Difference between revisions of "Vientiane"
Revision as of 17:13, 7 June 2007
Vientiane (ວຽງຈັນ Wieng Chan) is the capital of Laos.
Compared to the other hectic, bustling capitals in Southeast Asia, Vientiane's deliciously relaxing atmosphere makes it feel like the small town it is. After you're done the round of temples, the best thing to do here is wander down to one of the riverside beer gardens, kick back with a cold Beerlao - the Lao national beer - and watch the sun set over the Mekong.
Settled since at least 1000 AD, Vientiane became the capital of Lan Xang in 1545. Ransacked in 1828 by the Siamese, Vientiane sprung back in time to be again named the capital of the protectorate of Laos by the French, a position it kept under communist rule. Today Vientiane is the largest city in Laos, with an estimated population of 200,000 in the city itself and some 700,000 in Vientiane Prefecture.
Vientiane is stretched out on the eastern bank of the Mekong River. From shore inland, the main roads are Thanon Fa Ngum, Thanon Setthatilat and Thanon Samsenthai. The central district, Chantabuli, contains most of Vientiane's government offices, hotels and restaurants. Vientiane's widest boulevard, Thanon Lan Xang, leads from here to the northeast through Patuxai, the Victory Gate, towards Pha That Luang, the most important temple in Laos.
Vientiane's Wattay Airport is just to the west of the city. International services are quite limited, but there are fairly frequent flights from Bangkok and Hanoi. Most hotels offer a pickup service, or you can take a jumbo or taxi for US$6. (Rides to the airport should be cheaper.)
Visas are available on arrival at the airport, and the fee is US$30. Until recently these were only for 14 days, however, 30 day visas are now being issued on arrival. There is a US$10 departure tax for international flights.
From Bangkok and Singapore, many visitors choose to fly into Udon Thani in Thailand instead, and cross the border by bus, as this domestic flight is considerably cheaper than a direct international flight. There is a direct shuttle from the airport to the Thai border at Nong Khai, and there are also direct cross-border bus services from Udon Thani to Vientiane. This option takes about 1hr longer than a direct Bangkok to Vientiane flight.
Plans to connect Vientiane to the Thai railway network remain just plans, so for now the railhead remains at Nong Khai, on the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge.
The Friendship Bridge (Saphan Mittaphap) from Nong Khai, Thailand is the most common means of entry. The bridge cannot be crossed on foot, but there are frequent 20 baht shuttle buses just past Thai immigration. Bicycles can be carried on buses in the cargo compartment.
Direct buses to/from Nong Khai (30 baht) and Udon Thani (80 baht) arrive and depart from the Talat Sao bus terminal. These are cheap, comfortable, hassle-free and popular, so book ahead or arrive early.
Lao visas are available on arrival (until recently, only 15 day, but as of July 2006, this has increased to 30 days) and the official fee is US$30 (plus US$1 outside working hours and on weekends). The fee is considerably higher if paid with Thai baht (about US$9 more at current exchange rates), so bring clean US$ notes. A passport photo is also required, however an extra 40 baht or US$1 can usually be paid if you're unable to provide one. A 10 baht "entry fee" is charged once through, though walking straight past this desk seems not to be difficult.
Once through immigration, you can take a jumbo (posted price 150 baht) or taxi (200 baht) to any destination in the city. Shared jumbos are cheaper and local buses to Talat Sao cheapest of all, but signage is nonexistent and you may be in for a wait. You should be able to negotiate to about 50 baht/person if you're prepared to share (and possibly wait). It's about 20km from the bridge to Vientiane; allow at least 30 minutes.
When arriving via the Friendship Bridge, you might like to visit the Buddha Park sculpture garden before going on to Vientiane, and save yourself a return trip back past the border crossing later. The same local bus that connects the Morning Market and the Friendship Bridge checkpoint also continues on to Buddha Park.
Going the opposite way, asking around the bus station for Friendship Bridge is effective. There are no immigration fees when exiting Laos via the Bridge, except at weekends when a token 2500 kip "overtime charge" applies.
Tickets from Vientiane to Udon Thani can only be bought from the Talat Sao bus station on the day itself for 22,000 kip.
A direct bus from Hanoi will take at least 20 hours (despite what the travel agents might say) and should cost about US$15-20.
From elsewhere in Laos
Buses to all provinces in Laos depart from the Talat Sao bus terminal, just east of the Morning Market. There is an informative schedule and schematic diagram of the bus piers painted on the central building, which is where you can also buy in tickets.
The Southern Bus Terminal, used by all buses going south (including VIP), is quite far from town leaving you at the mercy of the taxi bullies. Note that if you buy a ticket in town you should be able to get a free ride to the terminal.
Getting around Vientiane is generally easy, as the traffic is far less murderous than in larger Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. Street signage is, however, rather lacking so a good map comes in handy. Maps are available at bookshops and some minimarts. Many storefronts feature full mailing addresses in Roman letters, and these are often the best way to determine the street one is walking. People navigate using landmarks, so name the nearest embassy or hotel to where you want to go.
Vientiane's sewage system consists of drainage gullies on the roadside, usually obscured by concrete slabs. These concrete slabs are sometimes damaged and very precariously balanced; people rapidly learn to take care before stepping on anything that looks like a slab!
Vientiane has a small fleet of genuine taxis retired from Bangkok, usually found lurking at the Friendship Bridge, the airport or in front of large hotels. Fares are set by bargaining, so figure on around US$0.50 per km or US$20-40 to hire one for the day, depending on car type and distance.
By tuk-tuk or jumbo
Tuk-tuks and their bigger cousins jumbos are ubiquitous in Vientiane. To charter a tuk-tuk/jumbo, agree on the fare in advance; short hops within the city shouldn't cost more than 5000K, although as a tourist you may have difficulty bargaining to less than US$1 (10000K). Share jumbos running on set routes, eg. Th Lan Xang to Pha That Luang, charge a fixed 1000K.
Minibuses connect the center to the suburban districts, but are not particularly useful for tourists, with the possible exception of the bus to the Friendship Bridge. The main terminal is on the east side of Talat Sao.
Bicycles are perhaps the best way to get around the city. Most guesthouses and hotels can arrange bike rental for around US$2 per day. Although the city's flat terrain makes for good biking, one-way streets can be difficult to identify.
Despite the poor standard of local driving, cycling is fairly safe in the city because the traffic is quite slow (maybe because of the condition of the roads). But take extra care when the roads are wet, because many are unsurfaced (even in the city center), and they can be muddy and slippery - innocent-looking puddles sometimes conceal deep potholes.
The city center can be quite comfortably covered on foot, at least in the cool season. Pha That Luang, however, is 4 km away from the center and thus a bit of a hike. Out of the city center there are few footpaths so walking can be uncomfortable.
Unless otherwise noted, all temples below charge 2000/5000K for Lao/foreigners and are open 08:00-16:00, with a 12:00-13:00 lunch break.
Banks and exchange offices are located through the city center. Phongsavanh Bank, with its distinctive gold elephants, is Vientiane's newest bank and operates a currency exchange until about 16:30 on weekdays, and for shorter hours on weekends. It is located on the same road as the national museum and cultural hall, a few hundred meters in the opposite direction of Talat Sao. Fees of 1% are charged. BCEL's foreign exchange counter is located opposite PVO, charges no commission, and has longer opening hours than most local banks.
ATMs can now be found throughout the city, but are notorious for their unreliability, and limited to 1 million kip per withdrawal.
Thai baht and US$ are accepted at most stores; some places also accept Euros.
Vientiane's restaurants offer a wide selection of cuisines, from regional Chinese specialities to Tex-Mex.
There are numerous restaurants offering cuisine from Provence in France clustered around the Nam Phou fountain. Expect to pay about US$10 for a meal.
Vientiane has a few bars/clubs, but there's no shortage of places for a quiet Beerlao. In particular, the Mekong shoreline is packed with near-identical but pleasant bamboo-and-thatch beer gardens offering cold beer and spicy snacks.
There are two clubs near the Novotel hotel:
Note that everything is supposed to close down before midnight before the start of the unofficial curfew, although clubs generally stay open until 1-1.30am. The most notable exception is the extremely popular Don Chan Palace Hotel Nightclub which is open until 4am on the weekend.
Now that the closing time is more strictly enforced (December 2006), the popularity of the bowling alley has increased again, as it is open and serving customers for 24 hours a day.
Accommodation options in the Lao capital are plentiful. At the very top end however international operators have been slow to arrive, the only branded name around being the Novotel by the airport.
Some places insist on an early nightly curfew and lock the front door. If you wish to enjoy the nightlife, make sure that you will be able to stay out.
Internet cafes are ubiquitous in Vientiane, particularly along Th Samsenthai. The going rate as of Mar 2007 is 100K/minute, usually charged in 10 minute increments.
Vientiane's hospitals are a far cry from those in Thailand. Mahasot and Setthithalat Hospitals can treat common conditions but for anything more serious you're better off heading to Udon Thani or Bangkok.
Vientiane is a fairly safe city in terms of crime. However, bag snatching from guests sitting in front of cafes like JoMa is common. Do not leave a bag in an accessible position. If your bag is snatched, immediately start shouting: the perpetrators rely on tourists reacting by silently trying to chase them without alerting the numerous police boxes.
Probably a bigger hazard than crime is the missing sewer covers on sidewalks. Additionally, there are many loose flagstones that will tip if stepped on. Tread carefully and exercise extreme caution at night.
A "secret" Lao law says that foreigners cannot have sexual relations with Lao women other than their spouses. The penalty, if caught, is US$500 for first time, though as the text of the law is not available, may be much more (the US embassy says $5000). Some girls are known to behave in a very friendly way and then take advantage of travellers by robbing their hotel rooms - this law makes it even more difficult to obtain assistance from the police. Bar tenders are happy to provide stories of angry tourists confronting girls in the same bars they picked them up the night before! Also, most hotels do not allow foreigners to take girls to their rooms.