Vientiane is probably the most laid back capital city in Southeast Asia. This is maybe because Vientiane is capital of Southeast Asia’s quietest country, the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao, or the Lao PDR. It’s so laid back there’s a standing joke that this should stand for “please slow down”.
If Bangkok is a megalopolis, Saigon a big city, and Phnom Penh a town, then Vientiane is more like a village. Nothing here seems to happen in a hurry, which is a nice change if you’ve spent time in places like Jakarta, not somewhere that has the best to offer the visitor to Southeast Asia – unless you like big, crowded and polluted cities that are stinking hot.
The name of the country is as mispronounced as the capital is misspelled; “Lay-os” or “Louse” when it fact it’s neither. The early Dutch called Vientiane “Win-kyan”, later the French varied between; Vien-Chan, Vieng Chen or Vian Chan, with or without hyphens, and then the British, Wieng-Chan. It started out as two syllables and wound up being four, “Vi-en-ti-ane”, which depending on what you read means the “City Of Sandalwood” or the "City Of The Moon".
Vientiane once played second fiddle to Luang Prabang, the seat of royal government and capital of the mighty Lan Sang (or Lang Xang) Empire – the Kingdom of One Million Elephants under the White Parasol – which encompassed modern day Laos and some neighbouring countries too. On the tourist trail it probably still is in its shadows. The more cultured and genteel head to Lauang Prabang for its UNESCO heritage status, while the headbangers opt for Vang Vieng, where hard-partying, ignorant backpackers have been accused of ruining local culture.
In the 1520s, the capital was moved to Vientiane to escape the rampaging Burmese. In the 1670s, Gerritt von Wuystorff, an agent of the Dutch East Indies Company, travelled there. Back then he’d have seen Vientiane as one of the greatest walled cities in Southeast Asia. By the time the next Europeans arrived it had been sacked, abandoned by its inhabitants, and left to be reclaimed by the jungle. When the French arrived in the 1860s, looking for the Mekong’s origins, it was largely overgrown.
Vientiane stretches out along the northern banks of the Mekong River, at the point where “the River”, turns from running north to south, to run west to east. As someone noted it’s rare to find a capital located at the edge of the national territory, its city limit ‘coincident with the frontier of another country’. For Laos it was as if the tangible presence of their cultural cousins in Thailand was as assurance of their very survival. It almost didn’t work. Attacked by the Burmese, intimidated by Vietnam, Laos has been eyed cautiously by Thailand. The US, for its part, made Laos the most bombed country in the history of humankind and did so secretly. ‘Over the ‘route that did not exist, through a country that was not involved there raged a war that was not acknowledged.’ Now the Chinese are eying up its resources for exploitation and geographical position for routes of access elsewhere.
Most visitors arrive in Vientiane via the Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai on the Thai side of the Mekong border. Resident expats in Thailand make the “visa run”, periodic day trips from the Kingdom of Smiles around which an entire cottage industry has developed in order to renew their stay in Thailand, but they rarely linger. You can get a visa on arrival in Laos. At the other end of the Friendship Bridge in Laos you pay you collect your entry application form from window #1, pay your money, hand over your passport and the form at window#2, and minutes later collect your passport complete with visa at window #3. Laos is the country you bribe your way into - literally. At other border posts entry “fees” those being in addition to the actual visa are required, usually $1.
One of the local taxi drivers was keen to escort me through the process. He spoke quite good English and it being low season, there were few other foreigners about. He nodded and said a few words to all the Lao border officials; opened gates for me and bypassed every official. The fare to Vientiane was 300 baht he said. I thought that quite expensive but he explained Vientiane was 20kms. His car was brand new and air conditioned. I waited while he went to fetch it from an underground carpark near the border. Last time I’d gone in a tuk-tuk, things have improved.
On the road to town he pointed out the new US embassy. Like most US embassies I’ve seen, it’s imposing, over-the-top, and of a design completely unsympathetic to its surroundings. In Vientiane it’s all glass and chrome, like a cross between an advertising agency and an industrial bottling plant.
Speaking of bottling plants further along from the embassy is the Lao Brewery Company and the national tobacco factory; anaesthetics for the people, by the people. If anyone says communists can’t run businesses making quality products, think again. Lao Beer is so good the Thais banned its sale for years for fear it would ruin local breweries.
It was 10 years on since my first visit. Back then I thought the whole place was on holiday only to be told it’s always that quiet. I’d met a Dutchman and a French guy on the train. The French guy came from Parisian money and had completed an internship with Thai Airways. He brought his own drugs to Laos. The first night in town they’d gone on a pub crawl in a tuk-tuk and were drinking with the driver. In the early hours they all wound up in a game at a 10-pin bowling alley, much touted as a local attraction. The driver won.
Since then the capital, with a population under one million, has slowly developed with some costs and benefits. There’s more traffic and ATMs, and a few new embassy buildings, hotels and government offices. The city’s sewage works, after many years, seem to have been finally completed. There are construction sites with workers living among the scaffolding their washing strung out to dry in the afternoon sun. The city is not disfigured by many skyscrapers, as with so many Southeast Asian cities, it’s still very pedestrian friendly and can easily explored on foot or by bicycle.
The traffic in Vientiane lacks the sheer density and congestion of that in Bangkok, the frenzy of Saigon, and the chaos or motorised ballet depending on your view, of Phnom Penh. The pace is slow and traffic lights observed. There seem as many motorbikes and tuk-tuks as cars and SUVs, many with the logos of NGOs. The hotels are of good standard, the food great, and the centre of town with its tree lined avenues, still called Rue, has wide boulevards.
The French have left their mark. Laotian business women talk French to their husbands, Lao to the staff and English to their customers, switching seamlessly between all three. There are galleries and pricey craft shops, patisseries catering to backpackers and flashpackers and wandering dreadlocked Europeans in bare feet. That’s something people in Asia don’t understand about Europeans—if you’ve got money, why don’t you have any shoes? Or for that matter, wander about half dressed in shorts and singlets, which despite the beer logos, resemble underwear.
Vientiane has its share of expats, mainly Francophones, and the partners of foreign diplomats, Western NGO staff, and those in highly paid positions from intra-governmental organisations like the UN, the Asia Development Bank, and World Bank, idling away their days in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest country. Like modern day colonial masters; or as Cambodia’s prime minister refers to them, “overpaid tourists”, on the gravy train.
Vientiane is home of the Mekong River Commission (the MRC), which jointly manages the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the Mekong River. The Mekong countries are all members and staff usually only hired from member states. The one exception is China, which prefers to engage with states bilaterally; picking them off. It’s China’s massive economic growth which is most impacting the Mekong. To fuel their economy they need power, and coal is increasingly less popular. Once, the main obstacle to navigating the Mekong was the Falls of Khon on the Lao-Cambodia border. Now China wants hydro-electric dams staggered along the river, and what China wants in this part of the world, China normally gets. There are two dams so far with anotherplanned at Pak Beng in northern Laos.
It was low season and the Riverside Hotel included breakfast. There seemed to be Chinese and Japanese couples about. Their women had impossibly white skin, like porcelain, but walked about in under a burning sun in tropical heat with little in way of sun or clothing protection. The young guy on the front desk showed me my room, mainly so he could offer his services in acquiring me female company “anytime”.
French involvement in Laos goes back to the Mekong Exploration Commission (MEC); an expedition championed by the French navy to determine the navigability of the Mekong. They carried over five tons of equipment including goods for trade, gold for purchases and almost 1,000 litres of alcohol, largely wine and brandy, seemingly they would be drinking their way through the region. Instead after almost two years (1866-68) of malaria, dysentery and other ailments, they made it as for as Wunnan and the Red River, which unlike the Mekong can be fully traversed into China. The final course of the Mekong eluded them and they sailed down the Yangtze and back to Saigon carrying the bodies of their dead. They were described as the French Stanley and Livingstone, but in France efforts they went largely unnoticed. All up, in the words of one author, the MEC ‘left a legacy of controversy and generous scope for conjecture.’
Back in late April 1975 the creator of so-called “Gonzo” journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, chose the Lang Xang Hotel in Vientiane to chill-out after covering the fall of Saigon for Rolling Stone magazine. Back then the Lang Xang was “relatively grand and snooty”. He left a curious account of his stay at the hotel in an odd, short piece, "Checking into the Lane Xang", published in Generation of Swine, Gonzo Papers II.
In 2008, Roy Hamric revisited Vientiane in Thompson’s footsteps describing the city then as having the ‘frayed look of an eastern European city’ and the hotel ‘still has a massive lobby, a cavernous dining room, a beautiful English-style billiards room and an exotic disco with soft-eyed hostesses. While there was no written account of how Thompson filled his two weeks in Vientiane, Hamric envisaged; ‘bursts of manic writing, lots of Laotian marijuana, long stretches of sitting at an outdoor restaurant next to the Mekong River, probably some of the local snake moonshine, a few pipes of opium, probably long stretches of pondering the star-filled sky.’
Before the communist Pathet Lao took power in 1975, Vientiane was a dirt road township with a Wild West image. An infamous hangout was the White Rose Bar, a seedy, ramshackle bar on a muddy street in an unfashionable part of town. It was a kind of biker bar for pilots from Air America and other CIA maverick advisers, then part of US covert operations in Laos which stretched from 1953 until 1975. One writer noted looking back they were reminded of Warren Zevon’s lyrics, “Send lawyers, guns and money”; a bit like the Walkabout Bar in Phnom Penh. The second most famous bar in Vientiane back then was Madame Lulu’s, an attempt at a high class bordello, the locations of both are no the subject of some conjecture. From 1975 until 1989 under the ruling Pathet Lao, or ‘Land of the Lao’, Vientiane like Laos receded from view and dissuaded visitors.
Vientiane has a number of other attractions depending on your taste. There’s Buddha Park (also known as Xieng Khuan) located 25km outside town. At dusk the riverside is given over to the night market, dozens of stalls with lots of people viewing but not too many buying. It’s very relaxed. The Great Stupa (That Luang) where an annual oath of allegiance used to be sworn to the Laotian monarch, but no longer. After the communist takeover, the royals were sent for re-education in the valleys near Vietnam by the Pathet Lao, where they toiled and died. There’s Wat Ho Phra Keo that dates back to 1565; and the Lao National Museum, housed in an old colonial French building which exhibits amongst other things, dinosaur bones lying alongside pottery shards and Khmer sculptures.
On the wide Avenue Lane Xang is the Patuxai Victory Monument, a seven-story high monument that’s never been completed. For a small fee you can climb to the top which affords views across Vientiane. Two of the upper floors are dedicated to selling tourists souvenirs; but being Laos it’s very low key; no pressure to buy and sometimes if you want a purchase the vendors seem slightly disinterested. The roof provides a good vista of the cityscape, such as it is, and a breeze. Complete strangers ask to have their photo taken with me, which I declined citing camera shyness. Besides there are plenty of other tourists about.
The plaque on the Patuxai describes it as ‘More impressive from afar that it is up close’. Conversely, I’d say Vientiane is actually quite nice up close and personal, and well worth a trip. But there’s no need to rush, the locals like it that way.