Drowsy days in a quiet capital

Drowsy days in a quiet capital

For a capital city, well, it’s a bit crap really. It may well be the largest city of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic but, when you’ve got a population on a par with Bankstown and you’ve barely ever been independent, what you end up with is Vientiane.

But in many ways Vientiane is all the better for that. It has no skyscrapers, barely a traffic light and it’s full of people who seem genuinely surprised you bothered to come at all.

Once upon a time Laos, known as the Land of a Million Elephants (or the Land of a Million Irrelevants, to the French, who were much more excited by their other Indochinese colonies), stretched deep into present-day Thailand, Cambodia and Burma.

Vientiane was at the centre of it all. Then it got invaded, over and over again.

So much so that the Thais pushed the border right up to the Mekong River upon which the city resides.

This means when you have your creamy coconut curry and sticky rice at a riverside restaurant you can gaze out over the moonlit waters at Thais also eating creamy coconut curry and sticky rice.

You can also see all the big surveillance towers the Thais no doubt use to listen in on their red-flag-waving little neighbour.

Vientiane is at once elegant and decrepit. Huge holes in the road lead up to grand temples, like the Pha That Luang, seemingly dipped in gold leaf. Meanwhile, open sewers pass by fine French restaurants where a four-course meal and a chilled white will set you back all of $14.

Colonial influences abound, from the French villas lining the streets to the street hawkers selling, not noodles, but baguettes filled with Laughing Cow cheese.

By far the city’s most imposing landmark is the Putaxie, a giant Arc de Triomphe-type affair meant to be a visual representation of the nation’s pride.

Allegedly, it was built with funds the Americans had donated for a new airport -“ hence its nickname the vertical runway.

Even the bronze plaque on the side of the arch can’t quite muster up the required enthusiasm, calling it a monster of concrete.

But from its roof the views of this green city are impressive.

Just out of the city is the mysterious Buddha Park, a final resting place for hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist statues ripped from their temples and now jostling for space in an idyllic garden.

Or how about a whole afternoon of saunas and herbal massages in a rainforest temple?

Homosexuality is illegal in Laos and gay bars are thin on the ground.

But like everything in Laos there is a certain laissez-faire attitude amongst the locals.

Usually the gay boys and girls can be found in one of the clubs dotted around the city. Be warned, though, even the latest club doesn’t stay open long after midnight.

D-Tech is a favourite nightspot. Tucked around the back of Laos’s poshest hotel, the Novotel, it’s packed with locals drinking whisky and Coke from communal buckets while listening to a mixture of Thai pop and American hip-hop.

Dancing, however, will make you look like a tourist -“ chatting and posing are considered sensible nightclub activities.

The capital is a good jumping-off point to explore the rest of this beautiful and relaxed country. Catch a coach up to the UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang and then take a two-day long boat up the mighty Mekong to northern Thailand.

If Tokyo tickles your taste buds and you have penchant for Paris, Vientiane might leave you cold. For a bit of old-world charm and third-world infrastructure, however, it can’t be beaten.

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