10 hours on a bus to the ‘Sandlewood City’

Vientiane
Vientiane means ‘Sandlewood City’. It is actually pronounced “Wieng Chan”, Wieng means ‘city’ or ‘place with walls’ in Lao and Chan is the Lao pronounciation of the Sanskrit “Chandana’, meaning ‘sandlewood.’ Vientiane was originally one of the early Lao city states that were consolidated around A.D 1000. It has since been controlled by the Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese and Khmers, before becoming a French protectorate in the late 19th century. In the early 20th century Vientiane was named the capital of Laos and it remains so under communist rule today.
I took the very enduring 10 hour bus journey down to the capital, complete with the normal random toilet stops by the side of the road when there’s a village only a few kilometres further. I spent half the journey sat on the back seat next to (what was presumably and hopefully) the security guard on the bus, who’s gun was laid across his lap, the piston facing in my direction. For the second half of the journey i had to tolerate a Lao guy (who squeezed himself in between me and the man with the gun) continually falling asleep on my shoulder. After moving his head on about 20 occasions, only to have it return to my shoulder as soon as the bus turned a bend, i simply had to let him sleep, as every other seat on the bus was occupied.
Once i arrived in Vientiane i had a quick scout around for an ATM but with no avail, so i spent the evening aimlessly wandering Vientiane’s streets, thinking about how much i detest the Lao currency, and finally retiring to my bed – early.
The Lao Currency
Even though USD are legal tender in Laos, you are always given your change in KIP, and the majority of Exchange booths will only issue KIP in exchange for USD travellers cheques, so pretty soon after entering the country you will find yourself having to deal in KIP. The lowest denomination KIP note is 1000, which is equivalent to 6p; the highest denomination KIP note is equivalent to 1.12. so this creates 2 problems :
  1. You always have a huge wad of money with you, even if you’re only carrying 10 pounds
  2. Due to the fact that you always have a huge wad of money with you, it gives you the misleading impression that you actually have lots of money, when really you only have 10 pounds!

Eureka!

The international ATM in Vientiane is on Pangkham Road, on the same side as the vegetarian cafe ‘Just For Fun.’ The only glitch is that the maximum withdrawl at any one time is 700,000 which is approximately 40 pounds. As a result of this i had to make several visits to the ATM and subsequently incur several commission charges.
With my money situation sorted, i grabbed a mango shake at Just For Fun and formulated a plan for the day. I walked up to the Lao Immigration office to extend my 15 day visa : with the detour down to Vientiane, the logistics of me making it up to Muang Sing, doing a trek AND making it out of the country before the 22nd were nigh on impossible.
Visa Extension
I made my application just after 9am, and it was ready for me to collect by 3pm. It costs $2 per day but if you’re paying in KIP they add a nice little commission charge on top.
As i was in the district, i walked across to the Morning Market. There are hundreds upon hunderds of silk woven scarves and skirts for sale but not much else in the way of handicrafts. The food, however, was fantastic. I had one of the tastiest noodle soups i’ve eaten whilst in Laos for just 8000KIP (45p)
One thing i’ve noticed about Vientiane is the heat. When i left my guesthouse at around 8am it was the same temperature i’ve been used to in the middle of the day. When i walked up to Patuxai (a large monument resembling the Arc De Triomphe in Paris), it was almost unbearable. It’s not a particularly attractive building but you can climb the stairs inside for a good view of Vientiane from the top of the monument.
Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang is, according to Lonely Planet, “the most important national monument in Laos.” It’s a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignity. As well as the impressive temple here, it’s also the site of a huge Bodhi tree. So if you read this James, i’ve collected you a better and greener bodhi leaf!
Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket was built in 1818 by Chao Anon, making it perhaps Vientiane’s oldest surviving temple. The interior walls of the cloister are riddled with small niches that contain over 2000 silver and ceramic Buddha images. Over 300 standing and seated Buddhas of varying sizes and materials are situated on the long shelves below the niches, most of them sculpted in characteristic Lao style (Calling For Rain or Contemplating the Bodhi tree postures). The grounds of the Wat are planted with coconut, banana and mango trees.
Haw Pha Kaew
Once a royal temple built specifically to house the famed Emerald Buddha, Haw Pha Kaew is now a museum of religious art. Built in 1565 by command of King Setthathirat, the Siamese stole the emerald buddha in 1779 and installed it in its current place of residence, Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok.
Final thoughts on Vientiane
For a capital city, it’s a pleasant enough place and not without character. However, it’s not the place to come if you want to see an accurate depiction of Laos : it’s very cosmopolitan in the sense that it’s very difficult to find Lao food here, unless you eat at one of the outdoor markets (Full Moon Cafe does pretty good Asian fusion food). The streets are lined with upmarket cafes such as Sticky Fingers and Jo-Ma, which wouldn’t look out of place in any European city. One of Vientiane’s merits however, over somewhere like Luang Prabang, is that it’s not over-run with Westerners. Even in the area between Sethathirit Road and the Mekong, where all the guesthouses are situated, it’s very rare to see Lao people outnumbered by tourists.
Photo is of Naga headed Buddha under the Bodhi tree at Pha That Luang, Vientiane.
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