Vientiane is the capital of Laos, one of the last communist countries. But what is it like to be in a communist city, and where is Laos anyway?!
Laos (pronounced Lao) is in Southeast Asia between Vietnam and Thailand (Vietnam is on the Pacific Ocean). The country has been through a tumultuous past. At the turn of the last century, it was under French rule. Then from 1964 to 1973, the US dropped 2 million tons of bombs (280 million individual bombs) on the country for various reasons during the Vietnamese War, making Laos the most bombed country per capita in the world. As such, I wasn’t sure what the opinion of the Laotians would be toward me.
Vientiane took over from Luang Prabang as the capital of Laos in 1975. Previously, it had been a capital during the century-long French rule. Before that, it had been burned to the ground by Siamese (Thai) armies. So, just like the country, the city has had quite a colorful history. I’ve visited Vientiane twice as part of two separate week-long trips through Laos for Thai visa purposes. The first time, I’m not ashamed to say that I actually got choked up at seeing such a unique culture there.
Personally, while I haven’t been to China, North Korea or Cuba, I have a pretty good idea of the state of those countries and what the quality of life is like with a communist government. To be honest, I have no idea how Laos fits in the same category. While friends of mine from Cuba and China didn’t even know the word “religion,” in Laos you constantly see the monks walking down the street and temples are everywhere. The alms ceremony at the break of dawn where the monks get their daily food goes back centuries (although Luang Prabang is the main city to witness this).
One of the most popular attractions in Vientiane is Buddha Park. This is an area near the Friendship Bridge to Thailand that has over sixty statues of Buddha and other various deities on display. There is also a thing (for lack of a better word) you can enter. It looks like a giant clay ball. Inside are several floors with dozens of smaller statues, some of which are quite gruesome. You can also get on the roof of the ball for an aerial view of the park.
There have been a ton of renovations at the park since the first time I visited, including a large dining area by the river, paved paths and a nearly-completed entrance building. The price also increased fourfold…up to a paltry 20,000 Laotian kip ($2.50). Bring your own water, as the bottles there are also four times as much as in town.
The other big attraction is Patuxai, Vientiane’s version of the Arc de Triomphe. Ironically, it symbolizes Laos’ independence from France. You can climb to the top and get some decent views of the city, or head north of the arch and get some photos of it rising up above the reflection pond.
Less than a hundred years ago, not even half the population of Vientiane was Laotian. Back then, more than half were Vietnamese. Now it seems that half are Western expats taking advantage of Laos’ ridiculously cheap standard of living. As such, there are dozens of Western restaurants scattered across town to balance out the local food, which itself isn’t anything to write home about.
From what I’ve seen of Vientiane, it’s a very relaxed, clean and cheap city. I loved walking along the river at sunset and seeing all the locals participating in huge exercise classes. I was able to get a delicious salmon and cream cheese bagel at the Joma Bakery; something I’ve been craving in Thailand. The Internet is horrible so it’s not really the best place for a digital nomad, but otherwise it’s a fascinating city and I can’t wait for my third visit there.