Showing posts with label Mekong river. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mekong river. Show all posts

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Destination: Vientiane, Laos

SITUATED on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, sleepy Vientiane is one of the world’s smallest capital cities. To say Vientiane is relaxed is something of an understatement. This is a city that rises late, sleeps early and is lethargic in between.

 Monks in Vientiane, Laos.

However, this is the charm of the Laos capital. Known for its shady streets and crumbling French architecture, people still cook with charcoal and you’ll rarely see a multi-storey building breaking the horizon.

Vientiane has long been a popular stop-off on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail. It also has its fair share of expats who have succumbed to its charms, as well as many expats from neighboring Thailand who travel there to renew their Thai visas. Another large contingent of westerners you’ll see in Vientiane will be NGO or embassy workers.

A Day in the Life
Morning –Early morning Vientiane is, on the face of it, just what you’d expect – sleepy. It’s a great time to wander the streets before the heat of the day sets in and sit back and enjoy a quiet, relaxing coffee. However, if you want to see the other side of Vientiane in the morning visit one of the large, open air, wet markets in town, which are a hive of activity.

Afternoon – Many of Vientiane’s best sights and attractions are all within walking distance of the tourist quarter. The area is dotted with beautiful temples, while the palace and the national museum are also worth a look.

Evening – Watch the sun go down while sitting on the banks of the Mekong with a bottle of the surprisingly good local brew – Beer Lao. Many lazy hours can be happily whiled away ‘Mekong watching’, but it’s worth making that extra effort to sample some of the many excellent eateries around town.

Best of the Rest
Patuxai, or ‘Victory Gate’, is Vientiane’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe, and the highest point in the city. The monument honors the people who died during the fight for independence from France. Patuxai was built in the ‘60s using funds donated by the US to build an airport. Laos used the cash to build the monument instead.
Arguably the pick of the temples in Vientiane is Tat Luang. This is regarded as the most important temple in the country and is the national symbol of Laos. It’s located about a mile north of the city centre.

Hidden Gem - Take in the beautiful countryside surrounding Vientiane with a trip to Buddha Park. This unique spectacle is full of stone statues and offers some great views across the river of neighboring Thailand.

Accommodation - Rooms for the night can be scarce by the early evening so it’s best to get there early or make a reservation. Prices for budget accommodation, like much of the region, are modest. Fifteen or 20 dollars will get you a passable mid-range room, for 40 can get you something a little more luxurious. Most hotels and guesthouses will accept US dollars and Thai baht, as well as the Laos kip.

Vientiane at Night
Dining - Lao food can be a goal well worth pursuing and not as easily obtained as one might think. The food sold in the English language restaurants is often an imitation, dumbed down for the western pallet even in those restaurants professing to specialize in Lao food. For the real thing, go to street vendors and sawdust-on-the-floor type establishments. It’s much cheaper too. If Western food is more your thing, Vientiane has become much more cosmopolitan in recent years and you will have plenty of international food options.

Nightlife – Vientiane is sleepy by day and sleepy by night. By law most bars shut down very early – 11.30pm. There are places to go out and have a drink, maybe even listen to music, but compared to the likes of Thailand, it’s fairly dead at night.

A young Lao girl takes a ride in a vegetable cart in one of Vientiane's many morning markets

Retail Therapy - The most famous market in Vientiane, Dalat Sao, or Morning Market in English, is slowly succumbing to the wrecking ball and the plate glass, air conditioned shopping mall, so it’s well worth a look before it’s gone. Downstairs are row after row of small shops selling traditional Lao silk weaving and some very good handicrafts. Upstairs are the gold stores and cheap clothing. Morning is a misnomer in this case as the market doesn’t even really open up until after 8am and shuts down at 4pm.

Across the street to the south (next door to the central post office) is the Ethnic Handicrafts Cooperative. Mostly Hmong owned and orientated towards the visiting overseas Hmong, it has the largest selection of hill-tribe handicrafts of all ethnicities for sale in Laos. Don’t expect colorful displays or friendly English speaking sales people. It is not tourist-oriented, but that only adds to the fun.

Getting there & away – There are regular flights into Vientiane from many of the major cities in the region and the rise of the budget airline has made these a whole lot cheaper. If you are traveling by land, there are regular services to and from cities in China, Vietnam and northern Thailand.

Getting around - To get around most people use tuktuks. They tend to overcharge and bargaining isn’t as important as knowing the going rate in the first. Probably the best option is to rent a motorcycle ,though beware; the rules of the road are not enforced with any real gusto. In truth, the town is so small many people simply walk to wherever they are going.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A guide to holidaying in Laos

For those who want to experience unspoilt Asia, Laos is about as close as you can get. Life here has continued in much the same way as it has for hundreds of years; the countryside is pristine, the culture is rich and the locals are among the friendliest in the world.

1. Culture
Although the country has only a small population, Lao culture is not only distinct but also extremely diverse, with at least 48 different ethnic groups There are a number of cultural idiosyncrasies that visitors to Laos should observe. This includes greeting others with your palms together and a slight bow of the head, and removing your shoes when entering a religious building or someone’s home. It is also good practice to dress discretely, especially when visiting religious monuments in Laos.

 2. Main attractions
Many people come to Laos to experience the laid-back lifestyle, but there are plenty of incredible and relatively unknown attractions that leave visitors in awe.
The ancient capital, Luang Prabang, is a World Heritage site famous for its historic temples and beautiful setting. Meanwhile the country’s modern day capital, Vientiane, is home to the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang. The mind-boggling Plain of Jars region near Phonsaven is also a must-see for tourists, with its mysterious jar-like relics scattered across the fields. There are also plenty of options for adventure travellers including Vang Vieng and Luang Namtha.

 Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
3. Getting around
There are plenty of ways to get around Laos, whether it be for the pleasure of seeing the countryside, or about getting from A to B. More than 4600km of navigable rivers meander through Laos, with the longest and most important route being the Mekong river..

4. Cuisine 
Lao cuisine can best be described as fresh, spicy and often quite bitter. Rice is the staple, with raw vegetables and fresh herbs also frequently used. The national dish is laap, which is a kind of salad made with minced meat, mixed herbs, plenty of spice, lime juice and blistering amounts of chilli. Another favourite is tam maak hung, a spicy green papaya salad dressed with fermented crab and an intense fish sauce. There is also plenty of imported food, with French baguettes stuffed with pate, and foe noodles from China being popular snacks.
The national drink, Beerlao, distinguishable by its yellow logo and tiger-head silhouette, can be found everywhere and has reached an almost cult status among travellers. Another popular drink is Lao kaafeh (coffee), grown on the Bolaven Plateau in the country’s south. Travellers should steer clear of the tap water, though, and buy the bottled water instead.

5. When to visit
The best time to visit most of Laos is between November and February, when the rain eases and the climate is comfortable. This time also represents the peak tourist and festival season and it’s advisable to book ahead. November is the best time for those wanting to travel extensively by river, as the flooding has usually subsided but the river levels are still high.

 6. Safety 
Despite being one of the poorer nations of the world, Laos is a very safe place to travel around. Petty crime such as bag snatching is a bit of a problem in the capital Vientiane, but is not widespread. Also, clients should be made aware that it is a legal requirement to carry an identification document or passport at all times, and fines for not having one for presentation on demand can be high.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Seduced by Luang Prabang, Laos

We traveled here for four days: my wife and the girls plus my wife’s mom and husband, visiting from America. It was the last leg of their three-week visit to Southeast Asia and it didn’t disappoint.

Speaking with Andrew, the owner (who’s originally from Melbourne) he told me that one reason Luang Prabang has managed to retain its soul is that the people here are so proud of their culture, that they work hard to preserve it.

Old and new converge in Luang Prabang, Laos.
It shows. It’s a walkable town, although it’s also easy to grab one of the colorful tuk tuks, those covered motorcycle trucks with bench seats that are painted in a rainbow of colors. Male monks in saffron robes pace next to flash packing tourists. It’s a strange juxtaposition of the ancient and modern.

We started with a visit to an ethnology museum, a small affair funded by western nonprofits and housed in an old French villa. Here we learned about the minority tribes in Laos and their dress and

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Journey down the Mighty Mekong

The Mekong is one of the world’s major rivers, weaving together the land and indigenous cultures of Tibet, southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. It’s also one of the best ways to get around in Southeast Asia.

Mekong River Boat
In Laos, a journey down the Mekong is not a mere travel adventure pursuit. It’s an experience of daily life. Here in one of Asia’s poorest countries, many highways exist only in theory. The Mekong is often the sole