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.
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.
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.