Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vientiane, Laos

From Pakse, I took a ten-hour “VIP” sleeper bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I was glad that I could lie down (even though it was a narrow bed), but the journey was cold and bumpy. We were served snacks and drinks though, a cut above the Vietnamese buses.

I arrived in Vientiane after the conclusion of the 25th Southeast Asian Games and thus I did not expect prices to be cheap. I was right as I struggled to find an available room for less than $10. (Keep in mind that rooms could be easily found costing $5 two years ago, according to the guidebook.) It was also hard to find a meal for less than $1, even in the street stalls (unlike in Vietnam). Bus prices in Laos were double those in Vietnam. Thus, Laos has been sticker shock for me, as I, like many others, are basing prices from the guidebook.

These days in Vientiane, tourists outnumber locals. I believe it is great that development money is pouring into Laos and the people are improving their lives. However, I am wary of Westernization as it makes the world a bit homogeneous. It also introduces unhealthy elements into people’s lives, such as over consumption and the obsession with money. What was once the exotic, “untouched” Laos ten years ago is now a very touristy country. I guess there are very few places in the world that are not turning into “Disneyland”.

Vientiane, just like the rest of Laos, is very sedate (no honking!). The city has a few famous sights, such as Pha That Luang, the golden stupa that is the symbol of Laos; and Patuxai, a pseudo Asian-style Arch de Triomphe.

One interesting observation is that French influence is very visible (the country was once colonized by France). Street and building signs are still in French. There are a good number of French restaurants and bakeries. And of course, there are many French tourists (for once outnumbering the British)!

My highlight in Vientiane (I was bored after my first out of two days there) was dining in a makeshift restaurant by the Mekong River. During the day, there is nothing but construction on the shore. However, at night, the place comes alive with people setting up barbeque and fruit stands, along with tables and chairs. I treated myself to a Chinese-style hotpot by the Mekong. It was delicious and commanded the best view of any street dining I have ever had!

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