evening light at Patuxai
Bronze Buddhas, Haw Phra Kaew
Bronze Buddhas, Haw Phra Kaew
Wat keepers son
Wat keepers son

But remember, they do take a long lunch break and close at 4pm, effectively staying open for under 6 hours. The Arc du Triomphe inspired victory monument, Patuxai, and the iconic symbol of Vientiane, the Pha That Luang, close at 5pm.
Potent Beer Lao further eased us into a mellow holiday mood, and our first al fresco Laotian meal of fried chicken with Kafir lime and pungent peppers accompanied by sticky rice at Kop Chai Deu, was a delicious portent of good things to come. Even if our restaurant of choice was closed on account of National Day.

Later we browsed through the night market – that yielded a few pretty bangles for under $2 each – and segued up to the riverfront. The promenade was deserted save for a few stragglers from the market. We lingered a while inhaling the balmy air redolent of Frangipani and those damp, fishy riverine scents. Aah, how I miss that! Then we walked back to our hotel, content in the knowledge that the shimmering course of this mighty river would follow our footsteps through Indochina.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

79 thoughts on “Laos – A Gentle Initiation To the Land Of A Million Elephants

  1. Such lively shots of Vientiane, Madhu. We found it to be such an accessible capital city. Love the light and shadows you’ve captured at Patuxai.

  2. So, there is actually a place on this earth where a time warp and languid pace of life still exists…how I long to go there. And The Land of a Million Elephants is such a beautiful name.

  3. All these cities were time stopped, like Cuba, have, unwittingly, preserved their old architecture . 🙂

  4. You had another fabulous trip 🙂 The photo of Pha That Luang is just wonderful Madhu!

  5. You really find the most interesting places. I’m so glad for the opportunity to broaden my horizons through your blog. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Wonderful photos – historic, scenic, and of a little boy. When I have the Urge to Wander, I visit your blog. It’s always such an excellent photo array.

  7. Isn’t it amazing that the first impression of a place is the utter astonishment we felt standing in a half empty street! I can remember almost daring the traffic to come bearing down on me, but of course, it never materialised! That was the closest to a timewarp I’ve ever entered – back to small town living fifty years ago, really. And sitting by the river at sunset … I loved Vientiane too, and was glad to have been able to relax into its somnolent rhythm – and that evening light you captured in your shot of Patuxai. It was lovely to see the statues of Haw Phra Kaew all dressed for National Day, but it was your picture of the Nagas, with the ‘terrace’ of the temple above, and the touch of orange shirt … just loved that!

    Yes, i enjoyed your post, Madhu, and am so glad you’re back to tell us all about your adventures in the land of a thousand elephants. 🙂

    Oh, and if we don’t ‘talk’ before Monday, happy New Year!

    1. Thank you, I loved the nagas too! Am thinking of doing a post on all the naga sculpture I photographed through Indochina! Have never seen so much Hindu Iconography as I did in those two weeks!
      A very happy new year to you too Meredith 🙂

      1. That would be a wonderful post Madhu because you’re right – Hindu iconography was everywhere – and often interestingly ‘distorted’ by indigenous imagery. 🙂

  8. Thank you! And to you too 🙂
    Yes, we spent a considerable time watching that little boy at play 🙂

  9. We are planning an international trip this next year. Trying to decide between Asia and New Zealand. Your photos give us much to ponder.

    1. That is a hard decision!
      Would have to be a choice between ‘cultural immersions’ v/s ‘the great outdoors’. New Zealand is high on my list too. Have had my fill of culture for a while 🙂

        1. I think that would be the right choice for you, going by your interests 🙂 We have been putting off Australia till we can take off for longer stretches of time.

        2. You would need about that much time to do both countries at a stretch. Happy planning LuAnn 🙂

  10. Wonderful post Madhu; how great to be able to take these trips, and how great for us to be able to follow along through your wonderful photos.

  11. I was trying click on the little boy pic to make it bigger. He’s too gorgeous. 🙂 What a lovely place to visit, Madhu. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Isn’t he? I have another one of him bawling after a tiff with his brother which is just as cute 🙂 Still not familiar with the new uploader AD. Think I have sorted the link now.

  12. What a beautiful description of Vientiane. To visit a place where you can see everything in one day is rare. It’s those places I would like to linger at longer. We didn’t get to Vientiane but spent a few days in Luang Prabang. I’ll be interested in your thoughts on LP. Lovely photos, Madhu, especially the window at Patuxai, my favorite.

    1. Thanks Lynne. Yes, of late we are attracted to such smaller places as well.
      As for LP, my images would pale in comparison to Ron’s awesome collection 🙂

  13. Vientiane – I always thought that sounded so poetic and now I know why. Lovely post conjuring up the sights, sounds and smells of a distant land.

    1. Thank you Suzanne.
      The poetic sound is a Gallic corruption of ‘Vieng Chan’ by the way! The French can make anything sound romantic 🙂

  14. Thank you so much,wonderful photos.Happy New Year!

  15. I love the little boy! What a pretty place and the smell of frangipanis is heavenly. I have one on my balcony and I love to stand in front of it and just breathe.

    1. Yes, that little boy is a clear favourite 🙂
      Thank you Debra, and have a wonderful New Year!

  16. Vientiene is one of those places that everyone seems to pass by very quickly but I ended up there for almost a week waiting for visas and really got into the slow pace of life and met some lovely people. Thanks for bringing back some great memories with your photos.

    1. How wonderful! I wouldn’t mind getting stuck in a lovely place like that 🙂 Have you written about it?

      1. I haven’t written much about Asia as it was a while back and I don’t have many photos, but I’m getting a negative scanner so will try and do a few older posts when I do.

  17. It’s so wonderful to be sitting there in your camera bag … wonderful photos again, don’t know how to say it … the little boys is one of my favorite – also I really like when you take photos on the details around you … like the window .. happy painter and your market loot. Magical.

    1. Laos is a magical country Viveka. I hope to return to its smaller towns in the South someday. Thank you so much for your kind comments 🙂

      1. You and your camera is such a great team – and it’s a true pleasure to visit your world.

  18. Hi Madhu,
    This is really interesting! I love the photos, and the informative description, as always. It sounds like a wonderful trip altogether.

  19. Preservation with limited amounts of progress, would be a good recipe in my opinion. Thank you for this wonderful journey!
    🙂

    1. That sounds perfect……if they can find the balance. I fervently hope they do.
      Thank YOU for reading Marina. Wish you a Happy New Year 🙂

    1. Yes, we returned on the 18th Gilly. The reason why I am so behind on my posting schedule, comments and blog reading 🙂

  20. Madhu, what a lovely thing to read this post at the end of December. It brought back so many nice memories. I really love the way you described Vientiane, and I did feel exactly the same. Look forward to your story on Luang Prabang!

    1. Glad you like it Bama.
      Vientiane reminded me so much of the South India of a few decades ago! Hope ‘progress’ doesn’t make it a clone of our cities.

  21. Great photos of a beautiful city. I had to check where Vientiane was on the map. The East is so beautiful and different to the West in many ways.

      1. I used to have neighbours who were originally from India.Their son, who was born and brought up in Scotland, married a woman from India and the family all moved back to Kolkata.

        Mrs Basu used to cook some wonderful Indian dishes and I would be told of life in India. I must travel to the East as it sounds fascinating.

  22. So many great photos. I just can’t pick a favorite. I like to think of the sound of that river and the taste of that food.

    1. Oh yes, the food in Laos was fabulous. Quite similar to Thai, but with a more intriguing combination of flavours and ingredients.

  23. What a beautiful entry, Madhu… reading this and looking through the photos brought back many fond memories of my time in Vientiane this past May. You describe the city perfectly! I loved the chirping birds and insects, the sheer silence, the languid pace… and the food too, what a pleasant surprise it all was!

    1. Yes, I was surprised too, despite reading your – and Bama’s – accounts, by how much we loved the place 🙂

    1. Thank you Kathryn. Your Egypt trip must have been amazing. Shall be over to catch up with all your posts soon 🙂

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