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Jet Set: Vientiane

By: Michael Lenz Posted: January-29-2011 in
Michael Lenz

Getting lost in Vientiane is nearly impossible. A tiny capital by any standard, a basic walking tour will take you around the downtown area in 15 minutes.

You'd be forgiven for thinking there's no nightlife at all, but a quick trawl across the streets brings you stumbling into Sticky Fingers, a local favourite of the expat community which, on a Friday, can be found celebrating the upcoming weekend with cocktails for $3. They work for a selection of non-governmental organisations, the Mekong River Commission or are big shots in the mining or the hydropower industry – a huge money-spinner for the Laos economy.

Last orders are called just before 9pm, when most drinking establishments turn down the lights and switch off the taps. Anyone still trying to quench their thirst will head to Tex Mex Alexia, easily a contender for the title of wildest bar in Vientiane. The Mexico-themed pub is a hangout for expats and locals who prefer Beer Lao over a margarita. This 'late-night' watering hole closes, however, at 11pm.

A mismatch of French colonial mansions and communist-style office blocks that ooze as much charm as the grey concrete they're made of dot wide streets. Fortunately for weary travellers, the tourist enclave is based around Nam Phu, a compact area near the river. For early risers, the morning market is well worth a visit, as is the Buddha Park which boasts a spectacular reclining Buddha.

The real Vientiane comes to life, however, when you leave your barely-necessary map in your room and casually meander the streets the same way locals Laotians do – weather permitting. During your stroll, expect to come across fortune tellers keen to read your cards in front of the post office and silk shops in crumbling French colonial-era homes hidden down narrow lanes. It's also worth popping into the run-down former Constellation Hotel, now Asian Pavilion, for a drink. A popular haunt during the Vietnam War, it attracted the usual mix of locals, journalists and spooks and was fittingly immortalised in John le Carré's 1977 spy novel The Honourable Schoolboy.

The newest attraction in the capital of the People's Democratic Repulic (PDR) is the gigantic statue of King Chao Anouvong commissioned by the Communist government to celebrate the capital's 450th anniversary. King Chao Anouvong was defeated in 1828 by the Siamese, but Laotians still embrace his memory as a hero who rose up against imperialism. No such honours were conferred on the last Laotian monarch. When the communist Pathet Lao movement came to power in 1975, King Savang Vatthana was sent to a re-education camp where he died.

All that is ancient history, as is communism in some regards. The presence of red flags – which businesses, government agencies and shops are required to fly – are increasingly being overshadowed by billboards advertising mobile phones, computers and all the other typical trappings of a vibrant capitalist society. The only thing Vientiane doesn't feature is the hectic rat-race pace synonymous with other Asian cities. Vientiane is the proudly laid-back capital of the PDR, which many translate as: Please Don't Rush.

How to get there
Daily flights connect Vientiane with Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. From the city of Nong Khai on the Thai side of the Mekong river, you can cross into Laos via the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge. From Bangkok you can also travel by train, via Nong Khai.

Recharge the batteries
Catering to any budget, Vientiane has an amazing selection of hotels, from cheap to luxurious. Many hotels and hostels are equipped with free WiFi access. A good mid-range place to stay is the centrally located Vongkhamsene Hotel in Manthathulath Rd. The luxury Boutique Ansara Hotel in Quai Fa Ngum Lane is the perfect place in which to enjoy an intimate escape.

Cocktail hour
The best cocktails in town are served at Sticky Fingers in Rue Francois Nginn. Don't miss their margaritas. Beer Lao is the signature drink at the fabulous Tex Mex Alexia in Fa Ngum Rd along the Mekong. Every night the live band proudly plays a rich repertoire that includes 1960s hits from the US and modern Laos and Thai pop songs. The best party place in town, however, is the gay GQ in Chao Anou Road that comes to life when its rivals have gone to bed. Here lesbian, gay and transgender Laotians party alongside backpackers until 2am.

Best sightseeing
The best guide books to Vientiane are Colin Coterril's crime novels. The adventures of Laos' one and only coroner, Dr Siri, are set in late 1970 Vientiane immediately after the communist Pathet Lao movement came to power following the defeat of the US in the Vietnam war. Cotterill's books are entertaining and thrilling in equal measure and provide an insightful look into Lao history, customs and culture. For those looking to venture a little further afield, Nam Lik forest offers excellent trekking, Ban Na is good for watching wild elephants and Vang Vieng is known as party central.

Food and senses
The myriad hawker stalls along the Mekong River serve fantastic Laos street food.
If you're looking for something a little bit more upmarket, check out Amphone restaurant in the quiet lane behind Wat Xieng Gnuen Vientiane, which is home to an impressive array of international restaurants.

The selection of French eateries along the Central Setthathirat Road is a reminder of the days of colonial rule, but more and more pizza and pasta places are nuzzling their way into the capital, pushing French cuisine aside as Italian cucina heats up. La Gondola, right across from the GQ in Chao Anou Road, serves excellent home-made pasta. For breakfast, lunch and/or WiFi, head straight to Café Joma on Setthathirat Road.

Pimphone supermarket next to Café Joma on Setthathirat Road stocks some of the best European expat delights, from a wide range of cheeses and succulent Italian salami to Nutella and the best baguettes outside France. Mixay Boutique in Nokeokuman Street is a good place for silk and quality handicrafts. Another, very expensive, option is the 'Kanchana – The beauty of Lao Silk' in Samsanthai Road close to Thatdam Square

Republished with the Kind Permission of

The Businesses Directory in Laos - Hotels, Bars, Restaurants,Shopping etc

Events In Laos - The Gig Guide Laos

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