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VIENTIANE CAPITAL

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Vientiane shares little in the way of common ground with its neighbouring capitals such as Hanoi or Bangkok. Gleaming skyscrapers, droves of rickshaws and legions of street vendors are few and far between in 'Southeast Asia’s biggest village'.
 
With a population of just over half a million, Vientiane is the centre of Laos culture, commerce and administration and is considered as being mad busy in comparison with the other Laotian urban conglomerations. Located on the banks of the Mekong River, Vientiane, like many Southeast Asian cities, is a place of contrast.
 
Rice and vegetable fields are well hidden behind tree-lined pathways, where French-style buildings stand next to Buddhist monasteries and monuments, each telling a story of the country's rich, cultural and somewhat troubled past. Less than 5% of the soil is farmable yet 80% of the population works in agriculture and this pretty much sums up the employment-and-class balance within the country. Rebuilt by the French after the Siamese army left it in virtual ruins in 1828, the city does not feature French-style architecture as prominently as say Saigon or Phnom Penh. But the local penchant for producing stomach-filling baguettes and fragrant coffee clearly shows that the influence of the French still lingers on.
 
The central boulevard is reminiscent of the Champ Elysees, another telling sign of the city's French heritage. Vientiane is relatively small so moving around can de done with ease. Accessing sights such as Wat Sisaket, That Luang and Buddha Park, can be done by hiring a song-teow, a pushbike or even going on foot. As for dining out; fringing the Mekong River there are an abundance of inexpensive food choices with everything from Indian, Thai, French, and Mediterranean readily available.
 
Here, plentiful accommodation along with a leisurely nightlife adds up to a pleasant location to visit and enjoy. When in Laos, do as the Laos do and the slow the pace right down. A common joke is that acronym PDF (Peoples Democratic Republic) actually stands for ‘Please Slow Down’. A word of warning to the anally punctual, the country is decidedly laid back and some visitors may mistake this for a lack of ambition or impolitesse but regardless, it's best not to expect things to run like clockwork.
WEATHER
Located in South East Asia in the tropics, Laos has a tropical monsson climate, with mostly hot and humid weather year round with average temperatures ranging between 79°F and 86° F during the day throughout much of the year. It can be somewhat cooler at night. Even on the coldest days you’re likely to want to leave the jacket at home.
 
The rainy season is from May through October, and this is when it is extremely warm and sticky. Be sure to bring an umbrella, but you can still expect the sun to peak out a bit during this time as well. Things dry out in November and from the late fall to late winter in February it does cool down a bit in Vientiane. The heat picks up for March and April, but this time of year is mostly dry.
 
Rainfall does vary by regions in Laos, and Vientiane is actually one of the areas that get a bit more rain. As it is in the Mekong, the year round temperatures are in the low to upper 80s or higher during the day and only the low 70s at night. In the cool season from November to February things can be a bit on the cooler side, but even in January it is hard to know its winter in Vientiane.
HOW TO GET THERE ?
There are basically two ways to get to Vientiane from outside of Laos. One is by direct flight from nearby countries, the other is to cross the Friendship Bridge from Thailand. At some point in the future, there may be a train from Thailand into Vientiane, as a result of an agreement between Thailand, Laos and French in 2005. Thailand already has tracks laid up to the Friendship Bridge, so there's just the 28 kilometers or so to be laid between the bridge and downtown Vientiane. Currently, there is no train service in Laos at all.
 
Getting to Vientiane by Air
Vientiane's Wattay International Airport (symbol: VTE) is about six kilometers west of the city center. The airport is served by only a small group of airlines, which includes China Eastern, EVA, Lao Aviation, Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines. Note there is a departure tax of US$10 on international flights.
 
Crossing the Friendship Bridge
The Friendship Bridge, linking Thailand and Laos, was opened in 1994 and was the first bridge across the Mekong River which separates the two countries for much of their common border. The bridge crosses between the city of Nong Khai in Thailand and the eastern edge of Vientiane.
 
You can get to Nong Khai by air via Udorn Thani or train from Bangkok. Udorn Thani's international airport is serviced by Thai Airways as well as the low cost carriers Nok Air and Air Asia. With the low cost air options, it can be much cheaper to get to Vientiane via Udorn Thani, rather than taking a direct flight, although a bit more time consuming.
 
On landing at Udorn Thani, a Thai Airways van service can take you directly to the Friendship Bridge for 150 Baht (6.62 USD). The counter is just outside of baggage claim and is well marked. The van will take you directly to the Thai immigration checkpoint, taking about one hour. After passing through Thai immigration, there's a bus that will take you across the bridge for 15 Baht (0.50 USD). You will then need to go through Lao immigration on the other side. Visa on arrival services are available here. Once you get through passport control, there are plenty of touts on the Lao side to sell you taxi rides into Vientiane. A taxi will run about 250 Baht (8.28 USD - the taxis generally prefer Baht to Kip). A shared van will cost less. The trip into Vientiane should take less than 30 minutes.
 
If you're traveling with more than a simple carry-on bag, you may want to contact a tour operator in Bangkok or Nong Khai to arrange "door to door" service from Udon Thani to Vientiane.
WHAT TO SEE ?
That Luang
A symbol of Laos’s nationhood and the country's most sacred Buddhist monument, That Luang was built in the 16th century under the rule of King Setthathirat. A symbol of the main stupa appears on the country's national seal.
 
After being destroyed by the Thai invasion in the 19th century, the monument was later restored to its original design, with inclusion of many references to Lao culture and identity, hence its status as a symbol of the nation. Each level features different architectural designs with encoded Buddhist doctrine.
 
Wat Sisaket
The only temple in Vientiane to survive the sacking of the city by the Siamese in 1828, Wat Sisaket is the oldest and considered by many to be the most interesting of the Laotian temples.
 
The interior walls of Ho Trai and the main hall feature hundreds of little niches and shelves containing a total of 6,840 Buddha images and Buddhist inscriptions from the 18th century.
 
Over 300 hundred Buddha images varying in size and material reside on the shelves, amongst the silver and ceramic Buddhist images, most of which are from 16th -19th century Vientiane.
 
Wat Ho Phakeo
This temple was built in 1565 as a royal chapel and repository for the celebrated statue of the Emerald Buddha, which the Laotians had seized from Northern Thailand in 1551. The statue remained in the temple until 1778, when the Thais invaded and recaptured it, taking it to Bangkok. The temple was destroyed in 1828-1829 during the Thai sacking of Vientiane; rebuilt in 1936; and restored again in 1993. Inspired by a 19th century Bangkok temple style, it is renowned throughout Southeast Asia for its intrinsic value to Buddhist art.
 
Patuxai
Patuxai (literally Victory Gate or Gate of Triumph), formerly the Anousavary or Anousavari Monument, is situated in the centre of Vientiane. Built between 1962 and 1968, the Laotians built it as a mark of respect for all those who fought in the struggle for independence from the French.
 
Ironically, the monument bears a slight resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe, although the attention to detail and intricate design is typically Laotian, boasting four rather than two archways. The view from the top is spectacular. Built with cement that was purchased from America, with the intention of constructing a new airport, the locals sometimes refer to the monument as the 'vertical runway'.
 
That Dam
Known as the ‘Black Stupa', many locals believe this mythological structure was once inhabited by a seven-headed dragon (now dormant) that stood to protect the city from the threat of the Siamese. Another tale that does the rounds says that the gold that once graced the surface was taken when the Siamese army ransacked Vientiane back in 1828. Situated in the centre of the city, just past the US embassy, you will find one of Laos' oldest temples.
 
Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan)
24km south of Vientiane, Buddha Park is in a field near the Mekong River. The park, as its name would suggest, is littered with religious sculptures and was built in 1958 by the philosopher Bunleua Sulilat who famously combined Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, mythology and iconography.
 
The featured gods range from Vishnu to Arjuna and many in between, all allegedly crafted by unskilled artists who followed the explicit directions of Sulilat. The pumpkin-shaped monument has three levels, each representing heaven, hell and earth.
 
Beyond these the roof area has a superb panoramic view of the surrounding park and river.
 
Ban Hom
Just 16 kilometers outside of Vientiane situated on the banks of the Mekong is the agricultural city of Ban Hom. A day trip might involve taking a wander around the preserved temples before visiting a primary school or watching a weaving demonstration, where the process of fabric making is laid bare. This day is really about getting to grips with authentic Laos culture, with everything from school presentations to observing traditional farming and fishing methods on the itinerary.
 
Laos National Cultural Hall
Built by the Chinese in the 1990’s, as a gift to the Laos people, the building is not the most attractive Vientiane has known. Occasionally French cinema and Lao classical dance events are held here within the hall, although it is difficult to access information to find out exactly when. Those interested should keep an eye on the Vientiane Times.
 
Laos National Museum 
This French colonial building, formerly a government office block, is now used to document the struggles and the eventual overthrowing of the French and the subsequent implementation of the communist structure. The Museum Revolution is a two-storey colonial mansion, separated into different sections; each relevant to the country's history. Departments include culture, archaeology, history and politics, with the latter two making up the majority of the display. This is an interesting way to get better acquainted with the history of Laos through the eyes of the country and visitors should keep in mind that the English translations are not that detailed but the photographs and displays are well put together and insightful all the same.
 
Hor Phakeo
This building, originally built in 1565 as a personal place of worship for King Sayasetthathirath, housed the Emerald Buddha (Pha Keo) before it was taken to Bangkok by the Siamese in the 19th century. Today it is a museum, which holds one of the most extensive collections of Buddhist artifacts in the country. 
Open daily: 08.00-12.00 / 13.00-16.00
SHOPPING
Laos is an excellent destination for those interested in picking up elaborate handicrafts and Vientiane is the best place to do so. Hill tribe silk, arts, crafts, home-furnishings, jewelry and couture-quality textiles are all readily available within the city.
 
There are quite a few markets taking place around Vientiane where fresh produce, as well as crafts and ornaments, can be picked up. The city’s main shopping streets are Samsenthai and Setthathirat, around the Nam Phu Fountain area and the Morning Market, where you can find the best deals on local silks.
 
Visitors should note that any antique items that have been purchased in another country must be declared at customs upon arrival in Laos.
 
Jewellery
The majority of jewelry shops are situated along Samsenthai Street and trade primarily in silver and gold, which can be bought cheaper than in neighbouring Thailand. Laos gold is 99.99% pure and is sold at a set price per gram. Upstairs in the Morning Market is great place to pick up some chunky, hill-tribe statement pieces that you won't see on anyone else back home. Bari Gems and Jewelry are the foremost jewelers in Vientiane, established in 1968. You can get various gemstones, gold and silver ornaments and jewels at the shops based on Samsenthai. Saigon Bijoux is another good choice, based in the same area, and the business also deals in repairs. Please note that some silver and copper items exported from Laos are subject to tax according to weight.

Art, Crafts and Antiques
Samsenthai, Panggkam and Setthathirat streets are the places to shop for the most varied choice and prices for crafts, antiques and art. Here, hill-tribe and Thai Tribal crafts are plentiful. Be sure to check out Kanchana Boutique on Chanta Khumman Street where there's an extensive range of Laos silk and crafts. The owner of T’Shop Lai Galerie is dedicated to providing fair trade products for those interested in both modern and traditional art in a range of media, furniture and interesting handicrafts.

Textiles
The hub of textile dealers in downtown Vientiane is Nokeo Khumman Street. Sandra Yuck offers a unique shopping experience in Vientiane; her private studio, Caruso, on Fa Ngum Road, carries a line of ebony wooden boxes, trays, and accessories, as well as unique Laos bedspreads and other home furnishings. The famous American weaver and founder of Laos Textiles, Carol Cassidy, also has her office in the area.
Cassidy and her team are renowned for producing intricate wall hangings, scarves and sinhs – traditional Laos sarongs. Both Cassidy and Yuck are considered pivotal in the revival of this ancient art form and remain true to the pain-staking craftsmanship demanded during production, making each purchase all the more unique (and costly).

Markets
The Morning Market is considered the hub of local commerce, where every corner turned promises a new surprise. The main bus station, post office, government offices and banks are located near by, making it in actual fact the true center of Vientiane. A shopper’s paradise, the market is Laos interpretation of Western mall culture, everything from freshly slaughtered pigs to handicrafts from provinces around the country. Talat Khua Din is just east of the Morning Market and offers everything from tobacco to flowers. North of the town centre in Ban Thong Khan Kham is Talat Thong Khan Kham, an all day market and one of the biggest in Vientiane selling a vast amount of crafts and fresh produce.
 

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