The road trip by night from Pakse to Vientiane was more of a whim than a plan. I walked past a sign with bus destinations from 4000 islands, and an 11-hour night bus from Pakse revealed itself with “sleep like in bed” seats. It didn’t sound too bad. The worst that could happen was that I ended up on another adventure. The bus company had shuttle “tuks” doing pickup from a travel agent in downtown Pakse. At the bus station, I showed the lady in the ticket office my booking and got the bus number and bed number. I ended up in the back of the bus on the first floor. The bus had a homemade interior of welded beds with mattresses inside, covered with blankets and pillows. The Bus departed at nine o`clock at night, and by ten I was sleeping. I woke up when the bus was getting close to Vientiane at 7 o clock in the morning.
The hotel was close to the coffee-shops and bars area in town and had a swimming pool. Thank god for that – the temperature rose to 37 degrees Celsius at noon. It was too hot to move outside, and there was no wind. I waited until sunset and walked to the Night marked by the Mekong river. A giant outdoor marked with stalls selling some sort of clothes, bags, and purses, shoes or hawker food revealed itself, and it went on forever. It seemed to be a place where local families met to enjoy the early evening and eat something. The marked area stretches along the Mekong along the entire downtown length, and haggling is a part of the circus. I did not meet many foreigners at the marked, which made it all the more fun.
Walking the streets of downtown, you will find several western cafes and restaurants serving both West and Asien food. The wifi is good at many of the establishments, and free. They have beer Lao everywhere at the price of water, but wine is more expensive. If you need to work, I can recommend several coffee shops that have got good wifi and great coffee. There is a French-style coffee shop close to the night marked. They have a barista and different pastries and cakes, aircon and French doors and windows so you can watch life go by on the outside. True coffee is a modern coffee shop that is like a Starbucks and with similar amenities. They also have aircon, the friendliest staff, and the best toilets in Vientiane. Carma coffee is a tiny little, but charming establishment with pastries Danish and Lao produced barista coffee.
A bit of sightseeing is mandatory when visiting the capital of a country. Buddha park outside town is a cool place. The park consists of Buddhas and Buddhism-related sculptures. The place is like nothing else I have seen, and you can climb the big sculptures slash buildings at each end of the park to get the big picture.
Arriving the city, you will see a large concrete arch on the main road to the city. Patuxai (The front picture of this blog post) or victory gate resembled the French Arc d triumph in Paris and was built to remember the soldiers who died in world war 2 and the French war. It is made from concrete donated by the Americans to build a new airport. The government decided they needed something flashy in town, so they used the cement to build the victory monument instead. This earned the arc the nickname “the vertical runway.” You can climb to the top and enjoy the view.
The national museum is in a run down colonial style building and has a lot of history from the French time but little from how they were affected by the Vietnam war. Instead, I would recommend visiting Cope visitor center that uses facts and numbers to explain what is has been like to be the most bombed country in history. From 1964 to 1973 580.000 American bombing missions released the equivalent of on plane load of bombs over Laos every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. At least 270 million cluster bombs were dropped and between 10% and 30% of these did not detonate on impact. Thousands have lost their life or one or more limbs after the war. There are still hundreds of casualties every year. Most of the victims are farmers and children.
Laos is a poor country that relies on aid to get by. The country has one ruler. The president controls the laws, the government, and the military. Most of the population is farmers, but the president gradually changes the economy to be more marked oriented. Tourism and textile industry is growing, but the education system still doesn’t produce knowledgeable inhabitants to handle the growth. Still, you can see mansions like the presidential palace and many decorated temples and stupas in Vientiane. The difference between wealthy and poor is also very noticeable in the car park. Rolls Royce, and Bentleys or tuk-tuk and moped. It is a noisy, dusty city, and if you are short on time, spend two days here and the rest in Luang Prabang.