Sunday, March 29, 2009

Laos 2 : Vientiane, Old World Charm New World Prices

“This place is like Taiping (a small town in Malaysia) 20 years ago” my travel companion remarked.

Indeed, Vientiane seems to be a city time forgot. It has the languid atmosphere of a provincial town rather then the hustle bustle one would associate with a capital city. Pre-war style shop houses line the main roads and French colonial buildings co-exist with rustic Wats and Buddhist inspired buildings.

Patuxai, the iconic landmark in Vientiane
At 2.30pm, the streets were deserted except for foreigners like us crazy enough to brave the searing heat. We were driven out to the streets by our empty bellies to seek repast. Marching up and down Setthathirath Road and after peering at menu prices of the various restaurants and cafes, we settled for Blue Sky Café. 57,000 kip (USD6.80) for 2 plates of fried rice wasn’t provincial prices but definitely more affordable than some of the other restaurants we’ve passed by.

Vientiane has no lack of places to eat, provided you have the moolah. Due to its French colonial heritage, there are plenty of restaurants offering French cuisine, but be prepared to splurge.

Since lunch was rather meager, we decided to spring for dinner at Kua Lao, the restaurant recommended by our guesthouse receptionist for traditional Laotian food. Spurning the sampler set dinner; we ordered ala carte from the menu and ended up with this.

Looks familiar? Pandan chicken, otak otak, pork sausages and some sort of coconut milk based stew. We ended up paying USD26 for a meal that could be had for a fraction of the price at a Thai restaurant back in Kuala Lumpur. But never mind, the dinner comes with a side of traditional Laos performance.
(In-house band, they weren't exactly rocking =.=)

It is possible to get around the city under your own steam, either via bus 11 (on foot) or on bicycles. Bicycle rental cost only 40,000 kip a day. It is a cheap mode of transportation which many tourists choose. Unfortunately they have to settle for whatever vehicle is available at the rental shop. To our amusement, we saw a huge strapping man peddling a kiddie's pink bicycle, like a clown at the circus.

Vientiane is virtually traffic free, there aren't many cars on the street, especially on a hot searing afternoon when we were about. Of course you can find the ever present tuk tuks lurking at street corners where tourists frequent. On hot lazy afternoons, the drivers even string up hammocks to sleep in their tuk tuks while waiting for customers.

We hired a tuk tuk to get to the Northern Bus Terminal to purchase our onward journey bus tickets to Xieng Khoung. The 2km journey cost 40,000 kip (USD4.80) which we subsequently bargained to 30,000kip. Cost is equivalent to a taxi ride in Malaysia.

For all its backwater appearance, Vientiane has no lack of accommodation to suit all budgets. Most of the hotels, guesthouses and hostels are congregated near the river front, Fa Ngam Road and Nokeo Khoumane Road. Not many of them have email booking facilities though, your best bet is to phone in or fax. We picked Lani Guesthouse, a quiet guesthouse tucked in a cul de sac off Setthathirath Road. Mid range price, USD25+10% for a single room or USD35+10% for a double twin bedroom. The place was clean and neat, a stone's throw away from the main street. So no complaints there.


* Ask for the price before you hop into a tuk tuk. You can try negotiating for a slightly lower fare.
* Lani Guesthouse