Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We departed from the new low cost terminal, KLIA 2. There’s ONLY one direct flight from Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane – by Air Asia, which will take roughly 2 and a half hour.
We arrived at Vientiane around 10 am local time. The Airport – Wattay International Airport is located around 5km away from the town center. You can take a cab for USD 7 from the airport. The rate is fixed but you can choose to take a normal cab or jumbo taxi if you travel in a bigger group (cost more – USD 8).
In Malaysia, there’s no Laos Currency for exchange. Hence you need to change USD to convert to Kip (Laos Currency) upon your arrival. Do take note that it is very hard to change Ringgit Malaysia to Kip in Laos as majority of the banks and currency exchange shops don’t accept RM. (There were some fellow Malaysians that took the same flight with us tried to change his RM to Kip as they didn’t bring any USD along.) Unlike our airports in Malaysia that often offer unfavourable exchange rate, you can get quite a good rate at Wattay International Airport. So do consider to change your USD to Kip there. The local prefer Kip than the USD and often give a better bargain in their local currency! However, if you do want to look around for better rate, the town got plenty of exchange rate shops. (My experience: the rate is more or less the same as the airport.) The rate should be USD 1 for around 8000 Kip (July/Aug 2014). Another tips, if you planning to travel to other parts of Laos from Vientiane, DO change your Kip at Vientiane as it offer the best rate in Laos!
Accommodation – we stayed at Moonlight Champa, which is co-owned by a Malaysian during our visit to Vientiane. It is voted as one of the best guesthouse by tripadvisor. I think I don’t need to further elaborate how good is the place. It has a good location (opposite Settha Palace – one of the most luxurious hotel at Vientiane) and nearby to all the major attractions of Vientiane (can be visit by foot). Staffs are super helpful and bicycles are provided for free to explore the charming capital. You can arrange your transportation to other part of Laos from the guesthouse. Staffs will be more than willing to help you out on that -> Hassle free! If you do consider of staying here, you may want to contact the hotel directly for a more favourable rate. (Laos Banana taste so good and is free to take at the common sitting area!)
Technically we still have a full half day to explore the capital. After check in, we went to have “Brunch” at Veena Cafe, recommended by the guesthouse and just one block away from the guesthouse. Food was ok. Before the travel, I read from online that Laos Coffee is a MUST. Well I took my first try on it at Veena Cafe and to be honest I don’t quite like it (Not just at Veena but just the general Laos Coffee). I still prefer Vietnamese Coffee which is stronger (I generally like stronger coffee). Laotian Coffee is bitter at first taste and doesn’t have the strong after taste. Do note that some of the Laotian Coffee can be a little bit sourish as they mixed with Tamarind (told by one coffee seller at Luang Prabang). Anyway Laos is known to produce one of the best coffee beans in this region and do try it at your personal discretion.
We took the bicycles from the guesthouse and started our exploration around Vientiane. First stop, That Dam also known as the Black Stupa, which Laotian believed that it is inhabited by a seven headed naga who protect the town. Nothing much to do here except photos taking. Generally when you travel by yourself around Laos, you will notice that there’s no explanation (those visitor’s information board that explain what is that) on the places of attractions. I guess that’s the downside of not following a guided tour. So ya, do read online before you go to the “Attractions”.
Then we cycled to the Patuxai (The Gate of Triumph), which is like a replica of the Arc de Triomphe of Paris. Laos was under the French Colonization in the past. This is one of the many remaining of a strong influence from the colonization. The interior decorations of the Arc is very impressive considering that the Patuxai is actually never complete. The place is free but to go up to the top you need to pay an entrance fee of 3,000 kip (around RM1), which you can have a good view of the city.
Quite a distance from the Patuxai (around 2km, 10-15 minutes cycling) is Pha That Luang (The Great Stupa), which is a gold covered large Buddhist Stupa. That Luang is also the national symbol of Laos (something like our Twin Towers that appear everywhere when Malaysia is being introduced). Entrance to That Luang is 5,000 kip (around RM2). Next to That Luang there is a temple with a Giant Sleeping Buddha which is very photogenic. The photo turn out be very nice there (unedited but look edited).
We went back to the guesthouse and took a tuk tuk to the infamous Buddha Park (Wat Xieng Khuan) that located at Xieng Khuan, around 25 km from Vientiane. You can opt to take the local bus as well which is cheaper but it will take longer time to reach. Due to time constraint, we hired a tuk tuk for 150,000 Kip (around RM60) which bring us to Buddha Park, wait for us, and send us back to Vientiane. Guesthouse told us don’t pay anything more than 160,000 kip. I’m not sure whether we got a good bargain or not as I read from online sources that mentioned don’t pay anything more than 80,000 kip for a round trip. Next I want to remind you that the journey is very challenging! The last part of the road before reaching the Buddha Park can be worse than a roller coaster ride as the road is SO bumpy! A lot of people said that the park is not worth to visit as there’s a similar yet bigger park just across the river at the neighbouring Thailand – Nong Khai, which also build by the same person (Xieng Khuan is at the bordering of Laos and Thailand and connected by the friendship bridge). Well for me it is eye opening and worth visiting as I never been to the Nong Khai Buddha Park and the bizarre sculptures were really fascinating. Entrance fee is 5,000 kip (RM2) and additional 3,000 kip (RM1) is charged if you bringing in your camera!
We came back to Vientiane town during evening and we went to the Mekong Riverfront to watch the sunset. Well the sunset is not so impressive if compare to the Riverfront itself. Many activities are conducted there – The city folks do their evening jogging there; teenage boys riding bicycles showing different tricks to impress the girls; people walking theirs dogs; couples dating; and even a public aerobics class!
The walk down along the Riverfront really do change my perception (probably all the tourists also) towards the country. No single beggar that I encountered at Vientiane (as well as my whole trip at Laos)! And it is very clean – no littering around. A country that known to be one of the poorest in the world, yet the people are far more civilize than some of the developed and developing countries. With an average annual income of less than USD 1,000, yet the people are generally genuinely happy and content with what they have.
We spent our first night at Vientiane and returned to Vientiane on the last day of our 8 days trip. During the last day, we continued with the places that we missed out on the first day – the Talat Sao Morning Market and COPE Visitor Centre. You can find basically anything from the Talat Sao Morning Market, ranging from souvenirs, fruits to electronics goods. Good place to shop for your souvenirs.
COPE Visitor Centre, a place worth to visit if you are at Vientiane. It is located further down from the Talat Sao and on the way to Buddha Park. If you do take the tuk tuk to Buddha Park, do ask the tuk tuk driver to stop you at COPE. We missed to arrange such way as we don’t know the location of COPE. We cycled from Talat Sao to COPE which is quite dangerous as the road is narrow and it took us around 15 minutes. COPE is a non profit organization that provide UXO survivors the tool to move on with their life, namely by the way of prosthetic and orthotic devices. The centre provide a very good insight of the UXO and its impact to Laos. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world that innocently involve in the US-Vietnam War, or most widely known as the Secret War. The effect of UXO still ongoing until this day, especially to the children. Many efforts had been taken and many still ongoing on the clearing of UXO at the beautiful land of Laos. Hopefully one day the land will be free from bombs.
Many of my family and friends that heard that I was going to Laos before my departure date often asked me one question – “Is it safe?”. YES IT IS! The only thing is the street lights is not as common as our countries. Hence it is dark at night. But one will rarely encounter snatch theft and other types of social crimes at Laos. The country is in the verge of breaking out to be the next tourist destination. I hope such environment will be preserved and not to turn to another commercial big city like its neighbouring Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh.