Vientiane, Laos - Stein Travel
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Vientiane

Life in Vientiane, the modest capital of Laos, flows along as languidly as the Mekong River on the banks of which the city is situated. Resembling more a sprawling series of villages than an inter-connected urban metropolis, Vientiane is a sleepy place dotted with a mix of Laotian temples and French colonial buildings, most of them crumbling into decay. Paddy fields still dot the outlying suburbs and even intrude into the city centre in places. Downtown is characterised by narrow lanes that run off the main streets, where bakeries sell croissants alongside vendors touting noodle soup and sticky rice.

Most of the city's places of interest are concentrated in a small area in the commercial district, easy to explore on foot, between the bamboo-and-thatch beer gardens on the riverbank and Talaat Sao, the morning market. Tourists to Vientiane will find that there are some fine Wats (temples) to visit, like Wat Si Saket, one of the city's oldest, surrounded by a lush tranquil garden. Other grand buildings are the unfinished Patuxai Monument, resembling the Arc de Triomphe, and the new Chinese-financed Cultural Centre. The Lao Revolutionary Museum is worth a visit simply because it is a surviving example of a communist propaganda collection, while the Kaysone Phomvihane Museum is dedicated to Laos' famous post-war leader.

Information & Facts

Climate

There are two obvious seasons in Vientiane - the wet season from May to October, and the dry season from November to April. Temperatures in Vientiane are lower during the wet season, averaging 73°F (23°C), with August being the wettest month. The towns south of Vientiane along the Mekong River get the least rain. The dry season has two distinct sub-sections: the cool dry period from November to February, and the hot dry season from March to April. Dry season temperatures in Vientiane average at 82°F (28°C), and the hottest month is April.

Eating Out

Vientiane has a number of great places to eat. Many of the more popular restaurants in Vientiane are centered around the Mekong riverfront area, where tourists can sample local cuisine as well as international favourites.

The local expat café culture tends to revolve around JoMa, a local Scandinavian Bakery on Thanon Setthathirat. JoMa has a selection of coffees, cakes and light lunches, as well as free Wi-Fi internet access and a great vibe.

Lane Xang Hotel situated on Thanon Fa Ngum serves up a delectable range of Laos cuisine while also staging traditional Laos music and dance performances. Meals are cheap and the waiting staff are enthusiastic and always ready to help you decide (or explain) which Laos speciality you would like to order.

Laos Paris Hotel's L'Adresse de Tinay on Samensenthai road, a short walk from the Nam Phu, is considered to be one of Vientiane's best French restaurants. L'Adresse de Tinay has a small menu complemented by a great wine list. Chef Tinay's tenderloin with foie gras sauce is superb. Bookings are recommended.

Language

Lao is the official language, but some English and French are spoken.

Money

The Lao Kip (LAK) is the legal currency unit, currently available in denominations of 1, 000, 5, 000, 10, 000, 20, 000 and 50, 000 kip. US Dollars, Euros and Thai Baht are also accepted in many places and are more convenient to carry than large stacks of the local currency. Banks, hotels, and jewellery shops all offer currency exchange services. For everyday expenses, carry a mix of US dollars and kip. For larger items, or when the exchange rate works in your favour, use US dollars. For local transport, street food stalls and minor purchases, it is best to use kip. When in rural areas, ensure you carry a supply of small notes as change can be hard to come by. Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most international hotels, many shops and restaurants, and a few tourist-orientated establishments in Luang Prabang and Vientiane - but in other parts of the country assume that only cash is accepted. Travellers cheques can be cashed at most banks in Vientiane and other major towns. Banks are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 12pm, and then again from 2pm to 3pm. In Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and other major towns, ATMs are available from which money can be withdrawn. Note that ATMs distribute only Lao kip, with a maximum of around 1, 000, 000 kip per transaction.

Shopping

Vientiane has a number of great shopping areas; however, the city's shopping prospects tend to be dwarfed by those available at Luang Prabang's Night Market. Shopping in Laos generally revolves around silk and textile products.

The main shopping area in Laos' capital is the Morning Market on Thanon Lane Xang and Xang Khu Vieng. This indoor market is best seen early, before the day gets too hot. The stalls sell a variety of products ranging from Laos textiles and Laos silks through to electronics, jewellery and curios. The market generally operates from 9am until 3pm.

The touristy area near the Mekong River has a number of small boutiques and tourist shops selling silk, fabrics, weaves, handicrafts and jewellery. Carol Cassidy's Lao Textiles offers hand-woven Laos motifs of the highest standard. The shop can be found on Thanon Nokeo Kumman. Nearby, on the same street, you will find Mulberries Laos Sericulture Company, which is a non-profit organisation operating throughout Laos and providing income for many unemployed locals. Mulberries sells naturally-dyed silk products while teaching locals about sericulture.

Around the corner, the Lao Women's Union runs a shop called The Art of Silk on Thanon Manthatulat. This shop stocks a great selection of cotton and silk weaves in a variety of designs. Another great shop is Tshop Lai, which runs apprenticeship programmes for socially marginalised and uneducated people in Laos, teaching them to make soaps, shampoos and oil extracts which are available for sale at the shop.

The Stay Another Day Laos booklet is an initiative by the International Finance Corporation's Mekong sector, and aims to promote sustainable tourism and development. The booklet is available in Vientiane and lists tour agencies, local businesses and shops that help to further sustainable tourism. Many of the boutiques and shops listed in the book are not-for-profit organisations helping to uplift communities.

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