Our journey starts in Chiang Mai with a 12-hour overnight bus, a shuttle across the kilometre-long Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, and a somewhat sketchy land border crossing. (Travelling from Phuket to Vientiane, however, is a much easier ordeal, namely two short flights that transit in Bangkok.)
As we take a songthaew from the border to our hotel in the city centre, we notice street signs bearing “rue” and “boulevard”, a grid of carefully designed roads that run perfectly parallel to the Mekong River, and colonial buildings with shuttered windows and Parisian-style balconies – all hangovers from the French occupation of the city from the late 19th Century until 1975. The city is small too, perhaps the smallest capital in Southeast Asia, with a population of only 800,000.
Our first stop is a cooking class run by a Madam Phasouk, an impossibly petite, sweet Vientiane native who schools us in the art of Laotian cuisine from the comfort of her living room. We whip up a green papaya salad, a fiery mushroom larb and a hearty rice noodle soup, dishes ubiquitous on menus across Thailand but which are actually Laotian in origin.
Bamboo baskets of sticky rice accompany the dishes, and Madam Phasouk explains that it’s the glue that holds any Laotian meal together, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Lao people even jokingly refer to themselves as luk khao niaow, meaning “children of sticky rice”.
She laughs as we clumsily pound the papaya, tomato, herbs and spices with a wooden pestle but insists that, in local folklore, the amount of water we have left in the mortar at the end is indicative of our kind nature. We take her word for it, pay an incredibly reasonable 147,000 kip (500 baht) and head off to the riverfront to catch a stunning Mekong sunset, Thailand’s Nong Khai province a stone’s throw away on the opposite bank. At the height of dry season, stretches of the river dry out entirely and enterprising locals from both countries fill the sands with food stalls.
We quickly learn that this kind of resourcefulness is deeply rooted in the character of the Lao people and is often harnessed to help those in need. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is an excellent example of this. The charity is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos, and many of its patients are victims of previously unexploded cluster bombs from the Vietnam War.
Walking around the COPE Visitor Centre, we learn that the US dropped a planeload of ordnance every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years over Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
An unknown amount of cluster bombs remain and are detonated almost daily by unsuspecting rural villagers whilst lighting cooking fires, farming or searching for scrap metal. The centre tells the incredible stories of those still affected by the war some 40 years on, and how the charity helps pick up the pieces.
The Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre is similarly inspiring. What started in 1990 as a sewing group has blossomed into a boarding house and vocational centre that’s trained over 400 women with disabilities in everything from sewing to IT to English to business, empowering them to find fulfilling, long-term work.
We spend a worthwhile morning with the handicraft trainees, watching them weave local silk on old-fashioned looms and joining them in a workshop making earrings from recycled paper.
We take a leaf out of the locals’ book the following day and slow the pace. It’s often quipped that the “PDR” after the country’s name – meaning People’s Democratic Republic – also stands for “Please Don’t Rush”, and so we spend the day meandering mindfully between temples and monuments.
Each has a fascinating story to tell. There’s Wat Si Saket, one of the few temples to survive the 1828 Siamese invasion that saw much of the city looted and razed. There’s Ho Phra Keo which housed the Emerald Buddha until it was seized by the Siamese in 1767. And then there’s the weathered, mossy stupa known as That Dam which is regarded as the city’s guardian spirit, inhabited by a seven-headed naga that protected the city from yet another Siamese invasion in 1827.
While many landmarks illustrate Laos’ chequered past with Thailand, the Patuxai in the heart of Vientiane tells the story of the city’s struggle with France and those who fought for independence. The war monument resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and the wide-lane roads surrounding it are reminiscent of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Although designed and built by Lao people, it seems the country is keen to play down the Patuxai. A visitor’s sign brashly describes it as an unimpressive “monster of concrete”.
Our last stop is Wat Sok Pa Luang, a temple set in peaceful, green grounds on the fringes of the city where, on Saturday afternoons, the novice monks welcome visitors to ask them questions before leading an hour-long guided meditation. This might all sound a bit hippy dippy, and while we were sat in lotus asking earnestly about monkhood to start with, it wasn’t long before we were all laughing and offering the young monk tickets to Stamford Bridge should he ever make it to London.
It’s true that Vientiane doesn’t boast a great amount of attractions. There are no viewpoints, no amusement parks and nothing close to Bangla Road. But that’s all part of its charm. Vientiane lets you catch your breath. And a chat with a monk will have you realise you don’t need that much anyway.
Photos by Lucy Richards Photography