May 10, 2009
Take it slow with a retreat to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where old-world charm still enthrals its many visitors
By Deepika Shetty
IN VIENTIANE WITH...
Neu Wee Teck
Length of stay: 1 1/2 years
With rows of traditional shophouses, crumbling French mansions and streets lined with bougainvilleas, Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, is a study in old-world charm, complemented by friendly people and a relaxed pace of life.
It is easy to find your way around the city where the main tourist attractions are in and around Nam Phu, the Mekong riverside and Setthariat and Samsenthai streets. From the Buddha Park to the morning market to the rich cuisine, the city has a lot to offer.
Meeting shopkeepers who greet you with a 'sabaidee' (hello) and an ever ready smile, you almost feel like you never quite left home, says Mr Neu Wee Teck, who is a volunteer with the Singapore International Foundation. He teaches English to government officials in Vientiane.
The best way to get around the place is...
On foot. It is not a very big city. Take a stroll early in the morning before 7am or in the evening at around 5pm. Nothing beats the sight of watching the sun set against the picturesque Mekong River.
The best time to visit the place is...
During the cool season from mid-October to mid-January, when the temperature ranges from 8 to 25 deg C. Also, the famous dragon boat festival and the That Luang, the biggest Buddhist event in Laos, are held during this period. Avoid visiting from mid-February to May, when it gets really hot. The temperature can go up to 40 deg C.
Which places really excite you?
The quadrangle formed by the famed Khop Chai Der restaurant in Setthathirat Road, City Centre, Chinatown in Sihom and the Mekong. This is an amazingly vibrant part of the city. You can catch everything from concerts to traditional dances here. You will also find many small art galleries that sell the work of local artists. Many of these galleries are run by the artists themselves.
Must one know the language to get around?
Many Laotians have a basic knowledge of English but it would be useful to learn some basic phrases in Lao.
Where does one start exploring the city?
From the Nam Phou fountain, stroll down towards Chinatown. Along the way, you will come across many ancient temples, some of which are nearly 200 years old.
Your favourite cultural stop is...
Pha That Luang, the national symbol of Laos, dating back more than 500 years. The temple is one of the top sights in Vientiane, though parts of it are being renovated today.
A short walk away is the Patuxay. Often called Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe, this was built in 1968 and dedicated to those who fought in the war of independence against the French. You can get to the top and see the whole city. No building is taller than the six-storey Patuxay in Vientiane.
My favourite spot to catch the sun set on the Mekong is at Moon The Night restaurant (143 10 Khemkhong Street Khounta, tel +856-2121-7073).
One cannot leave without visiting...
Vang Vieng in Vientiane province. It is a bumpy three-hour bus ride from the city to get there, but it is absolutely worth the journey. Nestled between limestone mountains with the Nam Song river flowing through it, it is a naturally beautiful place.
While you are here, you have to try tubing, where you sit on an inner tube of a lorry tyre and float down the narrow, muddy Nam Song river.
In Chang Cave, which is about a 15-minute walk from Vang Vieng central, you will see many interesting limestone structures. With a small stream that flows from the mountains, this is the perfect stop for a picnic lunch.
You can stay at the Elephant Crossing Hotel (www.theelephantcrossinghotel.com) which faces the river and mountains. If you are backpacking, try Pan's Place (e-mail Pan@Pan'sPlace.Net, tel: +856-2351-1484), a cosy little guesthouse.
Any key festivals to work into one's travel plans?
Pi Mai Lao, the Lao New Year, is a three-day celebration held in mid-April. It is one of the hottest periods of the year but if you can take the heat, you will enjoy the auspicious water-splashing tradition during this festival. It is similar to the Songkran in Thailand.
Another big celebration is the Dragon Boat Festival held in October. It is a week-long celebration and the road by the Mekong is closed during this time. Imagine rush hour at a downtown MRT station in Singapore and multiply the crowds by three - that is how crowded this festival gets.
The biggest festival of all is the Boun That Luang which celebrates the end of the rainy retreat for Buddhist monks. Laotians walk and dance, usually carrying some form of offerings, from their village to That Luang, the national temple.
A huge carnival is organised at the open field outside the temple. The weather is pleasant, making for a nice evening outing. Boun That Luang lasts a week in November.
The best bargains and the richest variety of products can be found at...
Talat Sao, the morning market in Lane Xang Avenue. From the famous Laos silk to coffee and organic tea from the Bolaven Plateau, all the local specialities are available here. You can spend anything from US$1 (S$1.46) to US$1,000 on keychains, gems and silks. Do not forget to bargain. Tourists spend much time trawling through the countless little stores found in the maze-like alleys.
Unfortunately, this place is currently being redeveloped and the new Talat Sao mall may end up looking like a regular shopping centre. You should visit it before it loses its local flavour.
Do not leave the place without trying...
The cheese cake at Joma Bakery (Setthathirat Road, city centre, tel: +856-2121-5265). All my Singaporean friends say this is the best cheesecake they have had. Also try the simple and delicious papaya salad, Tam Mak Hung. Most shops sell this as an appetiser.
The best breakfast is...
At Joma Bakery. It serves very good baked bread and breakfast sets.
The best brunch is at...
Namphou Cafe (opposite Lao Plaza Hotel, tel +856-2121-8940) which has really delicious pho, a type of soupy rice noodles that is served with vegetables.
The best lunch is at....
Kua Lao Restaurant (141 Samsenthai Road, tel: +856-2121-5777, www.kualao.laopdr.com). Serving authentic Lao food from all over the country, it is the best introduction to the country's cuisine.
The best dinner is at...
Mak Phet Restaurant (behind Wat Ong Teu, parallel to Setthathirat Road, tel: +856-212-60587) is my favourite restaurant in Laos.
It is run by former delinquents and their teachers. The main dishes are good but the desserts literally take the cake. Do not miss their pumpkin cake with coconut shreds and caramelised pineapple served with coconut ice cream.
What is the one must-try drink in town?
Beer Lao, the ubiquitous beverage at every celebration and dinner.
Is there a Clarke Quay equivalent?
No. But you can find many restaurants by the Mekong that double as pubs at night.
Any other sites that would appeal to Singaporeans?
Luang Prabang, Laos' former capital by the Mekong. Framed by mountains, the town is home to dozens of Buddhist temples and saffron-clad monks. Listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, it is one of few places in Laos that cater to both budget and luxury travellers. It is an incredible mix of mountains, Mekong flood plains, airy plateaus, sweltering jungles and fading French colonial towns.