Saturday, August 18, 2012

SE ASIA'S MOST RELAXED CAPITAL

Kip and friend Chris check out Vientiane's Patuxai Arch.
Compared with the sprawling Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, Laos’ capital city Vientiane seems like a small town. While KL has soaring skyscrapers like the Petronas Towers and KL Tower, Vientiane’s skyline features few buildings more than five stories tall. Instead of glitzy shopping malls the former French-ruled city has tiny mom & pop shops selling everything from custom-tailored suits to old stamps from decades past. But what Vientiane does not have in height or glitz, it makes up for in charm and tranquility.

Together with a good friend of Kip's from Norway traveling with us for two weeks (hey, Chris!), we would soon explore on foot numerous Buddhist temples and countless placid streets along the Mekong River. However, we agreed unanimously that our first stop must be a visit to the brewery of Laos’ most well-known product, Beer Lao (which holds a stunning 95 percent market-share of beer sold in the country).

When, after a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride to the Beer Lao brewery, we learned sadly they no longer offered tours (our very innocent tuk-tuk driver promised us they did) our entrepreneurial chauffer suggested he drive us back into town to the city’s lone bowling alley, where we could sample the product first hand (we later learned even the often-stodgy New York Times suggests going bowling while here...who knew).

While the closure of the Beer Lao factory tour didn’t keep us from learning about the flavors of the national beverage, we certainly didn’t do much to represent our nation’s bowling prowess (none of us even broke 100…being shown up by a little girl’s birthday party in the next lane). In the following days, however, we did manage to see some of the other amazing sights beyond the alley. 

An official sign posted on the Patuxai Arch describes it as a "monster of concrete." Marketing help, anyone?
Patuxai, the victory gate modeled on the Arch d’ Triumphe in France, is an impressive sight surrounded by what must be some very sacred grass. The 50-foot tall arch was supposedly built with concrete donated by the United States to build an air strip for delivery of foreign aid. Instead, Laos built this concrete monstrosity (their words, not ours!).

There is also a large stupa in the center of town where many Laotians believe lives a seven headed dragon that once protected the city. The stupa is called That Dam (pronounced Tawt Dam). This results in many of the restaurants/hotels/bars to be named after it, including “That Dam Bar”, “That Dam Restaurant,” etc. Obviously, we found this play on words highly entertaining, as evidenced by this photo.

One of the most important sites in all of Laos is the wat (temple) That Luang. It’s a long walk from the city center, but the shine of the gold in the sun is worth the trek. On the day we visited, there were many monks hard at work in the baking sun.
 
Monks hard at work outside a temple in Vientiane.
That Luang
After Vientiane we're headed across the Thai Lao Friendship Bridge and onward to Bangkok for a few days to sort out our visas to some very exciting places...if they let us in. Too cheap to fly, we've opted for the romance of the train.

But first, a toast to this lovely capital as we enjoy an unforgettable sunset on the Mekong.

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