Vientiane, Laos: 10 Surprising Things About Laos

by - 9:00 PM

Vientiane, Laos, Patuxai

It was just a short love affair with Laos. How short? As short as I am. I kid. Just four hours. Why? Because logistics wise, we would be sacrificing a lot of things in Thailand (our next destination) if we push our way from its capital city of Vientiane to Luang Prabang, a world heritage site. Was it worth it? I'm craving for more time in Laos; maybe next time. But four hours gave me 10 surprises so I guess spending just four hours was worth it. 

We were millionaires in Laos, man! I repeat, we were M-I-L-L-I-O-N-A-I-R-E-S! Suddenly, Bruno Mar's  song "I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad" became a distant memory. Say what? Before you come and ask me for a share of my millions, let me explain:

We literally had more than a million of Laos Kip combined! I even had a hard time letting go of  my 100,000 Laos Kip note to buy food thinking that it has of the same value back home. It took me a while to grasp the idea that their currency's value  is so low (imagine, 1 Php = 175 Kip) due to inflation. Still having a hard time picturing this out? Just think that I paid 2,000 Kip as fee for using the public toilet. I'm rich, I know. haha

When shopping in business establishments, you can use Thailand Baht or US Dollars aside from Laos Kip. Another interesting fact? They don't have coins and their banknotes come in denominations of 500, 1000, 5000, 10000, 20000, 50000, and 100000. 

The minute we got off the plane, the first thing I noticed was how cold it was! I was thinking that since Laos was part of Southeast Asia, we pretty much have the same temperature in the Philippines. I was wrong. Or maybe I was partially wrong. We visited on the month of February and the 19°C was largely due to an unusual cold snap the country experienced along with several other Asian countries like Japan, Vietnam, and even Thailand. In fact, some areas in Laos had frost and unconfirmed snowfalls. Talk about climate change, eh?

According to Lonely Planet, the best time to visit Laos is anytime between November to March when it isn't too hot nor too wet.
Vientiane, Laos, Patuxai
Sunny yet cold. Us wearing jackets in Patuxai.

I already had an idea that Laos is a developing country just like my country, the Philippines. But it never dawned on me the stark resemblance of Laos and the Philippines not until I saw that their tuktuk was pretty much the same as our tricycle, that their traffic could also get as worse as ours, and that there were people also struggling to make ends meet. Even their sport (Kataw) was similar to our Sepak Takraw.
Vientiane, Laos, Patuxai, Tuktuk
Clean street near Patuxai (left). Enjoying our tuktuk ride (middle). Our tuktuk driver (right).

Though we more or less have similarities, I must say that their capital city, Vientiane, is way way cleaner than Manila in the Philippines (as seen on the photos above). 

Buddhism goes beyond religion. It is a philosophy, a way of life. Laos has been one of the poorest countries in Asia and is surrounded by stronger, more powerful countries like Thailand in the west and Cambodia and Vietnam in the east. With this and their relatively weak central government, Buddhism became the main cement that glues all the people together.

Because of Buddhism, the Laos people find joy in minimalism and are known all over the world for their honesty and simplicity.
Vientiane, Laos, Haw Pha Kaeo, Pha That Luang, Buddhism
(L-R): Haw Pha Kaeo, Buddha statues at Pha That Luang, Sisaket Temple, Wat Neua Thatluang

Vientiane, Laos, Pha That Luang

Pha That Luang is regarded as the national symbol of Laos and is the most important national and religious monument in the country.  Built in 1566 and standing at 45 meters, the stupa is said to house a relic of Buddha brought by Indian missionaries. 

They also said that the stupa was covered with 500 kilos of gold leaf but was plundered on several occasions and was destroyed several times throughout the history of Laos. It was only at the end of World War II that Pha That Luang was restored to its formal beauty.

Though we didn't get inside  (admiring the great stupa from the outside was already enough for us), we did, however, enjoyed exploring the surrounding palace, gardens, monuments, and temples.

Pha That Luang
Operating Hours: 8 am to 4 pm, Daily
Entrance Fee: 5,000 Kip

Vientiane, Laos, Pha That Luang

In front of the stupa is the Saysettha Garden where we saw a statue of the king responsible for the construction of the place. On the left side of the garden is an impressive palace of Thai architecture (see bottom left and right photos in the collage) which has an intricate and impressive design. 

A few meters on the side of the palace was the beautiful Wat Neua Thatluang.  A small and classic-looking temple with very complex design. Beside the temple were different Buddha statues under a big old tree (see second picture on the right).

And of course, we also saw the huge Golden Sleeping Buddha found on the other side of Pha That Luang. Beside the sleeping Buddha, there is also another temple and a mini garden.

The country is landlocked and is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma. It is covered mostly with mountains and forests which explains why 80% of Laos people work in the agricultural sector.

It is also an interesting discovery that since Laos is landlocked, they don't have a Navy. And that their "beach" is not a stretch of sand by the sea but islands in the river.

Which also leads to:

Running water is still a luxury in most places in Laos and some people even rely on the Mekong River for their everyday needs. Mekong River is the 7th longest in Asia passing through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam which eventually ends to the South China Sea.
Vientiane, Laos, Mekong River, Friendship Bridge
Crossing the Friendship Bridge aboard the International Bus.
On the left is Laos, Thailand is on the right.
The Mekong River also officially separates Thailand and Laos on each side of the river near Vientiane and the Mittaphab Bridge, more commonly known as the "Friendship Bridge", connects the two nations. We had a scary encounter with the immigration while crossing to Thailand from Laos and I'll talk more about it on my next post.

Laos used to be part of the French Indochina from 1932 to 1946 when it was granted self-rule within the French Union. It wasn't until 1954 when Laos was granted independence after France withdrew from the First Indochina War.
Vientiane, Laos, Patuxai
PATUXAI (Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe)
Dedicated for those who fought for independence from France
Though French influence in Laos isn't as strong as in Vietnam, it is still felt and experienced in Laos to this day. I noticed that schools and government signage are in French and that some street names in Vientiane start with "Rue bla bla" (rue, means street in French). It isn't also surprising to find croissant and baguette being peddled on the street.

Herbs like basil, parsley, dill, and mint, to name a few, had little significance to me when I went to culinary school. Though I've been growing basil, tarragon, and parsley the past few months, I haven't really experimented that much with these earthly gems except when I use them as occasional garnish to pull off that "chef-like look" on my what could have been ordinary dish.

The magnificent effects of these herbs in everyday cooking came as a pleasant surprise when we got to sample Laos' cuisine at their local market. After the quick city tour, the driver dropped us off at the Morning Market (Talat Sao) for brunch before boarding the international bus to Thailand. Aside for food (3rd floor), we also bought some ref magnets and keychains here.

Vientiane, Laos, Morning Market

Here are some tips when buying food at the Morning Market:
Tip #1Have your cash exchanged to its equivalent paper money at the counter near the entrance. 
I don't really know the reason why they practice this but I was surprised when I noticed that the customers were not handing the real money to the vendors. Instead, they gave those colorful paper money they got from the counter and if there were any change, they'd go back to the counter to have the excess paper money exchanged for real money.

Tip #2Go where the locals go.
This is probably the best tip I could give you no matter which place you are visiting. We noticed that a lot of locals were buying from this particular stall serving big bowls of noodles. We followed suit and we were very very happy!

Tip #3: Don't forget to ask for extra side dish of more herbs, vegetables like sprouts, a slice of lime, and some sauce (if you're ordering noodles).
Vientiane, Laos, Laos Cuisine, Khao Poon, Kho Nom Kok, Pho
(L) Khao poon, (M) Kho Nom Kok, (R) Pho Noodle Soup
We ordered Khao Poon (Red Curry Noodle) which was curry-based (obviously) and a bit spicy to my taste, as well as the Pho (Beef Noodle Soup) which was originally from Vietnam. I prefer the latter so much that I ended up buying another bowl of steaming beef noodle soup.

The food in the middle, Kho Nom Kok, was a delicacy we bought outside of Pha That Luang. Those were Lao coconut cakes made with rice flour and coconut milk served hot in banana leaves. It was so good and yummy that we wished we had bought more than just one serving (that was divided by four people). 

How about you? Did Laos surprise you too?

Here's the itinerary and cost breakdown of our short tour around Laos' capital city, Vientiane. 

I could say Laos is definitely affordable and it's best to head to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and stay a couple of days more there. Though for us Filipinos, Laos is pretty much the same as our country in terms of nature and geography and some may feel that going there is the same as going to the mountain areas in the Philippines. But I guess this natural untouched charm as well as the delicious food and the Buddhist culture have attracted not only me (who has a penchant for simple living) but countless of mostly Western tourists as well.

Laos is worth your time, just give her time.

They say: "Travel and let the world change you." For 17 days, four international flights, two overnight trains, and countless hours of bus rides, I let the universe do just that. And it changed me in more ways than one.

(This post is part of my Malaysia-Laos-Thailand travel series. 
Our  2-nights Malaysia stopover is now up on the blog and Thailand stories are still in the works so stay tuned!)

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