Fri, 23 May 2008 08:42:31 +0000

Nong Khai and Vientiane Index Leaving Vientiane

Today I resolved to see most of the sights of Vientiane, just to structure the day. There's not a lot, and they don't take a lot of time.

It's interesting that the hotel's breakfast buffet is far better than I'm used to getting for breakfast at my crappy hostels, but it still didn't seem very nice. Plenty of variety: bacon eggs and sausages, lots of fruits and vegetables, potato salad, noodles and congee, toast and jam, tea and coffee, everything you could expect. But practically all of it is just a little bit crap. I guess I'm hard to please.

The first thing I wanted to see was the national museum, not because it's good, but because the section on the Vietnam war is full of entertaining propaganda. It doesn't disappoint. It starts off fairly sensibly, and even manages to get through the second world war without laying into the Japanese (who, incidentally, seem to have funded a lot of infrastructure projects in Laos). But as soon as you hit the sixties, bam, the Americans are always "imperialists" and there are bad paintings of Americans enslaving and torturing the people. It's mostly photographs by this stage. In all the photos of communist guerillas training, everyone has huge smiles on their faces. Enemies of the people are always shown glowering. Great fun.

The last section, about development in modern Laos, is actually broken down by ministry (education, health, foreign relations, etc), providing each with a little niche for its own propaganda. Photos of Paul Keating at the opening of the friendship bridge provided a blast from the past. I didn't see any photos that looked more recent than that.

I took lots of photos myself, and it was only as I was getting my bag from the cloakroom that I remembered that I wasn't supposed to. The guy noticed my camera and asked "Take photos?" Putting on my best dumb tourist face, I replied "No, thanks, that's fine" and walked away. So no embarrassing confiscation of cameras was necessary.

Next I wanted to check out the morning market, to see if I could get some replacement sunglasses. I walked via the "black stupa", which is reputed to protect Laos from its enemies. Not very effectively, judging by the history presented in the museum. It doesn't look very well-cared for, so maybe this point has also occurred to the Laos.

The market is rather weird. It's not that big, but everything is on sale there, including furniture and white goods. This doesn't allow a lot of room for shopping around. The exception is mobile phones, which probably accounts for a good third of the stalls. Some really nice models too. Having a flashy mobile must be important in Vientiane. I couldn't find a pair of sunglasses at an obviously reasonable price, and I don't yet have enough of a handle on the Lao currency to be confident in haggling. In fact, after lunch when I was going to take a tuk-tuk, I initially offered 100,000 laos for the journey. I meant to say 10,000. As it happened I'd forgotten to bring my hat, and got out before we set off anyway, so I never actually paid that price. But I was really kicking myself for my stupidity.

For lunch I went to a Vietnamese place on the river that was recommended by Wikitravel for their baguettes. I realise now that I've had these before: I always used to get them from the bakery round the corner when I lived in Redfern. Marinated chicken with fresh chili and coriander, delicious. It never clicked that this was a Vietnamese/French fusion before. This one in Vientiane was pretty good, marinated pork and lots of salad. The baguette could have been fresher though.

After lunch, the next thing to do was the Pha That Luang, the golden stupa. This required my tuk-tuk ride, where I completely failed to negotiate the price down. I paid 50,000 lao for a return trip, which is quite a lot, about EUR 5. What's more, on the return journey, the tuk-tuk driver kept trying to pimp out women to me. No tip for you, buddy. The tuk-tuk drivers here of course always try to offer you rides when you walk down the street. But then when you say "no", they lower their voices and start offering you drugs and women instead. It gets really annoying after a while.

As for the golden stupa itself, well, it's a golden stupa. "Symbol of the Lao state", apparently. Didn't do a lot for me though.

I was determined to keep my tuk-tuk driver waiting for at least an hour, so I wandered around the nearby temples as well. Most of the statues have sticky rice offerings plastered on them. A good life for the pigeons, I guess. I also nosed around the small nearby market to see if I could get some snacks. It's mainly souvenir-oriented, but at the end there was a lady selling some kind of roast thing wrapped in banana leaves. Upon opening it, it seemed to be roast beehive - complete with larvae in the cells. What is it with the Laos and eating baby animals? It tasted absolutely revolting.

On the way back I got the tuk-tuk driver to drive me past the Patuxay, a concrete travesty built in imitation of the Arc de Triomph, using concrete donated by the Americans in the 60s that was supposed to be used to build a new airport. Outstandingly ugly. I resolved to walk back and photograph it properly later. For the moment, I washed out the taste of roast beehive with a sticky rice and mango desert from a cafe. And that was delicious. I did walk back to the Patuxay, and photographed it from a few different angles. But the "excellent view over the city" looked like it probably wasn't as good as the view from my hotel room, so I gave that a miss.

I was soaked in sweat after my walk, so I showered and changed at the hotel, and relaxed a bit while waiting for it to be time for dinner. I hadn't really had any specifically Lao meal yet, so it was time to fix that. I went to a very nice little restaurant and got some Laap fish and sticky rice. Incredibly, I've never had ordinary sticky rice before. It came in a little bamboo cylinder. I really like it, it's fun. I didn't use my fingers like you're supposed to, though. The fish was nice too.

I went back to the night market to buy some more snacks, and bought a couple of miscellaneous fried things. I also got a sort of banana pancake sold from little handcarts around here. Making them seems a very convoluted process, involving throwing the dough around to make a disc, like a pizza. It was OK, hot and crispy, but basically just hot pancake and banana. Rather hard to eat with the little toothpick they give you, too.

Finally, I went to a pub and had a beer, because there was a couple of guitarists crooning out miscellaneous Asian pop songs. I thus finally fulfilled my lifelong ambition since a week ago of seeing a bad south-east-asian cover band live in a bar. Reach for the stars!

Nong Khai and Vientiane Index Leaving Vientiane