A crossroads of culture: Conquered by the French, yet brimming with the livelihoods of the Laos people.
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I went to Vientiane solo, but I wasn’t supposed to.
I went to Vientiane and in those two days when I was there, I pushed myself in more ways than one. I learned in more ways than one.
My friend–and fellow Minnesotan–Tracy and I were supposed to go to Vientiane together. We had one week between the end of our TESOL course and starting at our schools, and since I was (at the time) living right on the Laos-Thailand border, it just made sense. Tracy was placed three hours South of me, so she was going to come up and meet me and we would cross the border together.
Well, things ended up being up in the air with Tracy’s placement, and then she ended up moving placements, so she was unable to come.
We had booked a hotel room, though…and I wanted to go, dammit! So, I packed my bags and headed to Vientiane solo.
I was scared shitless. It was the quickest trip ever–Nong Khai, where I lived, is right on the border, and it’s a thirty-forty minute bus ride from the border to the center of Vientiane. Still–it felt like a major step for me, because I’ve never really traveled solo before.
It was honestly one of the best things I have ever done for myself.
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Vientiane really is this delightful mix of Laos culture and livelihood with French influences. High quality bread of any sort–which is so difficult to find in Thailand–is everywhere in Vientiane, particularly in the more touristy areas. Government buildings brimming with Greco-Roman influence stand right next door to Buddhist Wats.
Despite the French influence, I was actually surprised that there wasn’t more of it.
Truth be told, though, the Lao people are proud of their culture. I spent two days in Vientiane, and it was clear to me even in that short amount of time the pride that exists among the people. 2015 marks the fortieth year of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic–and there were signs all over the place marking this milestone.
My first introduction to the people of Lao was on the bus from the Thai-Laos border to Vientiane. The bus was crowded, but instead of turning people away or having them stand up, the lady who was collecting bus fare had a stack of stools and put them down for people in the center aisle as they entered.
I found this experience perhaps a bit too exhilarating. This would never happen in the U.S. because of safety issues. Not only that, but when a spot opened up in an actual bus seat, the lady collecting money motioned me from my stool in the middle to the newly opened seat. I have never experienced so much hospitality on a city bus in my life!
After making my way to my hotel and settling in, I spent most of my first day in Vientiane walking near the Mekong River. I walked through markets that never seemed to end, ate lunch at a venue right on the river (the owner practically pulled me in to eat, which I was fine with since I was quite hungry), and took in all the sights and sounds of the bustling city.
While walking, I noticed preparations were underway for some sort of celebration, which I later found out was Boun Ok Phansa, a celebration for the last day of Buddhist lent. I naturally decided I had to come back at night time and boy, was it worth it!
The Lao people sure do know how to have a good party. Festivities were set up EVERYWHERE along the river, and I MEAN everywhere. All sorts of rides and carnival events were taking place. I took the opportunity to ride some bumper cars, since I hadn’t done that for a while and why not? Food was EVERYWHERE and the night market was the largest I’ve ever experienced. Granted, I haven’t spent much time in Southeast Asia, but it was huge and so full of life and so exhilarating. One thing about this night market that stuck out to me was that it was entirely comprised of Lao people. I rarely saw another westerner in the market itself, something that is unheard of in the night markets of Chiang Mai, which are very touristy, and what I was used to after having been there for a month.
I only wish I would have understood the meaning behind the festival while experiencing it. It was unbelievable in every sense of the word, but at the time I had no idea what was going on or why.
The next day, I chose to veer away from the river and instead walked around the inner area of Vientiane. I later found out there were boat races going on that day, so that would have been fun to see, but I did enjoy seeing more of Vientiane on foot. I was hoping to go to the COPE Centre in Vientiane, which offers exhibits and educational opportunities on the Unexploded Bomb issue in Laos. It was highly rated on trip advisor and I’m a history nut, so it seemed like the perfect way for me to spend part of my day. Unfortunately, when I got there, I found it to be closed for Buddhist Lent.
As COPE was a bust, I spent much of the rest of the day exploring more of the city. I went to dinner and met and sat with some other travelers, and then I decided to get a Laos massage before calling it a night.
The next day after one last breakfast in Vientiane, I headed back to Thailand.
It was certainly a quick trip, but it was so worth it.
No only did I get to experience a new city and a new culture, but I pushed myself in new ways as a solo traveler…that experience was incredibly valuable in itself.