November 29th, 2012 – by: Jollyjetsetter
The Presidential Palace by the Mekong waterfront in Vientiane
Laos is, let it be known, not the world's most high-profile destination, and in many ways is at a transitional phase, simply because it is only really in the process of being discovered, so in time-honoured fashion of seeing how the (Laotian) capital city defines the nation's identity, two nights in Vientiane unfolded in direct succession from a successful stay in the higher-profile town of Luang Prabang. The fascinating fact here is that Vientiane is very much a border town, and the Mekong river separates it from neighbouring northern Thailand, so to what extent could a visitor expect Vientiane to hold its own against a backdrop of more affluent Thailand, and a history of bombings which gave Laos the dubious distinction of being the world's most heavily-bombed nation? The answer is really all open to interpretation, and this is refreshingly a laid-back capital city which moves at its own pace, not wholly afraid to take on new influences and aspects, but somehow lacking the economic might and infrastructure to be the full-blooded substantial city destination which a more exacting traveller might crave.
Neatly-kept gardens at one of the city's temple complexes
Nevertheless, Vientiane has retained a certain history in splendid shape, and the numerous buildings, temples and monuments here are impressive, even when stacked up against their Thai counterparts, for instance, albeit on a smaller, more modest scale. Among the city's key reference points are the Arc-de-Triomphe equivalent Patuxai, (impressive to look at, enjoyable to scale), the charms of the back-to-back Presidential Palace and Wat Sisaket, and the city's star turn, the splendiferous Golden Stupa, and surrounding temples and complexes, destined to give any country's similar-sized enclave of structures a run for its money. An enjoyable night market sets up shop along the banks of the Mekong nightly to add to the atmosphere, and the city's chief commercial spot, the Talat Sao shopping mall, is well worth a look-in though expect the prices to reflect the fact that this is considered the upscale end of the city's shopping options.
Patuxai, Vientiane's take on the Arc-De-Triomphe
Out of town, the most visited spot happens to be the Buddha park, located some 30 or so kilometres due east, and well worth a couple of hours of your time, if only to be reminded of the country's religious context and monastic lifestyles which pertain to a few Laotians. There are elements to suggest that Vientiane has traces of the 'up-and-coming' and has drawn on all available resources to break away from its troubled history, but in a nation where a slack pace of life seems to be hotly preferred, the progression rate can only match the combination of pace of living and influx of wealth. At times like these, I am reminded, in a positive way, that living at breakneck speed need not be favoured when there are less stress-inducing alternatives, and the pace of life in the Laotian capital, combined with some sparkling cultural elements, got under my skin enough for me to really appreciate the whole package which unravelled during my stay.
The Golden Stupa, in its mildly fading glory